Lunch With Sumiko

Lunch With Sumiko: Why can't Singapore produce a Tash Aw?

This is a question the acclaimed Malaysian author gets a lot - and it leaves him bewildered

Class divides and the chasm between the haves and have-nots is a theme in the new work Malaysian novelist Tash Aw is now working on. It is about a working-class man who accidentally commits a serious crime. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Novelist Tash Aw doesn't do big smiles.

The photographer has asked him to smile more widely for the camera but he can't do it. "I'm not a natural smiler," he says apologetically.

When the picture-taking is over, he explains: "Generally I tend to do whatever the photographer wants me to do but sometimes it's not possible. I draw the line when they say 'bigger smile'.

"Some people smile naturally with their teeth, like you do." He turns to Raju, the videographer, who does have a nice, wide smile.

"What I call a California smile," he adds. "Like you do."

This time, he turns to me.

Right, I think, suddenly self-conscious. I do have a toothy smile.

The 46-year-old Malaysian is the author of three critically acclaimed novels - The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), Map Of The Invisible World (2009), and Five Star Billionaire (2013).

His works have been translated into 23 languages and enjoy critical and commercial success. The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It was long-listed for the coveted Man Booker prize, as was Five Star Billionaire.

He has chosen Jiang-Nan Chun at the Four Seasons Hotel for lunch and we are given a table in a quiet corner of the elegant Chinese restaurant. We opt for a set meal.

An Internet search of Aw confirms he rarely smiles to the camera. In his publicity photos, he looks serious and thoughtful. This is also how he comes across in person, but not in an intimidating way. He has a courteous manner and is easy to talk to.

SPH Brightcove Video
Tash Aw, author of three critically acclaimed novels – The Harmony Silk Factory, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award and a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Map Of The Invisible World and Five Star Billionaire, talks about his latest work.

One issue that's clearly absorbing him is class divides and the gap between rich and poor. It's a theme in the novel he is working on. Set in Malaysia, it is about a working-class Chinese man from a small town who accidentally commits a serious crime. It explores what Aw says is a huge class of people in Malaysia trapped in a cycle of deprivation.

Unlike most lunches where the first few minutes are spent chit-chatting to break the ice, our conversation skips the small talk and settles quickly into a discussion about class.

It comes about when I ask how familiar he is with Singapore. Very, he says. He grew up in Kuala Lumpur, one of his two sisters was an Asean scholar who studied here, and they had relatives here as well. For the last four years, he has taught creative writing at Nanyang Technological University and spends several months a year here.

He observes that while Singapore and Malaysia were more similar in the past, Singapore has become more developed.

"You can live very well in Malaysia but the issues that affect every city, like the difference between the rich and poor, the difficulties in infrastructure, in education, all these things are much more pronounced and visible in KL than they are here, which is not to say they didn't exist in Singapore."

I suggest that an accentuation of race and religion may have changed Malaysian society. He agrees that religion has become more politicised, resulting in a less pluralistic society, but it is class rather than race that is the critical factor.

"A rich Chinese person is going to be much more at ease with a rich Malay person than they are going to be with a poor Chinese person because they have no taste in common," he says. "They don't go to the same restaurant, they don't go to the same nightclub, they don't speak English. I think people forget class."

A lot of Asian politics and culture is analysed in terms of race, which is obviously a factor, but it's not the primary factor, he believes. "A lot of how a country like Malaysia is run is to do with preserving wealth."

He has first-hand knowledge of how class determines a person's destiny, and how it takes ambition and hard work to move up from the station of life you were born into.

As explored in his evocative 2016 book of essays The Face: Strangers On A Pier, both his grandfathers came from southern China to seek a better life in the Malay peninsula, and settled deep in the countrysides of Kelantan and Perak. His father grew up in rural Kelantan and was 10 when he owned his first pair of shoes. "But he didn't recognise it as poverty. 'That's just my way in life.' And he knew that he wanted to become middle class, so he worked very hard and got an education." His father became an electrical engineer. His mother was from a similar background but went to college and was a quantity surveyor.

By the time Aw was born in 1971 - in Taipei, where his father was then working - life was a lot more comfortable.

He grew up outside KL in Petaling Jaya and was an avid reader. Scholarships got him to the University of Cambridge, where he did law and eventually worked as a lawyer in London. He quit in 2002 to enrol at the University of East Anglia's creative writing school.

He completed The Harmony Silk Factory within a year. Set in Malaysia, the story about a Chinese migrant who becomes a communist rebel leader won him global acclaim.

His life now is a world away from relatives who still live in Malaysia's small towns, which he used to visit growing up.

"The difference between me and my relatives who did not make it out of the village was just pure luck," he marvels. "It's like if you are born to the right parent, then you have an urban middle class upbringing. If you aren't, you don't."

The reason his work is so influenced by rural Malaysia has nothing to do with any sense of nostalgia, love or longing for that way of life, he says.

He notes how in his creative writing classes in Singapore, there's often a lot of nostalgia about an old, happy kampung way of life before HDB living came into the picture.

"I can tell you, Malaysia is still full of kampungs and people don't really want to live there, if anyone has a choice. These are not pleasant places to live, they are very basic. For me, there is no romance attached to the village."

But he writes about them because it is where his roots are, and it represents a part of Malaysia that is left behind by progress.

"If you're a fisherman in Malaysia, it's very difficult to imagine now how life can be any different for your kids. They have to be exceptionally clever, exceptionally driven, exceptionally ambitious, and it's not easy to have those kind of ambitions."

Your parents did it, I point out.

Yes, he accepts, but Asians tend to see things in terms of people who have made it rather than people who didn't.

"The story is often, if he could make it or she could make it, then of course it means it's possible. But actually, if 999 people out of a thousand don't make it, then actually the one person doesn't prove that it's possible. It really just proves that it's really difficult."

Which leads me to wonder if Singapore will ever produce an international literary success like Tash Aw.

He's not the only Malaysian writer to have "made it". There is also Penang-born Tan Twan Eng, whose first novel The Gift Of Rain was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. His second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the Man Asian Literary Prize and Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.

"There's a real anxiety in Singapore, there's a real super kiasu-ness," says Aw. "Almost every literary festival I go to in Singapore, every kind of conference: 'Why don't we produce more writers?' It's not a science. You can't measure this sort of thing."

The question, he says, is not so much why does Malaysia do this, or why does Singapore not do that. "The question is more, do we measure a country based on the exceptional or based on the norm? Because when you look at what the average Malaysian is capable of doing compared to what the average Singaporean is capable of doing, there's no competition, let's be honest about this."

He remembers a workshop he did for gifted students a few years ago, some of whom were as young as 13. "What was clear among some was there's so much anxiety to be the best. I found it crushing."

In fact, he says, if you had to put your finger on one reason Singapore doesn't produce more exceptional people in, say, the creative area, it's the pressure.

"The pressure crushes too many of them who might have been exceptional but they are not able just to rise to their own level," he says. "So they are constantly striving to reach a level imposed on them by the rest of society, by school teachers, by their family."

In Malaysia, there is no expectation of success, he says. "If you're successful, people are happy. If you are good at school, people are relieved. But if you don't make it, you're basically measured to the mediocrity around you, and so there is no pressure. And when there's no pressure, exceptional people tend to find their own level.

"Because if you have the kind of mind that leads you to become a brilliant illustrator or a brilliant fashion designer or a brilliant anything, it's unlikely you're going to have that methodical approach to work that getting straight As requires you to have. And so if you're forced to suppress those creative instincts in order to achieve those A grades, then you kill off a certain part of your brain."

That said, Singapore's education system and "platform of prosperity" provide greater opportunities for children to be more expressive because they don't have to worry about putting food on the table the way children in some other countries do.

When it comes to creative writing, it then becomes a question of how much a person can be truly expressive because Singapore is still very conservative, he says.

Writers need to feel free in what they say. "I'm not talking in terms of censorship of the state. I'm talking in terms very purely about the family. Are your parents going to be disapproving, because as Asians we're so formatted to be acceptable to the family unit."

This is also the reason he is not based in Malaysia even though he writes about it. "There is a certain freedom as a writer that I have when I'm not in Asia." He has a home in London - "East London but not in the trendy part". The sense of loneliness and disconnection there keeps him interested in writing.

He sees his writing classes as enabling students to be creative, and is alarmed when young people regard being published as the only goal. Publishing too early and in an uncontrolled manner that lacks direction is very damaging to a writer's long-term career, he says. "Because if you publish at 25, what does that mean? And then you go and work in the bank and you continue writing little books on the side? Are you a writer? Are you really engaging?

"If you're a real writer, what you should aim to be doing is to have a career. It is a solid professional career like anything else. If you're a journalist, if you're a hairdresser, if you're a coal miner, if you're a banker, what you want to do is to be the best you can and involved over the years."

His new novel will be out only next year or 2020. "Young writers should be aware that it's a long haul. It's not just about publishing the maximum number of books. People like that tend to burn out. It's about being better with every book."

We've come to the end of a nearly three-hour meal and are the only ones left in the restaurant. It's been an illuminating and inspiring lunch.

Thank you, I say. It's been a pleasure, he smiles. Not a California smile, but one that is wider than the photo on this page.

Twitter @STsumikotan

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