Who’s afraid of ‘chao ah beng’? Overseas universities use Singaporean literature to teach

Singlish terms become study topic as overseas varsities use local literature to teach

In a classroom in the mediaeval city of York, northern England, university students discuss the use of Singlish terms such as "chao ah beng" and Singapore's history and socio-political context.

They are studying poet-playwright Alfian Sa'at's poem, Singapore You Are Not My Country, which has been taught in a global literatures module at the University of York for the past three years.

From Britain to the United States and India, more texts by Singaporean writers like Boey Kim Cheng, Arthur Yap, Edwin Thumboo and Stella Kon are being taught at universities across the world, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Singapore texts are picked for the quality of writing and potential appeal to students internationally, says a Cambridge International Examinations spokesman.
  • On the reading lists


    NYU Sydney (New York University)

    • Balli Kaur Jaswal: Inheritance (2013)

    • Boey Kim Cheng: Between Stations (2009)

    • Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap: selected poems


    School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

    • Stella Kon: Emily Of Emerald Hill (1989)

    • Alfian Sa'at: sex.violence.blood.gore (1999, with Chong Tze Chien), Malay Sketches (2012) - selected short stories

    The University of York

    • Alfian Sa'at: Singapore You Are Not My Country (1998)


    University of Calgary

    • Arthur Yap: selected poems


    University of Mysore & University of Kerala

    • Edwin Thumboo: Ulysses By The Merlion (1977)

    The New College, Chennai

    • Edwin Thumboo: The Exile (1977)

    Sardar Patel University

    • Kirpal Singh: To A Visitor To Singapore (1997), Change (2000)


    Community College of City University

    • Edwin Thumboo: selected works


    West Virginia University

    • Alfian Sa'at, Arthur Yap and Wong May: selected poems


    Literature in English syllabus

    • Boey Kim Cheng: Reservist (1992), The Planners (1992)

    • Amanda Chong: lion heart (2006)

    World literature syllabus

    • Jean Tay: Boom (2009)

At least 10 universities have introduced Singaporean texts in recent years, often in global literature courses.

Dr Claire Chambers, 40, a lecturer in global literatures at the University of York, said Alfian's poem is the first South-east Asian text that she has used in the module, which has an enrolment of 250 students.

The poem, introduced to her by a British student, is taught alongside works by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and Booker Prize-winning British Indian author Salman Rushdie in a class on how English became the world's lingua franca.

Dr Chambers said the text was chosen because of its "witty, innovative and hybrid language usage".

"(Alfian) Sa'at introduces non-Anglophone words and concepts, and puts together words in an expressive portmanteau style," she said.

Mr Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang, 32, a doctoral candidate at the English department of West Virginia University in the US, saw parallels in Singapore texts and literary work from his native Ghana, which he included for a module on non-Western literature last year. "(Singapore's founding prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew had a connection with Ghana around the time of our independence... with Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah talking about a letter of solidarity he received from him after our first coup in one of his books. Since we were both colonised, there was a lot of cultural and historical similarity," said Mr Opoku-Agyemang, who was introduced to poems by Arthur Yap, Alfian Sa'at and Wong May by a Singaporean colleague.

A number of works by Singaporean authors have also been included in the international O-level Literature in English syllabus and International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) syllabus in recent years. Boey's poem The Planners has been tested from 2013 to 2015, and will be used in 2017 and 2018. Another poem, Reservist, will be examined from 2017 to 2019. Lawyer Amanda Chong's poem lion heart will be tested from this year till 2019.

Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) administers both exams. A CIE spokesman said the texts are usually chosen based on suggestions by teachers at Cambridge schools worldwide, and that the Singapore texts were picked for the "quality of writing and potential appeal to students internationally".

Catherine Lim's Or Else, The Lightning God And Other Stories, used in 1989 and 1990, was the first Singapore book to be selected for the exams. Students from 10,000 schools in 160 countries take the CIE.

Australia-based Boey, 50, said Singaporean literature has become more visible due to the mobility of Singapore writers and frequency of reading tours overseas.

"As to how books travel, and how Singapore voices are being heard in remote places, I like to think that there is an element of serendipity, something fortuitous in the way a reader picks up a book (and) is so struck by it that he/she makes it a mission to pass the news."

However, Singaporean writer Koh Jee Leong, 45, who runs the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York, where he is based, lamented the paucity of interest in local literature in Singapore.

He said: "I think it's a shame that Singaporean literature is increasingly being read, even studied, abroad, but that Singaporeans themselves have been so reluctant to embrace our own writers."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline Who’s afraid of ‘chao ah beng’? Overseas universities use Singaporean literature to teach. Subscribe