Something was amiss when during the formal opening of the 14th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival last Oct. 21, the proceedings started on the dot at 6 p.m., but the emcee, finding Lee Tzu Pheng not yet around to read the especially commissioned poem she wrote for the affair, made light banter with the audience and managed a spiel to cover up for the delay.
Although she handled the horror vacui well, festival director Paul Tan nimbly went up the stage to relieve her and declared: “In the spirit of spontaneity, we decided to reverse the program.”
Everyone laughed at the alibi. Tan then read his opening remarks and poet Lee later arrived and took the mike from him to read the official festival poem, “Deal?”
Was the improvisation and casual atmosphere of the opening of SWP big deal? Quite. The delay would have been inconceivable some editions back of the festival since, like all things Singaporean, Tan’s burst of refreshing “spontaneity” would have been out of place amid the island-state’s well-known rigidity and regime of control and discipline.
But all that had changed since the general election (GE 2011) last May when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) barely retained its majority, and the political opposition, finally getting its act together and capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction with the PAP for increasing the salaries of its ministers, performed very well in the polls and increased handily the number of its seats in parliament, which resulted in the inconceivable—Lee Kuan Yew, yes, the Lee Kuan Yew, performing an appeasement by resigning as Minister Mentor, a post especially created to perpetuate his hold on PAP and by extension on Singapore.
Best-selling Singapore fictionist and spitfire political columnist Catherine Lim called the election “a watershed.” The flood gates have been opened to—if not more freedoms—then more inconceivable and refreshing prospects.
A poet himself, Tan, whose bright demeanor perhaps best embodies the optimism and excitement obtaining in the aftermath of GE 2011, explained the rationale of the festival in terms literary and humanist. “Underlying all this is our earnest belief that good literature, the best writing, is worth sharing and talking about. Especially when the words, and the books, can shine a light on who we are. Not just on our ethnic cultures, or even our national identities, but on what it means to be human in the first place.”
Tan alluded to the theme of the conference, Transactions, in his remarks.
“The Singapore Writers Festival allows us to connect afresh to the written and spoken word, to step aside from the workaday transactions to transactions of a thoughtful kind,” he said. “It allows us to appreciate the ideas behind the words, see alternate perspectives and engage in a conversation with people that may read those same words differently.”
Information, Communication and the Arts Minister Yaacob Ibrahim called SWF “the only multilingual and multidisciplinary festival in the region.”
All of the four major Singaporean languages were represented in the festival—Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. Foreign writers, including the Russian-Ukrainian Andrey Kurkov and contemporary Indonesian fictionists, were represented by their books in English translations.
Crossing genres and disciplines, screenplay writers were present, including Bi Feiyu, this year’s winner of the Man Asian literary Prize for his novel “Three Sisters.” He co-wrote the screenplay of the 1995 Zhang Yimou film “Shanghai Triad.”
Moreover, Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who headlined the festival together with Bi and the unorthodox American economist Steven Levitt (another instance of the cross-disciplinary feature of the SWP), attended the screening of Curtis Hanson’s 2000 movie “The Wonder Boys,” which was adapted from Chabon’s novel.
Ibrahim had a different take on the festival theme.
“Returning with the theme of Transaction, this year’s festival invites us to examine the importance of art in Singapore, as well as ponder on the value we place on books, literature, ideas and originality,” he explained. “Creative thinking is key to developing Singapore into a vibrant global city for the arts. Literary expression is also often the foundation for content creation and the presentation of ideas.”
Creativity is key
For Tan and Ibrahim obviously, transaction is literary shorthand for democracy and the freedoms that animate it. And creative freedom is the soul of writers and artists.
Since Singapore has steadily carved a niche for itself as a regional center of the arts, it must put its money where its mouth is. It must be creative, or at least, provide a haven for creativity and its practitioners. Or else it will perish since, as Ibrahim indicated, creativity is “key” for a globally competitive Singapore.
Poets and artists, of course, have known this all along. Lee Tzu Pheng, the poet laureate of the 2011 SWP, adumbrates in the official festival poem the transactionalism and democracy engendered between poet and reader as they try to negotiate definitions and meanings despite the words being “slippery as eels”: “better to make tracks/ and hitch a ride/ out of the mystery of being/the sense before the word/ the word before the speech/ the speech before the act of/ making nothing into something/ or nothing after all.”
If in the end Lee seems to say that with democracy and meaning come chaos and non-meaning—“for when all’s said and done/ you don’t really understand what/ makes it what it is:why are its guts/ its pulse, its nerves, its brain, its soul bound together yet a hole// full of treasure, full of rubbish,/ priceless stuff, and free”—she also seems to hold out the possibility of something immensely rewarding and fruitful for the two parties taking part in the adventure of literature and the arts: “big deal?//that’s really between you and me.”
Organized by the National Arts Council (NAC) of Singapore and sponsored by the Singapore Press Holdings and the Lee Foundation, the 2011 SWP reflected the transactionalism latent in writing and the arts, the struggle to define meaning and transcend the mundane without sacrificing content and commerce. Literature, after all, is a creative industry, an art and a trade.
Perhaps this was best represented by the Transaction Pavilion, otherwise the 2011 SWP tent, put up on the lawn of the Singapore Management University, one of the several sites of the festival aside from the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore National Museum, and School of Arts (Singapore’s version of the Philippine High School for the Arts on Mt. Makiling).
Storytelling, art installations, commerce
Aside from the usual panels with established authors, there was a session on the NAS project, “PasSAGES,” in which writers visited a hospice for the elderly “to unearth personal and heartfelt stories,” said Ibrahim.
In addition, taxi drivers from the National Library Board’s Taxi Sifu Reading Club tried their hand at ghost-storytelling. There was also a songwriters’ showcase.
The commerce side of SWP was more than graphically represented by “UnderWriter’s Table,” an art installation (again, an instance of the interdisciplinary nature of the festival) on the SAM lawn by the art collective Vertical Submarine composed of Fionah Koh, Joshua Yang and Justin Loke.
It consisted of a scaled-up table with a suitcase underneath it dotted with question marks; on the table was a book titled “How to Write a Blank Cheque.” The work seemed to question in a playful, bantering tone the capitalist engine that drives writing and publishing.
But this was Singapore and the SWP should not be expected to be apologetic about tackling the commercial side of art. Therefore, there were several publishing forums on the children’s genre and electronic books. There were even straight-talking forums on “How to Get Noticed by a Commissioning Editor” and on “Marketing Your Book.”
But, of course, the writers’ sessions were the highlight of the festival, and they were well-attended, especially since readers would like to meet their favorite authors in the flesh.
In the session on “Celebrating the Short Story,” Philippine National Artist F. Sionil Jose took to the panel with young Singaporean fictionists Dave Chua and Jeffrey Lim.
Since the moderator, Singapore critic-teacher Koh Tai Ann, was caught in traffic, Jose filled her absence by regaling the audience with stories about old Singapore and his friendships with writers from the region.
“My contemporaries are dead,” said the 86-year-old writer, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
He added that when he first visited Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries in the 1960s, he was struck by what he saw. “I asked myself, ‘Why are these countries so backward?’ Well, things change,” he said wistfully.
Days earlier, in its Oct. 19 issue, the Singapore Straits Times featured Jose on its Life! section with an article “The Straight-Shooting Writer.”
In it, he berated Singaporeans for not reading their writers: “How many Singaporeans have read, really read, Christine Suchen Lim, or the poetry of Lee Tzu Pheng or Edwin Thumboo, or Catherine Lim? They are world-class writers, but I don’t think that Singaporeans read their own writers. This is also true of my country—Filipinos with colonized minds.”
Good times, bad lit
In the SWF panel, Jose posed a caveat to Singaporeans about progress.
“Good times produce bad literature; bad times produce good literature,” he said. “But it’s not true that affluence does not bleed; that corruption is only about money; power and relationships, they, too, can be corrupted.”
Jose was an even bigger hit in the session with the provocative title “True Artists Do Not Want State Funding.” Joining relatively younger writers Gwee Li Sui and Fong Hoe Fang, he was unequivocal.
“The writer will work on his art whether or not he gets state funding,” he said.
He cited writers who were jailed because of the political content of their writings, whose aesthetic value was questionable.
“Sad thing is, when they came out of jail they still wrote badly,” he wisecracked, generating laughter from the crowd at the Learning Gallery of [email protected]
Moderated wittily by lawyer-fictionist Philip Jeyaretnam, chair of the SWF Steering Committee, the session was very lively as poet and graphic artist Gwee and publisher Fong grappled with ticklish issues regarding state subsidy of the arts.
“Writers get a pittance,” said Gwee. “They just do with what they have. These are issues that artists can’t do anything about.”
Fond said state patronage was a reality. “The important thing is for us to have a conversation with fun in a way that’s reasonable,” he explained.
“You can never avoid the state, but only he who has independent means has the right to have independent views,” Jose declared. That revved up the crowd.
Much later, autograph seekers mobbed the writer, many of them young Filipino professionals working in the city-state.
The power of the pen when confronted with censorship and the other restrictions of the state was discussed in the panel “Politics and Society: Is the Pen Always Mightier?”
Russian-Ukranian screenplay writer and best-selling novelist Andrey Kurkov said he remembered reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s banned novel on the sly. The book sold millions.
But the Soviet collapse has been bad for literature. “When there was no more censorship, no more interest,” he said.
Kurkov explained the advent of democracy had not exactly benefited the former Soviet satellites like Ukraine. He said there were 184 political parties in Ukraine and one could buy a party for half a million dollars so as to influence the outcome of elections of business ends. Instead of writing about official corruption, “writers write about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. No one wants to write about politics because politics is dirty.”
But the retreat may be fatal, he warned. “Writers should write about politics not to influence politicians—politicians are bad readers—but to influence readers.”
London-based Chinese poet Yang Lian, one of the exiles of the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, confessed he was reluctant to accept the SWF invitation. “Why should I go to Singapore? I got negative reviews before,” he said.
But he added he was pleasantly surprised at the positive reception he had been getting from the festival.
Yang added he expected the growing economic liberalization and the rise of social network in China to lead to a change of mindset.
“When rights become real, concrete, there’s no way to go back,” he said. “Young Chinese are now thinking about the future.”
There’s also no way of going back to the pre-GE 2011 days, said Catherine Lim, who joined Kurkov and Yang in the same forum.
The new freedoms as a result of the election last May in Singapore may result in abuse and vitriol, but the point is to seek balance, Lim added.
“Writers have to be responsible,” she said. “We have to be informed and principled. We have to be our own checks and balances.”
American economist Steven Levitt, one of the featured writers of the festival, gave a talk on “Unconventional Thinking” at the School of Arts.
The co-author of the bestseller “Freakonomics” and its sequel “Superfreakonomics,” he wowed the hall with his public-speaking brilliance, self-disparaging humor, and no-nonsense economic thinking.
He said that when he consulted his father because he was doing poorly in his studies at MIT, he got the best advice of his life.
“I have no talent, you have no talent,” his father told him. “The trick is to specialize.”
His physician-father himself specialized in one research where no researcher had gone before—intestinal gas. Levitt took after his dad but stirred clear of anything remotely connected to anatomical fumes: He specialized in unconventional economics.
Although gushing about Singapore’s progress, Levitt warned that “what made Singapore work in the past may not work in the future.”
“The challenge is how to create a new generation of people who will think for themselves, how to increase the creativity of people,” he explained.
Judging by its vibrant success, the 2011 SWF has paved the way for a new era of creativity.