Between the lines: Of Singlish and Singapore football

Singapore Writers Festival panel "How To Run A Country: Can Singapore Provide A Model?" featuring Donald Low (right) and Parag Khanna (left) and moderated by SPH's Robin Chan. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Singapore Writers Festival panel "How To Run A Country: Can Singapore Provide A Model?" featuring Donald Low (right) and Parag Khanna (left) and moderated by SPH's Robin Chan. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

It was a uniquely Singaporean day at the Singapore Writers Festival on Sunday (Nov 2), with panels that turned the spotlight on Singlish, Singaporean love poetry, and Singapore's culinary scene, as well as Singapore's position in the world.

At least 120 people filled the National Museum of Singapore's Gallery Theatre in the morning for a lively debate as to whether Singapore could be a good role model for other countries - "A qualified no, but nonetheless no", in the words of academic and author Donald Low.

The associate dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, who recently co-authored Hard Choices: Challenging The Singapore Consensus, squared off with geopolitical strategist and writer Parag Khanna, who relocated from the United States to Singapore two years ago. Low felt that the things that had made Singapore successful were "not relevant to 'real countries'", of which he felt Singapore was not. Citing a recent trip to Kazakhstan where he spoke to Kazakh students, he found himself at a loss to provide them with a "Singapore recipe", adding that "What made us succeed in the past is less relevant now".

Khanna disagreed, emphasising that countries and cities were still clamouring to learn from Singapore regardless of whether Singapore's succcess could be replicated, noting that cities across the globe were becoming increasingly like Singapore: multicultural and diverse. Democracies, he felt, were increasingly turning to technocrats to find out how to run a country.

Low said he would make a distinction between "public management" - how a country ran the technical side of things, including urban planning and various infrastructural developments - and "governance". Expert governance, he felt, was also markedly different from "elite governance", which he feels Singapore relies on. He said: "Essentially, the countries that want to copy Singapore are those that want to get rich without losing power."

Hands went up all across the room during the question and answer session, which included questions on whether Singapore's model needed some tweaking or a radical overhaul, and whether Singapore's "amorphous" style of governance would translate to other countries. Low eventually stated that while Khanna had been keen to relocate to Singapore, he himself was planning to leave Singapore at some point, possibly for retirement: "This is no place for old men."

The darker underbelly of Singapore emerged during a panel on football match fixing featuring sports writer and columnist Neil Humphreys and award-winning journalist Zaihan Yusof, moderated by Gerard Wong from the Football Association of Singapore. Zaihan, who has written major scoops about the Singaporeans behind international match fixing, spoke about how his car was often vandalised after he published a major expose, and Humphreys joked that match fixing was "one of the few things in Singapore we're good at - we can't win them, but we can fix them."

Singapore's local patois also had its time in the sun in the panel Singling Out Singlish, featuring writer Ann Ang, screenwriter and showrunner Lee Thean-jeen and playwright Haresh Sharma. The Singapore Art Museum's Glass Hall was at full capacity, with at least 130 people in attendance.

Ang's short story collection Bang My Car features the ubiquitous 'uncle' figure speaking a broad and heavy Singlish; Lee has adapted writer Dave Chua's Gone Case for the screen, which also employs Singlish heavily; and Sharma's characters often use Singlish in various forms on stage, with their use of language reflecting their social class, educational background and their relationships with those they are interacting with on stage.

Lee spoke about working within the confines of the Media Development Authority's Free-to-Air Television Programme Code, which explicity stipulates that Singlish, which is deemed ungrammatical, should not be encouraged and is only allowed in interviews where the interviewee uses Singlish (implying an inability to "code-switch" to standard English). All the writers felt that Singlish added an authenticity and flavour to their works. This was clear from a screening of an excerpt from Sharma's play Those Who Can't, Teach, which left audience members in stitches.

Lee added that audience members often connect more deeply to shows when they see and hear a mirror of themselves on screen or on stage. Ang added that Singlish is often seen as the "bogeyman" or as "a caricature of the language", and that many "unfair judgments" are often imposed on it. An audience member from the United States later remarked that he wished he could learn Singlish, with its rich textures, and understand it better.

The international writers at the festival seemed to share the same desire to get to know Singapore a bit better. Over the weekend, former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky paid a visit to indie bookstore Books Actually, and Irish novelist Julian Gough made his way to Haw Par Villa. He tweeted: "I won't post pictures of Haw Par Villa's Ten Circles of Hell. Tarantinoesque... (Parents used it to traumatise their kids into being good.)"

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