Singapore Writers Festival 2016

It’s that time of the year again when my weekends and days are book-ed at the Singapore Writers Festival! The theme this year? Sayang – an untranslatable Malay word capturing pragmatically both love and loss in a single expression. I missed out on some interesting programmes due to many overlapping schedules. Nonetheless, here are the notable panels I managed to catch:

Story of My Life

To kick start the event, I attended a panel which discussed the process of writing personal stories. Alan John, a veteran ST journalist, Angjolie Mae, a funeral director, and Aleksander Duric, a former international footballer, were on the panel. They shared about what they do, and what inspired them to write their own biographies/ personal stories into a book. The panelists gave us a glimpse into the necessary process of choosing what to tell in their stories, and make their personal observations about their life and career as relatable as they could.

Unwritten Country

Boey Kim Cheng and Gwee Li Sui fronts this segment where they shed some light on the trends of Singapore literature past and present, and forecasting its fate in the future.

Interesting to note, Gwee posited that the gradual loss of literature as a school subject is actually healthier and better for writing. He mentioned that literature used to be too boring and academic, but recently, with such pressures lifted, it’s becoming more and more accessible, and as he puts it so amusingly,

Literature has now exploded like a shaken can of coca-cola.

This brings rise to multiple concepts of Singapore literature. As a result, writing, as Gwee predicts, will get weirder, bolder, and more exciting. However, he highlighted that much of Singapore literature still draws from institutionalized support. Our literary climate still lives under these conditions; where our national attention is typically channeled relatively more to sports, science, etc.

Without adequate support, poetry will become a permanent casualty, quality of writing will dwindle, scope of exploration narrows, and literature will thrive sensationally but emptily.

He further reiterated that in order to witness a burgeoning landscape of Singapore literature, the state and the people must have a common goal – to manifest and sustain the magic and power of writing. We should read Singapore literature not to “support Singapore literature, everyone!”, but because “I love reading [insert Singapore author’s name]’s books, they are truly gripping!” We don’t support just because. We must support because we believe in it, because we treasure and we feel the work that has been done. He emphasized how the true future of writing does not lie in award winning writing, instead, it lies in a conducive and supportive place of writing. Our Singapore Writers Festival must be careful to not let itself become another tourist trap in the future – a literary festival must essentially support the writer’s struggles, and motivates writers to struggle on endlessly.

While Gwee analyzes the literature climate in Singapore, Boey talks about writing, and what Home means to him, as a Singaporean-born poet who then migrated to Australia. A few years ago, I have had the honour to be under his tutelage back in university when I was doing one of my creative writing modules. He is a pensive, driven, quiet ‘father figure’ I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from, and whose oeuvre I have much respect for.

Fynn Jamal: Choice to Adopt

Fynn Jamal is a breath of fresh air. Such a feisty and endearing personality. In this session, she shared about her choice to adopt a child and encouraged parents who are having doubts in adopting to not hesitate and just do it out of love. She mentioned this: women have too much love. They tend to make more sacrifices than men and are exceedingly giving in their nature. Something I agree with wholeheartedly.

Inculcating Reading Habits: Lessons From Around the World

When I saw this programme in the booklet, I bookmarked it without any hesitation. This is an extremely relevant and helpful discourse to have in discussing the right ways of instilling the habit of reading in every child.

What I took away from this discussion with Mamle Kabu, Pooja Nansi and Roland Kelts, was that the argument of whether e-books or physical books are better should be the least of our concerns. What matters is that reading is still a habit being practiced, no matter the mediums. Forms of reading have adapted greatly to the rapidly changing times, hence, these devices are inevitably vying for the attention of an increasing number of readers with shorter attention spans. However, the panel still does believe in the persistence of paper – printed word enthusiasts like I, will still be obsessively devoted to paper books (I still bring physical books when I’m traveling, because I am traditional like that). In my honest opinion, it’s not a crime to read from a device, for any form of reading is greatly encouraged, but I’d like to think that books are to Kindle what stairs are to escalators – the former requires more effort, but the result is healthier, satisfying, and much more fulfilling one. The panel were collectively positive about the future of reading – that the transition of digital reading and writing would not lead to a decline in literature.

So when it comes to inculcating reading habits – start somewhere. Start with something your kid likes. Don’t get him to read Harry Potter if Spiderman is more of his thing. Don’t force her to read Aesop Fables if comics is up her street. Entry points are important for young readers – every child has a different interest.

And typically, everyone becomes a reader before they become a writer. Recently, there is an emerging trend amongst many young, digital age writers of this love for brevity, which presumably stems from a lack of time dedicated to read and also shorter attention spans. What does this then do for the fate of literature? Nansi expressed her concern with the lack of revision, something that is not placed much importance to these days. People draft so quickly and do not bother to revise what has been written.

Good writing is rewriting.

She also noticed the steadily growing hype for poetry amongst the young audience which is encouraging. However, the quality of these popular works are questionable. But looking at the bright side, if a certain writing captures one’s attention, if it encourages reading and writing in otherwise uninterested teens who do not typically engage themselves in either, then how can it be bad? In writing, it really does boil down to one’s exposure. Like what Haruki Murakami said,

If you only read books that everyone else is reading, then you can only think what every one else is thinking.

And so, you can only write what everyone else is writing. The sense of ingenuity, creativity, its depth and soul, will not be achieved, if our input from various sources of knowledge remains narrow and restricted.

For The Love of The Written Word

In this panel, these advocates of homegrown literature, Chan Wai Han from Ethos Books, William Phuan from Select Centre, and Kenny Leck, owner of BooksActually, talk about Singapore’s literary scene, and what keeps their passion for the written word going.

Wai Han emphasized how we Singaporeans need to clamour to learn literature, and how more often than not, what kills our love for writing is our fear of not being good enough.

Fear of failure causes the death of our love for writing.

William speaks out about the lack of readers for translated literature, and that greater awareness with regards to this should be raised, not only nationally, but regionally too.

Similar to the issues brought forward at the Unwritten Country panel, there is a concern for the shrinking pool of good literature students in Singapore. Must national policy then be revised?

If we keep on harping on science and technology instead of words, then how do we make a difference?

Wai Han continued to talk about how English writers and poets are respected and revered in their own country, even if their books do not sell well. It is ultimately the nation that brings the value and status to the writers. We need to build a supportive society of active readers and writers.

When asked about what is lacking in local publishing, the panelists agreed that there is a need for more material about political realism and memoirs from the older generation. National narrative must be more colourful, diverse, and not streamlined.

Love, Loss, And Everything in Between

This is one of my favourite panels because the topic resonated with me deeply.

Featured were Alan John, Heng Siok Tian and David Wong. David started off by saying that love and loss does not exist in a continuum, thus, literature is meant to explore the in-betweens – what matters isn’t the love, or the loss, but what happens in the middle. If you are writing a poem about love, essentially you are also writing a poem about loss.

Siok Tian mentioned that as a writer, you need to have faith that if the words you write can move you, then they will do the same to another person, but most importantly, you have to be authentic and sincere in your writing. Yes, certain details will be embellished and edited, but the essence of the story will always stay true.

Alan pointed out a fact: We don’t sit around to talk about what we feel about things. When we meet, we tend to talk more about our work, our life, our family, anything other than how we honestly feel. So in writing, we reflect and write about what we feel, hoping that this is what others would feel as well. There are people out there who don’t quite know how to articulate their thoughts and feelings, so when they see a line or two that they resonate with, they will like what they read.

Alan mentioned that if one has experienced loss, as opposed to happiness, everything becomes different but also easier. He acknowledges that human beings respond to loss differently. How does one walk out of it and live after an unimaginable loss? His answer resonated with me for I share the exact sentiment. We simply have to look at those who have it worse, and be grateful. Be grateful. Be patient. Your own loss will drastically pale in comparison when you read about other more tragic losses, like hearing the news about loved ones dying in an airplane crash, or loved ones being shot to death in front of their eyes. We read inspirational stories of those who have gone through what we are going through, igniting our resolve to look up and say, “If they can do it, so can I. If they have lived through it, so will I.” 

Some of us crash and crumble at the smallest loss, some of us stand and go through life with strength despite facing a tremendous loss. What will help us is fixing our focus on our purpose, and to be acquainted again and again to the reality of this fleeting life, and to soldier on stronger, braver, yet softer. Strong enough to move, yet staying soft to dispel numbness in the heart till we forget we are supposed to feel and turn our loss and pain into a lamp to light the way for others. Life goes on and we just have to keep moving.

How are we all so brave as to take step after step? Day after day? How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say O.K. Why do I feel so sorry for everyone and so proud?

I was reminded of this quote by Maira Kalman. We all possess the inherent capability to be strong and weather the toughest times. We just don’t know it yet – until we are being tested. Until we are being pushed to the periphery and then forced to jump. We underestimate our capacity to feel and gradually heal. Imagine if we are not removed from our situation of loss – how do we carry on living? We all have it. It’s God’s gift to us – He knows we need to move, and let nothing deter our spirit to live, to love, & to lose again. This is what keeps us going.

You only feel a loss so keenly because you have had felt that happiness once.

Siok Tian summarizes the reality of loss and love succinctly above, and it reminded me of one of Rumi’s beautiful sayings:

God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites so that youwill have two wings to fly, not one.

When love happens, loss is sure to happen. You can’t have one without another.

Bahasa in the Archipelago: A Language Imperilled

This panel was so necessary, and the #linguistgeek in me was zealously agreeing to many of the points surfaced in this discussion. It features three different personalities – Eka Kurniawan, ZF Zamir, and Azhar Ibrahim – representing the three neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore respectively, to give different perspectives on this topic. This discussion sheds light on the fate of our mother tongue, the Malay language in the SEA region and its declining use.

Dr Azhar dished out strong, valid points about the reality of our national language in Singapore. He mentioned that the hegemony of English language causes the failure of our national language. Does the language provide value for the community, when the national language is not developed as a vital language?

Post-independent years was when language planning began taking effect, and a very dictionary, formalized type of effort were emphasized for a standardised language. In the intellectual and social dimension, the Malay language gradually grew into a language that sadly fails to capture an increasing vocabulary.

Once critical concepts cannot enter into the localsphere, into the lexicon, the value of the language will continue to spiral downwards, as most would not find it helpful, and lacking in its ability to capture cerebral thought processes. The academics and scholars have a vital part to play. Just look around us – almost all the Malay intelligentsia speak English 90% of the time, as if the Malay language cannot be used to articulate these important ideas.

We usually associate those who can speak English as the ones who are more educated. Almost all the elites are able to converse in English. If there is no strong philosophical commitment to speak that particular language, it would lead to a decline in its use and efficiency –  something that is worryingly a trend, causing a half-baked command of both the English and Malay language.

So does the Malay language hold a significant value, if at all? Do we live the ‘native Malay stereotype’? Does our stereotype of ‘lazy, easily satisfied, and refusal to advance and develop further’ reflect our language’s usefulness? These were just some of the language attitude questions put forward by Dr Azhar for us to ponder.

In the case of Indonesia, the use and value of its Bahasa is comparatively stronger to that of its neighbours. Eka asserted that it is not the problem of the language itself – the preservation of its language lies in the power and pride of its people. Majority of Indonesians are resistant to the government’s attempts to formalize the language, as they avoid using the ‘Englishization’ of certain terms in their Bahasa.

Personally, I feel that Bahasa Indo is less imperilled because the language is a practised national language that is not tied to any ethnicity, unlike Singapore. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the lingua franca of this island, Malay, slowly dwindled to extinction. The value did not continue to be upheld. Our national language, Malay, is merely on paper. A statue. It only retains in our national anthem and drill commands. Our national language isn’t used by every single citizen, regardless of race or religion, which is a trait we lack that keeps a country’s identity strong (eg. the use of Bahasa in Indonesia, French in France, Korean in Korea, etc.)

What we gather thus far is that the colonialization of language is largely to blame for the decline of our mother tongue’s value and use, a factor that is largely irreversible. But what can be done now to turn things around? Can the educators still defend and do justice to our mother tongue, in instilling the love and subsequently, pride in conversing in Bahasa? The panelists discussed that the onus still lies in policy makers.

A language cannot thrive in a politically conservative society.

Political conservatism largely controls language formalization. The way out? The language of criticism and alternative must come in. Space for discourse with regards to this issue is much needed. There is a lot of work to do in our language and policy department. Our children are bombarded with English every day, and the amount of time and money spent on Malay is not enough. We organize the annual ‘Bulan Bahasa’ where intensive activities and exciting programmes are carried out to promote the use of Malay language, but what really matters is what comes after. The question of whether we can sustain the use of our national language and inculcate within us the pride of our mother tongue still remains.

Piety in Consumerism: Peddling Religious Products in South East Asia

This is another panel I truly resonated with.

Fronted by Imran Taib, Okky Madasari, and Raja Ahmad Aminullah, the panel discussed about the escalating trend of ‘Islamisizing’ products and services, especially in this region. Where crowds flock towards goods that are halal, or ‘syariah-compliant’. Case in point, Air Anugerah, which is a typical mineral water sold for a dollar at 7-Eleven stores, is sold for three times its price due to some prayers chanted upon it. And people still buy it because of their naivety in its perceived spiritual benefits. There are many other products branded as ‘Islamic’ that are gaining great commercial value, like Islamic films, books, cosmetics, etc. There is an increasing demand for this lifestyle consumption which mainly afflicts the middle class. This begs the question of whether these ‘piously’ sanctioned products are getting popular because more people are turning to faith, or because of a result of capitalism?

Imran closed the discussion with something to think about:

Who do we blame for the rise of capitalism when the center of Islam (Makkah) itself is burgeoning with consumerism and familiar household names of globalization?

The SWF panels I’ve attended were insightful and timely, and the crowds attending the various programmes were encouraging as compared to previous years. I guess we could all see SWF coming back bigger and better for the next. SWF 2016 has been that spark of inspiration I, and I’m sure many others, so needed. Till 2017!

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