A new chapter for speculative Malay fiction
Singa-Pura-Pura is a collection of short stories by Malay writers, edited by Dr Nazry Bahrawi. (Photos: Ethos Books, Nazry Bahrawi)

A new chapter for speculative Malay fiction

Welcome to a future Singapore populated by robots, aliens, shapeshifters and spirits amid abandoned housing projects, in undersea portals, and deep in the heart of MacRitchie Forest.

Singa-Pura-Pura presents 13 short stories by established and emerging Malay writers in Singapore who tackle topics including social exclusion, artificial intelligence, climate change, interspecies collaboration, and social engineering enforced by pervasive algorithms. It’s Black Mirror meets the Little Red Dot through the prism of Malay culture, reflecting the minority Malay experience in a technocratic city-state.

In (A)nak (I)bu, an alienated man threatens an AI robot psychiatrist with a gun before turning it on himself in despair. Gold, Paper, and Bare Bones by Farihan Bahron imagines a near future in which cryptocurrencies have supplanted paper money, and social status and lifestyle benefits are earned by accumulating points though an algorithm nobody fully understands.

The malign potential of algorithms is also the subject of Mother Techno, by Ila, whose protagonist struggles to reach the ‘sociocapita aggregate’ required for a lifestyle upgrade and then finds her rating automatically downgraded when she fails to conceive, in a society which regards fertility as a woman’s primary asset.

Her struggle embodies one of the core themes of Singa-Pura-Pura: the erosion of traditional culture by relentless technological change. ‘Our ancestral lineage, our ethnicity, our histories and bloodlines have been flattened and then made obsolete.’

But it is not all dystopia. Bani Haykal’s Isolate Future #2: MacRitchie Treetops offers a more utopian vision: an experimental community in the forest that uses technology to open lines of communication with other species.

The A List asked editor and translator Nazry Bahrawi about speculative fiction versus science fiction; how it questions the direction society is taking now by presenting different visions of the future; and why ‘spec-fic’ is the most vibrant school of Malay literature.

Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) defines speculative fiction – spec-fic – as literature that deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been realised, but are latent. How does spec-fic differ from science fiction, or are they different names for the same thing? 

Nazry Bahrawi: I think the two are different but related genres that engage with fantasy. Atwood’s definition of spec-fic merges a fantastical element with a reality readers can see coming. Science fiction, meanwhile, injects fantasy to rational settings by means of science, which we associate with facts and proofs, and hence reality. 

Is spec-fic so popular because it explores big issues in a way that is removed from everyday reality by imagining life in a near future that is more or less recognisable – in the same way TV series like Black Mirror make us question where we are going with technology today by suggesting the dark place it may lead us to tomorrow?

Nazry: Every day we are inundated with news of new technology or apps. There is a utopianism about the idea that tech is a panacea for all ills. What if tech itself is the cause? There is little room to explore that in real life so we turn to fiction to conduct such thought experiments. This is the appeal of spec-fic today when I try to make sense of the successes of cultural products like Black Mirror and Love, Death & Robots

Would you say spec-fic is the most vibrant aspect of contemporary Bahasa literature, and do you see it as a literary movement in its own right? 

Nazry: Contemporary Malay spec-fic in the form of aliran Singa-Pura-Pura is a literary non-movement that began in the late 2010s. Aliran is the word for ‘movement’ but I call it a non-movement because it wasn’t organised, and yet a significant number of Malay writers were writing in this style, drawing on their experiences as an ethnic minority in this technocratic city-state. Fantastical stories have always been a prominent feature of classical Malay literature. The fifteenth-century text Sejarah Melayu, for instance, features Badang, a character with superhuman strength, and humanoids who live in an undersea kingdom. These tropes will be familiar to fans of superhero films today.

Several stories in Singa-Pura-Pura grapple with the problem of how to hold on to a Malay way of life that is besieged by technology in a rapidly changing world. Is this a reflection of the Malay minority’s experience in Singapore? 

Nazry: Since independence, Singapore Malay literature has been concerned with lost places and heritage. These are expressed as realistic, nostalgic stories. Singa-Pura-Pura continues that tradition but also expands on it by enabling the Malays to participate in speculating about the future. These futures are drawn from minority experiences such as invisible glass ceilings and the need to conform to neat little boxes, but also positive things like care for others and an acknowledgment of the richness of tradition. The book hopes to introduce Anglophone readers to Malay voices in the genre of SingLit spec-fic.

Buy Singa-Pura-Pura here. You can also pick up a copy at Epigram Bookshop, Kinokuniya, The Moon and City Book Room, BooksActually, and Littered with Books.

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.

(Photos: Ethos Books, Nazry Bahrawi)

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