Published: Oct. 1, 2002 By

[1]   In this essay, I explore the form of feminist agency we encounter in popular Anglophone women’s literature from post-colonial Singapore (Mingfong Ho’s novel, Sing to the Dawn, 1975; Lee Tzu Pheng’s poem “My Country and My People, 1980; the novel, Serpent’s Tooth [1982], and some short stories [1990’s] by Catherine Lim). All the stories address what is a stock theme of Singaporean women’s literature–how Western-educated women deal with changing times and their different allegiances to modern and traditional (neo-Confucian), urban and rural Asian values. To an extent, the pieces conform to dominant nationalist narratives about the benefits of modernity and role of tradition in contemporary Singaporean women’s lives. I argue that the seeming conformity to cultural narratives in these popular expressions should not be read as conventional women’s submissiveness to patriarchal nationalist norms. For intertwined in these acquiescent voices are strategies women adopt to re-form the masculinist values and practices of the culture to which they stake their loyalty. The difficulty of discerning these strategies, it seems to me, has to do with the absence of an adequate framework for reading the feminist claims that underlie nationalist women’s voices. Postcolonial theories of female identity and agency by and large fail to account for the range and complexity of these feminist stances that arise under anti-colonial nationalisms. Here, I sketch one framework for discerning agency in these writers’ imaginations, and discuss which assumptions underlying postcolonial studies have to be rethought to provide this account.

[2]   Influential historiographies of anti-colonial nationalism suggest that women’s cultural identities–laid out in codes by which they belong to their kin group and share in its collective future–are determined by the male elite’s contentious relationship with imperialist modernity. Elaborating on Subaltern historian Partha Chatterjee’s argument, for example, R. Radhakrishnan suggests that the nation’s modern-educated new woman becomes the symbolic resolution to men’s “schizophrenic” consciousness (85), their split reaction to a “temporality of modernity [that] authorizes”(Bhabha, “Race, Time,” 193) the progress-oriented white male as the best form of human. The woman serves to repress this schizophrenia and enable her nation’s new people (men andwomen) to step out into historical time to vie with Western man for material progress by symbolically taking on the preservation of a timeless inner self. Construed to be spiritually superior to the materialistic Westerner, this traditional self posits an alternate racial-cultural hierarchy against the dominant one. These Orientalist sexual politics of nationalism give men some flexibility in experimenting with modern concepts and tools (Kandiyoti, 379); but they confine the new woman’s identity in a spatiotemporal dichotomy. She has to keep tradition in the home and community and superficially adapt to the nation’s social and economic teleologies in the private and public spheres. Kumari Jayawardena suggests that although feminist ideas–women’s education, voting rights, sexual rights–enter anti-colonial contexts in the course of nationalist reform movements, they do not necessarily enable women to correct the dichotomous construction of femininity. Geraldine Heng goes further to assert that women’s issues are manipulated as “ideological and political resources” in national liberation struggles, and that this historical trend “commonly develops, in contemporary contexts, into the manipulation of women themselves as socioeconomic resource in Third World nation-states”(Heng, 31-32). The consensus is that in the phases both of national liberation and nation- state development, the modern-educated woman plays a central role in the male-dictated patriotic ’causes’ of competing with yet rising above dominant Western temporality. Women who are embroiled in these identity politics of male nationalism fail to command what is perceived to be the Western woman’s “politically enabling” marginal position in the nation–the margin from which a feminist habitually critiques “centered capitalist ideology”(Liu, 24).

[3]   The implication of such studies is that the new woman’s investment in her people’s goals of gaining freedom from racial-masculinist domination and building independent nations inhibits her ability to self-actualize and intervene in patriarchal national history. This raises the central question of this essay: To what extent can a woman claim agency in her personal thought and practice and over her historical role without discarding commitments to her cultural community and its ongoing liberation struggle, during and after colonization? The challenge to attaining this political stance within, not outside, the communal realm is that the woman must stake her affiliation according to the terms defined by a community-reconfigured-as-nation: she must define herself and her role in terms of a past she shares with her people, and a future she collectively imagines (Enloe, 45). However, the dominant version of the past and future, distorted by contentions between masculinities in an anti-colonial present, is precisely what imposes contradictions on women’s everyday spaces. If the modern woman is to envision a feminist future in common with her people, she must speak both to these distortions and contradictions and their ideological premise, the schizophrenic split in male nationalist consciousness, but also for her nation’s principal ideals and goals. She must speak with mainstream articulations of communal progress and cultural liberation yet retain the reflexivity to critique the manipulative aspects of the discourse and re-form its underlying ideology. Before I elaborate how and to what extent the Singaporean women writers find this reflexive voice, I consider why key assumptions of prevalent theories have to be reworked before we are able to think feminist historical agency in these terms.

[4]   One strand of postcolonial theory entirely depends on the Foucauldian assumption that rational consciousness is a self-referential product of linguistic and social power structures in modernity. On this basis, some scholars suggest that women’s acquiescence to imposed symbolic and material roles indicates an outright loss of historical agency. Through his reading of Indian women’s texts Subaltern scholar Partha Chatterjee, for example, attempts to expose the “subjection of women”(140) to a double patriarchal regime in anti-colonial contexts. He argues that Western-educated women’s control over language “is doubly vitiated [by their subordination] at one and the same time to colonialism as well as to a nationalist patriarchy”(140). As a result, women are even less capable than their male nationalist counterparts of claiming an “autonomous subjectivity” that struggles against domination and constitutes power as a relation (137). Chatterjee’s framework effectively recenters regimes of patriarchy, race, and class in emerging nations by way of obliterating signs of women’s dissenting rationalities. As against this, many feminist postcolonial scholars explore ways to theorize women’s agency in nationalist contexts. They also avoid Western postmodernists’ liberalist faith in individual agency, and the allied binary model in which feminist subjectivity is “synthesized from fusions of outsider identities” (Haraway, 217) positioned on the utopian margins of masculinist-racist regimes. Instead, postcolonial feminists explore how knowledge/ power works pervasively and invisibly in capitalist modernities, constituting and “enabl[ing]” (Spivak, 147) every subject position–dominant, subordinate, oppositional. Many concur with the argument that “to speak from the margin is to be already complicit with the discourse of the nation-state . . . that creates and censors the margins” (Alarcon, Kaplan, Moallem, 8-9). Within this feminist poststructuralist paradigm, agency is claimed through “muddying the pure positions”(Kaplan and Grewal, 359). It has to do with demystifying all knowledge claims and exposing how these are constructed through hegemonic discourse and its various processes of centering the subject. It also is a matter of “performing” (Bhabha, “Introduction”; Butler) in the Derridean interval of historical time the contradictions and aporias in masculinist-capitalist discursive forms.

[5]   This means, however, that postcolonial feminists tend toward yet another binary paradigm. According to this, agency consists only of subversively responding to a centered and all-encompassing episteme, and not at all of reconceptualizing mainstream concepts and tools in more empowering ways. Their rigidly anti-essentialist approach to the self and rationality does not allow critics to attend to those uneven and partial ways in which consciousness re-forms ideology, impelled by other ways of knowing the present and connecting with the past that may exist around the dominant. This approach denies that the development of agency has a cognitive component–that any political struggle to re-vision oppressive conditions has to be accompanied by a moral epistemological one. It fails, that is, to acknowledge that the possibility of “accurately interpreting our world,” and grasping what is going wrong in it, “fundamentally depends on our coming to know what it would take to change it”(Mohanty, 214). The extent of a subject’s political agency depends on her coming to rationally think about which social arrangements and cultural practices manipulate her reality together with her community’s, and how else these may be rearranged in “more productive ways”(Mohanty, 214). It depends, in a nutshell, on an at least partial re-orientation of both thought and practice. The poststructuralist denial of this moral cognitive component of political agency quite commonly leads to a reaffirmation of binarism. Failing to account for the complex and uneven processes through which a subject struggles toward epistemic agency, critics tend to settle for differentiatingalready politicized agents from interpellated subjects. Some scholars do emphasize that “ideological boundaries” surround feminists of color, and that it is important in the interest of progressive politics to reconstruct differently “the raced and gendered ‘I’s’ and ‘We’s'”(Alarcon, 71). But in general, postcolonial studies of feminist agency fail to elaborate on the extents and limits of self-reconstruction and epistemic re-orientation. Critics do not address how subjects break out of dominant nationalist ideologies, what the material and emotional constraints are to the reconstruction of female identities and roles, and how oppositional knowledge conducing positive change in the lives and worlds of women arises from within these constraints.

[6]   These postcolonial models do not allow me to explain the way that popular Singaporean writers address women’s traditional and modern selves. For the writers look upon women’s dominant identities and roles not so much as confusing fabrications that must be disrupted, or exposed for their constructedness. They treat them as repositories of practical knowledge about how women struggle under dominant values and commitments but also strategically select from the old and the new to empower themselves together with their communities. In these literary representations, the women writers, together with reading publics who consume and enjoy the narratives, engage in minimally systematic reinterpretations of the existing life conditions of modern Singaporean women. The stories constitute a site for rethinking women’s worlds–on the basis both of traditions (organic and reinvented) and of modern innovative ideas–in more productive and empowering ways. It seems to me that we can provide an account of how these narratives develop feminist agency if we begin by considering, as Geraldine Heng suggests, how women’s “adaptations” of modern feminism are “mediated” by their social roles and cultural identities in anti-colonial nationalist contexts (30). An emphasis on cultural mediation requires that we attend to both visible and submerged ways of knowing the self in relation to the present and past of a community. Therefore, this emphasis requires that we extend Heng’s framework in a way that allows us to explore two different things: firstly, how Singaporean women’s adaptations are constrained by the nationalist paradigm of reformed/ traditional woman because of the security of belonging this affirms; secondly, how they may be inflected by different communal legacies of responding to and appropriating new knowledges as well as altering the familiar.

[7]   I show below that one way to explore how these self-mediations occur in literary representations of everyday lives is to unravel the various levels at which the stories re-represent and “process” information (Mohanty, 201) about Singapore women’s embodiment of dominant values and commitments. In these popular literary pieces norms of feminine self become aesthetic products that constitute a locus of women’s desire to gain advantage by conforming to social standards, and are marketed as such. But as symbolic re-creations of everyday selves, these also permit women–the writers themselves and their reading publics–to reflect on and rework imposed identities. As Charles Taylor points out, a society’s symbolic expressions lie between the levels of “explicit doctrine” and “embodied understanding” or thehabitus;they bring together “images as yet unformulated in doctrine”(168). In other words, symbolic understanding is somewhat fluid. It re-presents and experiments with embodied forms of being and knowing, exceeding the doctrines/ formalized meanings that exert control on a particular cultural domain. In Singapore, whose daily life is strongly regulated by doctrines of Asian nationhood and capitalist progress, popular literature is one site in which women cultivate a “bifurcated consciousness”(Harding, 185). They begin to think in oppositional ways about the identities they embody and the roles they play in national history. These women’s narratives are made up of conflicting strands that capture the multiple acquiescent and reflective voices in which the writers respond to modern and traditional femininities. They show how women situated in positions similar to their own desire and adhere to them, and become embroiled in contradictory and distorted forms of reality. Through the partially reflexive practice of storytelling, writers also unevenly cultivate an understanding of why these distortions occur and how they may be rectified by drawing on non-conflictual practices of cultural exchange. In short, these narratives present inquires into how women struggle to claim cognitive agency over their embodied values and commitments. They interpret in a minimally systematic way what it takes to change the oppressive aspects of dominant selves.

[8]   These critical reflections on embodied femininities cumulatively produce a divergent history of Singapore life. This centers women who attempt not to synchronize their lives with prevailing nationalist agendas, but to transform existing social and symbolic conditions in a way that enables women’sparticipation in communal interpretations of ideals and goals. Speaking to the common interest of decolonization, the writers persuade compatriots in overt or covert ways to seek in the interaction of modernity and communal memory not a hierarchical relationship producing totalized notions of adversarial humans, but intersectionalities between different cultural times, spaces, and epistemes of the human (ways of knowing the self in relation to the family, society, the cosmos, the good). They draw on female cultural legacies of survival to sketch a Singaporean subject who is conceptually mobile, who selectively adapts new ideas and tools to change yet conserve traditions. This subject finds in no social arrangement unconditional freedom from sexualized hierarchies. But she seeks in all of them concepts and tools for a new society liberated from gendered forms of oppression. Before turning to the works, I consider them in their historical context.

The Times and Spaces of Singapore’s Women:
Disjunctions and Intersections

[9]   The creative writings investigate how modern-educated women of Singapore are able to find their voices in a national history that surrounds them with contradictory constructions of the self. Since the establishment of independent Singapore in 1965, patriarchal nationalist discourse produced by the Chinese-dominated ruling elite has dexterously controlled the temporal and spatial conditions under which middle-class, predominantly ethnic Chinese, female citizens belong to the nation and practice citizenship. It has dictated that women will perform instrumental functions in the time and space of production; but they will truly belong only to the reproductive sphere. Moreover, the latter’s temporalities periodically have been manipulated to revive a stable (gendered and ethnicized) Singapore subjecthood. In the first phase of national development under the PAP government–People Action Party led by Cambridge-educated Lee Kuan Yew–there were obvious commonalties between the values and commitments ascribed to women’s productive and reproductive identities, with undercurrents of contradiction. In the later, neo-Orientalist phase of ideological formation, the disjunctions became acute.

[10]   After Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia and the common market in 1965, the government discursively constructed a nation caught in a “crisis of survival”; this demanded that every member be “transformed into a tightly organised and highly disciplined citizenry all pulling in the same direction of socioeconomic development”(Chua, 18-19). In this first phase of social engineering, economically privileged women were made into both efficient workers and modern citizens whose progress vindicated the nation’s rejection of its ‘barbaric Oriental’ past. They received English and technological education equally with men, and were encouraged to selectively modernize family arrangements and sensibilities. Government propaganda discredited such traditional values as preference for large and extended families, sons over daughters, and dependence on children for old age care (Chua, 115). Intending to enhance women’s productivity in the workplace, Lee encouraged companionate conjugal relationships by urging men to partake in housework (Tamney, 121). Singaporean people were already living in nuclear forms of family due to their migrant status (Kuo and Wong, 8). Now, they were indoctrinated in the bourgeois capitalist idea of the nuclear family comprising upwardly mobile male and female individuals. As early as 1961, this ideology of modern Singaporean womanhood had been institutionalized by the Women’s Charter that showed unmistakable influence of Western feminist concepts about women’s progress. It granted women unprecedented rights of societal participation and self-definition: enfranchisement, property-ownership, increased education and employment opportunities, divorce rights, and autonomy over their sexuality (through the prohibition of polygamous liaisons and marital rape) (Wong and Kum, 256-271; Hill and Fee, 144-145).

[11]   Throughout this period of modernization and urbanization–extending from 1965 to the early 80’s–the nation’s elite Chinese new women also were reminded that their primary duty lay in socializing children in what were nativist hybridizations of modern Western concepts and values. They were to teach children a form of “individualism” that combined economic competitiveness with a citizenship “conceived less in terms of rights — as enshrined in the liberal-individualist tradition of Western societies–than in terms of community-defined duties” (Hill and Fee, 11). These duties in turn were understood in Confucian-patriarchal terms, as these were being redefined by Singapore’s Chinese elite (Chua, 153-162). Women’s task of nurturing dutiful individualists did not clash, in the arguments put forward by the leadership, with their other responsibility, that of preserving communitarian values against the “cultural and moral pollution” of the West (Kuo and Wong, 11). The next ideological phase of nation-building began around 1980. In this period, there was systematic reaction against the “excesses” of individualism and consumerism perceived to have been bred by economic success. In the view of the ruling elite, these trends foreboded a decline in the state’s control over its hypersubjective citizens (Chua, 26-27; 116-118). The contradictions between Singapore’s modernity and its re-invented traditions were now spotlighted as moral polarities.

[12]   Alarmed by the decline in marriage and fertility rates of university graduate women (largely Chinese) in comparison with less-educated women (largely Malay Muslim, also Indian Hindu) the government vilified ‘hyper-individualist’ graduates for failing to fulfill the familial and patriotic duties of marriage and child-bearing . As he defended the government’s infamous social eugenics program–which gave tax-incentives to university-educated women to marry and have babies–Yew grew nostalgic about the past when families retained control over their daughters’ biological destinies by arranging marriages. He also spoke admiringly of the “virile Chinese patriarchs” who had retinues of wives, mistresses, and illegitimate children, and even speculated on the possibility of reviving this virility in Chinese men through reintroducing polygamy (Heng and Devan, 349). The process of producing and legitimating nationalist female identities that had begun with the legal definition of the modern Singapore woman by the Women’s Charter (Heng, 37) now was harnessed to the neo-Orientalist patriarchy of the evolving capitalist-racist state.

[13]   These ascriptions of conflicting times and spaces to female identity have been integral to the elaboration of a national hegemony that upholds gendered and racial stratifications of social labor in the capitalist state. Yet a “lived” hegemony, even when based on outright propaganda and intellectual coercion as in Singapore, is always a “process”: “it has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified . . . [and is also] continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own”(Williams, 112). The spread of modern education and diverse progressive influences has produced many dissenting voices throughout the periods of Singapore’s birth and development. The PAP government has been rather successful in coopting or marginalizing such dissenters, notably feminist and Marxist radicals (Heng, 35-35; Chua, 11-17; Dancz, Parts II and III). Through legislation, penalties, and restrictive libel laws, it has tried to curtail freedom of foreign and local presses, of parliamentary discourse, and of political opposition in general (Gomez, 28-29). Moreover, these censorship codes enforced by the one-party state have deeply influenced the everyday attitudes of Singaporean citizens. Viewing alternative political voices as illegitimate, the majority engage in acts of “self-censorship and / or the censorship of others”(Gomez, 3). Nonetheless, this stringent structure of governance has had to deal with an increasingly independent-thinking electorate. It has partially yielded to persuasions from below and periodically attempted to rebuild consensus (Chua, 23-24).

[14]   As is often the case, symbolic expressions, because of their reflective and processual nature, capture the “hegemonic in its active and formative but also its transformational processes”(Williams, 113). There are “counter-traditions” of literature that run against the grain of the “aesthetical ideology” that pervades the canon of Anglophone writing in Singapore (Lim, Writing South East/ Asia in English, 119). The canon itself is produced by English-educated professionals who hold prestigious jobs in the state and want to avoid intellectual coercion (Lim, Nationalism and Literature, 18-21). But many texts by Chinese-Singaporean women who hold such jobs carry the counter-traditions as well. In some instances, as in Catherine Lim’s, these literary projects are intertwined with political reflections (discussed below). As a whole, women’s counter-traditional literature presents an arena of hegemonic struggle between doctrinal meanings of Singaporean femininity and women’s practical consciousness–i.e., lived relations of domination and subordination, and opposition to oppressive ideas and practices (Williams, 110).

[15]   As the writers depict and reflect on everyday lives, they speak in conflicted voices about the status of new Chinese women in a world of shifting times, spaces, and ontologies. Their protagonists attempt to embody both traditional and modern roles and sensibilities, and find their lives fragmented by spatial and temporal contradictions: segmentations of families and communities into advanced-backward and authentic-inauthentic cultural sectors and the fractures of female bonds; temporalized hierarchies of upwardly mobile and backward classes and ethnicities, and of urban and rural peoples which also break down intra-community and intra-family bonds. Through these symbolic portrayals of Singaporean lives, however, the writers also struggle to achieve cognitive agency over women’s fragmented selves. They refuse to treat modern and traditional values and underlying social arrangements as the moral polarities defined by patriarchal nationalism. Instead, they draw on women-centered practices and communal legacies of non-confrontational exchange between different cultural rationalities.

[16]   The pieces look through gendered lenses on the various intersecting and conflicting epistemic positions their protagonists learn or expect to embody. They examine the individualist self participating in a “common action in profane time”(Taylor, 172); the rational subject claiming rights and reparations in the body politic; the mobile subject of a market economy; the monogamous nuclear family woman seeking companionate relationships. They also look into the implications for women of a collective self and its principle of communal-over-individual-good; a self attaining fulfillment in sacred time, a ritual, not purposive, rational subject; a non-individualist resistant self; and women’s practices of self-empowerment in patriarchal and polygamous communities. What these works attempt is to discriminate between ways of knowing the self and its community on the basis of the beneficial or oppressive impacts these produce on contemporary women’s lives. Thus, these writers enter into the “temporal action . . . [or] progressive, future drive” which Homi Bhabha considers to be a “value” of modernity (“Race, Time,” 201, 204). But they also resist the homogeneous times of dominant modernities. They contribute to the vision of a new nation whose progressive past contributes to a gendered decolonized future. They demonstrate that, from the standpoints of modern Singapore women’s fragmented lives, insights may be garnered about a trans-temporal agent of national progress. This subject turns critical eyes on conceptual and material innovations, foreign and native. She seeks ideas and tools that enhance–rather than compete with or obliterate–communal histories of survival, self-actualization, and liberation.

Women Reinterpret Progress

[17]   The poem, “My Country and My People” (1980), is written by Lee Tzu Pheng, a Ph.D. in English Literature and a faculty member at the National University of Singapore (Routledge Encyclopedia). Well-known for its advocacy of nationalism, the poem captures a socially privileged Chinese woman’s perspective on nation-building at the height of Singapore’s first spate of modernization, before the backlash against the West gained momentum. Overtly, it concurs with the dominant nationalist agenda of controlled progressivism for Singapore’s elite women. It suggests that modernization and urbanization have emancipated women like the narrator from oppressions of rural Chinese patriarchy and have granted them participatory citizenship in the new, egalitarian nation. Further, the narrator agrees that she must practice citizenship not only by “driving” into the city with the current of economic progress, but by nurturing the essentially human sentiment of neighborliness at the heart of a diverse nation:

Yet careful tending of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom;
and perhaps, fence-sitting neighbour,
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind.

Put differently, the educated woman’s productive role in the urban economy must be complemented by her role as reproducer of the spirit of national culture: she must nurture the transcendent human sentiment of togetherness in the hearts of racially disparate (also unequally privileged) citizens.

[18]   Generically, this poem belongs with other celebratory development narratives produced by elite Singapore women in the first decades following independence. Noteworthy among these is the first novel by a Singapore woman, expatriate author and activist Mingfong Ho’s Sing to the Dawn (1975; first published in New York and later in Singapore). Although set in Thailand, the novel is a Singaporean period-piece in its choice of theme. It deals with how urban migration and modern education improve women’s lives. The work is a commentary on the agenda of urbanization that was central in the first phase of Singapore’s development. In this phase, the PAP government was erasing traditional habitats of ethnic groups–Malay kampungs, Chinese villages–and exposing selected segments of the population to modern education. The dominant voice in Mingfong Ho’s children’s tale is a didactic one, telling about a potential reformer of rural Asian social oppressions and evils. This reformer is a village girl who strives to reach the city and higher modern education in order that she may return to the village and uplift the backward conditions of her community. Like Lee’s poem, the novel imagines the development of the modern woman in teleological terms. It suggests that women become legitimate members of the community and trailblazers of progress only by moving to metropolitan centers of advancement. However, closer inspection reveals that both authors are only partially indoctrinated in the ideology of urban progressivism. Different strands of the narratives capture the other voices in which the writers persuade audiences. The narratives suggest that patriarchal modernist notions of progressive self and citizen fill women’s lives with contradiction, and fracture communities. But they also show that these notions alter when women embody them and try to garner the benefits they promise: dignity and care for one’s self and participatory membership in a non-hierarchical community.

[19]   Sing to the Dawn opens with the young protagonist, Dawan, receiving from her village school teacher the unexpected news that she and not her brother, the top male student of the class, has won the scholarship to pursue higher education in the City School. Because of the social and economic opportunities that come to her with this award, Dawan is singled out for spearheading the changes her Marxist school teacher has envisioned for the villagers. She is expected to bring back to the villagers not only modern knowledge and technological tools (“how to raise new crops and use better fertilizers,” 17) but new ways of analyzing and demystifying the socioeconomic institutions that perpetuate inequities in the village. Notable among the institutions she must challenge are the land ownership and revenue systems which routinely cause lands and labors of the poor to be seized by feudal landlords who have now accumulated capital. In the words of the schoolteacher, if the scholarship-winner wants to be useful to her own people, she must acquire from progressive intellectuals of the City school a new critical perspective, the ability “to think, to perceive what is wrong with the society, to analyze and understand the rules which create these injustices . . . “(32).

[20]   Although she is educated in the intellectual tradition of dialectical analysis by her school teacher, Dawan is depicted as being unable to move forward in the path of revolutionary social change until her grandmother steps into the enterprise of sending her to the city. The school teacher is one of a new breed of urban Asian men influenced by radical strands of modern European thought. He has traveled to the village to organize at the grassroots against rural inequities. His class-centered analysis is, however, limited by an elite male perspective that fails to take into account the specificities of how gender biases intersect with class, and what village women must combat in order to become agents of liberation. The novel both complements and contrasts the teachers bird’s eye view of villagers’ oppressions with the knowledges of village women. It depicts the oppositional wisdom of a multiply-marginalized villager, an illiterate and aged woman. Through her portrayal of Dawan’s aged grandmother, the modern author symbolically revivifies progressive legacies of women’s conceptual mobility and adaptation. She attempts to draw these legacies out of a collective/ personal memory overrun by the notion that progress constitutes a teleological movement away from the rural past toward a modern metropolitan future. Since the character of Grandma forms a symbolic bridge between the progressive pasts and the future of women, it also counteracts the dichotomy of static rural tradition and dynamic urban modernity presented by the novel’s didactic narrative.

[21]   Grandma “ha[s] a way of sensing things”(38). She is the first one at home to pry out of Dawan the facts that the girl has won a scholarship but that her brother and bosom companion, Kwai, sorely begrudges his defeat by her. Grandma then inspires women to mobilize against the patriarchal figures–the brother, the father, the monk in the local Buddhist temple–who obstruct Dawan’s progress. She urges Dawan’s mother to break her habit of ventriloquizing her husband’s sexist biases and take independent charge of preparing for her daughter’s journey to the city. She also breathes into the girl herself the empowering insight that women’s courage to stand up to patriarchal bullies like Dawan’s father wells up from deep within the wombs that produce these “big fierce [men]”(132). In these and other actions, Grandma clearly represents the modern-educated expatriate author’s effort to recall grassroots traditions of women’s activism, self-definition, and participatory group formation.

[22]   The basis of Grandma’s activism on behalf of her grand-daughter is a non-individualist and relational notion of feminine self. She indirectly advises Dawan that to win over her father she must temper her courage with the recognition that his ferocity stems in part from the “burdens . . . [and] worries” the impoverished peasant has borne (133). Grandma’s principle of compassionate opposition counteracts the Orientalist stereotype, also present in the novel, that unenlightened Asian men tend to be despotic and ought to be rejected by women seeking progress. Instead, the principle is shown to enable rural women’s bonding with men who also suffer diverse forms of oppression, such as poverty and classist exploitation. Following Grandma’s lead, Dawan wins over to her cause not only her brother and companion, Kwai, but the overbearing father. Later in the novel, Dawan’s father is shown to be strongly supporting his daughter’s emancipatory vision “to do great things for [them] all . . . the village, and the country, even the world”(137). Practicing this non-individualist philosophy of collectivizing the community against various kinds and levels of oppression, Dawan finally brings about a re-grouping of villagers across gender lines. On the eve of her departure, men and women alike gather on her doorstep; they symbolically converge on the goals of acknowledging the dignity of the female individual and looking forward to her visionary leadership of society.

[23]   Still, the novel does not present a utopian vision of a community homogenized on women’s causes, nor an unqualified affirmation of the collectivist ethos of compassionate opposition. It shows that women who try to self-actualize and claim equal membership in making communal history must continually strategize in old and newly-acquired ways against dominant communitarian agendas that attempt to erase or coopt their individualities. For example, there is no indication that Dawan succeeds in quelling the ferocity of all patriarchs who, like her father, react against economic and social oppressions by clinging to the last bastion of their privilege, possessive authority over family and community women. Posing an odd contrast to the communal assembly at the novel’s close is an earlier scene. This depicts Dawan’s schoolmate, Vichai, brutally attacking his own rebellious sister, Bao, for her support of Dawan’s aspiration for a life independent of patriarchal control. To celebrate the rare opportunity Dawan has earned of “flying to a bigger world” free of impositions by brothers and husbands, Bao permits Dawan to free one of the few caged birds she herself is vending. When Vichai learns of this, he attacks Bao on the charge that her whim will cause financial hardship for their family of impoverished pavement vendors as Dawan is unable to pay for the bird. But his plea of disciplining Bao in the cause of the collective good of the family turns out to be a cover for reactionary masculinism. As Bao is quick to note, Vichai grows angry because women like herself and Dawan assert their individual self-worth. This threatens his control over the one thing he owns, the birds he ‘caught’ and the women these symbolize. This episode implies not only that the approach of compassionate opposition will not work in all cases, but that its underlying principle of placing the collective over an individual’s good needs to be rethought in regard to women’s well-being. The criteria for the collective good may well be determined by dominant men like Vichai who want to stifle germinal efforts of self-definition by women like Bao.

[24]   If malevolent patriarchs like Vichai, whose viciousness is exacerbated by social inequalities in the present, stand outside the influence of Dawan’s vision, so does their temporal opposite in the novel’s map of patriarchy, the Buddhist monk who keeps the gate of the community’s spiritual past. Through her feminist depictions of malevolent and benevolent men, Mingfong Ho scrupulously avoids romanticizing the supposedly resistive knowledges of underprivileged or unmodernized people. Earlier in the narrative we see this monk’s customary “gentleness” turn to authoritarian recalcitrance when Dawan tries to marshal to her cause his paternal authority over villagers. He reminds Dawan that her spiritual self will attain fulfillment and Nirvana only if she strives to rise “beyond” profane time, when suffering is inevitable, into sacred; it is pointless learning how to achieve material improvements in lives and times that must pass when all that is really valuable to know is not out there but in his “tiny temple”(94). To an extent, the monk stands for the nativist who wants to impose on the woman a static spiritual identity that signifies the timeless inner core of the community. But the scene resists a monolithic reading. Mingfong Ho presents not simply a pedagogic situation that the subordinated disrupts, but a polemical one. She pits a static against a dynamic vision of time, and ends the scene in a breakdown of communication that unsettles both parties. Dawan is embittered that she fails to communicate with her spiritual father, and the monk slightly saddened that such a “good-hearted” follower should rebel against his concerned guidance. This mutual sense of failed communication is conveyed through a poignant metaphorical image: “for a brief moment a glint of sunlight on his smoothly shaven skull seemed to catch and reflect the shiny tears from the young girl’s face”(99). The scene underscores the intellectual struggles women face as they cultivate a purposeful way of understanding their roles in historical time–seeing themselves as transformers of oppressive social and cultural formations–and realize that their moral rationality has become incommensurable with the ritual reasoning that is presented to them as the core of their heritage of faith. It also sets the stage for a response. This response once again comes from Grandma. She implicitly argues that when women embody faith they rework the dichotomous male understanding of religious morality that separates the sacred/ ascetic realm from the profane/ worldly one. The implication is that the woman adapts spiritual sensibilities and rituals of faith to the dynamic ethical purposes of empowering herself against manipulation and reconstructing her community.

[25]   In characterizing the growth of progressive spiritual awareness in women, Grandma invokes a central Buddhist symbol of spiritual permanence, the lotus. But she presents the lotus in temporal and spatial movement. She suggests that women must be lotuses that “endlessly . . . unfold” across the inside and outside, the village and city and, by implication, cultural memories and modernities. This means that women self-actualize and grow resistant to gendered oppressions only when they cease to be afraid of newnesses, of what lie “outside” the circles of familiar time and space (cultural and religious customs, homes and temples) in which they are placed. Women ought to remain conceptually mobile because no singular cultural space or time affords freedom from patriarchal institutions. In important ways, Grandma is a didactic portrayal that depicts the combination of knowledges progressive village women carry in them but must also acquire. Her words imply that custom-bound women such as herself should draw upon the “future drive”(Bhabha, “Race, Time,” 201) that inheres in many women’s histories of survival and empowerment. This is the drive to select from and adapt newly-acquired ideas and tools to empowering legacies from the past. The larger implication is that only when women refrain from a supremacist affirmation of one communal tradition and its culture of struggle are they able to avoid the risk of compromising their emancipatory visions. When they do not, they very well may be complying with family and community traditions manipulated by malevolent and benevolent powers.

[26]   In the novel’s feminist schemata, visionary Grandmas from the past see the full potential of their legacy realized through the unprecedented opportunities modern offspring get for thinking cross-culturally about revolutionary change. The first of these is the scholarship that comes to the village girl and indicates the democratization of economic resources in a modern nation. It also shows, however, that capitalist distribution systems limit the democratic process by maintaining urban centers and rural peripheries of economic privilege. As Koh Tai Ann points out, only one scholarship reaches the village, and causes rifts in the family and the community (69). What the single scholarship does afford Dawan is access to innovative intellectual resources for challenging the capitalist hierarchy that intersects with and rigidifies existing feudal patriarchal inequalities. The essential complement to Dawan’s lessons from the past is her educational travel to an urban locus through which global cultures flow, and carry both hierarchy-forming and liberation epistemologies cultivated in other sites of struggle. These include Marxism and, implicitly, Western feminism which clearly informs this novel. Equally important, however, is the symbolic return of the new woman, Dawan, to rural Asia to rethink and re-contextualize her hybrid modern and traditional knowledges.

[27]   Sing to the Dawn presents a symbolic assessment of the temporal and spatial conflicts rural-tradition-bound women negotiate as they attempt to embody the ideology of urban progress in rapidly modernizing Asian contexts such as Singapore. It endorses the unprecedented intellectual and economic opportunities for resisting old and new social hierarchies that urban growth and ancillary global flows bring to women. But it transforms the very notion of ‘progress’ from a teleological to acumulative temporal-spatial process–an on-going cross-fertilizing and cross-critique of familiar and new theories and practices of gendered liberation. By contrast, “My Country and My People,” the poem I briefly discussed above, overtly repeats nationalist ideology. The elite Chinese author’s ability to critique her dominant identity seems severely restricted, not only by the race and class privileges this identity gives her in Singapore but also because of her location within a repressive regime that censors dissent. In this respect, her location is in contrast to the expatriate Mingfong Ho’s geographical and political positioning. Lee Tzu Pheng appears to concede to hegemonization also by writing about nationalism in the poetic form. Poetry, unlike the novel, constitutes the canon of Singapore literature. Nonetheless Lee speaks, as Ann Brewster rightly notes, in an “ambivalent” voice (836). She covertly re-tells Singapore’s past and present to selectively concur with and differ from her poem’s dominant narrative. What she aims is to find her voice and place her body in the history of national-urban progress.

[28]   The work reveals that its author is deeply invested in her people’s struggle for decolonization. She indicates that her own life-story is inextricable from her people’s. Neither her people nor she has had the “comfort of [their] preferences” because conflictual processes of domination, subordination, and reaction–colonization, nationalism, modernization, reactionary traditionalism– have impinged upon the lives and times of all Singapore people. While she stakes her loyalty to her people, however, she also asserts right at the outset that her kind of patriotism is at odds with “fanciful” constructions of pasts and futures.

My country and my people
are neither here nor there, nor
in the comfort of my preferences,
If I could even choose.
At any rate, to fancy is to cheat;
and, worse than being alien or
subversive without cause,
is being a patriot of the will.

It is soon evident that she is re-telling history through re-defining the terms of her affiliation with her countrypeople. Being the “daughter of a better age,” a Singaporean woman learning the lessons of modernity and progress, she was trained in English books. But this also was the day of militant anti-colonial nationalism, when “those foreign devils/ whose books [she] was being taught to read” were being cut down everywhere. Thus, although she entered the new Lion City (Singapore) with the “privilege” of a modern education, she was “sent . . . back fast to [her] shy forbearing family.” She succumbed to the contradiction patriarchal nationalism bred and returned to village traditions in her ‘authentic’ Chinese home. There, she faced a rigidified patriarchy:

The city remained a distant way,
but I had no land to till;
only a duck that would not lay,
and a runt of a papaya tree,
which also turned out to be male.

If she does reaffirm the ideology of a new nation that arises from decolonization, then, the narrator also reflects on this ideology and why it must be reworked. She begins to understand that her person and body are contradictorily used as symbolic labor in the patriarchal discursive economy. On the basis of this partial knowledge of manipulation, she sets about reinterpreting her role in the nation.

[29]   The poet reclaims the privileges of her education and class status and “drives,” in real and metaphorical terms, on urban highways of opportunity. But she seems to suggest that the city too does not offer her a supportive community, one that is free of sexual oppression: “They built milli-mini flats/ for a multi-mini society,/ the chiselled profile in the sky/ took on a lofty attitude . . .” The implication is that the lofty phallic profiles of modern urban institutions give not much more room than the reinvented traditional home to her progressive, gendered individuality. It seems that the symbolic phallus is ubiquitous in all the cultural times and locations that surround her. In the course of the personal/ communal historical narrative she presents, however, the narrator still searches across her past and her present, her urban and rural experiences to find ideas and tools that will enable her participatory agency in determining her nation’s future.

[30]   The last stanza, which claims citizenship by asking from neighbors “recognition of her kind”(quoted above), is multi-level in meaning. In the obvious sense, it reproduces the dominant ideology of multiracialism by making visible and overt the different “kinds” of racial cultural groups dwelling in Singapore. Propounded by the People Action Party, this ideology tailors the principle of racial pluralism that had thrived in British Singapore, under entrepot trading, to the interests of the nation-state (Chua, 101-108). If we set Lee’s claim of citizenship against the historical narrative that precedes it, we also note that the reproduction of multiracial nationalism veils a feminist voice that criticizes the exclusions this communitarian nationalist framework enforces. The poem presents an argument about how the kind of citizen the narrator is can achieve recognition and participation in the nation. What she demands is that the nation be reconfigured in a way so that she is known not only as a Chinese citizen with her own customs, but as a gendered Chinese citizen. She must be un-circumscribed and un-threatened by masculinist “runts” of frozen traditions, and other such phallocratic “lofty” forms of sexual and psychic domination. Although this vision is gendered, it refrains from a binaristic feminist stance that interprets women’s progress into citizenship as also the rejection of (Orientalized) traditions of despotic patriarchal communities. The vision includes all those like-minded countrywomen and men who want to join. The narrator reaffirms in the last lines

My people, and my country,
are you, and you my home.

[31]   In the stanza previous to the last, the narrator invoked the feelings of racial and cultural tolerance that had once existed in Singapore. As she put it : “I grew up in China’s mighty shadow,/ with my gentle brown-skinned neighbours . . .” But she also implied that Singaporeans had progressed beyond the discrete composition of the pluralistic colonial society in which different ethnic groups had peacefully co-existed “because crossing over racial lines was near impossible”(Chua 102); post-colonial Singaporeans strive for a feeling of community among racial groups. In the last stanza, the narrator calls for revivifying the pre-existing organic spirit of tolerance in this new multiracial community-as-nation. But also implicit here is her doubt about the ambivalent attitudes of her “fence-sitting neighbours.” She attempts to speak to the feelings of racial and cultural alienation that underlie this ambivalence, and thereby to dispel the tensions riddling Singapore’s reinvented multiracialism. Moreover, for the feminist nationalist narrator, speaking to the common interests of communal progress and racial harmony is not enough. She substantially reinterprets the legacy of tolerance and its significance in modern Singapore by introducing in it her idea of feminist-democracy-as-country-and-home.

[32]   Although this elite Chinese woman’s depiction of a feminist citizen is more restricted in its vision of social justice than Mingfong Ho’s class-sensitive reflections on revolutionary feminist change, the two writers come together in taking an important first step in the cause of feminist nationalism. Both Lee Tzu Pheng and Mingfong Ho depict how women reconstruct themselves as active agents of history by becoming at least partially aware of and resistant toward their oppressive dominant identities, and how they try to build communities that support their trans-temporal vision of the future. In the overarching ethical objective of caring for oppressed female selves through resisting binaristic identitarian commitments, they are joined by a different category of female author, the commercial fiction-writer, Catherine Lim.

Between Masculine Ghosts Past and Present:
‘Tradition’ in Feminine Imagination

[33]   Like Lee Tzu Pheng, Catherine Lim holds a Ph.D. degree in Linguistics. She has taught in schools and served as a high official in Singapore’s Curriculum Development Institute. She is best known, however, for her mass-produced novels and short stories. These address another strand of nationalist doctrine about Chinese Singaporean women. They consider what is involved in women’s attempts to reproduce a frozen set of traditions while they also participate in the production of progressivist capital. Lim is a highly successful writer who thrives, like other commercial producers of culture, on instrumentalizing and packaging for entertainment popular desires and anxieties (Jameson, 130). The fiction she produced through the ’80’s overtly responds to the growth of sexist neo-Orientalism in Singapore. The works assuage prevailing cultural anxieties about the social and sexual autonomycollege-educated Chinese women were commanding, and the decline this was causing in the fecundity of their elite ethnic bodies. They pit the decadent materialism and threatened desexualization of educated and upwardly mobile Chinese women against the social and sexual ‘reliability’ of rural females and women of bygone days, who kept the homes and bred the progeny of virile patriarchs. But nested within Lim’s skillful “management” and repression (Jameson, 141) of male nationalist schizophrenia are elements of another narrative about modern-educated women’s critical engagement with the temporality of native traditions.

[34]   In recent years, Lim has spoken out against the lack of “freedom of expression in political debate, in the arts and the media” in Singapore, and how this is symptomatic of the “emotional estrangement between the ruler and the ruled”(Latif). Her literary works are related to the growth of these political views. In effect, they explore how modern-educated women can work across the “emotional” divide and speak freely for and to the Asian traditions the rulers attempt to revive and uphold. Her fiction suggests that for women preserving heritages and practicing the traditional self does not comprise memorized routines of ‘timeless’ values and commitments. Tradition-bound women constantly revivify as well as redefine habitual ways of relating the female self and body to its family and community. The objective still is a mainstream Singaporean one, of preserving–not revolutionizing–family and community structures in a context where both men and women cope with rapid material and conceptual changes. Her first novel, Serpent’s Tooth(1982) is illuminating in this respect because its protagonist, Angela, cultivates a dynamic understanding of traditional identity beneath her fragmented modern-traditional self. I discuss this work and connect it with some short stories Lim also wrote around this period (late 1970’s to 1990’s).

[35]   On the dominant level, the novel constructs a neat temporal-spatial binary of moral and decadent Chinese femininities. Angela, a consumerist new woman who is the wife of a businessman-aspiring-to-be-bureaucrat and an entrepreneur in her own right, is openly blamed for destroying the timeless moral harmony reigning over rural Chinese female spaces, emblematized by her aged mother-in-law. Living in an exclusive private residence and driving around in an imported Toyota Corolla, Angela performs memorized routines of filial piety and kin-keeping, but utterly fails to connect with her rural and Chinese-custom-bound relatives. The narrative clearly blames her for causing fragmentation in the family. She is shown to be identifying Old Mother with a valueless, past way of life filled with numerous irrationalities and superstitions. She denies the old woman the right to participate in raising the children and determining the family’s future, her argument being that any association her children have with their grandmother’s erroneous thoughts will retard the children’s education and upward mobility. For betraying her venerable heritage, Angela also is fittingly reprimanded in course of the dominant narrative. Ancestral spirits haunt her dreams–of her dead father-in-law who will not recognize her dutiful rituals of respect (29), and of the rural patriarchal home that turns into a graveyard (2-3).

[36]   In this respect, the novel merely repeats a stock theme that appears in best-selling short stories by Lim. One of her early successes, “The Mother-in-Law’s Curse” (later reprinted under the title, “Or Else the Lightening of God”) depicts how the Westernized Margaret is cursed for her arrogance by her mother-in-law. Later, she is haunted, in her dreams and in waking hours, by both filial remorse and fears about the supernatural consequences of the curse. Driven to the brink of losing both her sanity and the child she bears, Margaret finally succumbs to the authority of her mother-in-law and her magical beliefs. Another short story, “The Journey,” narrates how a wealthy, professional Chinese man who learns that he is terminally ill chooses to leave the elegant abode of his materialistic and individualist wife to return, in search of physical and emotional solace, to elderly female relatives in the village. It is clear from these narratives that Lim markets her books by capitalizing on a particular nativist-patriarchal desire that pervades the rapidly changing context of modern Singapore, the desire to reappropriate woman as a cultural sign into the transcendent roles of keeper of a reified traditional Chinese home and breeder of a (male) progeny. Moreover, this centripetal pull of traditions, as defined by patriarchal nationalism, is even stronger in the prevailing ideology of female sexuality. Modernized women are shown to be decadent and symbolically desexualized. In the bitingly ironic short story, “The Awakening,” Lim narrates how Peony pitifully fails in all her anxious efforts (which include investing in French negligees) to rekindle her aging Chinese husband’s sexual desires because she is being soundly defeated at this game by the voluptuous Filipino maid. The story provides an ironic outlet for the ruling elite’s anxiety that female fecundity resides only on the ethnic-sexual peripheries of Singapore, in the racially tainted bodies of lowly Malays and Filipinos. But it also implicitly exhorts elite Chinese women to reclaim their sexual energies and so regain their rightful positions in the racialized hierarchy of female sexualities in Singapore.

[37]   Serpent’s Tooth, like “The Awakening,” reproduces the center-periphery model of female sexualities. But other strands of the narrative introduce a significant alteration in the reproduction, capturing the author’s bifurcated perspective on Chinese female sexuality. Angela’s husband is lured away by their rural Malay maid, Mooi Lan; but Angela herself and her consumerist individualism are not blamed for this loss. The novel suggests that her husband’s promiscuity is inherited from age-old customs of polygamous liaisons and concubinage that pervade Chinese patriarchy, and were rampant in Singapore until the institution of the Women’s Charter (Hill and Fee, 144). This important point is made through the depiction of one of Angela’s nightmares in which ghosts from the past come to haunt her, as if preying on the modern woman’s independent existence. In this central episode of the novel, Angela is visited by the vision of the ancestral bed of her parents-in-law. On this bed, her father-in-law’s body is twice replaced, first by a profligate grand-uncle’s who is raping a Malay Muslim maid, and then, by her own husband’s who is “locked in pleasure” with her maid, Mooi Lan (107). In this instance, Angela is by no means a conventional nationalist who gazes with Orientalist eyes on the sexual barbarities–the wild masculinities and exploited femininities–pervading her Chinese past. She suffers the same form of sexual domination, and moreover, must cope with it on her own, without the female support groups that existed in rural Chinese spaces. This lack of a support group stems, on the one hand, from the nuclear framework Angela has sought to impose on her family life by casting ‘backward’ and uneducated relatives onto its periphery. On the other hand, it arises from Angela’s partial disagreement with Chinese women’s traditional tactics of resisting male promiscuity. These tactics are invoked by Old Mother.

[38]   The only instance in which Old Mother openly bonds with Angela is when she offers supportive counsel about dealing with her own son’s, Angela’s husband’s, profligacy. Old Mother recognizes, before the monogamy-oriented Angela admits so to herself, that Mooi Lan is a “snake” who must be disposed of (140-141). Through Angela’s dream, the narrative symbolically suggests that Angela herself values this ancestral legacy of resistant wisdom symbolized in Old Mother’s counsel; for she sees Old Mother as a supportive figure in that central nightmare about old and new profligate patriarchs. Still, Angela cannot fully endorse the form of resistance Old Mother represents. In her dream, Angela is discomfited to see that the old woman silently comes in to clear away the stained sheets after Grand-Uncle’s rape of the servant girl. Old Mother’s dream behavior suggests that what underlies her covert attempts to bond with Angela in organizing resistance against the man’s irresponsibility is acquiescence to the patriarchal structure that institutionalizes male promiscuity, and blind faith in this structure’s stability. This faith stems from women’s habitual lack of the opportunity to exert choice. The new generation professional woman, however, does have the right opportunities for economic and, at least partial, social independence. Concomitantly, she has cultivated an independent sense of sexual dignity. Therefore, Angela is uncomfortable with Old Mother’s acquiescence to a social structure that institutionalizes the sexual degradation of women. Because Old Mother’s form of resistance fails to engage this structure it is, in Angela’s view, limited at best. Angela symbolically takes a step beyond Old Mother’s partially progressive female legacy of collective survival and suffering. She claims control over her own experience of sexual exploitation by selling the ancestral bed immediately after she gets this nightmare. Catherine Lim’s depiction of Angela’s partial disagreement with the resistive traditions Old Mother carries poses a contrast to Mingfong Ho’s celebratory revivification of progressive female Chinese legacy. Lim exposes the strategic ways that women learn to be trans-temporally mobile to improve their own and the community’s conditions. She shows that they evaluate and selectively discard oppressive traditions, they draw on and also add to enabling legacies of women’s resistance whenever they get the opportunity to exert that choice.

[39]   The symbolism of the ancestral bed in Catherine Lim’s fiction is critical to understanding Angela’s response to Old Mother’s legacy of resistance. The bed is a recurrent and ambivalent sign in many stories by Lim. Quite often, it is identified with a dying breed of Chinese matriarchs, specifically, with their fecund bodies that demand social authority because of the male progeny these have produced. The new generation of modern-educated Chinese women violate this authority by commodifying the beds as exotic relics of the past, and thus underscore their own materialistic decadence as well as the possibility of decline in their procreative energies. However, on close inspection, stories about the bed (“A Bed: A life,” “Monster”) also suggest that the ancestral bed is a dynamic, not frozen, symbol of how Chinese female sexuality survives and is collectively nurtured by generations of women. In “A Bed: A Life,” Chan Ah Keow’s four-poster “absorb[s] the blood of her birth, her reaching womanhood, her being broken into”(The Best of Catherine Lim, 137). On it, she is suckled; she joins her sisters in making body pads out of rice paper when they start to menstruate, and storing these beneath the four-poster for “communal use”; she is raped by a profligate Chinese man; and, on her wedding night, she is camouflaged as a virgin by a resourceful grandmother (who supplies her with pig’s blood for this purpose). Defying the aversion her modern offspring show for the bed that carries these “terrible stories of sweat and pain [and] . . . dark superstitions from the past,” Chan Ah Keow clings to the memories of collective nurturance it evokes. She strives to revivify the dignity these memories give to her body. She dies in contentment only after she is brought back from the immaculate modern hospital to this bed which reeks with “sweat, urine, saliva, vomit”(139, 133, 142).

[40]   Angela’s dream of the ancestral bed in Serpent’s Tooth does give symbolic value to the tradition of communal nurturance of female sexuality by including Old Mother as a supportive figure. But the novel also suggests that women like Angela who cultivate a sense of individual sexual and social worth restore themselves to dignity by attempting to change histories of degradation and domination, not by merely learning to survive within the seemingly stable social structures these histories reproduce. Tactics of survival within oppressive structures do not exhaust these women’s claims to resistance and agency. Modern-educated Singapore women who seek to maintain traditional family and communal ties are portrayed to be adapting the epistemic positions acquired from new intellectual influences to inherited notions of social stability and the collective good. Angela’s assertion of individual self-worth takes a non-sovereign form. She acts according to Old Mother’s guidelines, without explicitly acknowledging this, in trying to resolve the problems in her family life. She gets rid of the Malay maid and refuses to blame her husband for his promiscuity. Moreover, she stands by her husband when he is frustrated in his professional ambitions, and even takes some of the blame for this on herself. However, she is depicted, on a meta-narratival level, as being critically aware of and politicized against patriarchal sexual and social oppressions.

[41]   The narrative of her life is en-framed by a commentary in Angela’s own voice, which perhaps captures the author’s own bifurcated response to the story of an upwardly-mobile Chinese new woman she markets. In this voice Angela declares that her family is in a “mess” which she alone can “clean”(2). She also says that she cannot afford to “remember,” live in fear of, the paternal ghosts who accusingly haunt her dreams (3). The implication is that she must forge ahead to re-stabilize herself and her family on her own terms. The large question posed by the novel seems to me to be exactly this, how the stability of Chinese family life can be preserved by women whose ways of knowing themselves in the present and thinking of the collective future have altered. The answer appears to be that women must critically redefine the criteria of the stable family. They must simultaneously evaluate and select from inherited and new ideas about women’s survival and self-empowerment in patriarchal family contexts.

Feminist Agency and Cross-Border Dialogue: An Afterword

[42]   Above, I consider the productions of three writers who are unequally reflexive toward power structures in their feminist visions of social change. If Mingfong Ho’s and Lee Tzu Pheng’s come together in the quest for different forms and degrees of change in cultural, social, and economic structures, Catherine Lim’s vision resists fundamental structural change. All want to preserve the overarching form of the heterosexual, ethnically and economically dominant Chinese family of Singapore. But they also underscore how modern women recast this form from within. My objectives in juxtaposing these works are two. Firstly, I have shown the extents of the progressive visions, and the factors that set limits on these. As I have illustrated, Singapore women’s emancipatory visions not only are constrained by the social and economic privileges that impose psychological blindness on subjects. In some instances they are restrained by choice. The subjects attempt to conserve communal heritages, and to partially align themselves with ‘countrypeople’ who also struggle for this conservation against the manipulations of communal memory that accompany cultural colonization (during and after political colonies). Secondly, I have tried to underscore where the writers share common ground. They garner from the everyday lives of modern Singapore women a trans-temporal future drive. This constitutes the specific form of feminist challenge modern Chinese-Singaporean women thinkers pose to the gendered temporality of anti-colonial ethnic nationalism.

[43]   As a whole, these literary works underscore the point I made at the outset, that when modern Singapore women speak for communal liberation and progress, they substantially redefine the constitutive terms of the ideals. In this light, it is useful to re-consider the question with which I began the discussion and think through its adequacy for this and similar explorations of feminist histories. It seems to me that these women’s works have demonstrated what is misleading about the question itself, and how it ought to be rethought. I began by asking about the extent to which a woman can claim agency without discarding her commitments to her national cultural community. To frame the question in this way really is to look at the problematic of feminist agency and national culture from an either/or perspective. Driving the binaristic perspective is skepticism about a woman’s ability to think and act for self-empowerment so long as she abides by the roles and ideals dictated by male-dominant national culture. If we are to arrive at a notion of agency that accounts for the practical and conceptual struggles women undergo to recast such ideals and rethink their communal roles, we must revise the investigative query. We must ask : To what extent is a nationalist woman able to claim the agency to rethink what her commitment to the community means, and accordingly redefine the terms of her participation in communal history ? This revised question enables a fruitful investigation of the various community-centered feminist claims that arise in contexts of decolonization. It permits us to consider in what ways women intervene in the dominant national episteme and which factors constrain or otherwise limit these re-visions.

[44]   In closing, I stress what the significance is for cross-border feminist debates of recognizing how different forms of feminist agency arise out of dominant nationalist subject positions. This recognition can produce more fruitful exchanges, across historical divides, on the common struggle for social justice if we take note of both its implications. On the one hand, it reinforces the point many postcolonial feminist thinkers make, that it is highly problematic to search for “a transparent or transcendent feminism . . . a space outside . . . patriarchal formations”(Grewal, 11). Feminist consciousness arises at different intersections of sexual, racial, imperial, and class formations, and always struggles against interpellation by dominant discourses. Progressive selves are circumscribed by different privileges or their lack–which incites desire–and different loyalties. It is critical to the enhancement of cross-cultural feminist solidarity that we do not overlook the factors that circumscribe agency, or seek an essential legacy of women’s liberation. For if we do so, we impose centers and peripheries on women’s histories, tending to separate those who are always on the path of emancipation from others supposedly victimized by despotic patriarchal regimes.

[45]   A recognition of some forms feminist agency takes in anti-colonial cultures, on the other hand, also reinforces why the postcolonial model of interpellation-and-response itself is only partially adequate for understanding different feminist struggles and achievements. To discern these differences, and share concepts and tools between women’s histories, we must be attentive to what motivates women in their advocacy for emancipation and how these motivations change with the context of domination-and-struggle. We must first acknowledge that an at least partial moral self-consciousness motivates political struggles, enabling subjects to selectively “break and reform ties to ideology”(Sandoval, 15) as they set objectives for their advocacy. We also must distinguish between the different assumptions, ideals, and aspirations that drive moral consciousness in diverse contexts of struggle. This means that we must be alert to where and when a woman’s aspirations for personal emancipation and improvement are mediated by her responsibility toward her community’s on racial and cultural freedom, and to the ways that this sense of responsibility inflects her own liberation thought. This is not to assume that a loyal woman’s objectives will be tailored to patriarchal visions of liberation, and constitute a predominantly “contributive history”(Jayawardena 261). It is to explore, as I have sought to in this study of Singaporean women’s voices, the uneven ways in which women re-determine the objectives of their contribution to their community’s ideas about liberation and progress.

[46]   My hope is that this study of struggles for epistemic determination in Singaporean women’s literature paves the way to further cross-border dialogues on feminist emancipatory visions. The way we, as feminist thinkers and researchers, can guard against imposing theoretical models of feminist agency, or its lack, on women’s voices is by collaboratively examining how progressive subjects re-orient specific constellations of oppressive thought and practice, and where and why they meet their limits. What are called for, then, are conceptualizations of feminist agency that both focus on specific contexts and also initiate broader comparisons between contextual histories. These comparativist dialogues will reveal the specificities of feminist agency in different contexts. Moreover, they should enable mutual critiques of the factors that constrain feminist emancipatory thought in different contexts, or drive women to restrain their efforts to reform dominant ideology. It seems to me that a shared critique such as this of diverse women’s struggles for epistemic agency will substantially advance the cross-border pursuit of feminist justice.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Robyn Wiegman, Ketu Katrak, and Katherine King for thoroughly reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this essay. A version of this work was presented at the session “Feminism in Time” held at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (December 2000).


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