Culture Vulture

Singlit is a luxury we must afford

The recent Singapore Writers Festival opened my eyes to how Singapore poetry can excavate uncomfortable truths and give meaning to existence

Investigating the right stuff, through the write stuff.

This line for me summed up this year's Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), which concluded on Sunday.

The theme for the SWF this year was Aram, a word and concept drawn from the Tamil treatise on ethics Thirukkural, written by poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar. Aram can be translated most simply as doing good, but the concept also embraces more wide-ranging ideas about behaving well and living conscientiously.

With more than 340 writers on the programme, the SWF certainly had more than enough voices to explore the theme in depth. But for me, the most significant one was the voice of Singapore poet Dr Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, whose achievements were celebrated this year at the festival with an exhibition, lectures and readings.

She may be retired now, but I remember Dr Lee as one of my university tutors, quietly elucidating the finer points of Shakespeare to my honours year class. But I did not read her poetry until I became a books reporter and had to interview her on the occasion of the publication of her fifth collection, Lambada By Galilee & Other Surprises (1997).

That book contained a poem which turned me instantly into a fan of her lyrically insightful writing: The Merlion To Ulysses, a sharply observed riposte to a landmark poem by another literary pioneer, Professor Edwin Thumboo's 1979 Ulysses By The Merlion.

Her opening salvo, "You have made too many detours,/blown by the officious winds of many a poet/intent upon showing you the sights;/hitching a ride upon your reputation", articulated some of my own discomfiture with, and questions about, Ulysses By The Merlion.

Arts practitioners and devotees like to bemoan the lack of support for the arts in general. But this recently concluded SWF has renewed my faith in its slow but steady progress.

That was when I learnt that this teacher, whom I'd always thought of as retiring and rather shy, possessed real bite in her poetry. As I read more of her writing, I learnt to appreciate her more nuanced approach to dissecting matters of national identity.

In some ways, she represents, in classic gender-biased literary characterisation, a more "feminine" approach, as her lyrical voice tends towards the interior, the introspective, the intellectual.

I found her work more insightful than the rather blustery, self-consciously nation-building approach in some of Prof Thumboo's early poems. In poems such as My Country And My People and Singapore River, Dr Lee's writing resonated with me because she captured the ambivalence I felt towards my own country's brand of nationalistic propaganda.

I learnt from her writing that I was not alone in my unease. She taught me through her verse that to question is not an unpatriotic thing, and her careful, diligent parsing of meaning and morality mapped ways for me to think more critically about identity, both national and personal, as well as a range of other issues.

Thanks to this year's SWF, I was reminded to revisit Dr Lee's work. At Dr Gwee Li Sui's lecture Anne Lee Tzu Pheng 101, I learnt some things I never knew about Dr Lee's poetry. One tidbit was that the title of " My Country And My People", proffered significantly in quotation marks, was a reference to Chinese writer Lin Yutang's book of the same title. Dr Gwee's appreciation, which included a close reading of some of Dr Lee's poems, also reminded me of Dr Lee's own poetic purpose, which she herself articulated best at her lecture: "We need to hold on to and map interior realities with a language that builds us humanly."

I may have forgotten the lessons she gave about Shakespeare, but her writing has taught me far more important things about the ways in which poetry can be used to excavate uncomfortable truths, and the centrality of this persistent truth-seeking to a meaningful existence.

This desire to pursue meaning, through reading and writing, seems to have resonated with other attendees at the SWF this year.

On Monday last week, I went for a panel discussion, Singlit In Schools: What Should Students Read Next?. While I had no expectations about attendance, I was both astonished, and thrilled, that the Blue Room venue at The Arts House was packed with nearly 100 people, so much so that latecomers had to stand at the back of the room.

Thanks to moderator Dennis Yeo's brisk, disciplined reins as well as the diversity of the panel which featured poet Samuel Lee, poet/educator Heng Siok Tian and Professor Philip Holden, the lively session covered a diversity of views about canonical Singlit texts and the obstacles to establishing a Singlit syllabus.

Besides coming away with a reading list of yet more books to pursue, I was also heartened by the questions raised at the session, many of which did not so much question the need for Singlit as how it could be worked into the school syllabus. Just that shift in perspective is a leap forward in thinking about not just literature, but Singapore writing and the role it plays in Singaporean life.

Cynics may say that the SWF is preaching to the converted, that those attendees already have an interest in the literary art, hence their questions. Listening to the issues raised at the Singlit session, it was evident that former literature students and current educators were in the audience. I could only hope that the questions they raised about broadening the inclusion of Singaporean writing in the current school syllabus will be heard and acknowledged by the powers that be (ahem, Ministry of Education, the ball is in your court).

Arts practitioners and devotees (me included) like to bemoan the lack of support for the arts in general. But this recently concluded SWF has renewed my faith in its slow but steady progress. In the 20 editions of its existence, the number of the converted has grown steadily, as can be seen in the standing-room-only crowds for many sessions.

But what I most appreciated about the festival is the space it has provided over the years to generate thought and discussion about the things that matter, and how writing and reading can help map those issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2017, with the headline 'Singlit - a luxury we have to afford'. Subscribe