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Singapore books its place

Discussions about heritage and freedom enliven the Singapore Writers Festival



English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil authors and literary works converged in Singapore last week to celebrate the power of ethnic literature, moving storytelling and riveting characters. Organised by the Singapore Arts Council since 1986, Singapore Writers Festival, which ended yesterday, brought together world-renowned authors and Asia's rising literary stars in a rare effort to develop Singapore into some sort of Asian literary hub.

Festival director Paul Tan says it's a multilingual event, celebrating works in the four official languages of Singapore: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

"We aim to promote the world's major literary talents, Singaporean authors and emerging Asian writing and writers to an international audience," says Tan.

With this year's curatorial theme of Origins, the Singapore Writers Festival celebrated the originality of literary works and the beginning of time, of language, of the story, of "our" identities, themselves a favourite subject explored by Singaporean authors in an attempt to define their own identity.

This year, the festival explored storytelling, biographies and historical fiction and the source of creative inspiration through a long line-up of special guests including Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham from the US, children's writer and illustrator Jimmy Liao from Taiwan and socio-political commentator Marina Mahathir from Malaysia.

Dozens of internationally acclaimed authors from the West also participated, such as Krys Lee, Paul French, Michael Chabon, Steven Levitt and Jonathan Campbell, appearing alongside Singapore's Shamini Flint, Meira Chand, Alvin Pang, Suchen Christine Lim and You Jin.

These authors joined hundreds of discussions and talks, which attracted a huge turn-out of participants.

The lecture by 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham was by the far the most popular. Cunningham praised his iPad as "a miraculous piece of machinery", lambasted the 2012 Pulitzer jury for picking a novel he didn't like, admitted to keeping his editor terrified, and said he loves basing his fiction on his life and imagination.

In a panel discussion, Cunningham was up against any writers who set out to write a book with the idea of winning an award in mind. "No, that's not advisable. If you don't win any award, your work becomes a miscalculation," he said.

The author was also up against the "Sovietisation" of book awards. Asked what he thought of Hilary Mantel winning the Booker Prize for a second time, he said there was nothing wrong awarding the same prize to the same author again.

"But the idea of, 'You've got enough awards already, now let's give it to another boy' - that just doesn't seem right! The book prize should reward an extraordinary effort and should praise the language, the beauty of it more than the plot."

In another session on "Making It (Up) in the Middle Kingdom", authors Jonathan Campbell, Paul French and Linda Jaivin discussed how China still sees itself as unknowable. "Politicians struck by illnesses are often considered a state secret," said French, author of "Midnight in Peking".

While China and Asia are ideal subjects for these authors, they acknowledged that the region still needs to grapple with the issue of freedom of expression. Marina Mahathir, an author and the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said her country's Evidence Act of 1950 curtails Internet freedom, and thus freedom of expression.

"How far can we say what we want to say in Malaysia? If the authorities find something offensive by any writer on a blog, the blog owner is in trouble as well as the writer," said Mahathir. "We need to handle the issue in a more mature manner. Nobody dies from talking or pushing for freedom of speech. There's a one-sided idea of freedom in my country."

Meanwhile Singaporean authors are grappling with the concept of Singaporean identity.

Authors like Desmond Sim, Josephine Chia and Walter Woon want to capture the kind of Peranakan nostalgia and memories of their parents, who were proud Peranakans and loyal to the British rather than China. Peranakans are descendants of late 15th- and 16th-century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago of Nusantara during the colonial era and to the British settlements of Malaya and Singapore.

"Peranakans are Chinese, but they don't think they are Chinese. They are lamenting the fact that Peranakan culture is vanishing in an age where their children don't care about the proud heritage of their forebears," said Chia, author of "Frog under a Coconut Shell".

There's a sense among Singaporeans that they should claim some form of heritage, but they don't know what it is, said Woon, the author of "The Advocate's Devil", which captures "cascading snobbery" among the Peranakans. The Peranakans look down on newcomers, and these "new" immigrants look down on Indians, he added.

This year's Singapore Writers Festivals was intellectually stimulating and creatively designed, with new issues and ideas that are sure to open up new literary possibilities both in Singapore and overseas. Singapore looks ready to become another of the world's A-list literary destinations.

The writer would like to thank the Singapore Arts Council for supporting his participation in the Singapore Writers Festival 2012.


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