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  • Separate Futures:Cold War Decolonization in Mohamed Latiff Mohamed's Confrontation and Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock-Chye
  • Jini Kim Watson (bio)

In Mohamed Latiff Mohamed's novel Confrontation (original title: Batas Langit [The Sky's the Limit], 1997), we encounter a literary genre that in many ways seems familiar. Here is the fictionalized memoir of childhood that presents a social landscape, elements of which are beyond the young protagonist's understanding but are all too clear for the reader. Presented through the naive eyes of young Adi, the novel provides an unflinching account of the hardships and personal tragedies that fill his ethnically mixed, working-class neighborhood of Kampung Pak Buyung in British Singapore at the end of colonial rule. While Adi finds comfort climbing the old banyan tree at the village center, he and his community are continually beset by poverty and social dysfunction: alcoholism, opium addiction, gang violence, unwanted pregnancies, child abuse, incest, and madness.

One way to read the novel's attention to violence and social decay is to understand it less as a childhood memoir of innocence amid hardship than as an indictment of the colonial state, which is more or less absent for Adi and his neighbors. The state, indeed, is only present when police and ambulances arrive to arrest people [End Page 165] or clean up the bodies after gang violence or murder. In other words, the novel quietly depicts the state's absence or abstraction in anything other than its disciplinary mode; it provides little or no basic infrastructure, housing, health care, or personal security. In Gramscian terms, it may be understood as a version of the "nightwatchman" state, "whose functions are limited to the safeguarding of public order and respect for the laws."1 The latter is usually thought of in opposition to G. W. F. Hegel's notion of the "ethical state," the "autonomous, educative and moral activity of the secular state."2 Mohamed Latiff's portrayal of the minimalist colonial state in Confrontation instructs us on how to read the contrasting vector of the novel, which is Adi's gradual political awakening and the promise of separation and independence from Great Britain.

In the narrative the project of reclaiming independence is largely articulated by Abang Dolah, Adi's politically active, educated neighbor and friend who refuses to work for the colonial state but teaches the Quran, plays music, and is a bomoh (witch doctor) on the side. Abang Dolah pins his hopes on a pro-Malay political party in the coming general elections, and it is through his anticipation of decolonization that the growing tensions of the time are focalized. For Abang Dolah, Adi, and other Malays, the future decolonized state is imagined as much more than the formal achievement of independence; the creation of a new unalienated state based on self-determination is also the concrete means by which to redeem the specific social injustices experienced under negligent colonial rule. The novel's loose coming-of-age or bildungsroman structure discloses how anticolonialism mobilized collective desires for a state no longer alient to—or fundamentally separate from—the people but organically connected to them. It is also what will restore the ethnoterritorial wholeness destroyed by the colonizers.

In his discussion of postcolonial nationalist literary forms, Timothy Brennan has argued for the constitutive asymmetry between modern European nationalisms and those of the postcolonial world: "If European nationalism was a project of unity on the basis of conquest and economic expediency, insurgent or popular nationalism [of the Third World] . . . is for the most part a project of consolidation following an act of separation from Europe. It is a task of reclaiming community from within boundaries defined by the very power whose presence denied community."3 In this essay, I am interested in the dialectics of separation and unity that are at the heart of struggles over decolonization. Separation in the colonial context, I argue, must be addressed via several lenses simultaneously as we keep in mind both Brennan's emphasis on the "act of separation" from Europe and Karl Marx's foundational analysis [End Page 166] of the separation of workers from the means of production...


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