One Small Voice: Tan Dan Feng

Published on 15 March 2016

Singapore has a glorious literary history few know about, says The Select Centre’s Tan Dan Feng.

A short story by literary pioneer Makadoom Saiboo published in 1888 in Singapore’s second-largest Tamil newspaper Singai Nesan starts with a newcomer asking a local what he needs to make a living. Linguistic ability, was the immediate answer — to succeed on the island, one needs to know Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Boyanese, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannadam, Telugu, Marathi, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian and English.

This story offers a counter-narrative to the dominant perception that Singapore went from “fishing village to a global city” and reveals the seldom-known fact that Singapore had once been a leading centre of language more than a hundred years ago. This was mainly due to geopolitics and the spread of religion. With China and Japan hostile to Christian missionary activity, much of the translation and publishing of religious tracts had to be done offshore. With pilgrimages to Mecca restricted by the Dutch, Indonesian pilgrims spent long periods in Singapore, reading Modernist literature printed on lithograph presses set up by Singapore Muslims. Singapore’s openness as a port city to the trade of goods but also the exchange of ideas allowed it to become the unrivalled translation and publishing hub of Asia.

This linguistic diversity gave rise to many unique individuals and institutions, most of whom are little known even by artists today. Few remember the Mission Press (founded in 1823), which translated and published an incredible range of languages, including English, Chinese, Jawi, Japanese and Thai, something that few publishers even today can match. Employed as a translator and proofreader at its office at Institution Hill (where Raffles City sits today) was the gifted linguist Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (1796-1854), who would later become known as the “Father of Modern Malay Literature”. Among the Chinese literati was the great Khoo Seok Wan (1874-1941), whose sophisticated use of Malay and English words in classical Chinese poetry still amazes scholars today. And then there was the social reformer, doctor, legislator, businessman, scientist, educator and philosopher Lim Boon Keng (1869-1957), whose English translation of Qu Yuan’s epic poem Li Sao ranks among the greatest scholarly achievements of the British Empire.

We are told that Singapore today is a cultural oasis compared to the desert that came before. We are dazzled by the state-of-the-art hardware, the generous government grants and the annual statistics showing ever-rising public interest in arts and culture. We are constantly reminded of our status as a cosmopolitan global city and the success of our multicultural and bilingual policies. It is hard not to believe that we have indeed come far.

Yet when we learn more about our literary history, there is a nagging sense that what lies beneath the gloss is a pale shadow of what came before. As we build a more innovation-and humanities-centred future, it may be good to remember that to stand on the shoulders of giants, one must first know and remember them.

Tan Dan Feng is co-founder of The Select Centre, a not-for-profit focused on promoting intercultural dialogue. He spent a decade as director of globally-renowned Southeast Asian books specialist Select Books and is active in the regional language, translation and publishing sectors. He chairs the annual Singapore International Translation Symposium and has been involved in the translation programmes at NTU, NUS and SIM University. For more information on The Select Centre, visit www.selectcentre.org.

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