Essay: Alfian Sa’aton identity

Identity, Alphabetically


This was the name on my birth certificate. My father claimed that there was an Indonesian way to pronounce it, Ah-Dri-Yahn. This would qualify it as a Malay name. In kindergarten, the teacher kept asking me whether I was Eurasian.

After writing the last three sentences, I find myself at a crossroads. Do I continue or do I pause here to ask the reader, ‘any questions?’ What does the writer do when he comes from the periphery? This question might upset some Singaporeans, who believe that Singapore is an international hub connecting important air lanes and sea routes.

But let’s ignore them for a while, dear reader (here I’m assuming someone who is white, or at least Anglophone, and educated, meaning someone whose education provides them with the forbearance for the longform essay). For the writer from the periphery, stick to the surface and you risk glossing over. Dive into detail and you risk having to gloss.

How come an ‘Indonesian pronunciation’ results in a ‘Malay name’? Why not an ‘Indonesian name’? That’s because the Indonesian language, or Bahasa Indonesia (not Bahasa, which only means ‘language’) is based on the Malay language (not the various other languages in that dizzyingly diverse archipelago, like Javanese or Balinese). Which is to say that Indonesian and Malay are very similar languages.

Then why not say that ‘Malay pronunciation’ results in a ‘Malay name’? This is because Indonesian names are more varied than Malay ones, drawing from at least three hundred ethnic groups and languages. In addition, Indonesian has a history of indigenising English names, such as Herman (Herr-Munn) and David (Dah-Fid).

The Malay-speaking people of Singapore and Malaysia probably maintain more rigid boundaries between ‘English names’ and ‘Malay names’, as these countries were once colonised by the British. So, the name ‘Adrian’, on paper, would register as an ‘English name’. Yet my father was insistent that orality would trump writing, and that vowel shifts would do the trick. Say it: Ah-Dri-Yahn! And you have summoned this sleepy, blinking, four-year-old brown boy before you.

Yet when my name was called in class, it was also accompanied by a puzzled expression on the teacher’s face. Some Chinese and Indian people had English names. Malay people generally did not. In Singapore, people were boxed into four main races, a practice that should have been confined to kindergarten, but which has somehow formed the basis of social organisation. The remaining box is called ‘Others’, which, if we’re honest, really means ‘unclassifiable leftovers’.

In this box we have the Eurasians, not to be confused with the people of Eurasia. In Singapore, a Eurasian refers to anyone with European and Asian ancestry, but some lineages are more prominent than others. One of these is Portuguese-Malay, whose descendants are usually brown, speak a creole called Kristang and are often Catholic. That last detail caused my parents endless worry.

Mother: The teacher asked him again if he’s Eurasian.

Father: Then he just needs to keep correcting them.

Mother: What if one day he doesn’t? They’re going to feed him pork by accident.

Four years old, and I already had an identity crisis. Before I entered Primary School at six, my parents applied for a deed poll. They changed my name from Adrian to Alfian. (They still liked it hovering near the top of the class list.) I would no longer have to timidly correct anyone’s pronunciation. I would be unambiguously Malay.


Dear reader, have I mentioned that I am also Muslim? I did it without too much glossing, I hope. The pork should have clued you in.

My full name is Alfian Bin Sa’at. The Bin means ‘son of’ (for ‘daughter of’, it is Binte). The ‘Sa’at’ is a patronymic, specifically my father’s name. And yet I still receive emails and messages addressing me as Mr Sa’at from fellow Singaporeans. There are many times when I am tempted to write back:

Dear Miss Lim,

I think you might have sent this to the wrong person. Mr Sa’at is my father. Would you like me to forward this to him?

Or, Dear Mr Tan,

How long have you lived in Singapore? How is it possible for you to be so blissfully unaware of Malay naming conventions? A note like yours reminds me how facile multiculturalism in Singapore is, with its focus on food, fashions, festivals, and f-words.

Unable to devise a tone that is neither passive-aggressive nor outright aggressive, I press the delete button and watch the cursor wipe off my cathartic effusion. Instead, I only write, ‘Please call me Mr Alfian.’

I share this to say that glossing happens not just when you’re a writer from the periphery on the global stage. It also happens when you’re a minority in your own country.


I’ve been asked what my favourite word in Malay is. Often, this question is aimed at extracting some kind of essence from the culture, a philosophy or affect such as nostalgia for home among mariners, or an appreciation of transience by the earthquake prone. I find the exercise rather precious, so I offer up the word: cirit-birit.

The ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’, and the word refers to diarrhoea. There are, if you will pardon the description, sphincter sounds, with the release in the ‘c’, the burst in the ‘b’ and the runny trills in the ‘r’. Not only is the word onomatopoeic, but it shows up a lack in the English language – the productive use of reduplication.

That’s not the only area where Malay beats English. We (Which we? We’ll soon find out) also have clusivity, where the word ‘we’ is split into kami (excluding the addressee) and kita (including the addressee).

Maaf, kami datang lambat kerana sakit cirit-birit.

Sorry, we’re late because we had diarrhoea.

Kita makan bersama, kita cirit-birit bersama.

We’ll eat together, we’ll get diarrhoea together.


My father is Javanese. His father came to Singapore in his teens in search of work. He ended up working on a dredger operated by the British, ensuring that Singapore’s waterways were navigable. According to my father, it was a coveted job, and he had a certificate or licence that testified to his training. It was framed and took pride of place in the living room.

During lunchtime, a man would visit the houses in my grandfather’s urban village to collect tiffin carriers. My grandmother would pass him what she had prepared: rice with vegetable soup, eggs, and salted fish. My father believed that one fateful day, the tiffin had taken a detour and had some Black Magic™ sprinkled in it. After eating, my grandfather vomited, and later developed a bloated, fluid-filled stomach. The word for the condition was busung, which incidentally was also the name of the silt dunes that accumulated at estuaries. This busung, however, could not be dredged.

Who could have done it? I always imagine someone sitting in the living room, glancing at grandfather’s framed certificate on the wall. Sunlight bounced off the glass, entered his pupil, and struck his retina. On such an unassuming afternoon, conducted over polite conversation, black coffee and banana fritters, an evil eye was activated.

My grandfather died when my father was only ten years old, so I never had the chance to see him in the flesh. (He did, however, once appear to me in a tear-soaked dream, entreating me to take care of my father because he had passed too soon. ‘Forgive his tempers,’ my grandfather said, ‘He grew up lacking many things.’) What he suffered from was probably ascites, caused by an underlying disease such as liver failure or cancer.

But my dad is insistent that grandfather was the victim of envy, the target of a poison mixture called santau. Good Muslims are not supposed to believe in Black Magic™, but I consider this an extension of a certain theology. An all-merciful God would not visit illness on His creations. Illness was the product of malice, and malice was the work of humans.


Bilingualism’s gift: I can place my father and mother in alphabetical proximity in this essay.

My mother is Minangkabau. The Javanese claim the island of Java as their homeland but there is no place called Minangkabau. The origins of the Minangkabau lie in the misty highlands of West Sumatra. They are known as one of the few matrilineal societies in the world – clan names are passed down the female line, while land and property are inherited by daughters.

My mother’s father, according to her, was a religious man. He was born in the Malaysian state of Negri Sembilan, where many Minangkabau had settled from Sumatra. He swept the surau and its backyard, sonorously recited the Quran with a pained, ecstatic look, performed his prayers five times a day and added some extra for bonus points. The imam, impressed by his devotions, took him under his wing.

This was all before he met the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the forest, who introduced him to a love potion called minyak pengasih. It was an amber-coloured oil to be applied at the chin. Its effect was flamboyant: women would claw their way across the bodies of alarmed relatives to swoon at his feet. They cried and begged him to marry them. The imamhood was abandoned; a career as a Casanova beckoned.

He had wives scattered all over Malaysia. Crossing the Causeway into Singapore, he met my mother’s mother, a woman who was born into a Chinese family but adopted into a Malay one. The Chinese were not overly fond of daughters, and poor families burdened with multiple hungry and mewling mouths tended to give them away. They would have been given away during marriage anyway, so why not sooner than later?

My grandfather married this woman, had two daughters with her, and then promptly divorced her. He was on the move. His chin was aflame with Black Magic™, and all over the peninsula the women were stirring like moths. My mother’s default expression is a no-nonsense frown, as if she had spent her life expressing disapproval at her mother for succumbing to this occult seduction.


Dear reader, a confession: I hesitated before writing about the supernatural aspects of my family history. Whenever I think of black magic, I think of that tome, Malay Magic: Being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay peninsula, written by Walter William Skeat and published in 1900. In the preface by Charles Otto Blagden, his fellow bearded Orientalist, we find this paragraph:

The Malay race, while far removed from the savage condition, has not as yet reached a very high stage of civilisation, and still retains relatively large remnants of this primitive order of ideas. It is true that Malay notions on these subjects are undergoing a process of disintegration, the rapidity of which has been considerably increased by contact with European civilisation, but, such as they are, these ideas still form a great factor in the life of the mass of the people.

And if it so happened that a member of that Malay race (me) was to write in a language of that European civilisation (this), how many of those notions (superstitions) should one reasonably (ha) expect to have disintegrated?

More than a century has passed since the book’s publication, but how many of the attitudes towards Malay primitiveness persist? What I mean by this is not so much a racial hierarchy of difference, but what I would call a cultural currency of difference. How much of what is interesting about me, or my culture, lies in its difference from Western culture? Perhaps a worldview, a cosmology, all the better if it is non-rationalist, non-empiricist, and non-individualistic.

Introducing Black Magic™. It’s exotic, it’s weird, and trademarked against cultural appropriation. But am I not trafficking in self-orientalism, turning totems and talismans into cheap tourist trinkets? Yet I must also acknowledge how charms and spells have woven themselves into personal lore – as a cause of death in one instance, and an agent of love in another. They were forces that hacked branches or teased out tendrils from my family tree.


The primitive Malay, however, is not just a white people problem. In 1950, Wang Gungwu published a poem called Ahmad, from his collection Pulse. In the poem, Wang writes about a Malay man called Ahmad (probably the most common name for Malay men). It begins with the line ‘Ahmad was educated’ – and one detects a critique of colonial education, designed to produce peons and functionaries but not anyone educated enough to challenge the ruling order. Here’s an excerpt:

Thoughts of Camford fading,
Contentment creeping in.
Allah has been kind;
Orang puteh has been kind.
Only yesterday his brother said,
Can get lagi satu wife lah!

Let’s get the glosses out of the way. ‘Camford’ is a portmanteau for Cambridge and Oxford, ‘orang puteh’ is ‘white man’, and ‘can get lagi satu wife lah!’ means ‘can get another wife!’ As Ahmad settles into his clerical job and enjoys its material perks, he starts to see his colonial masters not as a source of oppression but beneficence. He becomes less ambitious, or rather, reorients his ambitions towards other pursuits, like polygamy.

While I understand the poem to be about colonial miseducation, I cannot help but bristle at the details. The image of the Malay as indolent and easily contented, supposedly blessed with tropical bounty and therefore unused to hard work, has long been a feature of colonial writing. Their lethargy is often contrasted against the energy and dynamism of Chinese and Indian migrants, who were willing to labour in tin mines and rubber plantations in the service of colonial capitalism.

Here’s an excerpt from another poem, by another pioneer poet, Edwin Thumboo, from his 1977 collection Gods Can Die. Incidentally, it is also called ‘Ahmad’:

He is the son of the soil who roves
The outskirts of our jungle;
He is our brother who moves
With the sun so easily.

His eyes have strange fires.

In the poem, Ahmad is painted as someone seething with communal rage. It is Malay nationalism that has fired him up, and caused him to lay the blame for his suffering on colonial exploitation, on dispossession by the Chinese and Indians. Ahmad is a primordialist, and the narrator, who is not Malay, indulges in anguished handwringing, essentially asking, ‘can I be friends with this person who thinks I’ve stolen from his people?’

A final example, from a 1984 essay called ‘An Approach to Singapore Writing in English’, by writer and academic Kirpal Singh:

Like the Indians and Chinese, the Malays have generally enjoyed the same kind of exposure to English as anyone else in Singapore and their competence in the language is ably demonstrated in their professional work. So it is a little difficult to fathom as to why they have not ventured to creative writing. I suspect that a possible explanation could lie in the culture itself – a culture nourished essentially by the soil and therefore not very comfortable in a highly technological, urban setting where the cerebrum predominates.


Lazy native. Angry native. Backward native.

When I first started to write, the question was not so much what to write about, but what to write against.

There was a history I was up against, and the only moral and political response to that was a counter-history.

Ahmad will have to speak for himself.


But who is Ahmad?

In Singapore, the Malays are often portrayed, in the mainstream press, as a problem minority. A joke I make about my community: the degraded, D-graded. Headlines often mention Drugs (highest percentage of abusers), Divorce (highest rates) and Diabetes (highest rates). Depressed, in the Doldrums.

So, Ahmad will be someone who does not take drugs, is not divorced, and is not diabetic. That’s a start. But what kind of start is this? Before I have even written the first word, has the text already arrived Dead at its Didactic Destination?


I’m going to talk about reduplication again, this time of verbs. In Malay, the word jalan means ‘walk’. When it is reduplicated as jalan-jalan, it means ‘stroll for leisure’ or even ‘wander’.

Similarly, makan is ‘eat’, but makan-makan is ‘eat for leisure’. Masak is ‘cook’, but masak-masak is a children’s game where one pretends to cook. Tidur is ‘sleep’, but tidur-tidur is to ‘take a nap’.

It’s clear that what verb reduplication does is to suggest a lightness, something not to be taken too seriously. Jalan is from A to B, where B is that place where stereotypes are busted, the majority is educated, and minorities are uplifted. But jalan-jalan is aimless and aleatory, opening out to random encounters and chance discoveries (ditches and vistas, sunsets and thunderstorms, love grass on the socks and shit on the soles).

Yes, counter-histories are important. And so are identity politics. But writing is also a quest for freedom  –  freedom of ideas, freedom of form. And these days, I have these notes to myself when I write: Walk, don’t run. Don’t just walk, walk-walk.


In Malay aesthetics, there is a duality described as halus (refined) and kasar (rough).

Halus: The muezzin’s prayer call, a downcast gaze at the engagement ceremony, the scent of attar oil, the tremor of eyelashes during an afternoon siesta, gold thread through a needle’s eye, bowing before elders, coconut milk squeezed through cloth, abundant servings for guests described as meagre, the curve of a cat’s back, staying indoors at dusk.

Kasar: The screeching laugh, bed-wetting, the chain-smoking father, the hysterical mother, a gang tattoo on the neck, an untuned guitar, sex filmed on cheap phones, coloured contacts and foundation-caked pimples, a marker-and-sticker vandalised wardrobe, anger rising like blood-froth.

Another note: Don’t flinch from the kasar. Learn, in fact, to flinch from the halus.


These imperatives: first, not to instruct, and second, not to sanitise, do not come easy for me. When we talk of the writer’s creative license, we often refer to the writer’s right to invent, distort, or deviate from certain norms and rules. The question is, what do you do when you enter a field to find that distortions have become the norm? Can you really resist the urge to salvage and redress?

For minority writers, there is I think another dimension to this license, which is the license to…just be. In an interview, Singaporean poet Pooja Nansi describes it in words plain and true:

I wanted to make a collection that really reflected all the different things that made me feel like who I was. Instead of having to constantly explain who I was against untrue versions of what I wasn’t, I just wanted to write poems that said, ‘this is me’.


Growing up as a minority in Singapore has meant taking on particular burdens. In my secondary school (an elite boys’ school), I was one of thirteen Malays in my cohort. By default, I was enrolled into the Malay Cultural Club, which resulted in me becoming part of a dikir barat (Gloss? No, why not google it?) chorus. Clumsy and uncoordinated, I struggled to keep up with my chorus-mates, unable to copy their swag as they shrugged their shoulders and flicked their wrists in the air.

Later, I enrolled in medical school, and one of the reasons was because I wanted to prove that Malays could become doctors. I already knew by then that writing was my calling, but there was another calling, a social one, that demanded the brightest of the community serve as lighthouses. Listless and uninterested, I struggled in the course and finally called it quits after a few years. I had entered a fitting room wearing a lab coat and stethoscope and had stared longingly at the mirror. It took ages for me to decide that I did not look like me.

Being a minority sometimes means living through these untrue versions of yourself.


An analogy. I fear removing my clothes under the gaze of others, because if I am naked and they remain clothed, a power asymmetry is created. And yet there might be a way to be naked under their gaze, such that they are acutely conscious of their own nakedness, even if buried under layers of clothes.


Dear reader, another confession: I hesitated before writing the segment titled ‘Gaze’. I was unsure whether I would set in motion that form of modern-day ostracism variously described as ‘cancel culture’ or ‘call-out culture’.

I am aware that in some literary pockets, a reckoning is taking place. There is greater attention paid to diversity, and publishers are hiring sensitivity readers. Perhaps there is some form of power shift taking place, a corrective tide-turning to the historically underrepresented and marginalised.

These shifts in the literary world are not just happening in the realm of authorship, but also criticism. I thought a long time before deciding to name the authors of the works I cited, reasoning in the end that it would be easy to perform a Google search for them anyway. My main concern was that in an era marked by social media trials, an act of naming is equivalent to shaming.

In responding to their works, I avoided words like ‘racist’, or ‘harmful’, or even ‘problematic’. My main contention was with how they were othering Malayness, and how past commentaries on the writings had missed the kind of ideological work performed by this othering. And very often a society is so entirely soaked in certain ideologies that it would take only the very exceptional members of the majority to recognise and challenge them.

Which is to say, given the opportunity to wield some forms of power, I will try to examine what kind of power it is. There are times when power can feel too zealous, too fleeting, too easy, and too cheap. It feels like being offered a paper crown.


In 2020, a play that I had written back in 2011 was given a live ‘Zoom’ production. It was called Parah, which in Malay means ‘severe’ or ‘critical’, often in reference to injury or illness. In the play, the friendship between four Malaysian teenagers – one Indian, one Chinese, and two Malays – is tested when they start studying a novel called Interlok in their Malay literature class. The novel suggested that many of the Indians who migrated to Malaysia came from a ‘pariah’ caste, an assertion which the Indian students in class and the wider Indian community found objectionable.

Parah was based on real-life events. There were indeed protests against the novel being used as part of the national syllabus, with book-burnings and police arrests. In my play, the Indian character, Mahesh, is ‘adopted’ by a group called the ‘Ban Interlok Committee’, who praise his walkout from class. In response, his Malay friend Hafiz starts to reach out to Malay supremacists online who talk about ‘defending Malay literature’. At the end of the play, Hafiz learns that the more he clings to race as the basis for his identity, the more he excludes himself from a common well of humanity. When the work travelled to Brisbane, Malaysian writer Sreedhevi Iyer welcomed us at our hotel, which was how we first became friends.

After that ‘Zoom’ production, an audience member tagged me on their Facebook post. They said: ‘This play while happily centring the trauma and pain of the Indian character Mahesh doesn’t actually care about his journey or his healing. How has Mahesh healed by the time the play is done? Is he healed? You cannot use a minority race and their trauma to provide healing to a majority race. That is racist.’

This caught me by surprise. As far as I was concerned, none of the characters actually ‘heal’. They are left with open wounds, because systemic racial discrimination has not yet been dismantled in their country. When the play was performed in Malaysia in 2012, I did not encounter any criticism that the play was ‘racist’. It seemed clear to audiences that my sympathies lay with the Chinese and Indian characters in the play.

In response, I tried to describe to this commenter that Mahesh’s journey was not just about trauma. He finds fraternity and solidarity with civil society. The commenter replied by asking, ‘Why is a Malay playwright allowed to decide what is growth and identity for an Indian character?’ (A side note here: while the Malays are a minority in Singapore, they are the majority in Malaysia.) This made me look afresh at the initial comments. Some words stuck out, like ‘trauma’, ‘centring’ and ‘heal’. I wondered whether these words formed part of the audience’s critical vocabulary a decade ago.

I share this anecdote not with the intention of sounding an alarm: that what has been termed ‘cancel culture’ spares no one and will come for us all one day. I prefer, however, to call this kind of thing ‘identity-based criticism.’ This would cover charges of cultural appropriation, gross stereotyping, and misrepresentation. As someone who has been on the receiving end of this criticism, I have to say that the experience left me slightly befuddled. What it seemed to do was diminish my authority on a certain subject while conferring this same authority on my critic. It was like transferring material from one pan of a scale to another. And then what?


I went to Quran classes when I was in primary school. We had a pointer that we used to trace the Arabic letters from right to left, made from the midrib of a coconut frond. When we sat on the floor, the Quran would be placed on a rehal, an X-shaped, foldable wooden stand. This was to ensure that the holy book would remain in an elevated position.

My mother used to tell me that on the Day of Judgement, when the floodwaters arrive, my rehal will transform into a boat, while my pointer will turn into a paddle. And what will the Quran turn into? My mother decided that it was too holy for transmutation, so she said, ‘as long as you have the Quran in your heart, you will not drown.’

It’s not just notions about Malay primitiveness, and all the associated racism, that I must grapple with. There is Islamophobia as well. In Singapore, there is still enough intermingling that happens, so Muslims are not yet as demonised as they are in some other Western countries. But what would it mean to imagine my writing addressed to this other audience? Is a gentle story about a child and his boat enough to change the minds of those for whom the Quran is, I don’t know, a terrorist manual?


Another framework. Halus is respectability politics, the desire to be accepted by conforming to dominant standards. Kasar is a politics of difference, the demand for acceptance despite one’s deviation from dominant standards.


There is another issue to which I haven’t given much thought, which is how a global readership looks at a Singaporean writer, and specifically, one who is not Chinese. I’m not entirely sure which Singaporean writer has gained the most international notice, but I think it’s probably Kevin Kwan, whose book, Crazy Rich Asians, was made into a Hollywood blockbuster.

I haven’t read the book, but I’ve watched the movie. While the characters are indeed ‘crazy rich’ (as opposed to ‘merely rich’), they still covet Western brands and consumer products. Asia might rise, but Western audiences should not be alarmed. Capital is still flowing to the West. The movie’s claim of being a ‘win’ for Asian representation (the main cast comprises of Asians) is undermined by the fact that they’re East Asians, and that the Southeast Asians and South Asians (the darker Asians) play servants and guards.

A start: There are non-Chinese people in Singapore too, and they don’t exist just to serve or guard Chinese people.

And yet again, what kind of start is this? Why does it often feel like I have to wield my pen like a high-pressure washer? All this stubborn caked stuff to remove before we can start with a blank page.


When I was small, I remember watching a kuda kepang dance performance, where performers act as horsemen riding steeds made from woven bamboo, accompanied by some gamelan instruments. Some of them would thrust their faces over an incense holder, which held a burning resin called kemenyan. As the smoke bathed their faces, they would enter a state of trance. They would then perform superhuman feats such as using their teeth to dehusk coconuts or stabbing themselves with krises without appearing to feel any pain.

On one hand, all very bizarre and exotic. On the other, a not unfamiliar state for those involved in creative work. When performers are in trance, it is believed that they are possessed, and the term for this is menurun or ‘the descent’ – of a spirit into their bodies. In the ritual dance mak yong, the term for this trance state is lupa or ‘the forgetting’. I feel an affinity with these terms because writing fiction often feels like having a character take over my consciousness, causing me to momentarily lose my sense of self in the process. Am I milking Black Magic™ here? But aren’t these all ways of describing that state of creative flow?

Another link: in the past, one of the words for trance was khayal. In contemporary usage, khayal refers to daydreaming or the imagination.


You know what? I’ve decided that cirit-birit is not really my favourite Malay word. There are many other candidates. There is geram, which is the feeling one gets when confronted with cuteness, such that one must shiveringly repress a violent act (squeezing, crushing). There is jeling, which is to give a side-eye, though it can express a range of things, from contempt to flirtatiousness. Then there is sebak, which means full-to-overflowing, and describes the swollen-hearted feeling associated with grief.

I first mentioned cirit-birit because I was testing out my kasar voice, and there is perhaps nothing more kasar than the scatological. But I’ve come to realise that it’s not a competition between kasar and halus. I can have both.


Seeing from within; the artistic insight offered by imagination.


Seeing from within; the authority conferred by experience.


In identity-based criticism, we often deal with writers who profess a love and admiration for foreign people and cultures. If the writer comes from a dominant culture, then the offence is one of profiting off the foreign culture, or cultural appropriation. If the writer comes from a minority culture, then the offence is of loathing one’s own culture, or cultural cringe.

This kind of love is described as xenophilia. Philia, from the Greek, meaning ‘affection’ or ‘fondness’. However, when used as a suffix, it indicates an abnormal form of love. I have often thought of this xenophilic framework as limiting. Is it possible to love another without fetishizing them, or without hating ourselves? Of course. But this framework, so attuned to the operations of power, is blind to the operations of love.


I look back at some of my earlier works and realise how carefully and seriously I took the project of writing-as-representation. The stakes seemed so high, and one false move could entrench prejudice, or demoralise a reader. In trying to avoid these false moves, I found myself instead wrestling with false starts. One day I will begin a story with, ‘Ahmad was divorced, diabetic and a drug addict.’ The test is in the line that comes after.


Dear reader, another gift of bilingualism: I do not have to end this essay by writing about zebras or zombies. Instead, I will write about zat. In modern usage, the word is associated with nutrition. When food has a lot of zat, it means it is packed with nutrients and vitamins. And maybe some minority writers see this as one function of literature – to fortify their readers and lend them the energy to face a world that can be so hostile to their existence.

There is, however, an older meaning. Zat is ‘true reality’, as opposed to sifat, which is ‘appearance.’ In Wilkinson’s 1932 dictionary, he writes about zat jati (jati is ‘true’) and describes it in this extravagant fashion: ‘the very soul of things; the real meaning of life; the secret of the universe.’

And let me add: the stuff literature is made of.

This is part of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab for a series titled Rewriting Kinship . ‘Identity, Alphabetically’ is a companion piece to ‘Pleading the Paradox‘ by Sreedhevi Iyer.

Works Cited

Wang Gungwu. Pulse. Beda Lim at the University of Malaya, 1950.

Walter William Skeat, Malay magic: Being an introduction to the folklore and popular religion of the Malay Peninsula. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1900. Retrieved from BookSG. (Call no.: RRARE 398.4 SKE; Accession no.: B02930611K)

Edwin Thumboo, Gods Can Die. Singapore: Heinemann Educational Books (Asia), 1977.

Kirpal Singh, ‘An Approach to Singapore Writing in English,’ Ariel, Vol 15, (1984), 5-24.

Pooja Nansi, Aesop Women’s Library, interviewed by Clifford Loh, Vulture Magazine, (14 April 2022).

Alfian Sa’at, Parah. Collected Plays Three, Ethos Books, 2019, 91-155.

Kirsten Han, Crazy Rich Asians is a win for Asian Americans. But it gets Singapore wrong, Vox, (17 August 2018).

Richard James Wilkinson, A Malay-English Dictionary (romanised), Mytilene, Greece: Salavopoulos and Kinderlis, 1932.

Published September 5, 2022
Part of Rewriting Kinship: The SRB and non/FictionLab have joined forces to commission new essays that reimagine kinship beyond its traditional framing. All Rewriting Kinship essays →
Alfian Sa’at

Alfian Sa’at (Singapore) is the Resident Playwright of Wild Rice. His published works include...

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