What is an unspoken trauma that everyone suffers from, but can’t or won’t say it? Yeng Pway Ngon reveals the answer: post-colonial schizophrenia.
Yet, how do we deal with it? Where or what is the cure?
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“Man is not truly one, but truly two,” declares Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson in his famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Indeed, I have learnt that the Scots – so fascinated by this split – have furnished an (arguably) ostentatious label to capture the characteristic dual Scottish psyche, the ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’.
This psychological dilemma, though, is not limited to the Scottish condition. Fragmenting the ideal and self-contained human psyche has always been a riveting activity for writers everywhere.
Yeng Pway Ngon’s novel Trivialities about Me and Myself similarly weaves an unflinching narrative of Ah-hui, a Chinese-educated Singaporean entrepreneur, who struggles with a split personality condition. It is set against the backdrop of a newly independent Singapore who throws off its dusty cloak of indigenous traditions and practices to embrace the thrill and shine of a consumerist, English-speaking system.
Instead of focusing on what happens on the surface, Yeng explores Ah-hui’s psychological struggle with his moralizing alter-ego, Myself. It is ironic that even as Ah-hui resents Myself, Ah-hui ultimately seeks to discover himself more fully. The main narrative is peppered with Kafka-esque snippets of Ah-hui’s daily thoughts, adding experimental touches of ludicrous surrealism to his stark and distressingly., It is no wonder, then, that Yeng won Singapore’s Cultural Medallion award in 2003.
In what appears to be an isolated schizophrenic case, Yeng, at closer scrutiny, conjures a profound national allegory. Often speaking with double meanings, Yeng writes,
“It would never have occurred to [society] that a single name, a semiotic sign, could represent two diverse personalities, that on the surface the name referred to one person, but could sometimes mean another inside.”
I think Ah-hui’s psychological rift reflects a larger, national trauma that arises within young independent countries. Like Scotland, Singapore possesses an ambivalent relationship with its colonial past; simultaneously desiring and rejecting their colonial influences, post-colonial natives struggle to find an organic voice.
This struggle makes me recall Alfian Sa’at’s controversially rebellious, yet painfully anguished poem, Singapore, You Are Not My Country. In his last verse, he tells,
“Singapore I am on trial.
These are the whites of my eyes and the reds of my wrists.
These are the deranged stars of my schizophrenia.
This will not do; we must stand aside and let the Lion crash
through a madness of cymbals back to that dark jungle heart
when eyes were still embers waiting for a crownless
Prince of Palembang.”
But, I wonder if the ‘Lion’ from a mythical origin that Sa’at describes can be something we can find, or is even attainable.
While reading the sometimes frustratingly pessimistic book, I am wary when Yeng hangs precariously near the edge of being overly binaristic between Ah-hui and Myself. I would think Man is not merely two, but of multiple co-existing fragments, echoes, constructions. In fact, Homi Bhabha – a key figure in post-colonial studies – counters this arguably simplistic binary by speaking of “the productive power of hybridity”.
“Hybridity”, he says in his much debated book The Location of Culture, “entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy”. Without needing to strive for a singular, dominating identity, “[t]he same object in different contexts [can] acquire new meanings, while echoing old ones”.
Trivialities is a go-to book to understand the struggles of the ordinary people coping with uncompromising national changes that quite often mower over helpless and un-careful persons. To have a fuller picture of the nuances of Singapore’s much silenced and still-unarticulated struggles and burdens, Trivialities satisfies this promise.
For more insightful books that have won the Cultural Medallion, Suratman Markasan’s Penghulu and You Jin’s In Time, and Out of Place are must-haves. For a more light-hearted but just as reflective read on treacherous economic grounds and lost heritage that cause even the dead to literally turn in their graves, Jean Tay’s play, Boom, will resonate with many readers.
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Featured in this Article
Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon
One Fierce Hour by Alfian Sa’at
In Time, Out of Place by You Jin