SINGAPORE - The Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) will go ahead this year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, but with the value of its 12 top prizes cut from $10,000 to $3,000 each.
The biennial award's organiser, the Singapore Book Council, said this was because of the tough economic climate, which has caused funding to fall.
The council's executive director, Mr William Phuan, said that reducing the prizes was a difficult decision to make, but that the alternative would have been to cancel the event altogether.
"We felt it is still important to continue to celebrate the writers and their achievements," he said after the release of the 47-strong shortlist across 12 categories - fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil - on Wednesday (July 22).
"We would like to appeal to the community to keep supporting Singlit in any way they are able to," he added. "In these challenging times, all are affected, but books are essential and we want to rally everyone to support the books and their writers."
The council's programmes are supported by a major company grant from the National Arts Council and the prize itself receives funds from various foundations and corporate donors.
Singapore's oldest ongoing literary prize in all four official languages will go virtual for the first time on Aug 27 at 8pm, with the ceremony livestreamed from the council's Facebook and YouTube pages.
The public may vote online for their favourite titles in each of the four languages in the inaugural Readers' Favourite category, with the winning writers receiving a $1,000 cash prize. Their voters stand a chance to win book vouchers.
In a reflection of the rise in Singaporean novelists making their presence felt abroad, half the nominations for the English fiction category are novels published overseas: former SLP winner Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays Of A Star, Lee Jing-Jing's How We Disappeared and Kirstin Chen's Bury What We Cannot Take.
They face off against myth-heavy, locally-published story collections Modern Myths by Clara Chow and Lion City by Ng Yi-Sheng - who previously won for English poetry - as well as Epigram Books Fiction Prize runner-up Nimita's Place by Akshita Nanda.
Local publishers Ethos Books and Unggun Creative tied for the highest number of titles shortlisted, with five nominations each.
Ethos has This Is What Inequality Looks Like, sociologist Teo You Yenn's bestselling non-fiction book about poverty, in the running for English creative non-fiction.
It also dominates the English poetry category with four out of five titles, including Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo's A Gathering Of Themes and two-time SLP winner Yong Shu Hoong's Right Of The Soil.
These are up against edgy debuts by newcomers in their 20s, Gaze Back by Marylyn Tan and parsetreeforestfire by Hamid Roslan.
Math Paper Press's An Epic Of Durable Departures by Jason Wee, dedicated to the late performance artist Lee Wen, rounds out that category.
Ethos publisher Ng Kah Gay said: "The dynamic range of these shortlisted titles reflects the openness of this year's judges to experimentation, as well as to formal tradition. Their inclusiveness will go some way to shape the reading preferences of the well-informed, and I thank them for this."
Tan, 27, said that it was "gratifying" to be in the running with established writers she respects, including Yong, her Creative Arts Programme mentor. "As the only queer woman on the (English poetry) shortlist, I'm utterly pummelled with vindication with this show of establishment recognition."
Unggun Creative co-founder Farihan Bahron said the young publishing outfit, which began in 2016, was "honoured and humbled" to score five nominations.
He added: "The reduced prize money is not an issue. To be shortlisted and win is an honour in itself. At the same time, we hope that this will not be the new normal."
Five authors were shortlisted twice this year, including two of Unggun's Malay-language writers, Suratman Markasan and Jamal Ismail, Tamil-language writers A. K. Varadharajan and Sithuraj Ponraj and Chinese-language writer Wong Koi Tet.
Jamal, 68, has a double nomination in the same category, Malay fiction, for his magical realist collection GOD(A) and Tunjuk Langit, a novel about the senior citizens of a soon-to-be-demolished welfare home.
He said he was a bit disappointed by the cuts to the prize, but suggested that the winners be compensated in another form: translation of their works into other languages. "To me, that would be a much better prize. Then everyone can appreciate what kind of work we have in Singapore."
Wong, 47, said he was not surprised to be shortlisted twice. "I do think the two books sort of deserved the attention. I have been writing them for quite some years."
He began writing the prose pieces of dakota, about Dakota Crescent where he grew up in the 1970s, after he moved out in 2000, while the earliest story in his fiction collection Black Panther dates back to 2003.
Sithuraj, who won for Tamil fiction in 2016, said he was thrilled to get nods for both his 80-poem collection It Is Easy To Be An Italian and novel The Wooden Elephant.
Shrugging off the reduced prize, he said: "Frankly, very few Singapore writers I know write for the money. I think the prize means something by itself."
The prize began in 1992. This year, it attracted 224 submissions, a 30 per cent increase from 2018.The award is open to any work in the three genres created by a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident in the four languages, which must be published in Singapore or abroad in a physical book format between Jan 1, 2018, and Dec 31 last year.
Each prize category is judged by a separate panel of three writers and industry experts. Chief judges include Esplanade communications and content head Clarissa Oon for English creative non-fiction, Cultural Medallion recipient KTM Iqbal for Tamil poetry and Dr Sa’eda Buang of the Asian Languages and Cultures Academic Group for Malay fiction.
For more information on the prize, visit this website.