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Stories About Us: Literary Culture in Singapore

Constellations, Issue 5

Ivy Chua and Rafiq Ismail

Jun 30, 2020 | Articles

The soul of a nation undoubtedly lies within its culture, poetry and the arts. For a young nation like Singapore, the arts have also proven to be its invaluable conscience. As a conduit for the expression of unspoken worries, implicit hopes and shared aspirations, writers and poets have provided readers with access to our common national psyche and insight into the myriad lives that we lead. Writers often weave themes such as history, identity, rootedness and community into their stories, crafting works of art and literature that not only move readers with the lyrical beauty and raw emotional verve of their language but also speaks to its audience about truths that sometimes lie hidden amidst the pursuits of everyday life in the city.

We spoke to three acclaimed writers to glean their thoughts about literature, writing, and identity in multicultural, multilingual Singapore.


Ng Yi-Sheng is certainly no stranger to the Singaporean literary community. As a celebrated writer whose works span both poetry and prose, Ng is currently pursuing his PhD with the English Department in the School of Humanities. Ng’s first foray into writing came when he was a student enrolled in the Creative Arts Programme of the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch.

“Writing was one of the few things that people said I was good at. It is entirely possible that I identified with the term writer before that programme but it was one of the first few times I had realized it could be a vocation,” said Ng.

When asked about the characteristics of a uniquely Singaporean brand of literature, Ng appears undecided.

“I hesitate to say that Singaporean literature is unique but when we start to consider the breadth of things people are writing about, it becomes very hard to talk about what defines Singaporean literature as a whole,” elaborated Ng.

As a practitioner who eschews essentialist notions or paradigms when approaching Singaporean writing, Ng’s oeuvre is similarly varied, stretching from drama and prose to poetry and creative non-fiction. Amongst the many social commentaries found within his work, Ng is pre-eminently known for bringing queer Singaporean experiences to light. His playful satiric takes on the idiosyncrasies of Singapore is but one aspect of his multi-faceted literary career. Often working with questions of identity, the body, and relationships of power, Ng’s work challenges and probes the status quo while acknowledging that the State is a major benefactor of the arts:

“There is writing as a means of activism and there is writing as a means of work, which is to say, that we have to think about the economics of writing. Singapore has decided that it wants to encourage the arts, to make this a creative city, and so there is a lot more funding for the arts from the government than in other Southeast Asian cities.”

Ng, who won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008, finds that the literary climate in Singapore is still productive and promising in spite of its attendant challenges.

“There is a certain curious local outlook about the arts scene. There are also publishers who are willing to work with you because they believe in the building of a national literary culture. So I am not convinced that it is worse to be a writer or artist in Singapore than it is to be in many other countries. There are issues you have to wrestle with like censorship and freedom of speech but this also happens in various forms in many parts of the world as well.”

While his earlier works have emerged from an exploration of selfhood andthe body, Ng’s latest literary endeavors have taken their inspiration from history:

“I’ve been doing a project on the history of representation of 1819 and I have been frustrated at how readily Singaporeans view colonialism positively. I do think that in many ways, as a trading city, we were beneficiaries of the colonial system. But there are atrocities and injustices that come with colonialism and although it is hard to trace back here in Singapore, we had, and a part of being a beneficiary was that we too committed some of these atrocities ourselves,” Ng added.

For Ng, the value of literature is not only found in its ability to address questions of power and truth, or the creation of beauty for contemplation, but its ability to form bridges and connections as well as to question the world we live in: “Literature encourages us to empathise with the complexities of history and its subjectivities rather than coming to easy straightforward conclusions”.

For writer and academic Associate Professor Boey Kim Cheng, the question of history and identity has a more personal resonance since he emigrated from Singapore to Australia in 1997. 

“Perhaps home has become more of an idea than a fixed place. Home is no longer a single entity but it is made up of different places and different memories and I think about it differently at different times. Home is no longer a stable idea,” said Prof. Boey.

Prof. Boey is a celebrated poet whose themes of displacement, memory and identity form a significant part of his works. Upon returning to Singapore as an Australian national in 2013, questions of identity, home and nationhood have become more complex.

Australia and Singapore “have become mixed up, in different ways and it has become for me, a bifocal way of looking at things, at place and identity. We are all travellers in a way, and nobody should say ‘no you are not welcome on this land’ or whatever. So in a way, home is people, home is family, home is friends, rather than just a physical place,” said Prof Boey.

As the recipient of the Young Artist Award conferred by the National Arts Council in 1996, Prof Boey’s work continues to investigate existential questions of memory, history and identity in Singapore. English majors at NTU are well acquainted with Prof. Boey’s highly personal work including Between Stations among others. Its ruminations on personal loss and that of a rapidly changing physical urban cityscape is one thread in Prof. Boey’s larger tapestry of work.

“The material that I wrote during that period was like a salvage mission. To restore and to summon back and recreate the Singapore that I thought I had known and so it was a struggle against forgetting. The use of memory as a struggle against oblivion. To ressurect all these places that vanished,” explained Prof. Boey.

For Prof. Boey, the ruminations of the past are integral to the ever evolving exploration of personal and national histories, and as such not to be taken as cheap indulgent pining for days past.

“It’s not just sentimental nostalgia but nostalgia that is driven by this deep need to not just reconnect, recreate the past but to realign the past with the present and the future. If we are in such a hurry to leave the past behind, to leave all our experiences and memories behind, rush forward into the future, then we miss the chance to understand ourselves, our past, our experiences. And it’s these experiences and places we’ve been through that has made us what we are”.

Prof Boey’s departure, despite receiving critical acclaim and recognition for his work, sought to forge a new life abroad and pursue fresh opportunities in response to various disaffections and disillusionments. Yet, after returning to Singapore after spending a significant part of his life in Australia, Prof. Boey’s ties with Singapore have been strengthened and rekindled: “I’ve looked and started to review my relationship with Singapore and decided to be not kinder to myself and to Singapore necessarily for there was nothing to forgive. It was about admitting the love which I had denied before, tried to deny and to repress.”

For Prof. Boey, being both émigré and immigrant, leaving and returning to Singapore places him in a unique vantage point to examine Singapore from both afar and within the city. The lived experiences of Singaporean writers form a kaleidoscope of diverse images. Similarly, the Singaporean voice is both all encompassing and nebulous.

“I think the Singapore voice, unlike the voice of a cannon or a text or a writer, where you can pin it down, identify it,its features, the sound, its pitch, its key, when you talk about the voice of Singaporean writing, it’s very hard to do the same because we are still a very young literature. In a way, we are still finding, discovering the ways of saying, the ways of speaking and expression. If we are forced to describe the Singapore voice, it is about how the words emerge from this land, this sense of place or this sense of placelessness,” said Prof. Boey.

For School of Humanities alumnus and winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Nuraliah Nurasid, crafting a literary work provides another avenue for her to investigate and explore history and its impact on contemporary issues in Singapore. Her debut novel The Gatekeeper deals with issues of representation, culture and difference.

“When we talk about the Singapore Story, for a start the Singapore Story itself is highly problematic because of the value systems that drive it. We have to ask ourselves; is that value system shared by the entire community? I do find that the Singapore Story needs to be rewritten because we’re dealing with quite a lot of value systems and for a lot of people in the marginal groups,” explained Nurasid.

Just as Prof. Boey engages with issues of social and personal memory in his poetry, Nurasid similarly explores the effects of change in her novel: “Impermanence features a lot, because I have grown up in an environment where my housing environment has never been permanent. Permanence is quite a big issue, because the rapid pace of change in the urban landscape forces social memories to be very short lived”.

In light of the disconnect between the lived memories and the urban spaces that anchors those memories, history becomes the constant depository for memory.

“History could just be a place that seems more permanent. Now with so many things that are changing and things feel a lot less solid and tangible in today’s day and age, maybe history is the one thing that seems very unchanging,” explained Nurasid.

Just as history is an indelible archive, language and culture are also important markers of identity. Yet just as urban changes in the landscape threaten erasure, languages too have become threatened.

“I think part of the reason why I came up with an imaginary language in the book is to show that languages are also being pushed out right now. Language is very tied to the people. It is also very tied to culture. When we think about languages that have been pushed out, we also need to think about the people who are no longer considered relevant to the country’s drive and narrative. With lost languages, there is also a risk of lost cultural values,” said Nurasid.

“We want to talk about learning to be able to coexist even with differences and to coexist well such that you don’t end up marginalising or diminishing one culture, or one group, I think this is one of the challenges that needs to be overcome,” said Nurasid.