SINGAPORE - Evocative images such as a foreign worker balancing a rod atop his head as he tries to keep his footing on shifting gravel mounds opened the 20th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival on Friday (Nov 3).
The images, from a video by artist Alecia Neo, were responding to this year's festival theme, the Tamil word "Aram", meaning "goodness" or "doing good".
The word makes a notable appearance in Thirukkural, an ancient text about ethics and everyday virtue that is widely revered as the most influential literary work in the language.
Festival director Yeow Kai Chai remarked upon the festival's progress from a niche event catering to the literati, to a platform that reached some 41,000 people last year.
This year's line-up, he added, will "bring to the fore current issues with a strong impact on our lives today, from intercultural-ism and cross border conflict to refugee crisis, and even the hopes and dreams of the young amongst us".
The 10-day festival of more than 300 programmes is meant to question ethical quandaries and moral conundrums, as writers and artists ask what it truly means to be good.
More than 340 writers from Singapore and abroad will be speaking, including acclaimed names such as Pulitzer Prize-winners novelist Junot Diaz, poet Rae Armantrout and journalist Ian Johnson.
At the opening ceremony, spoken word poet Deborah Emmanuel and DJ Kiat of audiovisual collective Syndicate performed the festival's commissioned song Ocean Free.
A group of storytellers from India also performed an excerpt from The Many-Splendoured Folk Art Of Tamil Storytellers - an event which will be presented on Saturday by Tamil Murasu.
The guest of honour at the event was Senior Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann.
Speaking on the theme of Aram, Ms Sim said: "This is particularly pertinent in a world where we see increasing examples of fragmentation and polarisation, where it gets harder for people to agree to disagree.
"I believe that the Singapore Writers Festival stands as a literary counterpoint to this fragmentation and polarisation," she added. "As one of the few multi-lingual literary festivals in the world, the festival highlights the beauty of the written and spoken word across Singapore's four official languages - English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
"I hope the festival theme will inspire all of us to think deeply about doing and being 'good', in the spirit of our shared humanity. We must consider how diversity can be a strength to be embraced, regardless of language, race, or religion."
The festival was started in 1986 as a biennial event and became an annual event in 2011.
Among the highlights of the 20th edition are an insiders' tour of the local book industry, school talks by bestselling international authors and Read To Teleport, which recreates the Tiong Bahru space of indie bookstore BooksActually in the Arts House.
The festival will close on Nov 12 with the debate This House Believes That Kiasuism Is A Good Singaporean Trait, featuring the likes of writers Ovidia Yu, Gwee Li Sui and Adrian Tan.
BOOK IT / SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL
WHERE: The Civic District
WHEN: Till Nov 12
ADMISSION: $25 for regular festival passes; separately ticketed events are $10 to $60, from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)