Quirky look at Singapore

50 Things To Love About Singapore editor Susan Long.
50 Things To Love About Singapore editor Susan Long. -- ST PHOTO: WANG HUI FEN

Last June, senior writer Susan Long was given the assignment of deciding on 50 items that represented the country's unique institutions, inventions and quirks - in preparation for a book to celebrate the little red dot's Golden Jubilee next year.

"There were so many things. Everyone has his own ideas of what should go into this list. Narrowing it down to 50 things was difficult," says Ms Long, 42.

But after several brainstorming sessions with 22 authoritative beat reporters from The Straits Times, they nailed the list. The result was 50 Things To Love About Singapore, a book of 50 essays on a wide range of things that makes the country distinctive.

Launched at the Singapore Writers Festival last Friday, the hardcover 248-page book took about a year to complete.

Ms Long recalls having discussions with each writer to tease out the three biggest issues in his or her respective beat.

"We made it a point not to avoid the elephants in the room, no matter how controversial these were," she says in reference to topics such as ministerial salaries, which features in the book in an essay by political correspondent Rachel Chang.

She also wanted to find new ways - "new entry points" - of presenting often talked-about topics such as Singlish, the Merlion and Electronic Road Pricing gantries.

For the essay on Singlish written by Life! deputy editor Clarissa Oon, a free iPhone app that explains Singlish phrases, Hosay!, was decided on as the new way into the topic.

As for the essay on the Merlion by web specials editor Ong Sor Fern, the evolution of the half-lion, half-fish icon in Singapore poetry was the unique way in which readers are encouraged to approach the creation.

Even with the new entry points, Ms Long - the newspaper's former enterprise editor who steered numerous long-form features to local and regional prizes - still had to ensure that there was consistency in the pieces.

"You have 50 different essays and different people who just want to tell their own stories, so editorial control has to be very tight. You need everyone's pieces to answer the same questions," she says.

These questions were: What does this particular item say about Singapore and why is it unique?

She says some of the pieces had to be "reworked intensively" because some writers were unable to write in the knowing, authoritative tone that was required.

"What we wanted was different from news writing," she says.

"We wanted a breezy, irreverent tone, that gives a brief encyclopaedic history and context to each topic, provides the stakes, then leads the reader towards a definite conclusion. There is very active steering."

Each piece was reworked by the writers at least twice following edits and queries by Ms Long before being sent to copy editor Linda Collins for the finishing touches.
Writing aside, there was also the look of the book to plan for.

Ms Long knew she did not want the "usual historical sepia-toned pictures that would inundate SG50 books".

Wanting a fresh and contemporary look, she discussed with a few people, including artist Mike Dizon and photographer Wang Hui Fen, and settled on getting one conceptual image of an item that would best encapsulate each topic. For example, a multi-coloured pinwheel to show multi-racialism for an essay by
Ms Chang, and a live bunny in a paper box to illustrate Singapore's rising civic consciousness in the form of animal and eco activists for a piece by copy editor Chang Ai-Lien.

Ms Wang, The Straits Times' deputy picture editor, says sourcing for the items that needed to be photographed was more difficult than expected. There was also a $300 prop budget to keep to.
She recalls roaming the streets for two weeks in July, hunting down objects.

Together with Ms Long, they also raided their respective children's toy cupboards and emerged with several items, including the pinwheel, bowling skittles as well as a toothbrush mug and tooth stickers, for essays on raising children here by senior correspondent Radha Basu and Singapore's campaign trail to health by senior health correspondent Salma Khalik.

A few items were Ms Wang's own handiwork - a strip of yellow ribbon which she cut and shaped on her own, and a napkin that she folded into a shape by watching YouTube videos.

On many other occasions, however, when resourcefulness waned, the kindness of people shone forth.

Several items were loaned out of goodwill through connections with various people, including an old video projector from hipster cafe Wimbly Lu and vintage tiles from Rumah Bebe, a Peranakan heritage boutique.

"There is a story behind every prop," says Ms Wang. "We were very fortunate. A lot of people chipped in to help."

Essays and images came together by the end of July and the book was sent for printing in September.

Says Ms Long: "What we resolved to do was to be the first to market. We didn't want to wait until 2015, when there would be an avalanche of such tomes launching. We wanted to get out there first."
The book is just one of the ways The Straits Times plans to mark the twin anniversaries of Singapore's 50th and the paper's 170th.

Says Straits Times editor Warren Fernandez: "I was not disappointed by the outcome. The book is a very good read. It's celebratory, reflective, critical, edgy and humorous.

"It makes a great gift - both as a Christmas present for family and friends and as something to present to just about anyone who might want to join next year's celebrations."
brynasim@sph.com.sg
50 Things To Love About Singapore is available at all leading bookstores at $25.