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Book review: Literature & the Arts in Singapore

Book Review

Yap Ai Hui Gwendolyn

Nov 18, 2019 | Articles

Merely 50 years ago, Singapore faced its biggest crisis –sudden separation from Malaysia. Unprepared for independence, we descended into chaos, our cultural identity tested. What are we? Neither Malayans nor ‘Singaporean’, our standing in Southeast Asia was uncertain. However, fast forward to today, and the #BuySingLit movement has just completed their most successful event to date, engaging over 45,000 participants in two weeks (“#Buysinglit 2019 Highlights”). Furthermore, Singapore Writers Festival is well into their third decade of celebrating local talent, and we are frequently brought into the global spotlight through award-winning locally based films and books.

But how did we transform from “Singaporean” to Singaporean? Professor Koh Tai Ann has the answer. Through “serv[ing] as historical witnesses and commentators of their times”, writers “capture the collective memories of and responses to contemporary experiences” (Koh 8). The documentation of such poignant and often traumatic periods in our history strengthened the collective mindset of being Singaporean, ultimately resulting in the diverse scene we recognise today.

No stranger to the impacts of language policy, Prof. Koh’s past publications include the close examination of the education reform and the importance of English as a tool in post-colonial Singapore (Koh). Indeed, her attention to the intricate ties that bind language and policy is not lost in her essays found in Singapore Chronicles: Literature and The State and The Arts in Singapore: Polices and Institutions. In these books, she highlights the importance of Malayan culture in independent Singapore and discusses the historical impact of English on local literary production.

Highly recommended for anyone looking to understand the history and influences governing our local arts scene, these two books are commissioned by the Institute of Policy Studies. Juxtaposing historical evidence against the arts produced in the period, they provide a thorough examination of Singapore’s cultural development thus far. Where Singapore Chronicles focuses on the forms and types of publications in response to historical events, The State & The Arts in Singapore examines the influences of policies and institutions governing the arts scene.

Singapore Chronicles: Literature

Built into a size perfect for an on-the-go read, Singapore Chronicles: Literature is one out of 50 volumes of Singapore Chronicles published in 2018. The 50–volume Singapore Chronicles, distributed by Straits Times, is meant to help the reader understand “what makes Singapore, Singapore” (Koh 6) through collaborative publications by experts in various fields.

Edited by Prof. Koh herself, the book focuses its energy on tracing the history of Singapore literature through the four official languages, English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. What was significant was the conscious decision to begin Singapore’s story not from the independence, but from “the kingdom of Temasik during the 13th century” (Rahmat 58). Not a common topic that is brought up in local schools these days, it is easy to neglect any form of literature produced before independence. As a result, being exposed to historical recounts of literature borne so far back serves as an important read in understanding where the roots of local literature begin.

Aside from covering literature written in English, the book recruits the help of literary experts from different racial groups to uncover the “four ‘Singapore literatures’” (Koh 7). With the examination of Chinese–Singaporean literature by Dr. Tan Chee Lay, Malay–Singaporean literature by Dr. Hadijah Rahmat and finally Tamil-Singaporean literature by Mr. Arun Mahizhnan, the book provides diverse windows into the collective entity of Singapore literature through the eyes of each racial group. Due to the book’s brief account, the book is suitable as an appetiser in the quest for understanding Singapore’s literary history. It provides a window through the perspectives of the various languages, opening the door for further exploration on the part of the reader. The “Further Reading” section comes in handy at this point as books that were touched upon are catalogued here, including translation to overcome potential language barriers.

Read in conjunction with Prof. Koh’s introduction, each essay provides a succinct and comprehensive overview of various literary genres and traditions published in relation to major historical events. These overviews cast light on the impact of these historical episodes on various racial groups. The volume celebrates the plurality of perspectives on Singaporean history and culture and seeks to promote diversity among the writers. While optimism peppers Dr. Tan’s essay on Chinese literature, Dr. Rahmat’s contribution transforms the historical content into an increased emphasis on Malay as a national language. Consequently, the book is successful in its aim of “piqu[ing] the interest” of readers in “sampl[ing] the growing amount of writing” in Singapore (Koh 8). The book reminds us that perspectives on literature and history are always subjective and open to interpretation.

The State & The Arts in Singapore: Policies and Institutions

If Singapore Chronicles provides a brief look into the languages that oversee our literature, The State & The Arts scrutinises the historical policies and institutions surrounding it from Singapore’s independence to the current day. Edited by Terence Chong, sociologist and Deputy Director of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, the book covers not only the literary scene, but the arts scene as a whole. As a result, the book consists of a wide array of essays written by experts from various fields, providing a diverse array of perspectives (both critical and positive) on the technicalities of the local arts scene.

Not for the faint-hearted, the book should be taken in small shots, alongside a good cup of coffee and relaxing music to fully appreciate the detail and effort put into the book. Much could be gleaned from the pages, if only the reader takes the time to understand it. The book is presented in chronological order, beginning from the period of the 1940s to the present (2017 is the latest year recorded). It goes on to consider the policies and institutions that emerged in the respective time period in relation to the impact they had on the arts scene. The decision to place the essays chronologically is a wise one as it allows the reader to follow the historical timeline easily. Although some of the essays could border on being over-factual, the structure was consistent, and it was made clear what each author was pursuing in their argument.

Through unrestricted observations, issues that were not commonly discussed–like the Anti-Yellow Campaign and the arrest without trial of various artists in 1976-–are examined in depth. The almost clinical approach taken towards analysing these events allows for the essays to unpack the motivations behind these controversies effectively, providing a full-bodied examination of the effect of the state on the arts.

If the book gets too heavy for comfort, flip to chapter 13 for a little laugh. In Chapter 13, Mr Arun Mahizhnan (whom we met earlier in Singapore Chronicles), provides a colourful and borderline outrageous commentary on the Renaissance City Plan put forth for the “promotion of arts and culture in Singapore” (Mahizhnan 269). His essay provides a refreshing departure from the statistical and serious tone of the rest of the book. For instance, referring to the finance sector as “scythe–wielding mandarins” (Mahizhnan 293) could hardly be considered as a statistical fact.

I would highly recommend Singapore Chronicles: Literature and The State & The Arts: Policies and Institutions for anyone interested in our local arts scene. They provide a highly distinctive lens into what we usually observe about the local arts scene. Also, for anyone who scoffs at Singapore for having ‘no culture’, give them these books and I promise they would take their words back. These books are formidable candidates for why we should not neglect the local arts scene, providing solid proof we do have some culture going for us.