By Dr Nuraliah Norasid

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

John Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets’ Society

 “‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, ‘…only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

When I was first invited to give my considerations regarding racial inequality and multiculturalism at the Freedom Boat: Harbouring New Truths in 2015, I admit, I sounded far chirpier in my acceptance than I actually felt in my heart. Later in my capacity as a writer and researcher, I would come to be invited to speak on the same issues at Epigram Book’s panel discussion, Can We Write About Race? in 2017. It begs the question of whether we as Singaporeans lack the logistics to stop the same issues from cropping up again and again. Or is it, as a science professor I once had an argument with vehemently insisted, that inequality is a natural part of all life—that even atoms, when placed in a closed, uniform environment, will exhibit signs of unequal behaviours such as moving faster or having more energy than others. A look at all of humanity seems to drive home his point and besides, one cannot argue with science, now can we?

However, human realities are far more complex than the atom they are made up of. Perhaps inequality and inequity are a natural part of life, however, it needs to be a condition that is inherently human to try and rise above that. To be able to do so in a world that is built of and framed by narratives, especially in a community whose morals and ethics are governed by the interpretations—the exegesis and/or tafsir—of the truth of a text, I would argue that there needs to be a culture of literary literacy to go alongside the religions, the sciences, the medicines and engineering.

A luxury we cannot afford?

The sad reality about being a woman of the word in a community striving towards economic and educational excellence is that I am used to hearing statements such as, “A lot of Malays are in the arts and the humanities, and we will need to shift those numbers into the STEM disciplines” or “They want to take the design and the arts, and we cannot encourage it” from our very own community leaders themselves. I have even once been asked to justify my choice of the written word for my course of study—implied in that demand for justification being an incredulity as to what value writing and literature can bring to a community made marginal by both their race and beliefs. Now, I would be a poor writer if I am to say I have the answers, for the very humility and at the same time strength of any human being is to say that they can neither know the mind of divinity nor be the source of all knowledge. Thus, to that incredulity, I answered the bearer of the question, with kindness, that it taught me to be kind, to view people kindly, and to understand the epistemology of their belief systems, their worldviews and the choices they make, no matter how poor it may seem to the privileged or righteous mind.

To talk about any topic — of race and multiculturalism, of religion and its practitioners, of discrimination, power and human dignity — in absolute “definables”, harbours the danger of falling back onto the very reductivism we are trying to fight against. Of course, given the limited extent of the human experience and perceptions, we can only go so far when it comes to keeping an open mind in our considerations of society and the environment it has been cultured in.

However, the beauty of literature is that it explores a vast range of the human condition — from erudition to willful ignorance, kindness, cruelty, ambition, the justifications for apathy, and the gentle slivers of sympathy — knowledge of which we can add to our public consciousness and conscientiousness.

Yet, poetry, prose, theatre — these pursuits do not put food on the table, no doubt about it. I have watched my brothers giving up their love and talents for painting and drawing to pursue courses in industries they believed has some economic value, only to discover that even in those, there is little room for them to grow and make a decent living. It is a struggle to make a living working full-time in writing and arts, yes. The commissions and honorariums can barely cover rent, and dependence on government funding meant being at the mercy of their policies and regulations. Furthermore, in the larger scheme of things, these pursuits have little to contribute when it comes to the country’s economic growth, in job-making and innovation. Often they are considered luxuries only the privileged could afford and something an already struggling community could not. However, from the perspective of a literary practitioner, I have argued that much of our realities today — the ways in which our society is being organised and governed — are significantly influenced by narratives and myths that have been legitimised by authority and popular practice. As such, even if artistic pursuits may not be entirely economically viable to some as a career, the culture of literary literacy still needs to be promoted in the education of our community and its leaders.

Big significances of little lives

At a recent conference titled, Humanities and the City, organised by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), speakers and academics came together to present on the various realities of urban planning and urban living in the different countries that they have focused their research on. During the conference, they also gave their thoughts on the role humanities can play in the public sector, especially in that of urban development within cities such as Hong Kong, Istanbul and Singapore. The common theme that was discussed pointed at the humanities’, particularly, fiction’s and literature’s ability to illuminate the existing realities within the different interiorities present in the urban environment. What life is like in the poor households, especially that interim rental housing, was also brought up during one of the conference’s panels, examining literature’s and, by extension, the strength of narratives in not only highlighting the ways people cope with living on a tight budget, but also in evoking humane responses to them — empathy, sadness, contemplation — responses that can more effectively result in greater awareness and call to action from organisations and groups on the ground.

The value and effectiveness of narratives in the areas of social work and research have already been examined and proven by the spectrum of researchers and academics working in the field. Similarly, work done on Malay/Muslim issues in Singapore have turned to the collection and analyses of narratives to arrive at more nuanced and specific roots of longstanding problems. These can then inspire more directed quantitative research and hopefully, fairer and better informed policy changes.

However, the value of narratives pretty much stops there. Literature is more than the mere reading of stories and poetry; and reading more than several hours curled up with fluff and magic ponies. Rather, it requires for texts to be read in contexts — geopolitical and economic developments, racial conflicts, governing and emerging ideologies, cultural proximities and isolation, among others, all lend to the writing of a text, and as such, given proper direction and equipment with the right skills and knowledge, can help to uncover more than even the conscious interview can reveal. Reading various literary texts alongside academic papers, news and media articles, policies and sets of statistical data can help leaders and stakeholders arrive at a deeper understanding of the community they are trying to help, and challenge pre-existing ideas of groups such as the poor and marginalised.

Critical reading and training in literature may seem, what Singaporeans would consider “cheeminology”, requiring a special kind of education at the cost of the money-makers and practical pursuits. Perhaps this is so. However, I have never met a child of whichever level of education with whom I cannot discuss text and humanity. Hope, bravery and self-sufficiency in Mathilda with a Primary 2 child; exploitation, poverty and power in The Hunger Games, mortality in The Fault in Our Stars with secondary school students; gender inequalities, abuse and the importance of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey with two wide-eyed, giggly ITE girls; or discrimination, shame and dignity in The Malay Sketches with Chinese students who have never had Malay friends in their lives. Stories prove to be accessible and powerful tools for the discussion of difficult topics.

People are more intelligent and capable than our categories ever want to think them to be. The medium for such lessons of reading need not be books. Increasingly, film and drama, songs and video games are being used to engage children, youths and adults on important issues, due to their draw and accessibility. In our search for the new narrative, perhaps we can take the creative approach of making the resources for reading and the ways of reading available to the community as part of our educational development programme.


Dr Nuraliah Norasid is a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Doctor of Philosophy, with a specialisation in Creative Writing and Contemporary Mythopoesis from Nanyang Technological University. She is the author of “The Gatekeeper” and her other writings have been published in “Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out” and the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. 

This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, April 2018, Volume 13, Issue 2.

Photo Source: The Karyawan