(The following is a transcript of a conversation I had with Alfian Sa’at in 2011. We were both online at like 2 or 3 am.)
I had no idea you were from RI! Would never have guessed it. What was the experience like for you? Did it influence your thoughts about race and class? Did you feel at home there?
How come you’d never guess that I was from RI?
You come across to me as like this “fuck-the-institutions” kind of fella…
Hahaha. You should meet my friend Isrizal, who’s also RI alumni. Ok, to answer your questions. I was from a ‘neighbourhood school’. Tampines Primary school. I had no idea really that one day I would end up in this ‘elite’ institution. So during orientation it was… a disorientating feeling.
“You are the future of our nation!”
You see those panels and photographs, all the politicians and big names- and then you think- wow, you’re now going to be part of this hallowed tradition. And then like the whole stationery had the crest and the names all over. All the colonial trappings- the latin motto, the gryphon, the prefects wearing their black shoes… and a principal called a ‘headmaster’, haha. So it did come as a bit of a culture shock lah, initially. And of course I knew that it was important to get my good grades and all.
Not bad, I wish I knew that when I was in secondary school.
But on hindsight there were some insecurities. I think my batch… around 14 malay students? So that was one thing I was conscious of.
Was it a very obvious thing? Did your peers talk about it?
Well, if you were Malay, by default you had to be in the Malay Cultural Club — because number was so small! But I actively resisted. I was very very awkward with malay guys. I was socially engineered since I was very young.
By your parents?
My mum was the kind who’d tell me, ‘Don’t make friends with the malay kids. I want your best friend to be a Chinese boy.’
Yea, so that did shape me all through kindergarten and primary school. She was of the cultural deficit theory school, ie. that Malays were just not as hardworking as their Chinese counterparts- and to advance one had to adopt their value system.
So were your parents university educated? Or were they hardened by negative experiences? What made them different?
My parents both went to Malay school. One of the reasons for my nostalgia for a pre-separation Malaysia/Singapore: I always imagine what their lives might have been like if separation did not happen. My father was head prefect, my mum the vice-head. They were like the golden couple in school. After separation, their certificates were useless. So dad became a policeman, and mum started working in a factory.
I never thought about that.
But this narrative also–a lot of the Chinese-educated went through the same thing after the closure of Nantah. So there was this whole period of social trauma, really. Displacements of identity.
I don’t think kids these days have any idea. Whatever we learn about it in school is so abstract.
So anyway… I never hung out with Malay kids in primary school. At first this was my mum’s attempt to make me pick up English (because I wouldn’t be using Malay with the non-Malays). And of course it worked, because English is such important social capital in our ‘meritocratic’ system. But i was always estranged from the other Malay kids. I did well in malay at school- but it was a formal Malay, classroom Malay. I couldn’t do ‘street’!
I’m like that with Tamil too. So how would you put it- your mum pushed you down the english-speaking path because… ?
Because she really did at some level subscribe to the ‘if Malays hang out with each other then it will reinforce whatever value system they are naturally predisposed to, which means idling and lepak-ing and relak-ing one corner etc’. My mum’s also a bit complicated because she’s half-Chinese. As in, my grandma’s adopted. So if you just give her a little bit of LKY’s theories on eugenics she’ll just run away with it. LKY says intelligence comes from mother, and that Chinese genes have higher IQ. She can just conclude that I did well in school because of my one quarter Chinese genes. Hahaha.
Your dad was a bit indifferent in comparison?
My dad is so aloof lah. Hahahaha.
Too cool to care!
That was another problem also. I spoke english with my non-Malay friends. Most of my Malay, I practised with my mum — because my dad just didn’t talk to us kids much.
Like, I wouldn’t know how to swear in Malay, which was such an important marker of group inclusion. ‘Alamak, macam sial lah lu’ that kind lah. I couldn’t do.
What were the other malay guys in RI like?
A mixed bunch lah. Some sporty, some nerdy. But as I recall, not really cliquish.
Maybe Friday prayers go together, or meet during Malay class.
So nothing particularly noteworthy ah? No secret gatherings all
Some join band, some join rugby, some join soccer… don’t have lah, secret gatherings!
I think Indians got one. Somehow everyone knows everyone.
Hahaha, really? I’ve always found Indian community interesting. Not too sure about in Singapore, but in Malaysia, really got two main strata, man. There’s the more ‘working class origins’ one, and then there’s the more atas class, whose forefathers were the anglophone Indians — who came with the colonial legal and administrative service. Typically sinhalese, ceylonese tamils, malayalee…
Ah, ah, I know! The Pillais and Chettiars etc. More atas one. Compared to the run-of-the-mill kling kia.
My class had a lot of indian boys back in RI. And i dunno why lah, ah, but if you wanted street cred you hang out with them.
Everyone needs the token badass indian friend who just doesn’t give a fuck.
I remember they’d always be relied on to tell the funniest jokes. It’s very weird, it’s like how white America perceives black people. Like they got soul, lah. Or like alice walker says, they ‘possess the secret of joy’.
Somehow there’s always that element of pomp and flair and grandeur. So you hung out with the indians ah?
Some authenticity also lah.
Indians are rather famous for speaking their mind; very politically aware culture.
I had a couple of indian friends. The usual lah, opinionated, good debaters all.
I think we are statistically overrepresented right, in parliament?
Yeah and among lawyers too! Things about RI is that the Chinese were a bit- how do I say this- ‘deracinated’, maybe? And because of that, there was this sense that the malays and indians were more grounded.
As in, they were less “cheena” also?
They were mostly english educated- and anything chinese was communist lah, chingchong lah, etc. But I think I also developed class consciousness in RI. I didn’t know how to articulate it at that time, but it was this one day when I was passing the canteen, and there were a group of malay men sitting on the kerb near the car park. I realised they were all chauffeurs waiting for my fellow students. And when you’re that youngm you feel torn, you know… The malay part of you stands in solidarity with all these men, but another part of you, which you don’t know how to define, puts you in the same category as the other students.
I can sort of relate to that. I come from a family very familiar with blue collar work. Then I went to the GEP, where my peers were minister’s children and other rich high fliers.
Haha the GEP. Yes. When I went for the creative arts programme, I was the only non-GEP guy in the whole cohort. And it was weird, because already RI so elitist, and then got this another layer of elitism.
My dad would send me to school in the pickup truck — I used to be embarrassed about it.
My dad used to drive me to school in a really old car. And I’d be embarrassed with *that*… and often I’d ask not to be dropped at the school porch, in case my friends saw me.
Anyway at CAP I recall being served catered food. And it was OK lah, plain rice with meat and veggies. But the GEP kids kept complaining about it. One day, one of them found a weevil or something in her rice. And then the next day in the internal publication people were writing poems about weevils. And I felt very indignant about it, that this became a running joke for them.
I remember eating and looking at the caterer- this Chinese couple, being oblivious of the scorn being heaped on their food. And then I remember getting myself some orange juice, and the lady looked so happy, and asked me to fill up more, and she asked whether the food was nice, and I said it was, and she kept on beaming…
And I went back to my room and wrote a poem about it. I think that was the beginning of all the leftist leanings in my writing, hahaha.
When did you start writing at all, anyway? I remember my English teacher in GEP used to give us your poems from time to time!
Primary school, maybe? I’d write compositions that were 20 pages long in exercise book.
Was there a moment that made you decide, or did it just always feel like a normal thing to do?
In primary school it seemed really normal. And it was mostly prose- poetry came later. Plays first, then poetry. I think when Haresh Sharma mentored me at 15, I started taking playwriting seriously. Then all the drama fest stuff, which gave me an outlet.
How did you end up meeting him?
Oh, during the creative arts programme. It was so weird- I was very demoralised after CAP, because i thought everyone else was so clever. So I never handed in a post-CAP portfolio to be considered for mentorship.
Yea, and apparently I made an impression on Haresh- because I wrote dialogue in Singlish during one of his workshops. Everyone else it seemed, wanted to write ‘clever’ dialogue in proper English.
But I don’t know- I have a faint suspicion ya, that being one of the very few non-Chinese participants at that time might have played a part. For all I know, Haresh was exercising affirmative action hahahahaha!
Haha! Ever asked him about it?
I haven’t… I should, actually.
I think I might wanna kaypoh him too, at some point…
Yea you should! Do this interview series lah. Sounds like a very worthy project. I’m playing with the idea of interviewing ex-ISA detainees for a book also. But aiyoh I have so many things i want to do la.
Nice, heavy stuff! Eh, one of your poems hit me hard when i was a teenager- Chia Thye Poh.
Ah… They refused me a publishing grant for that book. NAC. And the chia poems were part of the reason. They weren’t happy with the Josef Ng poems also.
Damn. I think nowadays new media got a lot more potential, leh.
Yea I think so too. I’m quite heartened lah, to see how information is becoming more free…
Do you remember what books you read like as a wee lad?
Haha! Grew up with a lot of Enid Blyton, and then by secondary school it was Asterix comics— and then strangely enough, Ray Bradbury, who’s more of a scifi writer. I never got into Tintin though. Dunno why. And then later it was poetry. Started with Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath- and then my gosh, in Junior College it was so depressing- Philip Larkin, whom I adored. Such a miserable man.
I always wonder, with this kind of nihilism. Do they really mean it, what they’re saying? Underlying that cynicism, I imagine, there’s this slight sliver of hope
otherwise- what’s the point of writing at all?
It’s a fallacy to think that a poem could be a person’s absolute article of faith—
I guess it could be just how he was feeling at that time…
Hahaha, Bingo. And within any writer’s corpus, you’ll find abrogations and contradictions and renunciations anyway.