Wrap-up of Singapore Writers Festival

Singapore Writers Festival packs in crowds

Record attendance at Harvard speaker's lecture; regional, local voices get support too

The closing debate of the Singapore Writers Festival featured (from far left) Adrian Tan, Deborah Emmanuel, Vernetta Lopez, Joshua Ip, Oniatta Effendi, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Shamini Flint and Gwee Li Sui as well as moderator/host Petrina Kow.
The closing debate of the Singapore Writers Festival featured (from left) Adrian Tan, Deborah Emmanuel, Vernetta Lopez, Joshua Ip, Oniatta Effendi, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Shamini Flint and Gwee Li Sui as well as moderator/host Petrina Kow. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The Singapore Writers Festival this year again hit the sweet spot with lovers of literature, with packed halls at many of its 300 ticketed and free events and its highest-ever attendance for a ticketed event when more than 1,300 showed up at Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel's lecture.

The festival ran from Oct 30 to Sunday in and around The Arts House, a return to its origins as a biennial festival launched at the former Parliament building in 2007.

This year's was the first programmed by poet and former Straits Times journalist Yeow Kai Chai. He took over as festival director last year after the festival ran annually for four years with current deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council Paul Tan at the helm.

Apart from the new venue - from 2011 to last year, the festival was held in tents at the Singapore Management University (SMU) green - the programme looked beyond the page this year, with 14 music-related events.

A double-bill performance by local groups In Each Hand A Cutlass and I Am David Sparkle launched the festival on Oct 30 and was open to holders of the $20 Festival Pass. Festival Pass sales figures were not available at press time, but 3,200 were taken up last year.

Some events were ticketed separately and big-name speakers drew crowds. Just over 1,300 people paid $35 each to hear Professor Sandel's lecture on morality and market forces last Thursday at the University Cultural Centre, making it the best-attended ticketed event in the history of the festival. It outstripped the lecture given by Freakanomics author Steven Levitt in 2011 (630 attended).

This year's lecture at Victoria Theatre, China Re-Visioned on Oct 31, with Hong Kong writer Chip Tsao and Chinese journalist Xu Zhiyuan - ticketed at $35 each - was the third most well-attended ticketed event ever, with 580 in the audience.

Critically acclaimed British novelist and playwright Deborah Levy's reading on Nov 1 at the 120-seat Play Den at The Arts House, ticketed at $20 each, was full to capacity, with extra seats placed in the central performance space for the crowd.

Award-winning Canadian poet Christian Bok filled the 200-seat Chamber at The Arts House for his poetry reading last Saturday, open to Festival Pass holders.

Hearteningly for a festival which featured a record 242 voices from Singapore, the crowds also turned out to support local and regional voices. About 125 people packed into the Chamber for the $15 SWF lecture delivered by Indonesian activist Goenawan Mohamad, part of the festival's first South-east Asia focus.

The light-hearted closing debate - a free event which traditionally ends the festival - had about 300 people packed onto the stairs and floor of the Chamber, with the queue snaking all the way to the nearby Asian Civilisations Museum.

To placate those who could not enter, festival organisers filmed and later replayed the verbal and physical horseplay as speakers Adrian Tan, Deborah Emmanuel, Vernetta Lopez, Joshua Ip, Oniatta Effendi, Hirzi Zulkiflie, Shamini Flint and Gwee Li Sui debated whether Singaporeans are dreamers or pragmatists.

"After seeing this, I regret not being interested in more of the festival," said Singapore Polytechnic student Nabila Razali, 19, who was there to support her lecturer Oniatta. "I'll definitely attend more events next year."

In spite of the squeeze at some events - the two tents at SMU held, at capacity, from 100 to 300 people at a time - the return to The Arts House impressed festivalgoers.

"The place itself lends to the feel of being among literary people," said author Maria Mahat, who attended talks on translation and publishing to learn to promote her self-published romance novel, The Truth Seekers At Haji Lane.

Other hiccups included the absence of star attraction Justin Cronin, the best-selling writer of horror series The Passage. He pulled out of a scheduled talk and a sold-out workshop for 30 citing health reasons.

But on the whole, the festival seems to have been a success.

Tickets sold out for a 12-hour overnight performance of word, music and art at The Arts House, titled What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem. About 420 tickets at $50 each were taken up for the event curated by Huzir Sulaiman and presented by Checkpoint Theatre.

It drew viewers such as Ms Jacqueline Chang, 29, an entrepreneur and professional photographer who is ambivalent about literary festivals, but who was intrigued by the theatrical and musical displays at the overnight event. She stayed from 7pm to 2am. "It was money well spent. I was surprised because there was so much going on."

•Additional reporting by Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Lee Jian Xuan

•The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to www.straitstimes.com/tags/singapore-writers-festival-2015

Vox pop

"There's diversity in the panel discussions in terms of scope and content. They featured a great line-up of speakers, not just people who will give us the dominant perspective, but also people who have very strong yet different opinions on the topic."

First-time festivalgoer Muhammad Ruzaini Naim Azman, 26, civil servant

"I'm very surprised people are interested in our Japanese literature, traditional poems and writings. It shows literature can cross barriers of both language and countries."

Mina Ishikawa, 35, composer of traditional Japanese tanka poetry featured at the festival

"(Translation panel) No One Is An Island inspired me to start learning the Chinese language, which I can't speak.

"I also enjoyed the panel on A Clockwork Orange. It was very immersive. I've never been exposed to that even though it's a literary classic. My friends bought me the book, so I decided to go for it and it inspired me to the point that I had to go watch the play... People's perception of what writing is may be too small and this entire festival expands that scope."

First-time festivalgoer Anson Seow, 21, full-time national serviceman

"I feel the venue is too small now.

It used to be quite cosy, but the attendance is very high now and some venues are packed, so people get turned away.

"For the final debate which was a full house, there was some unhappiness as people could not enter."

Festival regular Colin Lim Fang Kiat, 50, family physician

Compiled by Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Lee Jian Xuan

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline Singapore Writers Festival packs in crowds. Subscribe