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Jean Ng (left) and Serene Chen play a myriad of characters in Between The Lines: Rant & Rave II, a historical tour of Singapore's literary landscape using excerpts from extant documents.

Whirlwind tour through the history of Singapore literature

Nov 11, 2016 5:50 AM

ENG-MA-CHIN. It's not a word most of us are familiar with, even if it does phonetically sound like "imagine". But there was a time when post-World War II Singapore writers wondered what a true Singapore language would look like, and coined "engmachin" as a portmanteau of "English", "Malay" and "Chinese" to describe the blend of three languages.

It's a strange word, and it never caught on. But it's the kind of trivia that propels and illuminates Between The Lines: Rant & Rave II, a new play written and directed by Chong Tze Chien for The Finger Players, with research by Hoe Su Fern.

Patching together quotes and excerpts from newspapers, journals and other extant sources, the play takes us through more than five decades of Singapore's English literature - from the first wave of post-World War II writers such as Wang Gungwu and S Rajaratnam, to the wide but short-lived popularity of Singapore fiction in the 1980s, right up to the present explosion of local titles.

Commissioned by the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), the play is a true gift to anyone curious about the literature scene's development. There is a lot of information packed into 90 minutes and delivered by actresses Serene Chen and Jean Ng, as they play a myriad of personalities who've influenced the scene.

But what can one conclude from this barrage of information? Well, for one thing, for decades now, the scene feels caught up in a dance of one step forward, one step back. Over the years, there have been valiant efforts by individuals and government bodies to promote literature among Singaporeans. But then the same government bodies end up frustrating those very efforts through censorship and conservative policies.

Take, for instance, Sonny Liew's extraordinary graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Despite his reputation as one of the country's best comic artists, Liew saw the grant of S$8,000 for the novel withdrawn by the government which cited "sensitive content" and its potential to "undermine the authority and legitimacy" of the government. Subsequently, it became a worldwide best-seller and won the Singapore Literature Prize - which, ironically, is supported by the government.

Perhaps even more damning is the fact that literature as a school subject is not encouraged among the young. The number of students pursuing literature has plummeted over the years, mostly on the grounds that schools and parents think it's a difficult subject to score in. At the same time, government events such as the SWF have gotten bigger and better, while a National Reading Movement was launched this year.

Between The Lines: Rant & Rave II captures these paradoxes intelligently and succinctly, even if it feels less comprehensive than Chong's first Rant & Rave (2012) which focused on the history of Singapore theatre. It also seems as if some voices have been privileged over others - for instances, Epigram Book's Edmund Wee here eclipses other similarly committed and gung-ho book publishers, while an inordinate amount of focus is placed on the late glamorous model-turned-author Bonny Hicks whose actual literary contribution is small.

Still, the play is an excellent effort in encapsulating the history of our young nation's literary development - even if it's a history of zig-zags, U-turns and detours.

  • The Singapore Writers Festival continues till Sunday with more than 120 events.