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GT Lye (left) and Saffri A Manaf performing a skit that combines in its dialogue Peranakan Malay and Malay. The Singapore Writers Festival hopes to highlight old narratives and languages of Singapore, such as Peranakan Malay which is a pidgin that's fast disappearing.
"There are works, stories and languages that are at risk of vanishing if we don't make efforts to preserve them ... works that have so much to say about our present," says Mr Yeow, the SWF director.
Joanne Harris (above), Eka Kurniawan and Lionel Shriver are three of the biggest names at this year's SWF.
Joanne Harris, Eka Kurniawan (above) and Lionel Shriver are three of the biggest names at this year's SWF.
Joanne Harris, Eka Kurniawan and Lionel Shriver (above) are three of the biggest names at this year's SWF.

Mining the past to reshape the present

Singapore Writers Festival returns with a focus on reviving old narratives and languages.
Sep 9, 2016 5:50 AM

PERANAKAN female impersonator GT Lye is 77 years old, and very fearful that the Peranakan way of speaking Malay is fast disappearing. He says: "Baba Malay has a different vocabulary from Malay because it incorporates many Hokkien and English words into it. Increasingly, the younger generation of Peranakans is not learning to speak Baba Malay, so it is in danger of becoming extinct."

At the recent press conference for Singapore Writers Festival 2016, Lye demonstrated this in a witty cross-talk with Saffri A Manaf, another veteran comic performer. While Saffri spoke ordinary Malay, Lye's remarks were peppered with "gua", "lu" and "kum xia" - basic Hokkien words that mean "I", "you" and "thank you" respectively - as well as a smattering of other words unrecognisable to most in the audience.

Lye says: "For centuries, the Malay and the Peranakan communities have been able to communicate with each other in a beautiful and harmonious way - not just through daily conversations but also through our music, poems and literary texts. It's sad that this language is now disappearing from right under our noses."

A special focus of this year's festival, with its record-breaking 330 literary acts appearing over 10 days, is its spotlight on forgotten narratives of Singapore. Festival director Yeow Kai Chai explains: "One of the ways I want to make the festival accessible is through heritage. In this post-SG50 year, after all that rah-rah celebrations, I think it is important to look inwards and see what we've gained and lost in our relentless march towards modernity. We've been so determined to move forward, we forget to love our past.

"That's why our festival theme this year is 'sayang', a Malay word that has layered meanings that include 'love' but also a sense of regret over what you've lost. When you miss out on the opportunity to have or keep something, you say: 'So sayang'. There are works, stories and languages that are at risk of vanishing if we don't make efforts to preserve them ... works that have so much to say about our present."

SWF is partnering with Malay daily Berita Harian to stage a comic Malay play titled Sayang. The play stars veteran performers including Lye and Saffri and revolves around two families trying to marry off their over-the-hill daughter and son. Berita Harian's deputy digital editor Chairul Fahmy Hussaini says it's the first time the newspaper is staging a play, which reflects its ongoing efforts to present the newspaper not just as an information provider but also as a custodian of language and tradition.

Rewinding the literary past

Besides this, SWF has also commissioned theatre writer-director Chong Tze Chien to create a play that looks back on the history of Singapore literature. In 2012, Chong had created a play titled Rant & Rave which pieced together some 40 years of Singapore's theatre history through government speeches, newspaper reviews and audience's letters to the press. It uses for its dialogue some of the most memorable words spoken or written by culture ministers, artists, theatre critics and letter-writers.

In a similar way, Chong's new play titled Between The Lines: Rant & Rave II will recall the evolution of Singapore's literary scene by stringing quotes and excerpts from newspaper articles and interviews, journals and books that have been compiled together by Hoe Su Fern, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

Chong, 41, says: "It covers everything and everyone that made an impact on the scene, from the early years with pioneers like Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap, to the popularity of Singapore books in the 1980s with authors like Philip Jeyaretnam, Adrian Tan and Bonny Hicks, to present-day issues such as government funding for writers and the censorship implications of accepting that funding.

"When you look at the past, there are some astonishing facts. For instance, in the 1980s, Jeyaretnam's first collection of stories titled First Love sold 24,000 copies, while Adrian Tan's The Teenage Textbook and its sequel The Teenage Workbook sold 18,000 and 12,000 copies respectively. These days, a Singapore writer might be happy if he or she sells 2,000 copies - that's seen as a healthy figure."

The proliferation of available titles and increasing competition for booklovers' attention have made it much harder for local authors to sell beyond 1,000 or 2,000 copies.

The biggest hit of recent years is The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew. It sold about 9,000 copies in Singapore, although the book has been a hit overseas, making it to the best-seller lists on Amazon and The New York Times.

Focus on Asian scribes

Meanwhile, the search into Singapore's literary and linguistic past doesn't mean that the festival is neglecting the present or the future. Just as in the previous 18 editions, this year's SWF has its share of international crowd-pullers, including best-selling fiction authors Lionel Shriver (We Need To Talk About Kevin) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat).

There is also a strong contingent of Asian writers including Eka Kurniawan, the newly-minted star from Indonesia whose novel Beauty Is A Wound is a global hit; best-selling Malaysian-born authors Tan Twang Eng (The Garden Of Evening Mists) and Tash Aw (The Harmony Silk Factory); Vijay Seshadri, the Indian-born, US-based Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, essayist and literary critic; Gosho Aoyama, the Japanese creator of the popular manga series Detective Conan and F Sionil Jose, one of the Philippine's most popular writers.

The Singapore contingent includes Sonny Liew, Balli Kaur Jaswal (Inheritance), Joshua Ip (Sonnets From The Singlish: Poems), Pooja Nansi (Love Is An Empty Barstool), O Thiam Chin (Now That It's Over), Alfian Sa'at (The Invisible Manuscript), Troy Chin (The Resident Tourist), Cyril Wong (Tilting Our Plates To Catch The Light) and others.

Mr Yeow points out: "We are not an Anglo-Saxon festival and we're not trying to be like the Hay Festival or the Edinburgh International Book Festival (both are well-known writers festivals in the UK). We are in South-east Asia and we are responding to the environment we're in and engaging in the different types of languages and narratives, nationally and regionally.

"We still want to attract big Western writers, but we don't want to rely on them to be our crowd-pullers - there are amazing talents here at home and in the region that we want people to learn more about."

  • The Singapore Writers Festival 2016 runs from Nov 4 to 13 at various locations in the central Civic District. Tickets from $10 to $60 from Sistic for various events. A S$20 festival pass give you access to most of the panel discussions. Go to for more information

10 highlights of SWF

Lionel Shriver

Best-selling author Shriver, in case you didn't know, is really a woman. She changed her name to Lionel at the age of 15 because she felt it suited her more. Regardless of gender, her writing is vivid, incisive and profound. She's best-known for her 2003 Orange Prize-winning novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, about a tragic school massacre. She will deliver a lecture and conduct a class for advanced writers on constructing fiction from topical issues on Nov 12 and 13.

Eka Kurniawan

Despite having only two books published in English - Beauty Is A Wound and Man Tiger - Eka has been anointed as the successor to the giant of Indonesian literature, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Like the latter, Eka writes his novels as a traditional storyteller would tell an oral tale - with strong characters, dramatic plots and minimal dialogue. He also employs magical realism in the style of Latin American writers. Beauty Is A Wound was placed on the list of 100 notable books of 2015 by The New York Times. Eka will appear in four events on Nov 12 and 13.

Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema

The 1980s was a crucial period for Taiwanese cinema. Until the late-1980s, Taiwan was ruled under martial law by the Kuomintang. This period of political isolation led filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang to explore the people's history and identity through extraordinary films such as Dust In The Wind and A Brighter Summer Day. This screening of Flowers of Taipei: Taiwan New Cinema, a documentary tracing that era of filmmaking, is accompanied by a dialogue with screenwriter Hsiao Yeh and producer Angelika Wang Keng Yu. This Nov 12 session is in Mandarin.

Marjorie Perloff

In the words of festival director Yeow Kai Chai, "Perloff is one of the greatest literary scholars of her time". In her Nov 6 lecture Reinventing Poetry For The Internet Age, she takes you through some of the most thrilling innovations in poetry since the dawn of the Internet. She will also be involved in two other events that discuss the role of literary criticism on Nov 5 and 6.

Joanne Harris

Harris is a successful author of 18 books. She is best known for her 1999 novel Chocolat that was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche. A frustrated accountant-turned-language teacher-turned-best-selling author, Harris is loved for the wit and wisdom in her books. She will participate in a panel discussion with Eka Kurniawan about magical realism titled The Allure of the Otherworldly. She will also conduct a workshop to teach writers how to write better dialogue. The events are on Nov 12 and 13.

Frederik Obermaier

Obermaier is an investigative journalist who, together with his colleague Bastian Obermayer, broke the story on the Panama Papers. The Panama Papers exposed millions of attorney-client documents detailing the financial misconducts, such as fraud and tax evasion, of many political leaders and personalities. Obermaier's lecture, Privacy Versus Surveillance: What The Panama Papers Mean For Everyone In The 21st Century, explores the implication of hacking, privacy and cybersecurity in the Internet Age. The lecture is on Nov 12.

An Actress Prepares

Every drama student is familiar with acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski's guide to acting titled An Actor Prepares. In this part-homage to and part-send-up of the world of acting, top theatre actress Siti Khalijah Zainal recalls her career on stage and the various characters she played, as well as the characters she hopes to play one day. The play is written by Alfian Sa'at and directed by Alin Mosbit. It runs on Nov 13.

Evan Puschak

Puschak is one of the most astute young culture commentators in the US. Going by the nickname "The Nerdwriter", he publishes weekly YouTube videos that examine contemporary culture in a hip and lively way. His YouTube essay parsing the sly but effective use of language by Donald Trump has been watched 4.5 million times. He will participate in three events exploring the US elections, the millennial generation and love.

Unwritten Country

Earlier this year, poet and critic Gwee Li Sui published Written Country, an intriguing reconstruction of Singapore's 50-year history through literature. In the upcoming SWF event Unwritten Country, Gwee tries to predict what Singapore and its literature would look like in the next 50 years. Meanwhile, co-panellist Boey Kim Cheng, a Singapore poet who emigrated to Australia in 1997 before returning this year, imagines Singapore in a parallel universe. The Nov 5 session is moderated by Tan Tarn How.

Epic International Reading Night

On Nov 5 at 8.30pm, eight acclaimed writers from various countries get together to read their favourite poems or prose excerpts on the topic of love. The writers include Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, Alfian Sa'at, Ryoichi Wago and Shobasakthi. Then on Nov 12, eight other acclaimed writers will gather to read their favourite literary texts on the topic of loss. The writers include Tan Twang Eng and Helen Oyeyemi. Both events are free to the public.

By Helmi Yusof