Yes, there is a great Singaporean novel

by on July 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm in Books | Permalink

Or is it a novella?  The Widower, by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, was not recommended to me by anyone, but I found it during my recent browse in Singapore Kinokuniya.  It starts with the meditations of a man whose wife has passed away and who then delves into his obsessions.

Although the book was published in the 1990s, it was translated into English only this year; I hope Michael Orthofer at Literary Saloon is paying attention.  But alas it is not for sale on U.S. Amazon.

Here is a recent article about the hand-wringing of Singaporeans over their failure to win major literary prizes.  Not long ago, Mohamed moved to Australia, proclaiming “Singapore is still my home.”

Here is my earlier post on what are the Singaporean literary classics, there were a few good answers in the comments.

1 Thiago Ribeiro July 21, 2015 at 5:06 pm

Wrong post link, I think.

2 Tyler Cowen July 21, 2015 at 5:24 pm

Thanks, now fixed…

3 Ray Lopez July 21, 2015 at 5:28 pm

TC what are you doing up at night so late? LOL me too but I just woke up.

This novel sounds like an autobiography, ‘writing for therapy’, ‘I write because I can’t stop’, “journey of self-discovery”… in short, some middle aged man’s boring ramblings. I’ll pass but I guess there’s a market for that sort of thing (you’re reading this now…)

4 Art Deco July 21, 2015 at 6:02 pm

Their total fertility rate is 1.19 births per woman per lifetime. They’re more than 40% below replacement levels. They might wring their hands over that while there are some of them left.

5 msgkings July 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm

You’re as obsessed with fertility as prior_approval is with the Koch brothers.

6 Art Deco July 21, 2015 at 9:32 pm

You’re obsessed with what I write, and cannot characterize it correctly.

Cultures which frown on reproduction do not survive. Cultures in which the Koch brothers contribute to political and philanthropic endeavours suffer not at all.

7 ibaien July 21, 2015 at 7:50 pm

you say ‘they’ like there’s some kind of pure-blooded singaporean breeding stock to be preserved. ‘replacement level’ arguments in a world closing in on ten billion humans are stupid to begin with; ‘replacement level’ arguments for an arbitrarily created and genetically heterogenous city-state are a whole degree stupider.

8 msgkings July 21, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Good points, but I’m not so sure we’ll get to 10 billion. Declining birthrates appear unstoppable.

9 Todd July 21, 2015 at 8:13 pm

Well, it’ll be fun trying

10 msgkings July 21, 2015 at 8:16 pm


11 Ray Lopez July 21, 2015 at 8:16 pm

@Todd +1

12 ibaien July 21, 2015 at 8:23 pm
13 James July 21, 2015 at 8:36 pm

The current environment is selecting for high fertility, so I’m not sure why you say declining birthrates are unstoppable. Furthermore, sub-Saharan African birthrates aren’t declining as other populations’ rates did and are.

14 msgkings July 21, 2015 at 8:45 pm

They are, though. They’re the last to drop, sure, but they are dropping, some places slower than others. And SSA is a small part of the globe’s population. The fact that China and India’s rates are declining is the big story.

Also, ‘natural’ selection is kind of out the window now that humans can control their reproduction artificially, because brains. Almost all humans reduce fertility when they get past subsistence level, except a few subgroups like Hasidim and Mormons.

ibaien: the UN forecasts from decades ago had us at 10 billion today. Like many climate scientists, they seem to have a bias towards ‘oh no, overpopulation!’, which is actually a good thing to prevent it. They will adjust over time as the birthrates drop.

Here’s one link, you can Google many more:

15 James July 21, 2015 at 9:27 pm

I don’t think you understand what natural selection means. You don’t have to, for example, live in a tree to be subjected to natural selection. Natural selection always operates. Some people don’t believe in or reject natural selection.

It’s precisely in a post-subsistence environment in which fertility rates decline that high fertility is more selected for. Like how when you take antibiotics, your bacterial load declines but antibiotic-resistant bacteria is more selected for.

Sub-Saharan African birthrates aren’t declining as other populations’ rates did and are.

16 Art Deco July 21, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Tropical and Southern Africa has declining total fertility as well. It’s just that it is still well above replacement level. If naive assumptions hold, it falls to replacement level in a century or so.

17 Art Deco July 21, 2015 at 9:36 pm

“Good points” if you’re innumerate and have reading comprehension issues.

18 Art Deco July 21, 2015 at 9:35 pm

Actually, I say that like there’s an extant resident population which will, at current rates, have 32 grandchildren for every 100 grandparents.

Arithmetic. It’s great stuff.

19 ibaien July 21, 2015 at 10:07 pm

*sigh* if your mixed malay-chinese-indian city-state has a declining number of native-born malay-chinese-indians, and yet is surrounded by a vast sea of malay, chinese, and indians who would i’m sure enjoy moving to your city-state and rejuvenating your aging tax base, then the solution is so mind-insultingly simple that i cannot believe we are having this conversation.

20 Chip July 21, 2015 at 11:34 pm

And yet the Malay-Chinese-Indians in Singapore are very unhappy about “rejuvenating” the tax base by bringing more of their neighbors in. Singapore’s population has risen sharply due to immigration and while they have a very astute immigration policy – linked to job offers, high minimum income and very little welfare – locals are so fed up that the government has aggressively clawed back the number of arrivals and is looking with some trepidation to the next election.

More than half of Singaporeans don’t pay income tax anyway. The top 10% pay about 80% of income taxes.

21 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 8:10 am


I love being condescended to by the obtuse.

Strange as it may seem to you, ordinary people are commonly partisans of their home town. It’s elites whose policy is to treat countries as if they were hotels and can just slash rates to fill the rooms.

22 Horhe July 22, 2015 at 7:52 am

People are not fungible. Singaporeans built Singapore – they not only likely have good genes, on average, but they have wealth, a culture of achievement and a culture which makes them suited to a highly advanced and disciplined society. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but they make it work. The fact that they are not having children IS a tragedy, regardless of whether their particular ethnicity is imperiled or not. Meanwhile, the desert state of Niger, which makes Nigeria look developed, is on a birthing binge, From 1.3 million people in the 1960s, they have reached 17 million today and will reach 60 million in 2050, with little economic and human development to show for it. You’re saying that we will reach 10 billion people with or without Singapore’s help, but not all population growth is equal. The marginal value of another African is very small, while another Singaporean, Japanese, German and such is pretty good. But we have gone from the most successful people having the largest families, to the least successful people (literally the least). A world in which Europeans were over 25% of the population had higher mean IQ and rate of development. Africa is going to reach the population of Asia one day, with no corresponding development. Barring huge changes in culture, economic attainment and female incentives, I do not believe fertility rates in Sub Saharan Africa will drop (or drop fast enough). And barring a change in the suicidal policies of the West, we might not see Europe or the US surviving as distinct populations and cultures, because there will be nothing for the billions of Africans in their countries.

23 James July 21, 2015 at 8:38 pm

Territorial conquest by womb wars is the future of civilizations that abjure force. Womb wars have one and only one final evolutionary state that has already been found by Nature in the eusocial insects. Islam may win these womb wars primarily because by artificially supporting masculine status with respect to females, their females will produce more children. However, in the long run, competition between Islamic sects will ultimately result in some that engineer for greater female to male ratios at birth — thence to the human version of eusocial insect societies.

24 Art Deco July 21, 2015 at 9:43 pm

Much of Tropical and Southern Africa is economically stagnant and much of the rest is improving vis a vis the rest of the world verrry slowly. I wouldn’t count on them having the wherewithal to conquer much.

25 James July 21, 2015 at 10:32 pm

I did specify territorial conquest by womb wars.

26 Art Deco July 22, 2015 at 8:07 am

That can only be accomplished if the advanced societies allow it.

27 James July 22, 2015 at 10:36 am

The same evolutionary dynamics obtain in the “advanced societies”.

28 Ed July 21, 2015 at 11:29 pm

I didn’t know before reading the comments that “The Widower” was about human fertility.

I also admit to being one of those who find the “we must keep replacement levels up!” crowd to be weird. The world just went from one billion in 1800 to seven plus billion in 2015. You’d think with this would provide some margin of safety and we could all relax a little. Or at least pause for breath before starting on the next six billion. Or is there a deadline I wasn’t told about. If we can’t stop worrying about fertility now, when can’t we?

29 msgkings July 22, 2015 at 12:36 am

As the man said, EVERYTHING is about human fertility… 🙂

30 Horhe July 22, 2015 at 8:03 am

It’s about who is having the kids, not who is not having. To a certain extent, especially in these times, the countries with the largest populations get to shortcircuit the rules. You have a high population – here have some aid, have some respect, have some publicity as a giant of Africa, please export your huge unemployment problem to culturally and genetically distinct successful societies, let us wring our hands at the fate of your little ones, your women, your adults, your gays, your elderly, no no please don’t drown in the Med we’ll take you in, sure have some more money and affirmative action too, please practice your barbarously beautiful cultures etc etc. Evolution is not about who is better but who is fitter, and the Africans are proving us unfit by using our aid to increase their numbers.

Even if they do manage to put a lid on their fertility rates, this is like a game of musical chairs. The last configuration of populations in the world until everyone goes to replacement levels or under, will determine a certain balance of power. It determines who invades whom for territory, who gets the investment attention, who can strut around as representing a larger demos, and who contributes most of the genetic material to the future of humanity. And, until we fix our border issue, it determine who will swamp whom. Africans are increasing their share of the future, despite being so dysfunctional. The drive for reproductive success is still strong in the psyche – it’s just that most people have come to redefine success as being the best and most advantaged individual offspring, rather than large broods. The Africans are proving us wrong.

31 Chip July 22, 2015 at 12:46 am

The novelist said he’s moving to Australia to join his son who lives in Melbourne. While there, he says, he hopes to write about the Aborigines who suffered the same conquest and oppression that the Malays did.

Interesting that his first project upon arriving in his new country is to criticize it, even as he and his children have moved there to benefit from the efforts of those he intends to criticize.

This incompatibility between belief and action manifests itself elsewhere too, because he also works to preserve Malay culture even though he criticizes his parents for putting him in a Malay school when young, and not in an English school where he could have gone on to become a doctor or other professional.

32 Tom July 22, 2015 at 2:16 am

Multiculturalism means the age of the entitled useless foreign whiner.

33 Thor July 22, 2015 at 2:59 am

Sooooo, it’s not such a great novel after all…

34 Jee Leong Koh July 22, 2015 at 3:31 am

Hi Tyler,

Thanks for blogging about Singapore literature. It is thriving, but still not receiving the attention that it deserves. A group of us Singaporean volunteers living in NYC are organizing a Singapore Arts Festival in our adopted city to celebrate Singapore’s 50th year of independence. I’m moderating a literary arts event called “Take Out, Take Home: Footloose Writers on Food and the Sense of Belonging,” which will feature writers Amanda Lee Koe, Jeremy Tiang, Colin Goh, and Yen Yen Woo. If you are in New York in September, I invite you to join us. It’d be a lovely way to meet some of the writers that you’ve been reading about.

Very best,

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