What Was a Malayan Novel? Lee Kok Liang’s London Does Not Belong to Me by Prof Philip Holden
Date : 26 Feb 2019
Time : 16:00 - 17:30
Venue : AS8, Level 4, Seminar Room 04-04
10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260
National University of Singapore @ KRC

Jointly organized by Asia Research Institute, and Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore.


Assoc Prof Greg Clancey, Asia Research Institute, and Tembusu College, National University of Singapore


Lee Kok Liang’s autobiographical novel London Does Not Belong to Me was published in Malaysia in 2003, a decade after the author’s death and fifty years after the events it describes. Remarkably, Lee’s text explores the life of a Malayan student in London in the early 1950s, at a time when the politics of decolonization were inescapable, without mentioning the word “Malaya” at all. Lee’s narrator is unnamed in the text, and other contested markers of identity that were central to governmentality both during decolonization and after independence in Malaysia and Singapore – race, family, sexuality – are also largely absent or ambiguously presented.

London Does Not Belong to Me, however, is something more than a historical curiosity. Most discussions of the Anglophone novel in the wake of postcolonial studies have focused on worlding, on the social significance of texts distributed through global publishing networks, addressing a transnational reading public. Yet most literary novels have proved uniquely resistant to networking: magazine serialization is now less common than it was, and novels, whether in electronic or print form, are read by a single reader with a minimum of connections to other texts. Indeed, the majority of novels ever written have either remained unpublished, or have been distributed locally, in small print runs to a local audience. Lee’s novel is unique in that it is based on an unpublished journal of the author’s student days, enabling a scholar to plot the transformation of narrative from one genre to another. The example of London Does Not Belong To Me, indeed, placed within the context of decolonization in 1950s, suggests that attention to authorship, agency and the novelization of the social may thus prove a more fruitful line of inquiry than the summoning of an imagined reading public and an elision of actual reading practices.


Philip Holden was Professor of English at the National University of Singapore from 2000 to 2018. He researches two major areas of literary studies. His work in auto/biography studies includes the book Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity and the Nation-State, and a number of scholarly articles in major scholarly journals such as biography, Life Writing, a/b: Auto/biography Studies, and Postcolonial Studies. He has also published widely on Singapore and Southeast Asian literatures, is the co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English, and one of the editors of Writing Singapore, the most comprehensive historical anthology of Singapore literature in English. His recent scholarship has focused on the history of tertiary education in Singapore as a means of rethinking challenges in the present.


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Contact Person(s)
Minghua TAY