Penman No. 13: Random Reflections on Martial Law


Penman for Monday, Sept. 24, 2012

LAST FRIDAY marked the 40th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in the Philippines by Ferdinand Marcos, and the occasion gave rise to much reminiscing among those of us who went through that dark period. I myself was interviewed by a TV station and asked to speak at a forum at the University of the Philippines about my experience with martial law, which I fictionalized in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992).

Of course I’ve never really stopped thinking about martial law all these years, but not until this anniversary did I force myself to sit down and write what martial law really meant to me and what it taught me—the “me” being no longer the 18-year-old boy who was arrested for “subversion” and detained for seven months in Fort Bonifacio, but the 58-year-old man who managed to live far longer and to see more things than he expected.

What I will write down here are entirely my own impressions and conclusions as a private citizen. I am not a political scientist or an ideologue, although I did work as a journalist, and, ironically, as a government PR man in the late 1970s, when there were few other jobs to be had, after my release from detention. I’m sure that some readers and even my friends will find something to quarrel with in these observations, which will be good, because I don’t think we ever really sat down and summed up what that period meant to us, beyond saying—as we should—“Never again!” So, herewith, my random reflections on martial law:

1. It wasn’t as bad as what the Argentines and Chileans went through in their darkest days of state terror. But that comparison’s pointless and even cruel when it’s your body or that of someone you love being laid out in the interrogation room, when it’s your family desperately seeking an abductee, running from prison to prison. The government called it “smiling martial law,” but don’t be fooled—horrific things happened to ordinary citizens in those camps and prisons. It may have been good for business—at least at first—but it was an unmitigated nightmare for designated enemies of the state.

2. An armed forces cannot be at war with its own people. Martial law irreversibly politicized if not corrupted the military, so that it has had to be re-indoctrinated to support the people rather than the ruling elite. I don’t know how far it’s come along in this respect.

3. America can be a great friend, but it will always look out for its own interests first, and those interests don’t always coincide with ours. American politics is coldly opportunistic; the rhetoric of freedom and democracy can easily be used as window dressing for American commercial policy. Ferdinand Marcos and martial law wouldn’t have lasted that long without America’s imprimatur; even though some insist that it was the Americans themselves who took him out—that EDSA was a CIA plot—it was American support that entrenched him in the first place.

4. It takes a people to build a nation—not one leader, certainly not one despot and his cohort. Martial law turned us into blind followers, trusting the leader to make crucial decisions for the rest of us. Except for those who resisted the dictatorship, the rest of us were complicit in it; we wanted it to work and gave it our tacit approval, because it seemed to offer a simple and efficient solution to age-old problems. It also takes a thorough process—not quick fixes like martial law, street revolts, or coups—to secure deep and enduring change.

5. The Church can be a potent and progressive political force when it wants to. Much as I may be dismayed by the intransigence of the Church on social issues such as the RH bill—and indeed I no longer consider myself a practicing Catholic because of this—I acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of many religious workers to the fight for freedom.

6. We all have our weaknesses and our limits. I saw how people who spoke big words could fall silent at the merest hint of torture, and how even the toughest ones could break at the edge of the unendurable. I have since learned not to demand of others what I could not demand of myself. At the same time, I saw that ordinary people can also be capable of extraordinary courage. Their heroism has made me wonder if I who survived was worthy of it.

7. On a purely personal level, one of post-martial law life’s most awful discoveries was that, incredibly, there were worse things than martial law, worse pains that one could receive, or inflict on oneself and on other people. A government can do only so much evil; the rest you can do yourself. But redemption is always possible for the self-aware, and I suppose that’s what many of us have been striving for these past 40 years.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF September 21, that was also the day last week when I failed to attend an important book launching in Makati because I was teaching my graduate class in Diliman at that same time. The book was Marites Danguilan Vitug’s Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court (Clever Heads Publishing, 2012), which I copyedited, along with its predecessor, the acclaimed and bestselling Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court (Newsbreak, 2010).

It’s a copyeditor’s great privilege to read a book—and even reshape it to some extent—before anyone else does, aside from the author and the book designer. With Marites—with whom I worked for many years on Newsbreak—I always know that I’m in for a political junkie’s treat, as she will patiently go behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of our most important yet also most inscrutable institutions, like the Supreme Court.

Without spoiling the suspense, here’s what I can say about Hour Before Dawn and why you should grab it before they run out of copies: if you’ve ever really wondered why Chief Justice Renato Corona had to be impeached and what the Supreme Court was like under his watch, read this book. If you’ve also wondered what Lourdes Sereno is really like and what kind of Chief Justice she’s going to be, read this book.

As its full title suggests, Hour Before Dawn offers both darkness and light, ample cause for both dismay and hope. It demystifies the Supreme Court and the Justices who preside over our fates, showing them to be as fallibly human as the rest of us, and yet also mindful of the higher judgment of history.

I don’t know if this book is going to earn its author another slew of death threats and libel suits, but I think it should be required reading for every law student, lawyer, and judge in this country—make that every citizen-at-large who hasn’t given up hoping for impartial justice.

Penman No. 12: A Spectacle of Orientalia


Penman for Monday, Sept. 17, 2012 

I BELONG to a generation that grew up on Broadway musicals—before Broadway got all dark and grungy, and even if we’d never been to Broadway at that point. Thanks to the movies and to vinyl, it was perfectly possible to be transported from Boni Avenue in Mandaluyong to Salzburg and Manhattan, or from Barrio Malinao in Pasig to the South Pacific and Siam. It’s hardly surprising that today, as a grown man approaching 60, I can still sing songs from South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Camelot with the verve, albeit without the voice, that I had at 17.

I’ve since had the opportunity to catch some musicals on Broadway and the West End, and while I’ve marveled at the visual and vocal pyrotechnics of such modern classics as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, I miss the brave optimism of the old musicals—where, even in death, there was always a glimmer of hope in the end (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” in Carousel, “Somewhere” in West Side Story). I didn’t know then that this defiant cheerfulness was part of a commercial formula; I didn’t care. All I knew was that it felt good to whistle a happy tune, and that, approaching my crush du jour’s abode, I wanted to burst into a heartfelt rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” outside her window.

And so when I recently received an invitation from a long-time Penman reader and correspondent—the accomplished musical theater director Freddie Santos—to a preview performance of The King and I, there was no way that I was going to resist or refuse. The show took place at the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World a couple of Sundays ago, and my wife and I (or, as I rechristened the two of us, “The Beng and I”) arrived three hours early to see what the Resorts World buzz was all about, being staunch denizens of the North.

“I feel like I’m in Macau” was Beng’s first impression, and soon it was my jaw’s turn to drop when we entered the plush and capacious Newport Theater. It seemed like a daunting cavity to fill, but nothing fills space like music, and as soon as the overture began and the curtains rose, we were all elsewhere.

I had seen the Yul Brynner-Deborah Kerr film version of the musical many times, and so I wondered how Freddie Santos was going to convey all that convincingly in a practically all-Filipino production, but I needn’t have worried. Freddie earns this shameless plug: this is a wondrously good show, so good that The Beng and I will gladly return as paying patrons with friends to see it all again.

In a sense, The King and I is almost pre-programmed to succeed—which only raises the bar for any director assigned to it. Most musicals can be lucky to have more than one or two showstoppers that people will be singing afterwards (say, “I Know Him So Well” from Chess and “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line)—often without any idea of where the song came from. The King and I has at least seven of them: “I Whistle a Happy Tune”; “Getting to Know You”; “Hello, Young Lovers”; “We Kiss in a Shadow”; “Something Wonderful”; “I Have Dreamed”; and “Shall We Dance”. (The most difficult piece of all of these to essay—“Something Wonderful”—brought Beng to tears, although, without meaning to diminish Gina Respall’s achievement, I should add that Beng cries every time she sees The King and I, particularly when Yul Brynner dies in the title role.) Incidentally, Gina—as the sympathetic Lady Thiang—is a Filipino performer now based in London, where she has also played the role.

As was to be expected, the veteran Leo Valdez played King Mongkut with comic aplomb and authority. Monique Wilson (on leave from the London Performance School where she is a department head) inhabited her character thoroughly.

No Broadway musical can be complete without a pair of star-crossed lovers—think of Joe Cable and Liat in South Pacific, and of Tony and Maria in West Side Story—and the Tuptim-Lun Tha subplot in The King and I lends the narrative a romantic urgency that counterpoints the Anna-King relationship, which never goes beyond mild flirtation. Tanya Manalang as Tuptim and Lawrence Martinez as Lun Tha carried their duets with powerful poignancy.

The sets and costumes—the latter sourced directly from Thailand—were sumptuous. The allegorical “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” playlet was a masterful demonstration of ingenious stagecraft.

Of course it isn’t just Orientalia on display; after all, there’s no more quintessential East-meets-West piece of theater than The King and I. The 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein musical—based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 bestseller Anna and the King of Siam—purports to chronicle the contact between the British Anna Leonowens and Mongkut (great-grandfather of the present King Bhumibol) and thereby the incipient modernization of Thailand, but the academic in me has to add, at the risk of being a spoilsport, that the truth was far more prosaic than the play, which one critic called “a confection built on a novel built on a fabrication.” Some online sleuthing will quickly reveal that there was a real Anna (1831-1915) and she did go to the Siamese court to teach Mongkut’s wives and children for almost six years, and Mongkut did find her “a difficult woman,” but no, they didn’t waltz around the room “on a bright cloud of music.” Indeed, the movie musical was banned in Thailand when it first came out.

That said, people go to musical theater not for history and scholarship but for spectacle and romance. This unabashed and otherwise silly translation of human emotion and experience into song and dance is after all, from the very outset, a conscious departure from fact and reality, striving for truths of the heart rather than of the mind. Trust the historians and the journalists to lay out the facts, which can and should be appreciated in their own good time; but these momentary fictions and our need for them are also, inalienably, part of what make us human.

In other words, The Beng and I had an enormously good time, and we spent the long ride home singing along to the soundtrack I played off my iTunes in the car. The next morning, I took my usual walk around the UP Oval, with the Peabo Bryson-Leah Salonga version of “I Have Dreamed” streaming through my ears.

The show opened to the public just last Saturday and will run until December, with ticket prices ranging from P1,000 to P2,400—certainly not loose change for cash-strapped Pinoys, but think again of how much you’d be saving by not having to fly to London or New York for the chance of enjoying a world-class musical experience.

(Photo by Geoffrey Yusooncho)

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 10: Sundays Are for Pens

IT BEING a rainy Sunday here in Manila, I thought I’d take out some of my fountain pens—vintage and modern—for some routine maintenance (read: boy plays with toys). I took this shot of the pens with my iPhone, and I rather like its antique-y look.

And while we’re at it, here are the pens in my current rotation. Can you identify them?

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 9: Confessions of a Fish

For Esquire Magazine / July 2012

THERE’S A saying among poker players that if you can’t figure out who the fish is at your table within the first half-hour, then the fish is you. The fish is, of course, the prey in the ocean, regular lunch fare for the sharks, the poker player who’ll go all-in on a pair of Queens because they’re the best hand he’s had all evening despite an Ace and a King showing on the table.

But let’s make this easy without having to wait for 29 more minutes: I’ll admit it, I’m a fish, 90 percent of the time. I go into a poker game not really to win—though I’ll be happy if I do, and thank you very much—but to play cards, which can be very different from playing to win. How so?

First of all, let’s define what winning in poker is. Logically speaking, winning is a positive outcome—literally, a result at the end of the day that yields you a bigger bankroll than you started out with. If you’re a poker pro, which I’m certainly not, this can be your only definition of winning: going home with even just a couple of thousand pesos more in your pocket, whether from a tournament or a cash game, after having risked, say, anywhere between P5,000 and P10,000 in play.

For fish like me, winning is less an outcome than a moment—a surge of adrenalin, a flood of endorphins—that can pass very quickly, but is a high well worth buying. It’s the high you get when you hit your flush or your inside straight on the river, busting your cocky opponent’s three Aces or two pair. Never mind that that rush is followed by a long, slow slide back into the doldrums, and that you’ll be driving home in the wee hours many thousands of pesos poorer. All a fish has to do is to remember that instant—that look of utter horror and disgust on the other guy’s face—and all the pain of losing fades away, like dirty water down a drain.

A “grinder” or a “rounder”—someone who’ll play hundreds of hands in a day, on the felt table or online, just to come out with a little more than what he would’ve made driving a cab or flipping burgers or calming down irate Texans from a call-center cubicle—can’t afford that kind of drama. That’s one way of spotting the pros: they’ll fold pocket Kings when they have to with the faintest cluck of the tongue, almost as easily as if they’d been holding a Seven-Deuce.

Like you might have noticed, I observe my fellow players a lot. That’s my official excuse for spending 16-hour binges at the tables—typically checking in after lunch and playing in the 2:30 tournament, busting out by 6 pm, signing up for the 7 pm tournament, and again busting out by midnight, just a few places short of finishing in the money, and staying on at the cash tables until 5 am, when UP’s gates open and I can drive home with a little back massage from the rosy fingers of dawn. I’m writing a novel with a poker player in it—a call center fellow whose wife has been sleeping with her boss and whose only consolation, if you can call it that, is the draw of the cards and the gambler’s unflinching conviction that, one inevitable day, he’s going to strike it rich. Throw in a messy love story—a cute dealer with a thuggish boyfriend—and you have a novel.

So I’ve been taking notes about the game and its practitioners, in between throwaway hands. Seriously: I get a lot of writing done over those stretches, and it used to be easier when I was using a BlackBerry instead of an iPhone. I sit at the tables for so long that I have to bring an extended battery for use from about 2 am onwards, and I wouldn’t have traded the BlackBerry for the iPhone’s crappy battery life if I didn’t need to surf and look up my eBay bids while playing (more fish tells: impatience, distraction).

And so I dutifully observe the comings and goings of the cross-dressing diva whose girlish giggles disguise a strong, solid game; the starlet whose privates I’d met in a sex video before I met the rest of her; the loudmouthed balikbayan cursing the last card, or the “river”; the dealer bouncing back from pregnancy to another kind of succulence; the masseuse in hospital scrubs kneading a bare, shiny back as large and as dark as Africa. They used to play “Pokerface” to death on the PA but that’s been replaced by B.O.B.: “Beautiful girls all over the world I could be chasing but my time would be wasted….” How could I be wasting my time when I’m meeting people and learning songs like these? Never mind that any dude my age is addressed as “Daddy” or “Tatang” at the tables; put on shades, a hoodie, and Sennheisers, and you’ll feel 30 years younger.

I’ve written down lines like “The ceaseless murmur of chips sounds like a forest of crickets” and “There’s nothing more cruel than the indifference of cards” and “The dealer’s fingers darted like a skittish crab across the felt, picking up chips at every stop” (let’s add this for the wannabe Hemingways out there: copyright, Butch Dalisay, 2012). I’d like to think that, one of these days, those lines will turn like Moses’ snake—whapak!—into a novel that will win a prize that will recoup all my losses from all those donkey calls.

Ah, the donkey. Anatomically and taxonomically, donkeys have very little to do with fish, but in poker, they might as well be the same animal. The donkey will make a bad call holding an insufferably bad hand—something like a Three and a Seven off-suit—in the deathless hope that the flop, the first three community cards, will be Four, Five, and Six. And you know what? Sometimes it happens. And that’s what the donkey-fish lives for, to the dismay of the pros, who also have an attitude problem of their own, to the effect that “Unless you’re holding at least an Ace-King, you have no right to call my pocket Queens.”

As for the cards themselves, I’ve seen and had them all: a royal flush (three times), an Ace-high flush beaten by a one-outer straight flush (my best hand ever), a four-of-a-kind beaten by a straight flush (my worst hand ever). In the middle of a boring meeting at the English department, I run these games through my head like YouTube videos, savoring every flip of the cards, almost forgetting that, in many cases, I was on the losing end.

That’s why I’m a fish. I’m here for the endorphins, and they don’t come cheap.

(Photo courtesy of

Penman No. 12: Singapore’s Cultural Renaissance (2)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 10, 2012

ANYONE WHO doubts that Singapore is going through a cultural renaissance just has to drop by places like the Goodman Arts Center, the Arts House, the National Library Board building, and any one of the many museums that have sprung up around the city-state city-state celebrating everything from historical heritage to biodiversity and toys.

On a recent media visit to Singapore, I was shown by my hosts from the National Arts Council around many of these cultural hotspots, and they offered a wealth of insights into contemporary Singaporean society and its concerns.

Housed in what used to be a school run by the La Salle Brothers, the  seven-hectare Goodman Arts Center in the Mounbatten district opened last year and has quickly become Singapore’s largest arts enclave, serving as a studio, meeting place, and performance venue for both local and international artists. Studios in the GAC are generously subsidized by the government, and “There’s a long waiting line of artists wanting to use the center,” said Evan Hwong of The Old Parliament House Ltd., which manages the GAC.

Being a complex of converted school buildings, there is nothing particularly impressive about the GAC on the outside; but open one of the many doors and instantly a world of artistic creation meets the eye and swarms the senses. During our visit, we encountered Jerry Hinds, an expat Briton who’s helping young Singaporean cartoonists sharpen their skills not just in terms of drawing but also in sharpening their narratives; Iskander, a longtime transplant from the Netherlands, who’s working to help people see comics not just as entertainment but also as an art form; Sonny Liew, Malaysian-born but Singapore-based, who’s already drawn for Marvel Comics; Japanese artist Eriko Hirashima, who’s turning books into art objects in themselves; and Singaporean copywriter Amanda Lee and artist Winnie Goh, whose Studio Kaleido explores crossovers between visual and literary art.

Not only professional artists are welcome at the GAC. Ongoing at the GAC this month and open to the public are a batik painting workshop, a professional singing course in Mandarin, and classes in contemporary dance, hot glass bead-making, bookmaking, and pottery, among others.

Theater has always been particularly strong and popular in Singapore, and performance venues abound, such as the landmark durian-shaped Esplanade, the elegant Arts House at the Old Parliament Building along the river, and the Drama Theater of the School of the Arts.

We had a special encounter with an icon of Singaporean theater, the playwright and novelist Stella Kon, at the Peranakan Museum which had dedicated an exhibit to her play Emily of Emerald Hill, much performed and beloved of generations of Singaporeans since it debuted in 1982. Although born in Edinburgh (she later reacquired Singaporean citizenship), Stella is of Peranakan origins, referring mainly to the Chinese who settled centuries ago in certain places around the Straits of Malacca, particularly in Penang, Melaka, and Singapore. The Peranakans have contributed richly to the economy, culture, and cuisine of their host countries; most outsiders will recognize, for example, the sarong kabaya immortalized by the TV ad’s “Singapore girl,” a stylized version of traditional Peranakan dress.

Emily of Emerald Hill is a long dramatic monologue in English (most recently and brilliantly performed by the cross-dressing Ivan Heng) that takes the audience through the colorful life of Emily Gan, who rises from poor Peranakan girl to powerful matriarch. It’s a sad story but one that has resonated powerfully with its viewers (it’s being taught here in the Philippines by Dr. Lily Rose Tope, our new departmental chair in UP, in her Southeast Asian literature class), and it’s too bad that we didn’t get to see the play, but meeting the author herself as we walked through the Peranakan Museum was a special treat. “It used to be that being Peranakan was something of a disadvantage,” said Stella, “but today’s it’s become chic.”

The stories of the Peranakan—and much more—are lodged in the National Library of Singapore on Victoria Street, a breathtakingly modern building whose collections comprise not only the traditional hardbacks but a growing library of digitized e-books as well. (Just how far ahead Singapore is in the digital game struck me when I overheard someone mention a “Donate your old iPad” campaign being undertaken there for the use of schoolchildren.) “We don’t actually keep all that many books here,” a reference librarian told me, “because they’re sent out to the public libraries.” In other words, Singaporeans are busy reading. The National Library Board also runs a vigorous publishing program, and its products—such as an annotated bibliography of contemporary Singaporean literature in English—are available for free to anyone interested. The library’s collections are searchable online. At the time we visited, a large and groundbreaking exhibit featuring the letters of Singapore’s colonial founding father, Sir Stamford Raffles, was just about to open; there was also an exhibit upstairs of the personal memorabilia and writing tools (the pens were of particular interest to me) of some of Singapore’s most prominent writers. And here’s a travel tip: the best view of Singapore’s skyline can be had at the National Library’s Pod venue, open by special arrangement.

We ended our visit with dinner and music at Timbre at the Arts House, a bar and restaurant along the breezy riverfront operated by a group led by Danny Loong. Danny was himself a musician but has moved on to become one of Singapore’s leading arts managers and music entrepreneurs. (Danny told me that he was due to fly to Manila soon to judge at a blues-band competition; he’s also brought some Pinoy bands over to Singapore.) The music scene in Singapore was varied and dynamic, Danny told us—and we could hear that for ourselves, as a local trio essayed Bon Jovi on acoustic guitars. Some years ago, a Singaporean rap tune called “Why You So Like Dat?”—in Singlish, of course—was a big hit on the airwaves, and you can still catch it on YouTube. A message on the TV monitors at Timbre reminded the audience that they could send in their dedications to one another via SMS. It was a Monday, just the start of the work week, but the young Singaporeans around us were clearly enjoying themselves—and the great food and wide range of beers—at prices that weren’t going to bust anyone’s wallet.

It’s this kind of popular enthusiasm that Singapore’s cultural planners want to tap into, toward the creation of even more original material that would engage Singaporeans of all ages and levels. There’s a master plan behind all this, and it’s contained in the recently released Final Report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which noted among others that “Since 1988, our cultural vibrancy has increased exponentially, with activities rising almost twenty-fold. Local audiences now have a year-round selection of festivals, fairs, events and activities to choose from. Demand for arts and culture has kept pace with vibrancy, with ticketed attendances and museum visitorship rising three-fold and eight-fold respectively.”

The review is a very detailed plan that our own cultural poobahs can learn a thing or two from—such a streamlining funding requirements for the arts (the NCCA, bound by COA procedures, makes our artists go through hoops of fire for the simplest things). And it should be noted that Singapore’s National Arts Council is backstopped by its Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth—leaving us, again and parochially, one of the few large Asian countries without a Department of Culture to spearhead these initiatives at the highest levels of government.

On a more personal note, I was happy to be able to indulge myself this last visit in some of my favorite Singapore pastimes—feasting on the chicken rice at the Kopitiam, looking for bargains at the Sunday flea market on Sungei Road, and ducking into the Aesthetic Bay pen shop at ION Orchard for a bottle of ink. On my last morning walk, I stumbled serendipitously into a sidestreet that led me to Emerald Hill, the setting of that fabled play.

And even in Singapore’s smallest corners I found a Pinoy connection. Chatting with Kenny Leck, the owner of Books Actually (who publishes handsome little poetry chapbooks under the Math Paper Press imprint), I discovered that a Filipino poet—my old student and beer buddy Joel Toledo—lived just across the street in Tiong Bahru. Joel’s in Singapore to do his PhD, and has begun to make his mark there, with his Ruins and Reconstructions sitting on the same shelf alongside the works of Alvin Pang, Edwin Thumboo, and Kirpal Singh. I flipped through a copy of the Asia Literary Review in the bookshop, and found contributions by the Ateneo poet Anne Carly Abad and the Leyte-based poet Michael Carlo Villas. One way or another—and let’s not forget the forthcoming Singapore Literary Festival in November—Filipinos will figure in Singapore’s cultural reawakening.

Penman No. 11: Singapore’s Cultural Renaissance (1)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 3, 2012

I’VE BEEN to Singapore many times since my first visit in 1983—almost yearly, in fact, since 2008—but I don’t think I understood and appreciated the place as much as I did when I flew in again last weekend to cover the launch of this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. What I found was not only a vibrant writing and publishing scene, barely mindful of the censorship we instinctively associate with that city-state, but also an explosion of artistic talent in fields as diverse as cartooning, music, and theater. This week I’m going to report on the SWF and writing in Singapore, and next week I’ll talk about the other arts.

For Filipinos more accustomed to thinking about Singapore as a place for upscale shopping and high finance, the notion of “Singaporean culture and arts”may seem a strange one. Singapore, we’ve assumed, just buys and borrows someone else’s art. Indeed, thirty years ago, Singaporean writers were humble enough to acknowledge the fact that they had a lot of catching up to do. In his introduction to 1983’s Stories from Singapore, George Fernandez observed that “Multiracial Singapore is in the throes of evolving a national literature. In this field of national literature in English we are certainly only a fledgling, and we have much to learn from the older and more experienced countries like the Philippines and India.”

That was then. Today, the reality is that—thanks to substantial government support and to a newfound confidence among Singaporean writers and artists—Singapore has become a major cultural hub in Southeast Asia, attracting international talent while nurturing its own.

The Singapore Writers Festival—whose 15th edition will run from November 2 to 11—is a case in point. Formerly held every two years, its organizers have seen fit to turn the SWF into an annual event, bringing it up to the level of other regional events such as the Sydney Writers Festival and the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

I was a participant in last year’s SWF, engaged in a very lively conversation with the British playwright and novelist Caryl Phillips, but it was different to be going backstage this time and to watch the event being set up. The festival was being launched more than two months in advance to start generating publicity and ticket sales, but our small press group (which included Susan Wyndham of the Sydney Morning Herald and Parisa Pichitmarn of the Bangkok Post) was treated to a preview of the kind of talent to expect at the festival itself, and to an introduction to the Singapore book scene.

Before we even met the authors, we met the books—and a familiar authorial accessory, beer. “Books & Beer” is a regular event that takes place around Singapore at different venues, and this time it was at Lil Papas Wieners Bistro at Tanjong Pagar Plaza, right next to the central business district. Aside from selling a mindboggling variety of craft beers from all over the world, Lil Papa’s features a revolving library operating on a simple principle: bring a book, and take one home. The crowd is decidedly young, but the books on the shelves go beyond perennial favorites Neil Gaiman, Haruki Murakami, and Alex Garland to include Anthony Burgess, John Fowles, and John Le Carre.

At Select Books on Armenian Street, we sat down with a group of Singaporean or Singapore-based writers—Hadijah Rahmat, who writes poetry and fiction in Malay; KTM Iqbal, a Tamil poet; Chow Teck Seng, a poet and fictionist in Chinese; Shamini Flint, an ex-lawyer from Malaysia whose crime mysteries and children’s books in English have sold over 500,000 copies since she began writing six years ago; and Neil Humphreys, a British humorist who has made Singapore his home and whose most recent book, Return to a Sexy Island, recently made Singapore’s bestseller list.

The multiracial composition of the group couldn’t have been more Singaporean, representing the four official languages (English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil) and the experiences—both pluses and minuses—as well of each of these writers and the language they wrote in. Not surprisingly, Neil and Shamini found it easiest to break through to a larger market—Neil had just returned from a book launch in Malaysia—but even so, barriers remain. “I found that my publishers were much more interested in book with no Asian content,” said the eminently adaptable Shamini, whose books have gone as far as South Africa. Chow Teck Seng saw a way out of the madding crowd by publishing his poems with photographs and other catchy graphics that seem to have clicked with younger readers.

I was both relieved and distressed to find that Singaporean and Filipino authors had much in common. Books are expensive in Singapore, averaging about S$17 (almost P600) for paperbacks and $30 for hardbacks. With a population of 6 million, the market is inherently small. Translation grants—vital in a multiracial, multilingual society—are new and few. “We don’t read each other” was a lament I heard more than once, particularly across the linguistic divide. With the exception of Neil and Shamini, most local writers still need to keep day jobs, usually as teachers.

As for taboos and political no-no’s, they’re still in place—writing too pointedly about race and religion could land you in the hot seat, and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is still officially banned—but Singaporean writers have learned to test and push the limits. Humphrey’s solution is humor—lots of it. “I’m known as the foreigner who whacks Singapore and survives,” he said. “Regulation encourages creativity,” another writer told me. An anti-homosexuality statute is still in the books, but that hasn’t stopped Jee Leong Koh from writing and publishing overtly gay poetry. And sometimes the poetry comes from people you least expect to write poems, especially traditional sonnets, such as Joshua Ip—the pseudonym of a major in the Singaporean army—whose Sonnets from Singlish has been gaining some traction in the bookshops.

Speaking of book stores, there are around 40 of them in Singapore, including a few prized “indie” bookshops such as Select and Books Actually. The recent global closure of Border’s was a big letdown for book buyers, but old reliables like Kinokuniya are still operating, and even sell some local literature.

There’s a palpable sense of a cultural and literary renaissance in the place, and the forthcoming SWF will be sure to project Singapore’s cultural vitality even more strongly, with Pulitzer prizewinner Michael Cunningham (The Hours), travel essayist Pico Iyer, and Man Asian prizewinner Shin Kyung-Sook leading an impressive list of literary luminaries in attendance (including our own novelist Charlson Ong). All in all, the SWF will feature 138 local and 46 international writers in 200 events spanning ten days.

“And for the first time, we’re having a festival fringe focused on the origins of desire and sexuality in literature,” said the young and energetic festival director Paul Tan, from the National Arts Council. The staid riverside Arts House, which used to be the parliament building, will be hosting dicsussions on (surprise, surprise) 50 Shades of Grey and burning questions like “Do women write better sex?” and “Can you be a feminist and still enjoy women’s magazines?”

If only for that, it should be worth booking a visit to Singapore between November 2 and 11.