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.

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