By Invitation

At SG51, let's turn to nation-building for the soul

After sprinting ahead for 50 years, Singapore needs to develop the muscle - and soul - for the marathon ahead as the nation progresses. Literature and the imagination are key to this.

Singapore is not a nation that hurries to bury its nose in a book. No swinging our way to work on the MRT, as is routine in Japan, our faces invisible behind the covers of the latest popular fiction or manga. We are a nation of hard-working pragmatists, our sights fixed upon the job in hand and the opportunities ahead.

We have just commemorated a proud half-century as a nation, celebrating all our hard-won gains. There can be no doubt that, over the past 50 years, we would never have reached the dizzying heights we have achieved unless we were like this.

Yet, 50 years is but the shortest of sprints in the life of most nations. In Singapore, now we ready ourselves for the longer stretch, where the lateral talents of the marathon runner are needed. Singapore has miraculously come of age and the future needs new perspectives. As we reassess the journey ahead, literature, and what it quietly adds to the underlying spirit of a nation, must not be forgotten as we forge our way forward.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Cherish our writers and poets and artists more. Their work is just as vital in the building of a nation as the work of those who practise more prosaic trades.

In school, the annoying and subjective hindrance of literature can be dropped for subjects that better guarantee a perfect exam score, and are more suited to getting a job, getting ahead. To be seen to dream in the pages of a novel, writing or reading it, would appear to summon up visions of self-indulgence, an avoidance of responsibility. Be an engineer or a scientist, be a lawyer, a doctor, a civil servant, a teacher, a financial analyst or an architect. Be someone, we are told, who is of practical use to the nation.

Science and technology speed forward progress and expand knowledge at a breathtaking rate. While society is enlarged by such dynamic evolution, it is not an integrating presence. It is writers and their readers, locked together by an intangible human bond, who help define what we are as a people, and who we will become.

We all long for what T. S. Elliot called "the still point of the turning world". This is what literature feels like when we are inside it as a reader - time stops and we enter another dimension.

Although all serious literature speaks only of the poverty of the human condition, as readers, we do not read fiction to find out the latest report on the state of our souls. We read fiction primarily for the pleasure of being told a story and being able to imagine new worlds. Yet, gently, within a story, a writer will pack the resonance of the world, until the reader is held in its web.

The voice of the writer is what we hear when we read, a voice that speaks directly into the reader's ear in its own distinctive way. We journey with the writer through experiences unfamiliar and mysterious, to communities and cultures we could not otherwise know, or into emotional situations that we might never ourselves experience, and leave with new-found understanding, realising hope can be found in the worst of circumstances, and that living is worth the effort. Through this journey, the reader enters the writer's mind, just as the writer enters the reader's mind to shape his consciousness and inspire.

Good literature creates bridges not only between the writer and a reader, but also between vastly different peoples. Language, beliefs, habits and customs may divide us, but in literature, we unite in common emotion whether we read of tribal Africa, small-town America or the world of a poor hawker-stall owner in Singapore. Through literature and the reading of it, we transcend history and ourselves and understand each other anew across time and space.

Many thousands of books are written every year; some delight and many others entertain and inform, but they do not earn the term "literature". Books that stand the test of time, books that we turn to for solace and illumination, whose language fills us with joy and wonder, books we wish to read again and again, discovering new layers of sensibility with each reading - such books are literature and fill our imagination.

THE GIFT OF IMAGINATION

To enter the world of the imagination in our formative years through the reading of such literature is to enter the crucible of our own creativity. It is a gift that holds fast to us throughout our lives as we walk the unknown corridors of our individual destiny.

The importance of literature, as part of the underpinning of a society, cannot be overestimated. A life infused with empathy and the expanded sense of our own humanity that reading good literature instils, grows not only the individual spirit but also the soul and spirit of a nation.

Carl Jung said the work of the artist meets the psychic needs of the society in which she/he lives. Writers are observers and also the custodians of society's highest ideals, and, in them, the conscience of a people and the soul of a nation are entrusted. That is why the universal truths found in William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, RabindranathTagore, Cao Xueqin or any other great writer, still speak to us over time as freshly as the day they were written.

The Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, says that societies in which writers and literature are valued are rich in nuance. Those communities without an intrinsic written literature express themselves with less precision, with less richness of nuance, and with less clarity than a community whose principal instrument of communication, the word, has been cultivated and perfected by means of literary texts.

There is also the danger as we go forward as a nation, of seeing literature as no more than a luxury pastime, and the arts in general as entertainment. Just as artisans are different from artists, so the arts must be seen as more than grassroots entertainment, more than finding the highest score or the lowest common denominator.

To Vargas Llosa, a society in which literature is relegated to the margins of social and personal life is a society condemned to become spiritually barren. What we will become, he says, depends entirely on our vision and our will. But if we wish to avoid the impoverishment of our imagination, then we must act. More precisely, he says, we must read. And write.

And I would add, cherish our writers and poets and artists more. Their work is just as vital in the building of a nation as the work of those who practise more prosaic trades. An acknowledgement of this is now being addressed in Singapore with the pragmatic enthusiasm we have come to expect of our nation state when it is clear something needs to be done. Growing the arts and an appreciation for them is akin to growing our soul. By its very nature, this is an organic process; it cannot just be put in place, but must be allowed the space, time and freedom in which to flourish.

According to the great German writer Hermann Hesse, literature is the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself.

By appreciating literature, life is better understood and better lived. Writers, and artists in all the creative fields, show us in their different ways not only a reflection of the society around us, but also mirror our truest and deepest selves.

Dr Meira Chand has written eight novels, including A Different Sky, set in Singapore. She is involved in programmes to nurture young writers, and is a board member of the National Arts Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'At SG51, let's turn to nation-building for the soul'. Print Edition | Subscribe