If We Dream Too Long
3rd printing, 2010, National University of Singapore Press
Paperback US$18.00 S$22.00
This book is widely recognized as the first true Singapore novel. It won the National Book Development Council Award in 1976. Since its publication, it has continued to move and delight generations of Singaporeans.
Young readers especially empathize with the dilemmas and challenges faced by its hero, Kwang Meng, as he navigates the difficult transitional period between youthful aspirations and the external demands of society and family. Shy and sensitive, he feels detached from the mainstream of life, unable to identify with the values that animates his friends. So young Kwang Meng takes refuge in dreams of exotic faraway places , of merging himself in the sea which he loves. Yet amidst this uncertainty, the reader feels that all is not lost, that the young dreamer will find what he’s seeking.
The beauty of If We Dream Too Long is that it reflects the true and unique identity of Singapore society. Kwang Meng’s quest is the universal quest of every young man.
If We Dream Too Long has been used as a text in universities in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.
❧ EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 3 ❧
SO THE DAYS PASSED in idle succession. After a weekend, or a night’s drinking, it was difficult for Kwang Meng to adjust to the dull workaday world. Not that he did not become reconciled to it. But to be reconciled is one thing, even to keep on doing it is one thing, because there is no real choice; it is another thing to know one is following one’s true path. If only he knew what that path was.
Each Monday morning, and every morning thereafter, a conscious adjustment had to be made.
At the office, he would condition himself to the hours ahead when it was never required of him, and of the likes of him, to make decisions. It has been said that for a man not to have to make decisions is something enviable. But if a man’s occupation condemns him to an unthinking routine, then his existence is one of uncreative dreariness.
Then nightly, Kwang Meng found himself with decisions to make, but alas the order and kind of decisions he would have to make then amounted to no more than to decide where to go and what to do. Where to go? What to do? Nothing momentous.
It was as bad as not having to make decisions in the day, in his work. If only some soul-searing event would happen, would lighten his life, so that he could find his own true voice. Until then, he could only grope about. What if nothing happens all life long? He knows them, knows the people to whom nothing ever happened in their lives. Was it fate? Fate, in this day and age?
He sometimes wondered what life was all about. Sounds so cliché. Yet he found himself wondering at times, when sitting alone in some bar, or late at night on his bed, unable to sleep, listening to the inconsistent whine of a passing car, or catching the nocturnal relay of the dogs howling
He knew that life was supposed to have meaning, else to be born, to grow up, to live, would be an unbearable futility, an absurdity. He was not hankering for riches, for a more interesting job, although he would not mind doing something interesting and worthwhile instead of his present daily grind; not for anything in particular, but rather to be able to find his present life with all that it embraces, good and bad, meaningful. This was what he hankered for, but knew not how to attain. Some voice telling him that what he did, and everything that he did, had meaning; that he could find satisfaction in his life. The answer was not to be found in books, he felt, nor in drinking, nor in anything that he knew. He only knew that he did not know.
Yet, when Kwang Meng was with Lucy, there were moments when doubts and dissatisfaction did not bother him. Was this love? Had he been in love with Lucy, he found himself asking now that it was over. He wasn’t precisely sure. Could one ever be absolutely sure? If one could, then it wasn’t love that he found with Lucy. What was it then? He suspected, in moments of honesty, of hindsight, that their relationship would not have lasted. Fate again?
So here he was, drifting from morning to day to night, and then to morning again. A meaningless cycle. A time of waiting, but waiting for he knew not what.
One evening, uncle Cheong came to dinner.
He had recently returned from a business trip to Sabah. The towns there were like the small pioneering towns he remembered thirty, forty years ago up in Malaya, he told them. The same rawness, the same excitement in the air: a challenging atmosphere. He said that if he were only a young man again, he would set out to try his luck in Sabah. There were opportunities there awaiting the young and the adventurous, the stout of heart.
Kwang Meng toyed with the idea. Why not? After all, like almost everybody else in Singapore, he was of immigrant stock: his grandparents sailing from the Middle Kingdom in those improbable, small junks for the unknown tropics, for the Southern Seas, not knowing what lay ahead. This image was one he found stirring. He almost felt their blood coursing strongly through his veins. But when he looked at his parents, he felt the blood thinning perceptibly. But then the quality maybe was transmitted to him, somehow skipping one generation? It can happen that way.
He could be the true inheritor of that stout pioneering spirit of his grandparents. Yes, he could almost imagine himself carving up a country, green and virginal. It was waiting for him. The next boat to Jesselton.
First he would have to tell his parents, explain patiently but forcefully to them; how it was in his blood and all that; how it was such an irresistible urge, a mysterious urge, a holy urge even, written in the stars; yes, he would convince them, and even if they remain unconvinced, could not understand, could not comprehend, he would be undeterred. Yes, he would first have to resign from the office and all that, then he would have to get a work permit. Here Kwang Meng was stumped. A work permit to carve up a country? Alas, it’s the law. He felt sure he would never be able to obtain this work permit. Yes, that’s the whole trouble. And he had no strings to pull, did not know anyone who could pull those necessary strings for him. Stumped. And he had so much wanted to carve up a country! Fate again!
After dinner, uncle Cheong led him by the arm to the balcony. For a session, Kwang Meng surmized. His parents must have been complaining. He braced himself for what was coming. Two deep breaths, breathing out slowly. The excess oxygen was too much, so he lit a cigarette to counteract that excess of oxygen, of fresh air.
They both leaned on the balcony, looking out. Uncle Cheong lit a thin local cheroot, and inhaled deeply. Here it comes, thought Kwang Meng.
‘Isn’t it a nice, cool evening?’ his uncle asked in Hokkien. His family spoke Hokkien and English, sometimes mixing the two unconsciously.
‘Are you going out afterwards?’
‘How are you finding work at the office, Meng?’
‘Dull and boring,’ Kwang Meng said with candour. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I can stand it.’
‘Yes, I can imagine it must be dull. All the same, you got to start from somewhere, then work your way up.’
‘Up to what, uncle?’
Uncle Cheong had been a clerk once, and had worked himself up. Now he owned his own business. But he never said as much, and even now was not going to lord it over Kwang Meng. He was too gracious, too gentle a man. He turned and looked at his nephew.
‘I don’t know, Meng. What do you yourself think?’
‘What do I think? I think I’m going to end up where I’m now: a clerk.’
Kwang Meng suddenly felt like speaking his mind. He intended to be frank and honest this session.
‘In other words, uncle,’ he said, ‘I have no prospects whatsoever. None whatsoever. What I face in front of me is what I face now: a clerk, always a clerk, leading a clerk’s life, marrying a clerk’s wife, rearing a clerk’s family, dying a clerk’s death, and if I should have a son, he would probably follow after me and be a clerk.
I don’t really know how you did it, whether it was easy or difficult, whether it’s easier now or more difficult now, but I don’t know how you did it. I only know I cannot do it. I have no … (he was going to say ‘talent’; he was also going to say ‘desire’, but … ) capacity. No capacity,’ he repeated.
‘It’s too early to say, Meng. You have only started work what? A year ago? Less than a year ago? It’s too early to say. You must give yourself a chance. You must be fair to yourself.’
‘Oh, I’m fair to myself. It’s true it’s only a year or so, but a year or so is enough, I think. Enough for one to know. And I know I shall not make it.’
‘It’s nonsense. You can never know; not in one year. Give yourself more time. You can make it. I’m not saying that everyone can make it, but I think you can make it. You only need courage, a lot of hard work, patience, perseverance and of course, luck. You need luck.’
‘That’s a lot, uncle. I don’t think I’ll get all that.’
‘I didn’t suspect you’re so depressed, Meng.’
‘I’m not depressed, uncle. Only, I know, that’s all.’
‘But what you know, what you said, is depressing. For one as young as you to know what you know is depressing.’
‘You make it sound so special; as if my case is a rare one. I don’t think I’m so rare. There must be thousands and thousands like me. Surely they all know too?’
‘Perhaps, perhaps,’ his uncle said, and paused, fine lines puckering around his eyes as they seemed to peer into the distance, perhaps at a vision of the thousands and thousands of sad young people like Kwang Meng, sad young people who knew. All over the city. In the thousands. He had almost forgotten how tough it always was, tough for the young. For a moment he remembered his youth, his own struggles. He turned benignly to his nephew. He had a special liking for Kwang Meng. Liked his quiet reserve, his undemonstrative sensibility.
‘Meng,’ he said gently, ‘your mother has told me about your drinking. She’s very worried about you.’
Before Kwang Meng could reply, his uncle pursued.
‘You don’t have to explain. I think you have explained adequately already. I think I can understand why.’
‘Thank you, uncle.’
‘Don’t thank me, Meng. I’ve done nothing, and I can do nothing. It’s for you to sort yourself out, in your own time. Only I brought it up because your mother spoke to me. Perhaps you will be more . . . ’ He paused, searching for the right word. ‘Careful?’ he said finally.
‘Yes, I’ll try.’
Kwang Meng was not surprised that his mother had chosen to speak about him to his uncle Choeng, and had asked the latter to intercede. Yet, he regretted that his own father had not done so instead, much as he liked his uncle Cheong, much as he understood the whole thing. This feeling was something almost primordial.. Something about a father and son, perhaps.
‘Fine,’ his uncle said. ‘Perhaps one day we’ll go and drink together. I’ll tell your mother not to worry. She only needed to be reassured, that’s all.’
When his uncle left, Kwang Meng again went out. Now that he recognized his own depression, he drank more than his usual that night, and got roaring drunk. With a vengeance.