Award-winning book on pre-independence S'pore

Veteran writer Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, author of Confrontation.

SINGAPORE - Book Review

CONFRONTATION by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed; translated from Malay by Shafiq Selamat

Epigram Books/Paperback/176 pages/ $26.64/Major bookstores/

Those who know only their own generation remain always children. That maxim is one of several reasons to read Confrontation, an eye-opening tale of life in preindependence Singapore.

This book by award-winning local writer Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is set in a world alien to anyone born after 1980.

This is the era of squat toilets, open drains and leaky attap-roofed huts, but also a time when neighbours move casually in and out of one another's spaces in a kampung, sharing food and the common burden of poverty.

Everyone knows everyone else's business and the lack of privacy also means that individual joys and tragedy, whether a wedding or a death in the family, are celebrated or mourned communally.

Adi is a schoolboy in early 1960s Singapore, but avoids books for the more pressing pastimes of climbing the neighbourhood banyan tree to ogle girls or scrounging scrap metal to earn money for a 10-cent movie ticket.

Like many others in the kampung, his family lives just above the poverty line and his parents are too busy squabbling about money and their children to take much notice of the political waves sweeping the country.

Then the announcement is made that Singapore will join the Malaysian federation of states. Suddenly, Adi becomes conscious of his social status. Once sneered at because he attended a Malay-medium school, he is now envied because he already speaks the new national language.

The sky is the limit now, and he can be anything - a policeman, a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer.

Confrontation was originally published as Batas Langit in Malay and awarded a consolation prize in the 1999 Malay Literary Award given out by the Malay Language Council of Singapore.

The author went on to win the well-known regional prize, the SEA Write Award or Southeast Asian Writers Award, in 2002, as well as take the Singapore Literature Prize three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2008.

The English edition of Confrontation came out this year as part of local publisher Epigram Books' growing list of translations that allows readers in English to appreciate Singaporean literature in other languages.

After reading Confrontation, I hope the publisher continues. We need more exposure to such writing that helps us appreciate the variety of perspectives and ethnicities in Singapore.

It is easy to forget that Confrontation is a translated work. The language flows smoothly and necessary explanations of Malay terms are well integrated into the text.

The book charms immediately with prose in the vein of the idyllic village stories of Indian writer R. K. Narayan, written in the 1940s. Like Narayan, Mohamed Latiff can turn the backbreaking labour of fetching water from a well into a lyrical adventure.

Without belabouring points of racial and social harmony, the narrative shows simply and effectively how circumstance and environment forge bonds between people regardless of race or language.

The first chapter includes a description of a banyan tree that subtly echoes the entangled lives of the kampung dwellers - joss sticks and Mandarin oranges are stuck between the tree's roots, while a little Malay boy shivers on imagining the spirits that haunt the branches.

For non-Malay readers, Confrontation is an engrossing exploration of history from a different perspective, as it makes readers share Adi's dawning awareness of his family's social position and then his heady delight at the notion of a state where everyone will speak his language.

Even for readers who know what happened next, the ending of the book comes as a shock, followed by a strong urge to read more from this disarmingly powerful voice.

If you like this: Read Frog Under A Coconut Shell by Josephine Chia (2002, Marshall Cavendish, $19.80, Books Kinokuniya). The author's memoir of her impoverished childhood chronicles the joys and pitfalls of communal life in her Potong Pasir kampung.


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