Rhyme And Reason- A Literary Series

Singapore Literature: A moral force to be reckoned with

From being a stepchild, Singapore writing has gone mainstream and is now taught in schools. Literature's focus on the individual and the marginalised makes it a moral force in a world where numbers count, and wealth, power and intellect dominate.


A writer's journey is fraught with self-doubt and adventure. I was thrown out of a professor's office in the University of Singapore when I was writing my first novel. I ended up writing under the stairs of Yusof Ishak College in the storeroom of the Singapore University Press. I wondered if that was a reflection of the stepchild status of Singapore writing in those days. Demoralised but not silenced, I struggled to write and eventually published Rice Bowl.

Singapore's national ethos in the 1970s did not encourage dreamers and writers. The writing scene was small, confined mainly to a coterie of poets recognised by the academic establishment in the University of Singapore. Public readings were rare, and readings of literary works were held mainly in the university. The public were generally unaware and uninterested in Singapore fiction and poetry, although poets like Edwin Thumboo and Arthur Yap and writers like Catherine Lim and Gopal Baratham had already published notable works. Our national psyche 30 years ago was that of a pragmatic people who valued science, commerce and competition above the life of the imagination.

Since then, there has been an evolution in how we view our own literature, writers and writing. There are book launches, writing workshops and public readings in libraries, bookshops and galleries, and an annual Singapore Writers' Festival of growing repute.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has invited me back several times to read my works, and both NUS and the Nanyang Technological University as well as universities overseas have taught my novels in their literature programmes. The Ministry of Education has also placed my works like Fistful Of Colours on its A-level literature syllabus, and quite a few Singapore writers have been published overseas. Last year, Kirkus Reviews, US, selected The River's Song as one of the 100 Best Books of 2015. And best of all, after more than 30 years, Rice Bowl is still in print and still read.

No one these days would scoff at someone who aspires to write a novel or a play. Aspiring writers have access to grants and writing residencies which they can apply for through the National Arts Council. This wasn't the case when Rice Bowl was published in 1984. There were hardly any writing grants and residencies then, and writers had no ready access to information about them.

There was no arts council, and official bureaucracy in those days was tight-lipped and fearful of repercussions. The publisher of Rice Bowl consulted a lawyer before publishing it because it featured a critique of Singapore by university students.


Later, when I completed my second novel, Gift From The Gods, a deputy director in the Ministry of Education wanted to "vet it for any political, racial, religious and sexual sensitivities". Politely I refused to subject the novel to censorship.

The novel was published, and nothing terrible happened to me. I treated the episode as a mosquito bite and, until I started to write  this article, I had actually forgotten about it.


  • Described as "a prolific documenter of the inner lives of unsung Singaporeans, from vendors living in poverty to women struggling for independence to the inner yearnings of the migrant", Suchen Christine Lim grew up in Malaysia and Singapore. She has written several novels and children's books, a non-fiction work, and a short-story collection. She was International Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa and a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at the Nanyang Technological University. She was writer-in-residence in several countries, including the United States and United Kingdom.


    1. The River's Song ( 2013)

    A saga that retrieves Singapore's fast-disappearing past and gives the Singapore River the depth and colour of a people's history, and a voice to the squatters and boatmen along its banks. Selected as one of "100 Best Books of 2015" by Kirkus Reviews, US.

    2. Fistful Of Colours ( 1992)

    A novel that explores ethnic identity in contemporary Singapore and the pursuit of personal and artistic freedom. It won the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize in 1992. Selected as one of 10 Singapore classic novels by The Sunday Times.

    3. A Bit Of Earth (2001)

    A novel that traces the struggles of a young Chinese immigrant and brings into sharp relief conflicts over colonisation, nationalism and community in Malaya.

    •For more on the books and others, see www.suchenchristinelim.com.

    •All books are available at the National Library, as well as at Kinokuniya or Times bookstores and on Amazon.com.

Censorship exists. In my case, it was a small price to pay for an art that is so enriching. But it is not so for other writers. Yet those who need to write will write despite censorship. Bitten by the writing bug, I struggled for three years to write Fistful Of Colours. Then President Wee Kim Wee, who read it, surprised me with a vase and an invitation to tea.

The 1990s saw Singapore writing reaching beyond the confines of the universities. The plays of Eleanor Wong and the poetry of Alfian Sa'at and other writers reached the theatre-going and reading public. Meanwhile at work, I was swamped by the demands of developing the English Language syllabus for schools.

Writing my novel before and at the end of each working day was the elixir that kept me sane and creative. What a joy to struggle with plot and character instead of text and grammar.

It was during this trying period that my first writing grant came in the form of a Fulbright grant to the University of Iowa's International Writing Programme. There, I read my novels for the first time to an appreciative foreign audience and also began work on A Bit Of Earth.

Years later, while I was working on a first draft of The River's Song, the Arvon Foundation funded my writing residency, a six-month stay in a writer's cottage in the Scottish Highlands, which came with a stipend and a car. They even paid for a driver to drive me to the Highland towns when I had to conduct workshops. A book club of retired professors bought my novels, read them and discussed them with me one winter night in front of a log fire in my writer's cottage. I had never felt my writing so valued before.

Back home I had encountered comments like: "Sorry. We don't teach Singapore lit in our school; we teach English lit" or "Why write novels? Write assessment books, lah. More money."

Fortunately such views have receded. Singapore's intelligentsia, the reading public and the Government recognise the importance of a national literature.

A nation's literature is the mirror through which people see themselves. Children and adults need to see themselves in their country's fiction and poetry. Lois-Ann Yamanaka, the Pushcart Prize-winning poet and author of the book Name Me Nobody, said: "... until you see yourself in literature, in the written word, you don't exist." This is why every national school curriculum includes the study of its nation's literary works.

Reading the literature of a country is like listening to its heartbeat. One hears the hopes, fears and angst of ordinary folks like you and me. At the universal level, literature is the bridge built by Imagination to help us cross over into the interior landscape of those who are different from us, and yet the same, and as extraordinary and odd as ourselves.

The writer's focus provides readers with insights into their society. To express the unexpressed, to say the unsaid, to give voice to those with no voice - this has always been one of literature's many contributions. In literature, king or beggar, prime minister or dialect-speaking squatter, all are equal; all can take centre stage as the main character. No other school subject focuses on the individual or marginalised in the way literature does. This, in itself, is a moral force in a world in which numbers count, and wealth, power and intellect dominate.

Singapore literature has something to offer us, and the world. It is neither mono-cultural nor monolingual. Comprising the poetry and fiction of four official languages, Singapore literature writes across language and culture. The congregation of English and Asian voices is part of our national fabric and identity as a people.

The Singapore novelist writing in English accepts the challenge of recreating and rendering the variety of Asian voices and languages into English. Our literary fiction, poetry and plays offer the reader multiple perspectives and individual narratives that question, challenge and broaden our views of ourselves beyond the national Singapore Story and the officially sanctioned founding myth. In the long run, while geography and politics continue to shape our nation, our literature will reveal our collective soul.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'A moral force to be reckoned with'. Subscribe