Singapore Writers Festival

Purest form of love

Poet and writer Noor Hasnah Adam (left) and her daughter, budding short-story writer Nur Aisyah Lyana, co-wrote Genggaman Sayang (Love's Grasp).
Poet and writer Noor Hasnah Adam (left) and her daughter, budding short-story writer Nur Aisyah Lyana, co-wrote Genggaman Sayang (Love's Grasp).PHOTO: DON CHI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Farish A. Noor.
Farish A. Noor.
Aidli Mosbit.
Aidli Mosbit.
Evan Puschak.
Evan Puschak.

The Singapore Writers Festival's first non-English commissioned work pays tribute to the mother-child bond

Love and loss - these emotional highs and lows are captured in two wistful syllables: sayang.

The Malay word, used variably as a term of endearment or to express a sense of pity and regret, is the theme for this year's Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from Friday to Nov 13.

It marks a series of firsts in the history of the festival, now in its 19th edition. Sayang is not only the festival's first non-English theme, but is also the spark behind the festival's first non-English commissioned work.

Festival director Yeow Kai Chai says a Malay response to the sayang theme was commissioned "as we want to demonstrate the multi-lingual nature of our festival and to reiterate that we are part of South-east Asia".


  • WHERE: Gallery II, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Nov 12, 8.30pm


The piece, Genggaman Sayang (Love's Grasp), is co-written by poet and writer Noor Hasnah Adam and her daughter, budding short-story writer Nur Aisyah Lyana. Crafted as a dialogue between mother and daughter, it captures both love and loss as the pair pay tribute to the bond between mother and child.

Genggaman Sayang will be performed by Hasnah and Aisyah at the festival's invitation-only opening ceremony on Friday and also during the free Epic International Reading Night On Loss on Nov 12. It is printed in the festival's programme booklet as well.

In the piece, Hasnah's worries about her daughter growing up and slipping away ("As you grew up, your grip loosened. My heart began to worry.") are answered by Aisyah's reassurances that she will never stray too far ("The older I am, the more I loosen my grip on you. But have faith, Mother. Our fingers are still intertwined.").

Hasnah, 42, started writing seriously when she was pregnant with Aisyah, now 19, and the eldest of her four children.

The Malay-language writer's accolades include two Golden Point Awards and three Malay Literature Prizes.

"I feel it has come full circle now that Aisyah is also an aspiring writer, on board with me for the Singapore Writers Festival," she says.

For her emotionally charged piece, she tapped a seemingly mundane moment last year when she was crossing the road with her younger children - one of them 12-year-old Alysia Nadia.

"I spontaneously held my child's hand out of habit. Then I realised how stiff her hand was and how awkward my child must have felt," says Hasnah.

"It just took her body language to tell me that things have changed with time. As much as I want to continue holding her hand, I must accept the fact that my child wants a bit of freedom and does not want to be in my shadow all the time."

It set her thinking about how relationships and responsibilities change with the inevitable march of time.

"When children are younger, never do they want their mother to leave them. But as time changes, so does my child," says Hasnah, who also teaches Higher Malay and Malay literature at Admiralty Secondary School. "And it struck me - will my child be able to return the favour of holding my hand when I'm old?"

Aisyah used to upload her Malay essays to her blog and was in Secondary 2 when one of her short stories was published in Berita Harian.

Genggaman Sayang is the first piece Aisyah has worked on with her mother. It also reflects how she sees love even under her mother's tough guidance.

"Through this collaboration, I understand what goes through her mind, her worries and concerns. Her words can be harsh at times, when it comes to my results or her critique of my short stories," says the National Junior College student.

"Previously, I would always have an inferiority complex, thinking I was never good enough for her. But now, I understand that it is just her way of showing her love for me, to help me improve."

Working on Genggaman Sayang also made her realise that the word "sayang" was far more than the stuff of romance novels or Malay dramas, she says.

"I think the love between a mother and a child is the purest form of sayang. But unfortunately, it is not the typical love portrayed in dramas," says Aisyah.

"It's complex, because my mother's actions may be ambiguous - for example, her way of imparting knowledge sometimes is like nagging to my ears. But it's her way of loving me by educating me."

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to singapore-writers-festival-2016.

Sayang unravelled

Here are some of the many ways the Singapore Writers Festival is plumbing the depths of "sayang".


Academic Farish A. Noor, head of the PhD programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, dives into the word sayang, charting how it has been adapted over time and how its meanings and uses have evolved.

Where: Chamber, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Saturday, 11.30am Admission: $15 from Sistic (go to or call 6348-5555)


This Malay-language film about the complex relationship between a crabby widower (Malaysian actor Rahim Razali) and his Indonesian caregiver (Singapore's Aidli Mosbit) was Singapore's entry for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film category last year. There will be a post-show dialogue with Aidli and director Sanif Olek.

Where: Screening Room, The Arts House When: Nov 7, 7pm Admission: Festival pass event ($20 from Sistic)


In this Singapore Writers Festival Classroom Series talk, Evan Puschak, the American creator and producer of popular Web video series The Nerdwriter, gives his take on how the word "love" is used in anything from everyday speech to pop culture.

Where: Auditorium, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrews Road When: Nov 13, 4pm Admission: Festival pass event ($20 from Sistic)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Purest form of love'. Print Edition | Subscribe