MLA 2016: Special Sessions on Literary and Cultural Studies in Malaysia and Singapore

Artwork by Shooshie Sulaiman. Photograph taken at her studio during her artist's residency at NTU's Center for Contemporary Art, Singapore.
Artwork by Shooshie Sulaiman. Photograph taken at her studio in Gillman Barracks, Singapore during her artist’s residency at NTU’s Center for Contemporary Art. 19 September 2015.

At the upcoming Modern Language Association 2016 Convention in Austin, Texas, there will be three special sessions on literary and cultural studies in Malaysia and Singapore; I will be presenting in sessions 12 and 224.

12. Malaysia: Mediating Literature, Culture, and the State
Thursday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 5C, ACC

224. Singapore and Malaysia as Method
Friday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 307, JW Marriott

199. Singapore: Literature, Narrative, and Articulations of the Public
Thursday, 7 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., 308, JW Marriott

More information on all three sessions below. In addition, the following paper is also focused on Malaysia at #MLA16
“Languid Modernity and Decline of Empire in the Literary Culture of Fin de Siècle British Malaya,” Elmo Gonzaga, National Univ. of Singapore. In Session 495: Beyond Fin de Siècle Europe: New Geographies of Decadence.

12. Malaysia: Mediating Literature, Culture, and the State

Thursday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 5C, ACC

Presiding: Sheela Jane Menon, Univ. of Texas, Austin

1. “Locating Modernity: The Work of Lat in the Age of Globalizability”* Fiona Lee, National Univ. of Singapore

2. “State of Inception: Post-nuclear Sovereignty in Huzir Sulaiman’s Atomic Jaya,” Joseph Haley, Johns Hopkins Univ., MD

3. “Land, Culture, Community: Narratives of Indigenous Activism in Malaysia,” Sheela Jane Menon

Responding: Snehal Shingavi, Univ. of Texas, Austin


This panel considers how Malaysian literary and cultural production critiques state ideologies of race and national development, multiculturalism and global capitalism. Through close readings of diverse texts – translation policies, a graphic novel, an English-language play, and indigenous activism – we consider how race, culture, and indigeneity shape Malaysia’s literary and cultural publics. Focusing on Malay and Orang Asli/Orang Asal communities, these texts engage the racial formations established during Malaysia’s colonial era and developed in the decades following independence (1957). These hierarchies assert Malay supremacy, reinforce the “immigrant” position of Chinese and Indian Malaysians, and justify the disenfranchisement of the Orang Asli/Orang Asal, Malaysia’s indigenous peoples. Our papers suggest that Malaysian literary and cultural publics are engaged in a complex mediation of these state-sanctioned narratives. More specifically, our readings of these texts illuminate how global capitalism influences Malaysian constructions of race, modernity, and indigeneity.

In this regard, we illustrate how Malaysia is a rich case study through which to theorize the significance of literary and cultural publics. Over the past decade, the Barisan Nasional government (in power for almost 50 years and led by UMNO, the Malay political party) has faced the rise of new opposition coalitions, grassroots movements, and public protests. The government has responded by authorizing mass arrests under the Sedition Act. These indicators of national unrest have emerged alongside the evolution of Malaysian multiculturalism: from the 1990s rhetoric of “Bangsa Malaysia” (a unified Malaysian race) to the current “1Malaysia” campaign promoting “unity in diversity.” At the same time, Malaysia has carefully cultivated its reputation as a “moderate Muslim nation” and a Southeast Asian ally of the United States. This panel articulates how Malaysian literary and cultural production exposes the underlying tensions of these socio-political dynamics, situating these critiques within national and international contexts.

Fiona Lee’s paper, “Locating Modernity: The Work of Lat in the Age of Globalizability,”* opens the panel by analyzing the Translation and Book Institute of Malaysia’s policy proposals. In response to the national shift to teaching Mathematics and Science in English rather than Malay, critics have advocated for the translation and publication of foreign language materials into Malay. Lee argues that, in an effort to protect Malay as the country’s national language and preserve its significance in the 21st century, these policy proposals invoke the rich tradition of knowledge exchange in Islamic civilization as an aspirational example, while also looking to East Asian translation industries as contemporary models. Lee teases out the implicit notions of Malay modernity expressed in these recommendations, reading them alongside Mat Som (1990), a graphic novel by Lat that explores the impact of rapid urbanization in the 1970s on Malay cultural identity. Lee demonstrates how Mat Som translates the rural ways of Malay life into a contemporary cultural idiom that articulates a modern Malay identity. Reading these texts together, Lee examines the ways in which translation is deployed as an instrument of modernization in the era of contemporary globalization.

Joe Haley’s attention to the politics of Malay identity moves us to the world of Malaysian theater. In “State of Inception: Postnuclear Sovereignty in Huzir Sulaiman’s Atomic Jaya,” Haley focuses on Huzir’s 1998 play. Haley argues that this text functions as a sophisticated renegotiation of the state’s discourse on racial harmony. In Atomic Jaya, which centers around an attempt by the Malaysian political elite to develop a nuclear weapon, the fate of national sovereignty lies not in the harmonization of racially stereotyped characters, but in an isolated act of sabotage. On the eve of Malaysia’s first nuclear test, the cosmopolitan narrator, an American-educated Chinese-Malaysian with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, deliberately undermines her own work on the bomb. Drawing upon the concept of a “state of exception” (Ausnahmezustand) as articulated by Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, Haley argues that Huzir discloses a state of inception – what Haley defines as a Kantian system where state power depends upon a cosmopolitan rule of law that subsumes national sovereignty.

In “Land, Culture, Community: Narratives of Indigenous Activism,” Sheela Jane Menon directs attention from the Malay majority to Malaysia’s indigenous minority – the Orang Asli/Orang Asal. Menon charts how colonial and state powers have relegated Malaysia’s “First Peoples” to “wards of the state,” subject to Malay governance. This process has involved situating “constructed indigeneity and political primacy” as hallmarks of elite Malay identity, confiscating indigenous land for development, and presenting the Orang Asli/Orang Asal as exotic enticement for tourists. Menon analyzes three narratives of indigenous activism that contest this ongoing disenfranchisement: a civil suit filed by the Orang Seletar against the Iskandar Regional Development Authority, celebrations of the 2014 International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and the 2014 Orang Asal Women’s Leadership Training session. Menon argues that these narratives of indigenous activism indicate the centrality of “land, culture, and community” to Malaysia’s indigenous peoples. Through her discussion of these case studies, Menon illustrates how the Orang Asli/Orang Asal assert land rights crucial to native livelihoods, preserve indigenous cultural practices, and lead community initiatives. Drawing on Indigenous Studies scholarship, Menon demonstrates how these efforts resist the rhetoric and realities of state multiculturalism.

In our attention to race, modernity, and indigeneity in Malaysia, we join a new generation of scholars working on Malaysian literary and cultural studies, an emerging field within Southeast Asian and Postcolonial Studies. This focus puts our work in conversation with the proposed special session, “Singapore: Literature, Narrative, and Articulations of Public Space,” and the proposed roundtable, “Singapore/Malaysia as Method.” Collectively, we expand on the first MLA panels devoted entirely to Malaysia and Singapore, convened at MLA 2015. As Daniel P.S. Goh and Philip Holden note in Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009), there is a growing impetus in these two countries to “think beyond the terms and categories set by the white colonialists.” Our panel interrogates these colonial terms and categories, charting their evolving place in Malaysia’s literary and cultural publics.

* Title modified from proposal submission

224. Singapore and Malaysia as Method

Friday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 307, JW Marriott

Presiding: Philip Holden, National Univ. of Singapore; Cheryl Narumi Naruse, Univ. of Dayton

Speakers: Brian Bernards, Univ. of Southern California; Weihsin Gui, Univ. of California, Riverside; Fiona Lee, National Univ. of Singapore; Joanne Leow, Univ. of Toronto; E. K. Tan, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York

Responding: Laura Elizabeth Lyons, Univ. of Hawai‘i, Mānoa


Scholarly attention to literary texts from Singapore and Malaysia has increased in recent years. The past few MLA conventions have featured special session panels on literatures from Singapore and Malaysia, a special issue of Interventions is forthcoming on postcolonial Singapore, and influential accounts of literary globalization and the cosmopolitical have increasingly drawn on Singaporean and Malaysian examples. The two nation-states share a rich ethnic and linguistic diversity, a history of colonialism, and took complex roads to independence, undergoing rapid and divergent experiences of development, and becoming imbricated into global markets. If previously Singapore and Malaysian literatures in all languages were regarded as minor literatures to which paradigms taken from elsewhere might be applied, they are now increasingly generating their own paradigms concerning the place of the literary in cultures of modernity, asking questions that have critical purchase far beyond the borders of the two Southeast Asian nation-states.

Our roundtable discussion thus draws on the inspiration of Chen Kuan-Hsing’s Asia As Method (2010) to consider the manner in which the literatures of Singapore and Malaysia offer the possibility of generating new conceptual paradigms. The panel thus addresses the following questions: how do Singapore/Malaysian literatures interrogate contemporary critical and theoretical frameworks within literary and cultural studies? What possibilities do the particular historical experiences of Singapore and Malaysia offer for reimagining intersections between the literary, the social and the material? What new critical vocabularies might be forged to study Singapore and Malaysia? What place does Singapore and Malaysian literary studies have within an increasingly global academic marketplace? How might Singapore and Malaysian literatures be taught both inside and outside Southeast Asia? What are the ongoing possibilities of Singapore and Malaysian literary studies as a distinct subject area? In reflecting on the above questions, our roundtable discussion showcases work on Singapore and Malaysia across a number of subfields: postcolonial studies (Naruse), critical university studies (Holden), Sinophone studies (Tan), genre studies (Bernards), ecocriticism (Leow), cosmopolitanism, translation studies (Lee), and cultural criticism (Wee). The roundtable will thus offer its audience both a sense of the diversity of work within Singapore and Malaysian literary studies and an opportunity to reflect on the generative possibilities it offers to literary studies as a whole.

Our seven-person roundtable, featuring scholars based in Southeast Asia and in North America, offers a shared space for academics whose works do not always have an opportunity to be in conversation with each other. Indeed, despite Singapore and Malaysia’s shared histories, much of the work remains divided by national and linguistic boundaries. Our roundtable seeks to remedy those divides by including specialists who work on Singapore, Malaysia, or both, as well as scholars who work with English, Chinese, and Malay medium literary and cultural texts. It also features participants from a wide variety of career stages, from graduate students to senior scholars in the field.

Each participant will give a short five-minute response to the following question:

In your area of study, how does studying the literature or culture of Singapore and/or Malaysia challenge accepted critical or theoretical paradigms?

Our respondent (Lyons), will close the roundtable with reflections on her experiences advising dissertations and MA theses on Singapore and Malaysia. We will then open the floor to general discussion. Having a non-specialist in the field of Singapore/Malaysian literatures as our respondent, will attract an audience beyond the field of those who specialize in Southeast Asia, and help to facilitate dialogue with scholars in a variety of areas who may not have specific knowledge of Singapore or Malaysia.

199. Singapore: Literature, Narrative, and Articulations of the Public

Thursday, 7 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., 308, JW Marriott

Visit for abstracts, bios and other updates

Presiding: Joanne Leow, Univ. of Toronto

1. “The Sinophone Bookstore and the Malayan Kampong: Reassessing the Ruins of Depoliticization in Yeng Pway Ngon’s Novels,” Brian Bernards, Univ. of Southern California

2. “Envisioning the Garden City as Public Space: Metabolic Traces in Singapore as Sustainable City,” May Ee Wong, Univ. of California, Davis

3. “Migrant Publics and Laboring Poetics,” Shaoling Ma, Penn State Univ., University Park

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