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Why Singaporean Literature Matters

A group of Singaporean writers made their debut appearance in Melbourne this May to discuss the Singaporean literature scene, called “Sing lit.”


From left: Sreehevi Iyer, Shivram Gopinath, Amanda Chong, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Daryl Qilin Yam, Joshua Ip. Photo: Patrick Lyne.

As Sing Lit is virtually synonymous with the poetry format, the evening kicked off as each writer did a poetry reading, followed by a discussion hosted by RMIT’s own Sreedhevi Iyer about Sing Lit and what it’s like to be a writer in Singapore.


Though these five artists are on a grant from the Singaporean government, their country doesn’t always look favourably upon its writers.


There have been numerous cases over the years, and even in the past few months, of authors and journalists having been arrested, with a recent case in March of an Australian journalist who was charged with sedition.


The most famous arrest is that of author and journalist Alan Shadrake, who was jailed in 2011 for criticising the Singaporean judicial system in his book Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, which helped bring international attention to the Singaporean government.


Despite these controversies, Sing Lit is a thriving scene.


As a country that gained independence in 1965, Singapore has a young writing scene that isn’t as internationally well-established as Australia’s, however, the country is very wealthy despite its youth as a nation, and its arts scene is becoming more well-known because of organisations such as Sing Lit Station.


“We went from third world to first in a single generation,” says playwright and panellist Amanda Chong.


In contemporary Australia, writing is approached as part of one’s personhood and identity, which differs from the way writing is viewed in Singapore.


“[Writing] is a reaction to the wealth they have to deal with, the pressures at the workplace and from family,” says Sreedhevi Iyer.


“ It’s a reaction to conformity.”


Understanding the lives of everyday life in Singapore is sourced through its creative literature, which is a risky industry to dip into due to the heavy hand its government has on books.


The first book banned by Singapore’s Parliament and not by their Internal Security was Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was banned in 11 different counties (this book subsequently led to the highly-publicised attempt on his life in New York and the publication of his autobiography, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, which was published earlier this year).


These bans have led to Singapore tying in second with China for being the country with the most banned books, the first being India.


This is problematic because in Singapore people are discouraged from verbally expressing their thoughts and opinions, which creates a reliance on writing as a way to express oneself.


“Generally, in Asia, you grow up in a culture of silence in the classroom,” says Sreedhevi Iyer, who went to school in Asian countries.


“We were not raised to be adept at expressing ourselves verbally… [In Australia] we take it for granted that we can just say what we think. We were raised to express our opinions verbally.”


The repercussions of controversial expression hang heavy over the heads of the city-state’s artistic citizens.


Despite this, the country’s literature scene is more prominent than ever, and the writers of Rising Stars have found themselves recipients of a government grant to fund their pursuit to bring international attention to Sing Lit.


“They’ve contributed a lot to the literary community in Singapore,” she tells the Swanston Gazette.


One of the attending authors is Daryl Qilim Yam, who helps organise the Singapore writing festivals.


“He has worked so tirelessly for every Singapore festival to the point where he [once] dropped from exhaustion,’ says Sreedhevi Iyer.


Daryl Qilim Yam is a director of Sing Lit Station, Singapore’s equivalent of a writer’s centre, which was co-founded by fellow panellist Joshua Ip in 2016.


Though the Singaporean literature scene has been around since the ‘60s, its recognition hasn’t been well-established on the international market until recently.


“[Singaporean literature] became a lot more recognised in the ‘90s because the nature of publishing and the distribution level changed,’ says Sreedhevi Iyer.



They are touring the country in an event called “Rising Stars,” with scheduled appearances also in New Zealand.


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