The glamour of gee-whiz technology might make the study of literature seem dowdy to the young. But literature, like music and art, is what animates a sleek shiny gadget. It is a vast pool and one would be poorer without having dipped in it. Literary greats like Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Cervantes, Flaubert, Luo Guanzhong and Tagore help expand the boundaries of the mind. Students in Singapore, as anywhere else, benefit lastingly from guided access to their works and the sublime offerings of writers from many countries that embody the common literary heritage of the world.
However, it is important to acknowledge the agency of local literature as well, and not devalue it merely because it is not as well-known and appreciated globally as works that have achieved iconic status. Happily, this is what is happening as local literary texts slowly find a place in Singapore's secondary schools - a notable 32 of them now, including 27 neighbourhood schools, up from 18 in 2011. That schools are going local for their upper secondary literature studies testifies to their sense of confidence in the ability of Singapore texts to stand up to the critical scrutiny devoted habitually to other texts. The Ministry of Education must be commended for having put in place a syllabus that enables local texts to be chosen for study. Literature knows no boundaries, but national boundaries are known better when seen through the eyes of novelists, playwrights and poets who have devoted their varied talents to recording Singapore's place in time.
It would be a mistake to think that students seek an "easy" way out when they study local texts and not just the classics. Indeed, the opposite is true because local works are not supported by the presence of study guides and other critical material suitable for schools, to the same extent as more established texts are. Teachers, therefore, have to expend additional energy in fleshing out the historical, thematic and stylistic aspects of the local works. Students, too, have to depend closely on their powers of literary appreciation and analysis. It is to be hoped that annotated texts produced with young learners in mind will appear in larger numbers to fill this gap.
Literature, whether local or not, must claim its rightful place in schools. Chasing grades puts its study at a disadvantage because it is generally more difficult to score highly in the subject than it is in mathematics or the sciences, for example. Yet, literature, like history, is indispensable in alerting young minds to the complexities and subtleties of a world for which they will have to take responsibility soon. The upper secondary years provide just that window of maturity.