THE WRITE STUFF: THE DEVELOPMENT OF SINGAPORE LITERATURE IN ENGLISH
This paper is divided into two parts. The first provides a brief chronoligacal survey of the development of modern Singapore literature in English, taking into consideration the pivotal figures,while the second itemized some initiatives that have been established to further promote literature in Singapore.
It would not be wrong to say that in Singapore, literature grew out of the literati, for modern Singapore literature in English first emerged from the halls of academe. Of the three major genres, prose, poetry and drama, the earliest to gain pre-eminence in Singapore was poetry. This was perhaps on account of its intimate connection with the self or its brevity of form as a crystallization of some observation, vignette or insight, which then makes writing a collection of verses less intimidating a task than producing a novel or play which would involve devising a distinct social setting and creating a cast of characters with recognizably individualized voices and then charting their progress over a duration of time. The earliest poetry had its modest beginnings among the undergraduates of the University of Malaya in Singapore, at a time when Singapore literature in English still shared common grounds with Malayan literature in English, in view of their uniform colonial heritage and subsequently, because of the Federation of Malaysia. The first volume of poetry in English was Pulse by Want Gung We, published in 1950. This was followed by Edwin Thumboo's Rib of Earth in 1956 and Ee Tiang Hong 1 of the Many Faces in 1960. A curious phenomenon in those early days was that one's personal collection was likely to have been published and to feature a critical introduction by one's fellow poet.
Apart from these individual volumes,t here were many notable anthologies from the mid-sixties and after, including T Wignesan's Bunga Emas (1964) and three anthologies edited by Edwin Thumboo: The Flowering Tee (1970), Seven Poets (1973) and The Second Tongue. Of this pioneering cohort of poets, Thumboo remains the most influential voice, primarily for his topical and insightful exploration of social and national themes in his subsequent volumes, God Can Die (1977), Ulysses by the Merlion (1979) and A Third Map (1993). Much decorated for his poetic contributions and publi commitment, Thumboo is often considered to be the unofficial poet laureate of Singapore.
It was on the verge of Singapore's independence thatdrama also first drew feeble breath. Although the Drama Society of the University of Malaya in Singapore was founded in 1958, dramatic activity continued for some time to be concentrated in expatriate clubs and military bases and to revolve round drawing room comedies of the British school. The earliest efforts at writing Singapore plays for a Singaporean cast were undertaken by lawyer Lim Chor Pee as a reaction against the patronizing attitude of the imperialist. Lim in fact engaged in a debate with the Straits Time theatre critic at that time, M. E. Constant, who remarked condescendingly: "Let the local theatre clubs be not too proud to learn from ezpat clubs". To which comment Lim retorted: This sort of attitude should have gone with the plumed hat" Lim wrote two plays, Mimi Fan and A White Rose at Midnight, both of which were stage. Lim's dramatic forays were followed by Goh Poh Seng, a medical doctor who has distinguished himself in allt hree genres, beginning with three plays in the mid-sixties, The Moon Is Less Bright, The Elder Brother and When Smiles are Done, before moving to prose in the mid-seventies and poetry in the late seventies and early eighties.
A problem which both the poets and playwrights had to grapple with was that of English as a creative medium, together with its cultural baggage and colonial associations. The validity of writing in the language of the imperialists while attempting to forge a new cultural identity was an issue that perplexed these early writers. This was compounded by an acknowledgement of the need to recognize the legitimate contribution of the other language streams - Chinese, Malay and Tamil - to an emergent national literature. An abortive attempt was mad at devising a hybrid idiom, Eng Mal Chin to reflect the amalgam of tongues, but this was too tentative and selfconscious to be successful as a means of appropriation through de-Anglicization.
Because of the intrinsic nature of the respective genres, the issue of language was less problematic in poetry than in plays. Lim's plays thus betray vestiges of a colonial legacy from which he was unable to extricate himself while Goh experimented with idio, to a limited and somewhat inconsistent degree.
The seventies attested to the emergence of several poets who were to become major forces of inspiration and models of emulation. Two notable names were Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng, both of whom have made their mark internationally, with Lee garnering the prestigious Gabriela Mistral Award from the Chilean government. In contrast to Thumboo's public stance, these two epitomized a more personal brand of poetry. Yap's craft is distinguishable by his stylistic wizardry and his penchant for word-play, not to mention his idiosyncratic eye for the foibles of contemporary life in such volumes as only Lines (1977), Down the Line (1977), Commonplace (1977). Lee is of a deeply meditative, lyrical bent whose poetic quest embraces both the individual journey of soul-searching and a larger unifying humanity in such collections as Against the New Wave (1988) and The Brink of an Amen (1991). Her later poetry increasingly broaches questions of faith and religion, evident in her most recent volume, Lambada by Galilee (1999). Ironically, her most anthologized work is an early poem, My Country and My People, which expresses her own ambivalent attitude towards nationhood and patriotism.
The seventies was also the era in which drama found its indigenous voice and prose drew forth its earliest practitioners. After the initial spurt of dramatic compositions by Lim and Goh in the Sixties, the field of drama was bereft of local efforts untul 1974 when Robert Yeo, who is also a poet of some repute, wrote the first of hos trilogy on Singapore politics, Are You There Singapore? in 1974. A notable achievement of Yeo was the incorporation of local patois from quotidian discourse into the dialog of his plays, making the idiom recognizably Singaporean in terms of both register and inflection.
The first Singaporean novel in English, If We Dream Too Long was published by Goh Poh Seng in 1972 followed it with another novel The Immolation before channeling his energies into verse for the bulk of the following two decades and only re-emerging in the mid-nineties with A Dance of Month, a novel written in his revised status as an expatriate in Canada. In many respects, If We Dream Too Long, is a biulding roman chronicling the rites-of-passage of its young male protagonist within the context of the rapid urbanization and economic instrumentalism of postcolonial Singapore. Goh's maiden novel did not unleash the flood gates for this genre however, and concurrent ventures into prose evinced a preference for the short story. Probably the best known prose writer in Singapore, Catherine Lim also emerged in the 1970s with her collection Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore (1978) written when she was with the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore and with the school market in mind. Lim's early stories were characterized by a dramatic twist in their denouement but her prolific output continues to demonstrate her flair for spinning a good yarn and her fascination with the tensions between feudalism and modernity, and the manner in which superstitions and other outmoded rituals and values are negotiated.
If the Sixties signfied the embryonic stage and the Seventies the phase of gestation, then the Eighties and Nineties represented the period of confidence and consolidation. Many new voices surfaced in all three genres, but with a difference. While poetry and drama seemingly attracted the younger set, prose fiction, and in particular the novel, witnessed the rise of several older practitioners who brought to their works the wisdom and maturity of the experienced. While the likes of Thumboo, Yap, Lee, Goh and Yeo sustained their poetic endeavors, a new generation of poets, the majority of whom emerged from the portals of the National University of Singapore, began writing in the more conducive publishing climate of the last two decades. Of significance is the young poets' marked facility with the Enclish Language as well their readiness to adopt it as a creative medium with none of the postcolonial anxiety or insecurity.
Instead, they often adopted strategies for re-making the language to capture their own unique, multicultural experience. Among this new cohort of young poets, which includes Simon Tay, Koh Buck Song, Desmond sim, Paul Tan Kim Liang and Ho Poh Fun, two have particularly distinguished themselves as the beacon-bearers for their generation. One is Boey Kim Cheng, whose two volumes Somewhere Bound and Another Place were both award-winning and showed the lyrical grace and compact images of his mentor Lee Tzu Pheng. The other, Alfian Sa'at, is a fairly radical voice. His two volumes, One Fierce Hour and A History of Amnesia, both explore the minority Malay experience and position it amidst the nexus of larger metaphysical inquiries as well as interrogations of the affairs of nationhood as these pertain to issues of policy and prescriptions. Certain recurrent themes inevitably abound among these young poets, prompted by their cosmopolitan exposure and intercultural collision or collusions in a rapidly modernizing Singapore: such preoccupations as the nostalgia for transformed or disappearing landscapes, the search for equipoise between the preservation of the old and the pursuit of the new.
In the 80s and 90s, Catherine Lim was even more productive, sustaining the interest in he best-selling debut with a half dozen more collections of short fiction. This culminated in three novels that enjoyed the prestige of being published abroad and distributed internationally, namely, The Bond Maid, The Teardrop Story Woman and Follow the Wrong God Home. Lim has since been able to stop working and to dedicate herself to full-time writing.
Three noteworthy names who entered the arena of prose fiction in the 80s and 90s, not as callow youth but having accumulated much experience in their respective careers, were Rex Shelley, Gopal Baratham and Suchen Christine Lim. Shelley, a businessman who is also a respected board member of Singapore's Public Service Commission, began writing in semi-retirement. His four novels, The Shrimp People (1991), People of the Pear Tree (1993) Island in the Centre (1995) and A River of Roses (1999) document the Eurasion experience against the background of the Pacific War in Malaysia and Singapore, and collectively constitute a neat quartet.
In fact, the titles of his novels, with the exception of Island in the Centre, which is about the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, are in fact transliterations of typical Eurasian names like Perera and Rosario. His first novel, The Shrimp People, already mapped out a narrative space for Eurasians who are pejoratively nicknamed "gragos" or "Shrimps". Shelley enjoys the singular honour of being the only fictionist in Singapore whose every novel has won a prize, with his latest netting the first Dymocks Literary Award.
Gopal Baratham is a neurosurgeon who began publishing prose fiction fairly late in his career as compared to the glut of young poets fresh out of college. He began his writing career with short stories before embarking on his novel Sayang (1991), A Candle On The Sun (1991) and Moonrise, Sunset (1996). His literary corpus encompasses divergent subjects, from political intrigue and the apotheosis of desire to drug addition and murder mysteries, but this versatility is uniformly tinged by sensuous evocation and an illuminating insight. Nonetheless, he has also been accused of resorting to sensationalism to bait the reader in his uncompromisingly graphic description of sex scenes.
As the first winner of the Singapore Literature Prize with her third novel A Fistful of Colours, Suchen Christine Lim, like her contemporary Catherine Lim, works at the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore. Her two previous novels are Rice Bowl (1984) and Gift from the Gods (1990) and her most recent, A Bit of Earth published only last year. Lim's novels have an epic quality to them, in pitting the individual destiny against the vast sprawl and tumultuous canvas of history with its sociopolitical minutiea.
A whole generation younger but also emerging in the late 80s and 90s are four budding fictionists of note: Philip Jeyaretnam, Claire Tham, Colin Cheong and Hwee Hwee Tan. The works of these younger writers are exemplified by a liberal perspective, youthful angst, stylistic subtlety and ostensible interest in form as much as content. Their focus is on contemporary issues of alienation, idealism and identity, the tussle between individual freedom and social obligation and the adjustments to a new world order dominated by globalisation, transnationalism, diaspora and the inundation by media images. Among them, Hwee Hwee Tan has gained an international following with her social satires that transcend the specificities of cultures.
Like prose fiction, the field of drama traces a similar trajectory, with the first fruits being reaped in the Seventies and a bountiful harvest in the last two decades. After Yeo's pioneering effort with the indigenous, homespun Singapore play in the seventies, he followed with parts two and three of his Singapore trilogy, namely One Year Back Home (1980) and Changi (1995). Meanwhile, Stella Kon created one of the most memorable heroins of the Singapore stage in Emily of Emerald Hill (1984) which enjoys the distinction of being the most frequently reprised play on the local stage. The titular figure, as the reigning matriarch of a Peranakan household in decline, epitomizes both the bygone glory of a uniquely Singaporean culture and the neocultural product of a Singapore intersected by the coordinates of different races and ethnicities.
The year in which Kon's play first premiered, 1984, was a landmark year for Singapore drama in another aspect. This was the year an Asian-American director, Tzi Ma, was invited to helm a potpourri of Singapore short plays for the annual Arts Festival. Tzi Ma, accordingly, invited submissions and unwittingly galvanized a new impulse for playwriting in Singapore. Michael Chiang, inarguably Singapore's foremost proponent of situational comedy in such plays as Army Daze, Mixed Signals, Beauty World, My Lonely Tarts and Mortal Sins, was one of the contributors. Kuo Pao Kun, already figure to reckon with in Chinese theatre circles, also made his first foray into English playwriting in the mid-80s with his monologues, The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole and No Parkings on Odd Days. Effectively bilingual, Kuo is now widely respected as the doyen of Singapore drama with such groundbreaking works as Mama Looking for Her Cat, the first Singapore play to use six different languages and dialects within the same text, Lao Jiu and Descendents of the Eunuch Admiral, where resistance against patriarchal oppression and the materialist hegemony in Singapore is enacted through such metaphors as puppetry and castration. Kuo's plays reconcile dramatic subtlety with provocative political agendas by veiling their controversial subtext in allegory or satire. In this way, he also succeeds in circumventing the rigors of censorship in Singapore, where plays to be staged need to be issued with a public entertainment license.
In the late 1980s, the proliferation of new theatre companies, the increased opportunities for local plays to be stage, the improvement in audience receptivity, were all factors which motivated a surge of interest in drama and playwriting. The shift in reception dynamics meant that playwrights were inclined to experiment with new forms, structures and treatments. The well-made play confined within the frame of the tradisional proscenium arch became an obsolete convention from which young playwrights sought departure with their devised plays, site-specific or enviromental presentations and postmodern aesthetics. A young playwright who has made his mark with the devised play, fabricated in collaboration with a director and a pool of actors, is Haresh Sharma, whose plays are characterized by a minimalist mise-en-scene and deal with such social issues as latent racism, the unwarranted pressure of Singapore's education sysetm, suicide and schizophrenia. Not all young dramatists opted for the anti-linear, anti-aristotelian model however. Tan Tan How, a journalist, and Eleanor Wong, a lawyer turned broadcaster, are two recent playwrights who elected to couch their highly politicized messages in the realist mode and to ascribe to the prototypic three-part dramatic structure of exposition, conflict, and catastrophe. Tan's plays have been unmitigatingly provocative: The Lady of Soul and the Ultimate 'S' Machine is a thinly veiled indictment of Singapore's censorious bureaucratic machinery and its privileging of social order over cultural vibrancy. His other play, Undercover, is a vitriolic parody of the 1987 incident when 22 people associated with the theatre group The Third Stage were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act for an alleged Marxist conspiracy.
While Tan's plays challenge the political ethos and question the status quo, Eleanor Wong examines gender issues in her two plays, Mergers and Accusations and Wills and Secessions which feature a lesbian protagonist. Wong's plays are also symptomatic of a pronounced phenomenon in current Singapore theatre, that of a predominance of female playwrights touching on concepts of female sexuality and endeavoring to de-stabilize the male gaze with a range of feminist manoeuvres. Wong's contemporary, Ovidia Yu, advances an explicitly feminist agenda in such plays as The Woman In a Tree on the Hill and Three Fat Virgins De-Assembled. Yu often uses myths from a matrilineal traditional to empower women and to counter the patriarchal prescriptions prescriptions of the Judaeo-Christian cosmology. That these younger playwrights are able to extend the perimeters of what is acceptable or permissible in relation to notions of taste, decorum and incendiarism, owes largely to the more liberal guidelines recommended by the Censorship Review Committee. It has been noted, albeit obliquely, that if Singapore should envision herself as a cultural hub in the new millennium, she should relax those draconian rules prescribed half a century earlier and not merely resort to tokenism or empty rhetoric.
Perhaps a good indication of the leagues traversed by Singapore literature in English since the 1950s is the international recognition accorded to it. Many young playwrights, including Sharma and Yu, have won accolades at internationald drama festivals. Prose writers like Hwee Hwee Tan, Gopal Baratham and Catherine Lim are published overseas while Suchen Christine Lim has been writer-in-residence at the Iowa International Writers' Programme. Our poets like Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng have been heaped with both regional and international honours and are widely anthologized. This international exposure is signficant not only in rendering Singapore literature in English as a known factor outside its country of origin but laso in providing the writers concerned with the encouragement of a deservedly wider readership and audience.
Many schemes and initiatives have been set up by various bodies, from government agencies and statutory boards to civil or cultural organizations and even commercial outfits, to promote the growth and sustain the development of Singapore literature in English. Broadly speaking, the initiatives can be categorized under four major groups: literary awards; incentives in the form of grants, subsidies and fellowships; creative writing competitions and talent development programmes.
a) Literary Awards
The National Book Development Council of Singapore confers awards on published works of outstanding merit. All books published within the two calendar years covered by the remit of these biennial awards will automatically be eligible for consideration. The Dymocks Literary Award was recently launched by the Dymocks booksellers. It makes a shortlist of outstanding prose fiction published in a particular year before announcing the winner, in much the same fashion as the Booker Prize.
(b) Incentives In The Form of Grants, Subsidies and Fellowships
The British Council of Singapore nominates one Singapore writer annually as its representative to the British Writers' Symposium held in Downing College, Cambridge, each July. It also nominates one playwright for the Royal Court Summer School, Where the playwright will have the opportunity to develop and refine a raw manuscript in tandem with a director and a group of actors assigned to him.
The National Arts Council of Singapore has four specific grant schemes tailored to the development of literature and the discovery of literary talents. Firstly, there are two kinds of publishing grants available for application. One is aimed at publishers and provides financial assistance to Singapore publishers to offset the costs involved in publishing and promoting local literary works or critical writings on the arts. The other is targeted at writers who can apply for a grant to publish original literary works or critical writings on the arts. A newly launched Emerging Artists Fund undertakes to foster the development of emerging Singaporean artists from a diverse range of artistic practice. A promising but unproven writer seeking to publish his first book will fal under this category.
Finally, the National Arts Council also administers a Writer-in-Residence scheme which provides financial assistance to organisations that wish to retain ttheservices of a well known foreign or Singaporean writer-in-residence under a 2 to 3 month residency arrangement.
(c) Creative Writing Competitions
The National Arts Council and Singapore Press Holdings jointly organise a biennial writing competition called the NAC-SPH Golden Point Awards. The competition is open to entries from all four language streams in Singapore and comprises sections on poetry and the short story. The entries must neither have been previously published or broadcast nor have won other prizes either local or foreign. The winning entries will be compiled and published collectively by the National Arts Council as a compendium.
The now defunct Singapore Literature Prize, organised by SNP Publishers, was an annual competition for unpublished manuscripts that alternated between prose fiction and poetry/drama. Winners not only bagged a trophy and prize money but also had their entries published and distributed.
This sub-group of writing competitions has been especially intrumental in talent-spotting emerging dramatists of calibre. The Singapore Press Holdings and Theatre Works, a leading theatre company in Singapore, jointly organise two biennial playwriting contest which alternate with each others. These are the Singapore Dramatist Awards, which invites the submission on full-length scripts int wo sections (open and youth) for adjudication by a panel of experts. The 24 hours playwriting competition transpires over a period of 24 hours, during which participants are sporadically fed with images which they are required to integrate into their scripts. The last 24 hours playwriting competition took place on a cruise ship, the Superstar Virgo.
Action Theatre, another major theatre company, encourages playwriting in two ways. It has organised two 10 minute play competitions after the Louisiana Festival model of short, ten minute plays. The winning entries were subsequently staged in evenings of short plays known as the squeeze. Action theatre has also mounted various new schemes, such as "First Drafts" and "Maiden Efforts" to identify budding playwrights of promise for its annual theatre festivals.
(d) Talent Development Programmes
An initiative launched by the Gifted Education Programme of the Ministry of Education in conjunction with the National university of Singapore is the Creative Arts Programme. Students from participating schools are urged to submit their portfolios of literary works. These will then be appraised and evaluated by academics and literary scholars from the university's department of English language and literature. The successful applicants will have the opportunity to take part in creative writing workshops conducted by veteran writers. Each will also be assigned to a particular writer for literary guidance under a mentorship scheme, at the end of which, his or her selected pieces will be collated into a volume for publication. Many young poets and playwrights in Singapore are alumni of this creative arts programme.
Whereas the Creative Arts Programme helps to identify aspiring writers in the schools, the National Arts Council's Mentor Access Project sustains the development of emerging writers from the general public by also providing them with mentorship opportunities and critical feeback. Likewise, any original work produced by the end of the programme may be either published or presented at an organised reading event.
Two theater companies, the aforementioned Theatre Works and The Necessary Stage, also conduct their own talent development programmes, in the form of a Writer's Lab and a Playwrights' Cove respectively. In both instances, aspiring playwrights are positioned within a writing circle where valuable, constructive criticism and appraisal can be had from fellow participants in a congenial atmosphere of mutual learning, sharing anmd experimentation. In addtion, professional playwrights from Singapore as well as from overseas are occasionally engaged to run master-classes and impart their expertise.
In addtiion to these four strategies of literary promotion, the National Arts Council also organises a biennial Writers' Festival, which apart from inviting big names from literary scene to give talks and sit on forums, also consists of a subsidiary itinerary of fringe events and activities that include creative writing workshops in genres ranging from the screenplay to travel literature.
© Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Malaysia. SEMUA HAKCIPTA TERPELIHARA 2002
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