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Literary Arts

The art of detachment

Neo Hai Bin on Yeng Pway Ngon’s ‘The Ant and His Ocean’


Published: 17 Nov 2020

Time taken : ~10mins

This essay was originally written in Chinese. English translation by Clarissa Oon.

Aloof, yet not a bystander

The story opens with, “There is a drop of water on a small table”; visually, a very arresting image which draws the reader’s focus onto this everyday scene. The writer conjures up an ant – a little thing, a tiny living organism we don’t normally notice, has become the pivot on which the narrative turns.

The story consistently invokes miniscule objects and actions: a small table, a tiny water droplet, a little ant. But because of the size of the ant, seen through his eyes, the table is the world and the water droplet an ocean; faced with this ocean, the solitary ant’s sense of self is enlarged, and he repeatedly appears before the ocean to preen and pose.

The writer guides the reader to spot significance in the miniscule, and what the reader gradually sees, is the tiny ant’s inflated self. However, with a turn of the writer’s pen, he sketches in the biscuit crumb carried by the little ant, “Besides, he always carries a biscuit crumb on his back like a name card that appears to grow bigger and heavier.”

From this point on, it becomes crystal clear that the writer is not talking about the ocean or the ant, but human nature.

In focusing on the minute, the flow of the narrative actually brings out the enormity of the subject matter. It’s almost as though we have forgotten the “man sitting by the table” who is glancing at the ant at the start of the story. Instead, without being conscious of it, we are drawn to the ant this unnamed man is glancing at, the “name card” it is always carrying and the pleasure it so obviously takes in this. 

Playing with perspective

The “man sitting by the table” can be variously interpreted as a Creator, divine being or an all-seeing, all-powerful God. However readers who are familiar with Yeng Pway Ngon’s works would have another interpretation. This “man sitting by the table” may not be a figure in contrast to the ant. While the man is looking at the ant next to the water droplet from a certain vantage point, he is in fact projecting himself onto the figure of the ant.

The “man sitting by the table” is a projection of the self. The reader is looking through his gaze; he/she sees him/herself reflected in the ant. When the “man” looks at the self from height, coupled with a clear sense of self-scrutiny, he cannot but feel the absurdity of human behaviour.

There is something comical about the entire story, which is also a little sad. Towards the end, the writer notes, “We do not know how long the ant has remained by the ocean,” and suddenly the gaze turns from the ant, the water droplet, the table surface, the man by the table, to the reader. The reader is conscious of how, as embodied in the man by the table, he can see his own reflection in the “ocean”. Reading this story, is like looking through a prism, and seeing multiple forms and visages, even one’s own face.

By zooming in on the mundanities of everyday life, including fleeting moments that are easily missed, the writer scrutinises the human psyche, using the parable form to draw out man’s self-importance and self-absorption. The tone of the story, while mocking, is not derisive, serving only to let the reader reflect on his place in this vast universe. As we contemplate the ant, we invariably feel a sense of connection to it.

Forceful dialogues with the self

Yeng Pway Ngon is extremely adept at the use of perspective. In many of his works, he often draws the reader into the inner worlds of characters, giving you a glimpse into their innermost feelings. For example, his novel Trivialities About Me and Myself (2006) used inner monologues to bring out the self-scrutiny of individuals. His novel Art Studio (2011) seemed to push every character into a state of despair; amidst extreme loneliness and anguish, they engage in dialogues with their inner selves -- questioning, remonstrating, justifying themselves, having epiphanies… these are all the explorations of the self as it seeks answers. Yeng frequently lets his characters face tremendous crises alone, relying on the strength of their own reflection and repeated self-interrogation to find a way out of their problems.

In the case of his latest poetry collection Stone (2020), the “you”, “I” and “he” seem interchangeable, and are deliberate shifts in perspective of the part of the author. At times he regards his own attitude with detachment, describing himself as “you”; at times he seems to be so self-effacing as to call himself “he”. At times he seems to be interacting empathetically with himself, referring to the two as “we” … it is as though looking into a mirror, at times you stand a little further, at times you stand so close till the tip of your nose touches the glass, and they produce different perspectives. Looking at yourself from different vantage points reveals the myriad facets of humanity. 

This way of seeing, one which is slightly aloof, has become one of the trademarks of Yeng Pway Ngon’s work. Generally, as a reader, one wishes to be immersed in the characters of a story, to personally feel what they are going through. However Yeng often keeps the reader at arm’s length from his characters. The reader becomes a disinterested bystander: going through the story with the characters, yet maintaining an objective distance; as a result he remains clear-eyed and critical. Even if the character in the novel is an unsavoury character who has no friends, the reader can appreciate the choices he has made, and understand the weaknesses of human nature.

As result, reading Yeng Pway Ngon, invariably means reading a tale with tragic undertones. In many of his works, it is as though he is the “man sitting by the table” – he engages with life, and uses life to inhabit the characters he creates, but in the act of writing, he is a disinterested observer of his characters. In this way he is able to write about multiple facets of humanity, and the experiences of you, me and him.

Reading the works of Yeng, you cannot but exercise some self-reflexivity. Every book is a jolt to one’s consciousness – his vision is indeed penetrating! As a reader, to be able to regard oneself with such a cold gaze is a blessing. The ant sees his enormous reflection in the ocean before him, but the reader always sees in Yeng’s works the pettiness of his own soul: a realisation at once clear and humbling.


For more information on Yeng Pway Ngon, visit his personal website.

Contributed by:

Neo Hai Bin

Neo Hai Bin is currently a writer and a theatre practitioner. His literary practice involves research works in social issues and the human condition, which then translates into different forms of literary expressions: scripts, prose, critiques or short stories. His literary works can be found on his blog.

Some of his plays include 招: When The Cold Wind Blows (Singapore Theatre Festival 2018), Cut Kafka! (Esplanade Huayi Festival Commission 2018), Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் (Wild Rice, with Alfian Sa’at, 2019), and Tanah•Air 水•土: A Play In Two Parts (Devised with Drama Box, 2019). He is part of the theatre reviewers team 劇讀:thea.preter since 2017. He co-founded 微.Wei Collective with lighting designer Liu Yong Huay, and is a founding and core member of Nine Years Theatre Ensemble.


Clarissa Oon

English translation by Clarissa Oon.

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