Singapore Writer’s Festival 2017 (Part 2)

Why I Write: The Social Responsibilities of a Writer. Many people struggle with mental illness and there is a need to break the silence of mental illness. Try to live each day with dignity. Life is full of ups and downs. But the question is how we live life courageously in the face of trying circumstances. Writers write because there is something deeply that they care about. It is important to write from the heart (pain/loss). It is also important to place content in a suitable medium (make it accessible to blind readers, for instance). Listening without judgment is a skill that not many of us have. Use your sight to observe others and observe keenly. In life, everyone wants to be understood, even the poor or the mentally less able. Learn to inculcate understanding/ acceptance among others. Learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Changing Singaporeans’ mindsets towards mental illnesses is crucial. The aim of most of these books is for Singapore to become empathetic society. Caregivers need support as well and not just the patient/family member etc.

Against All Odds. Sam and her family had a happy life and marriage. They had 3 kids. However, after a fall in Thailand, she was paralyzed from the waist down and this put an end to her sporting endeavors. She could no longer do the things she enjoyed because of this spinal injury. After the incident, she felt depressed and upset with life. However, one day, a penguin came into her house and she found that because she could take care of something so fragile, it sparked inspiration in life and for her to keep going on. If you a writer, something will call out to you. Enjoy the moment in life, carpe diem. The penguin story is a spontaneous thing that happened and it was not planned for. Her husband (Cameron) captured beautiful images of the penguin and told the story of Sam through the bird. The penguin lived with them for 2+ years and the whole family, including the boys adored them. Although Sam can no longer surf, she can still kayak in the lake and train for the para-Olympics competitions. There is a need to learn to compromise after you had a serious accident. You will have to learn to do things in a different way. It is crucial to be physically and mentally active if you want to keep your zest for life. Exercise can definitely help you in a huge way. It is important to remain optimistic in the face of trying circumstances and you will eventually find a way forward.

Aram Across Religions. There are some commonalities across religions. Aram is an Indian word which means ‘what should someone do/what should someone avoid’. It has deep roots in ethics and values. Dhamma is what distinguishes humans from animals. Animals go by their instinct while humans have choice. This is the main difference between animals and humans. Even if you are very intelligent, without aram, you are like a block of wood. Aram consists of 2 main values – basic human values (Do not do harm to others) and values related to one’s life (value-specific ones). Religions all set out with the aim of creating Universal peace. It is interesting because all religious buildings end up with a peak at the top of the structure. Buddha emphasized the importance of discussing points of agreement and not disagreement. There is no need to argue. Literature is important as it portrays experience. All religions move to one being, with common values. There are many things that can be learnt from the Bible. William Wan drove the Kindness movement in Singapore. Love, Kindness, working humbly are all common values that all religions share. However, it is also possible to be an ethical, moral and virtuous person even if you do not faith in God. Buddha also struggled deeply to get rid of his human weaknesses and achieve human enlightenment. There is nobody that cannot be reformed and transformed. It is always important to remain grateful and to remember your roots. You are never good alone as everyone needs the help of others. Rama is a role model for mankind as he shows how to be good when the odds are not in your favor. On the surface, religions have many differences. However, when you go deeper, you will realize that religion is a lot more common than you think. As a human, we need to learn to be passionate and compassionate.

A Brighter Tomorrow? Aram and What the Youth Want. There are 17 Singapore sustainable developmental goals that we all thrive for. It is important to get youth to be involved. Jessica Cheam founded a start-up called Eco-business, which is an NGO. She aims to tackle issues like inequality and climate change. It is important for young people to be passionate about such causes. The story is yours to shape and to develop. The future is in your hands. It is important to give words of encouragement sometimes to others. Help the youth where no one believes in them. Help those people in welfare homes. Ultimately, love is important and if you really care for someone, put your heart into it. Love the person you want to help. Give the opportunity to a young person and you just might change someone’s life. What is the modern Singapore story? Singapore has moved from a third world to first in just 1 generation. However are Singaporeans still hungry? Do they still want to live the material dream? Different generations of people want different things. Migrant female workers are marginalized and can’t speak well. Many are from low-income families and marry poor men. There is too much social injustice. Amanda Chong is doing work in this area to help these migrant workers and their kids. These segments of society need more attention and bringing out the successful stories will help them. Can you be a protagonist in your own story/life?

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Singapore Writer’s Festival 2017 (Part 1)

The Green State of Singapore. Singapore has plenty of thriving nature ecosystems. The last of the tigers seen on the island was the 1930s. In the last 100 years, there is a trend of increased use of cultivated land (crops) and increase urban land use. The percentage of primary forests have decreased a lot. The 1960s marked the resettlement of people from village to HDB. NParks works with MINDEF to allocate land for jungle training. These jungles also enable biodiversity to thrive. The interesting thing is that in the 1930s, almost all of Singapore’s bio-diversity was gone and this had to be built from scratch. Today, Singapore has an outstanding range of biodiversity. We have over 400 bird species, which is 4% of the different bird species in the world. We also range high on the bio-diversity index and have improved over time. We top the Green new Index, the Treepedia by MIT. Some interesting species which we have are the Horseshoe Crab, where there are properties in their blood which can detect certain toxins in human blood. Everyone needs to take positive action. Nparks has a nature conversation masterplan in place to boost our conservation efforts. Roadside greenery and the various nature parks, reservoirs are all due to careful planning. 22 May is the bio-diversity roundtable and we also get schools involved. There is a school where the Chinese teacher actually brings students in the courtyard for lessons, where there is more greenery. 93% of Singapore’s forests were chopped in 1883 due to colonization. The Botanic gardens were tasked to re-forest and to grow Singapore’s bio-diversity in the late 1800s. Up to the 1930s, Singapore produced most of their food. In the modern day, we import almost everything. This was largely due to government policy on the need to make better use of the land and modernize our economy. Botanic Gardens actually re-introduces extinct orchids through a hybridization process. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the chief gardener. Almost everything green in Singapore has been created and this provides a conducive environment for businesses to set up shop here. Trees were planted along expressways to impress tourists. When animals (tigers, wild boars, meerkets) are dangerous, we try to get rid of them. The green movement is growing and more young people are on-board. The increase in green energy does not necessarily mean it’s good for eco-systems as these are very distinct. Land still needs to be set-up for natural eco-systems. Roof gardens on multi-storey carparks are also more common.

All in a Traveller’s Day. The Chinese and Taiwanese markets are bigger than Singapore’s for writing. Write about your own experiences. Traveling can inspiring you to write. Mimi is an illustrator and now a comic book writer. One can use social media to update people on your upcoming novel. This might be a niche area. Writing a travel guide is different from a novel as you are heavily constrained by guidelines. Telling your publisher upfront that you are going to work on a particular work might help as it leads to you feeling the pressure and motivation to get things done. Most Singaporeans travel casually because they feel repressed here. However, most do not achieve the type of depth that travel writers experience. It is necessary for travel writing to have some element of universality, and not completely personal. Sometimes, even if you are a travel writer, it is important to just go in with less expectations and to experience as many things as naturally as possible. There is no need to contrive a novel. A good thing about comics is that you can exaggerate things that happened along the trip. The problem is that social media is all about framing and people make the place seems very exclusive and empty. However, in reality, there could be many people waiting for the same opportunity as you. Smartphone apps have changed the way we view things and meet people. Travel writing needs to be very open and chatty. Marc Nair writes a short haiku for every of his photos. There is a need to be a responsible traveler, such as by recycling materials. The problem with some tourists is that they may intrude into someone’s privacy if they go too close to someone’s famous house for a photo opportunity etc. Poetry can be linked with photography if it tries to explore the space in a photo. Write in your own voice and learn to find your own writing style. Sometimes, it is useful to get lost while traveling as it allows you to experience things you wouldn’t normally had a chance to.

From Apart to a Part: Writing to Unite. To some, many do not know where home is as they might have been displaced due to violence, turmoil in their own country etc. However, home is actually within you and once you are at peace, you must feel at home everywhere you go. Suki Kim taught English to North Koreans in NK for 6 months and wrote about her experiences. In NK, everyday felt the same and it felt really empty. There were no news/emails received and you didn’t know how to assess what was true. It was mainly propaganda. Literature can connect the arts/culture and translation is important as it helps to revive old literature. Through the shared power of literature, it is powerful enough to spread culture and important cultures. Learn to immerse yourself in other cultures. Learn to understand the human narratives through talking to refugees etc. The power of fiction is so amazing that someone else might actually think your character is a real person. It is almost possible to fall in love with a character in a book. All of us humans have a story to tell. It sucks being a migrant worker. The panelists shared about a Nigerian woman who tried to go to Italy to work as a result of social unrest in her country. However, her journey was fraught with difficulties and dangers. Stories help us to understand the world and make sense of what is true. Sometimes, the media do not feature such stories and hence the truth is suppressed. Social media is a way of broadcasting to the masses. There is a need to learn about someone else, and one of the best ways are through stories. Poetry is like rain, which politicians can’t stop. Soon, it will seep into the ground like rain. Writers have a social responsibility to share the stories of those who have slipped through the cracks. Through this sharing, it is hoped that the world will be more aware of such plights.

Growing up with Sumiko Tan. Sumiko graduated from English literature and moved on to a journalist covering crime. Later on, she wrote 2 books on crime. She is well known for her personal columns in the Straits Times on Sundays. The good thing about a personal column is that it allows everyone to start off on a clean slate. She wanted to show everyone that small things in life have a bigger meaning. Everyday experiences can be interesting as well. However, most of her columns had the same succinct writing and a certain structure to it. Over the years, she has received much praise for her work and sometimes some criticisms too. She always chooses to write from the heart and that’s how her topics were chosen. It is no wonder that she has written 400+ columns over 22 years. However, she only like 10 to 20% of them. They were compiled into a book. Some of the topics she covers are her pets, love, death, loneliness etc. She has an obsession with death. She only got married at age 46 and does not regret having no kids. Having kids would just have affected her career achievements. Now, she interviews household names like Tony Fernandez, Zoe Tay etc. Often, she also writes about her mum and husband. ST uses readership surveys to decide whether to continue her column and most readers responded positively. Over the years, Sumiko has generated the art to write everywhere, even with distractions abound. Deadlines also help her. Sumiko avoids over-dramatization of her characters and also plans to write short stories in future. She likes works by Sonny Liew and Tash Aw, local authors. Young people nowadays can do an internship or even start a blog to showcase their works and talents. This might help employers notice and aid in a job hunt. It is important to be sincere in your writings. She is grateful to having been born in Singapore, in such exciting times. So far, she does not have many regrets in her personal life.

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Great Thinkers by the School of Life (Part 3)

Art and Architecture

Andrea Palladio. A lot of people spend time indoors. We admire great buildings. Venice has one of the best architecture. Andrea designed buildings when he was 30. He designed many villas. Finally, he emerged as top architect of Venice. To me, architecture has to have a clear purpose. There are rules for great buildings too. We should build in order to encourage good states of mind in ourselves. It helps us with calm, harmony and dignity. Symmetrical shapes help bring calm. Buildings should be well fitted and aligned well. These are powerful coherent buildings. Buildings should gave dignity to aspects of life which are seen as unworthy. Buildings should compensate us for our weaknesses. We need serene, harmonious and confident buildings. They are rules for architecture as well. One could follow mathematical ratios. Buildings should be made symmetrical.

Johannes Vermeer (1632 to 1675). Many things are glamorous. Artists can capture scenes of beauty which are commonly overlooked by many. These are deep moments of contemplation. Even bread and butter can be satisfying. Simple homely pleasures are important as well. He did a lot of painting in his free time. His famous work was ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’. Thoughts for the non-renowned are important and should be considered too. Artists have the power to make the ordinary look special. Sometimes, in life, doing modest things are sufficient.

Most of life is taken up dealing with things which are routine, ordinary, humble, modest and (to be honest) a touch dull. Our culture should focus on getting us to appreciate the average, the everyday and the ordinary. – Johannes Vermeer

Caspar David Friedrich. Art can teach us how to suffer. His distinctive style emerged slowly. He depicted sufferings in his paintings. Tragedy and grief could also express emotions and solemn moods around. Solitude brings with it our deepest possibilities. His works make us aware of our insignificance. We appreciate how small we are and that some things don’t matter. Learn to be conscious of our space and time in the grand scheme of things. Now, his works are deeply admired.

Henri Matisse. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves of the bad things that happen in life. We are aware of the problems and injustice in the world. We feel small in the face of problems. Hope is to be celebrated and is a necessary part for success. The problem with the world was that there was too much darkness and misery, hence, we need to remind ourselves of happy things in life.

Edward Hopper. He is a painter of gloomy-looking paintings. The paintings help to accept loneliness. His paintings are gloomy, however can seem charming too. His works didn’t sell well. Even those he loved his wife, some part of him realized that he was still alone. Art can be therapeutic when addressing loneliness. When travelling, Hopper loved the introspective mood.

Oscar Niemeyer. Buildings looks the same everywhere. His buildings had motifs from the floor to ceiling. He practised Brazilian-infused modernism. One should use techniques like reinforced concrete in creative ways. He liked sensual curves of rivers, of a female body etc. The church he built had tiles across it. He created a building where you could work and relax and have a conversation that expands your mind. You could be sexually adventurous in your house as well. His architecture was also a future dream for Brazil. He created new buildings to reflect nationalism. To him, it was important for buildings to be culturally specific.

Louis Kahn. Kahn got inspired by the buildings in Rome due to their ancient designs. Yet, he managed to marry that concept with innovation and clarity. Kahn used symmetry, which was an old idea. Symmetry helps to provide a sense of balance and focus. He often used new materials for his office, like ceramic, copper etc. Wood can give warmth while concrete gives strength and stability. He was also a monumental architect. He could combine the old and the new and thus was very famous.

Coco Chanel. Fashion is a part of life. However, fashion nowadays is eccentric and foolish in nature. She started off as a designer of hats. In the past, clothes are complicated and very expensive. However, her clothes were inspiring in their design. She invented a better destination. She introduced a little black dress. The wearer looked energetic etc. The dress was designed to be long-lasting. She re-invented the black dress. The fashion sense would also be appropriate for 10 years later. She limited colour options to those that were essential and elegant. Elegance and grace was the big focus of her dresses and that was very important. She also designed jewellery and handbags. Her clothes are revolutionary because they were embodiments of good ideas.

Jane Jacobs. There is something compelling about cities. They are full of possibilities. Cities can be really complex on their own. She loved to explore the own city she lived in. She worked as a writer for a magazine. She married an architect later on in life. The problem with modern architecture was that it wasn’t want real people wanted. Architects should learn to respect urban order. These were usually the result of bad thinking. She realized that to know what people wanted, you have to walk around and explore the city. To her, diversity was very important. Cities should be like eco-systems. There needs to be a diversity of businesses. City blocks should be small so as to encourage more interactions between people. There should be a mix of old and new buildings. Cities should be dense in population. Cities should be compact.

Cy Twombly. Abstract art can seem meaningless to us. The key to abstract art is to appeal to people’s emotions. It represents inner rather than the outer world. What does the work feel like? Cy was an abstract artist. His work suggests a reflective life and ambition and confusion. He loved figurative and representational art. We should really think more about the slogans that we are exposed to in everyday life.

Andy Warhol. He was a glamorous figure of 20th century art. He was famous for making brightly coloured prints. Andy was largely an eccentric character. He was a celebrity, but also concentrated on his business. Throughout his lesson, he thought us the 4 important life lessons. They are 1) Appreciating everyday life. For instance, he loved the soup can. However, humans need to take a step back to appreciate them. Everything we do in life is interesting and note-worthy. The things we do all the time have their own merits. He groomed some countercultural eccentrics as ‘Superstars’. To him, people worked because they wanted a glamorous outlook in life. The choice of the right celebrities were important. He was good at both business and art and felt that they could go well together. To him, art should be accessible and not just restricted to a select rich few. We need the branding power of business to drive the power of art. Andy Warhol mastered many different genres of art. He died at the age of 58.

Dieter Rams. He was a great designer of everyday objects. He made the company ‘Braun’ famous. Design and functionality are closely linked. Dieter saw the beauty of simplicity. The radios he designed were simplistic and even the modern iPod took inspiration from it. The fact is that our lives are too cluttered and having simplicity is very beautiful indeed. Being simple is truly an achievement to be celebrated. There is value in modesty. The products had to improve other people’s lives. One needs to build empathy with the customer. An object should be easy to live with. Rams was classic too. His goal was to make enduring products, those which we didn’t need to throw away. Art and product design is very important.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They didn’t like producing art on a small scale and produced large-scale art. They wanted their art to fill up public spaces. Their art was produced on a massive scale. Their aim is just to make things beautiful and inspiring for all. The job of an artist is not just to dream of a better world, but to make it happen. To create large work, they needed the support of the government, of many users etc. Profit certainly wasn’t their main goal. This is the central plank of good commerce.

Literature

Jane Austen. She was an ambitious moralist and wanted to make people nicer in terms of their characters. She was elegant, a good dancer etc. However, she didn’t marry. She believed that the lover should educate you. The purpose of marriage is to educate and improve the other. It should be the union of both. Your spouse has to be able to make you feel relaxed and comfortable and overcome our failings. We have to judge more carefully. She doesn’t care as much of outer appearance as compared to integrity and other values. Learn to treat money seriously. One will need sufficient money before one can get married. Do not be overimpressed by what money can do. It is not wise to get married without enough money. Wealth is important to happiness, but not in terms of living in luxury. We mustn’t learn to be snobbish. Do not be all high handed in dealing with your hierarchy. Few people are snobbish. Secretly, Austen wants the world to be of a certain way which is appealing. This is why she is much loved as a writer.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was one of the big cultural heroes and excelled in many areas of his life. Many people were impressed by how he led his life. He learnt theatre in school. We can learn a lot of lessons from him. The first is ‘From Romanticism to Classicism in love’. Although romantic love is attractive and wonderful, it does have its deep problems when there is breakup etc. The movies paint romance to be fairy-tale like, but in reality, it is not very pretty. He believed more in Classicism, which is marked by pessimism. However, Romanticism felt more exciting. Later, Goethe worked for the government. There is dignity in administration and working for the government. He often sat in meetings and listened to others. He eventually created a model urban park. Travel was a form of therapy. He was inspired by Rome etc. However, when he reached Rome, he was a little disappointed. He realized he needed a guide. To him, travelling was not about relaxing, but about finding the missing ingredient of our own maturity. Later, he got back to his political and creative work. One should live life to the full: the Faustian hero. His most famous work was Faust. Faust was downtrodden until he was visited by Mephisto, a devil. The devil will offer him the ability to do whatever he wants. Faust realizes that want is wants is beauty and love, and not being a pure hedonist. You can use power and put in for noble use. To fully achieve, we have to flirt with things, but also hold on to a higher purpose. Science is for artsy people. He was known for his achievements in botany. He a hero for those with artistic and literary sense. He studied animals closely and how they interacted with one another. He was an awesome guy.

Leo Tolstoy. The novel was a form of psychological education and reform. He was born in 1828. He was not a good student in school. His marriage was difficult. He wrote War and Peace, Anna Karenina etc. The key lesson from his books are that if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, they would seem kinder and more forgiving. We need to understand the ‘dislikeable’ characters. People are not as what they seem all the time. The thought of mortality should inspire continual kindness and sympathy in us. Tolstoy was a man of outstanding moral courage and generosity. He wrote an important essay. It was titled ‘What is Art?’ Art has the purpose of making the world kinder for all. We have to aspire to be something else.

Marcel Proust. He was a French writer who wrote the longest novel in the world. There were 7 volumes. It was deemed to be the greatest novel of all time. The title was ‘In Search of Lost Time’. It was about a guy seeking to find meaning and purpose in life. He wanted to stop wasting time and start living. There are potentially 3 sources for the meaning of life. The first is social success. The narrator worked his way up the social hierarchy. However, once you are there, you will realize that people are not extraordinary. Vices can be found throughout the population. It is normal for one to try and scale the social ladder. Love provides meaning to life. However, it is not possible to truly understand someone and conflict might arise. Loneliness is endemic. Hence, both the first 2 fail to provide meaning in life. The last is art. Human adults are too stuck in their routine and cannot get out of it. Children do not suffer this and find beauty in the world. We need to look at life with greater sensitivity. It is possible to find natural beauty everywhere, and not just in museums. There is a nice charm to everyday life. The work of artists are like long Proustian moments and they remind us that life is fascinating and lovely.

The reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgement, ordinarily, not on the evidence of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life – and therefore we judge it disparagingly. – Marcel Proust

Virginia Woolf. She captured a lot of emotions which she saw. She had famous parents but did not want to live a life of luxury. Later, she suffered a mental breakdown. She was a journalist and a novelist. She married Leonard. ‘To the Lighthouse’ is one of her most famous works. She committed suicide in 1941. Learn to notice everything. There was no minor situation, in her opinion. She was very aware of her surroundings. She was not ashamed of describing her illnesses. We should learn to accept the everyday. We should be a feminist. She liked to explore her sexuality. She also wanted to raise the status of women in society. Women also had the rights to education, intellectual freedom etc.

It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. – Virginia Woolf

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Panel Discussion: What are the Boundaries?

This panel discussion was held on 14 April 2016 and featured the following speakers: Loh Chin Ee, Suzanne Choo and Zhou Decheng.

Some of the important questions to ask are the following: Should literature even be taught? Which approach should be adopted? What kind of materials should be covered? The discussion is focused on literature that is taught in the secondary school curriculum. From surveys, over 25% of Singapore’s have heard of local authors like Catherine Lim, Russell Lee, Low Kay Hwa etc. There is a category of works known as canonical works. Should they be introduced? They are essentially a series of books chosen by a select group of people that reflects popular local culture. Should students be made to study such books? Should you choose a popular work or less popular works that reflect societal values? There are 3 possible approaches that be adopted. The first is the heritage view. This is a view that works chosen should reflect the national identity and should have cultural value. This is in line with social studies. However, should controversial books like those on race/religion be chosen as well? The next approach is the multi-perspective one. This is where important issues are raised. These include issues like ‘home/belonging’, ‘cost of living’, ‘family’ etc. Books chosen based on this approach should contain issues where students can relate to. The last approach is the world-lit view where both local and world literature should be studied. By world literature, it does not only include UK and US publications. This approach allows the student to develop a global perspective on issues. Ultimately, there are many questions that still need to be answered. Such as, who selects the books? Should some works be made compulsory or do teachers have some freedom to decide? Should more shorter works be selected, or just one or two long works?

The next area of discussion was on cosmopolitanizing literature education. Arts for arts sake? Oscar Wilde once commented that ‘All art is quite useless.’ In secondary schools, there are many questions in exams that are focused on style. This is closely related to aestheticism. However, this is a dangerous trend and could be the trend of why the number of students studying literature is declining. Formalism is the study of the text alone, without taking account author’s background or the students’ emotion. There is basically nothing beyond the reading of the text. This is the idolatry of the text. Is there no social value in the works? Does the text really no meaning beyond the words used? Is literature really useless? In Singapore, there is a heavy emphasis on American and British works. Instead of formalism, we could introduce cosmopolitan ethical criticism. This encourages students to think about ethical issues, morals and philosophy. This makes them better able to empathize with others and makes them better citizens of the world. Greek ethics is useful and can certainly improve students’ lives. Text could be chosen based on their underlying ethical issues and concepts. Literature could be a good way to introduce simple ethical concepts to students. Some of the text covered in the secondary school syllabus include ‘George Bernard Shaw – Pygamalion’; ‘Arthur Miller – Death of a Salesman’; ‘Mildred Taylor – The Road to Memphis’; ‘Where Angels Fail to Tread – EM Forster’. The books are heavily Western centric. Is there room for more controversial text?

The last discussion was on Chinese literature in Singapore and why we need a paradigm shift in thinking to improve it. The current syllabus covers about 50% classical works and 50% modern works. There is much emphasis on Chinese poetry. The syllabus is also classified according to genre. Both translated works and analysis are tested. Li Bai’s war poems are included as well. In addition to poetry, there is also fiction works like short stories and flash fiction that are covered. Martial arts novels are included too. Even sensitive areas like Gender issues could be themes covered in books.

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Panel Discussion: Why Study Literature?

Why Study Literature? (15 March 2016)

This panel members comprised of Philip Holden, Loh Guan Liang, Tan Tarn How and Tan Chee Lay. The topic of discussion was ‘Why Study Literature?’ The hard truths are that there are less Singaporeans reading literature nowadays despite them believing that there are benefits associated it. Refer to this article on the StraitsTimes. The essential question to ask is ourselves is ‘Can literature even be taught and studied’? Does the Singapore education system support creative ways in teaching literature when there is heavy emphasis on grades? Can the two co-exist?

The current form of assessment in literature requires students to sit for exams and regurgitate facts. This might not be the way to get students interested in the subject. This is because studying for exams often requires memorizing and rote learning. Hence, students might be passive in their learning and not appreciate a sensitive reading of the text. The aim of a literature education is for students to be able to apply what they have learnt. This could be done via the introduction of creative writing in schools. Currently, the required readings in schools, like Shakespeare, might seem too advanced for certain segments of students. As a result, for those who do not have a strong English language proficiency, they might lose interest in literature altogether. This is certainly not ideal. Elements of English literature could be incorporated in the English language syllabus. In lower Secondary, literature should be taught in a fun way so as to pique student’s interest in literature. At this level, a portfolio-based assessment could be introduced. In upper Secondary, some form of examination is inevitable and students should be prepared for some level of rigour in assessment.

Literature is great because it teaches you that accuracy does not equate to the truth all the time. Reading is proven to improve grades in students. In addition, it is the great equalizer and a child from a not well-to-do family who reads widely might be able to break free from poverty via the knowledge attained from reading. In general, literature helps formulate better citizens and make them more tolerant and aware of conflicts that arise in the world. Literature opens your mind to different values, ideas and concepts out there. The beauty of reading fiction is that it enables one to live other people’s lives and see things from other people’s point of view. Asking why people like literature is akin to asking why do people sing, write, dance etc? Such a question is essentially asking something more fundamental: why is there is need for arts? Why are the art important? Singaporeans are known to lead materially comfortable lives but have not attained the level of human flourishing in order first-world cities. Most of us lead mundane drone-like lives, living from day-to-day. Do visit Tarn How’s blog on human flourishing here. Basically, people who like literature are covet rebels. They value self-expression and protest against the certain conflicts that exist in the world. They believe in the value of individuality and do not like to be told what to do. Chinese literature used to be huge in the 1920s, 1930s. However, it has taken a back seat in recent years and you can hardly find a Singaporean Chinese writing in the Chinese language. Despite this, the Writers’ association/Singapore Writers’ association are doing good work. Some of the community centres have also worked hard to compile Chinese short stories/poems written by Singapore Chinese into books.

How do you improve the situation? It would certainly be beneficial for people who like English literature to attend Chinese literature-related events and expose themselves to different cultures. Literature should transcend languages and should be viewed as one. To address the lack of readers/writers, the government could do more in the areas of funding translations works from other languages to English and vice versa. Books in the libraries could be arranged by themes instead of by different languages (current practice). This novel approach might encourage more people to read books in other languages. Views towards works that contain smatterings of Singlish could be viewed more favourably in future. It might even be feasible to introduce such works as literature text for students. The bifurcation of the study of the English language with English literature is a trans-national issue and other countries also battle this problem.

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Singapore Writers Festival 2015 (Part 4)

For part 3, click here.

Bright Lights, Dark Cities. Most of the panelists write about dark and gory plots. Life is like an arcade. Is life meaningless without a plan? There is indeed a dark side to Tokyo. There are spates of crime and the problem of income inequality. That is what makes cities intriguing. There are commonalties between Tagalog and Malay. However, the Filipino movies appear to have better plots than the Malay ones. Is Singapore really a restrictive place? Things appear to have changed somehow. Troy Chin is a comic artist who likes to ask the question ‘Why we are what we are?’ He is curious about mankind and Singaporeans in particular. He writes in order to bring out the ‘rawness’ in human beings. Some of his books have such a theme. The problems with cities is that it is possible to feel lonely even though there are millions of people in the city. Human companionship is about connection and not the number of people around you. Some of the books have the theme of ‘searching for their own place in the city’. It might not so appealing to live in a city after all. Most foreigners are intrigued by life in Japan. There are two ways to express yourself in Japan. You can either be polite and respectful or brutally honest. Singapore is a large melting pot of cultures and establishing a true identity might take a little more time. Do books need to have a resolution? Or is a book just supposed to describe a stream of consciousness? Some authors feel that characters are an alter-ego. Prostitution and stealing things were humans’ first jobs on Earth. Hence, it is interesting to write about them. Can you escape your fate? Are people in KL all aggressive? Sometimes, ordinary people can be driven to do extraordinary bad things. There was a story of cannibals eating loan sharks. Technology is causing us to lose that human-to-human interaction and this could be a problem in future. Would people become even lonelier?

Tweet for Change. Egyptians used social media during the uprising of their current president. It was certainly powerful and moving. Does social media influence the narrative and what people think? How does social media and traditional media compete for people’s attention? The aim of social media might not to go viral, but it could be just to raise genuine attention for a cause. It is important to be engaged with your audience. There are so many platforms of social media that one can use nowadays. It is important to choose the right one. One of the authors used WordPress to write about mental illnesses. If you are a blogger, it is important to blog consistently and ensure that your posts have a good following. Timing of release of posts are also important. Can social media create real change? The amount of time that should be spent on the ground should not be neglected. Do not forget to do the real work as well. Even if you use social media, nothing beats face-to-face connections and developing genuine offline relationships. For the authors, creating a blog and then writing a book was an organic process. There is this argument that a # is not a movement and that it takes real action to create change. Should social media be measured based on whether it can be translated into action? Sometimes, even if direct action may not be created, it is still important to create awareness among the public. Some people criticize young people for being keyboard ‘activists’. Sustained social media interaction is necessary to create impact. Nowadays, it is possible to raise money via crowd-funding projects. The benefits of blogs is that it can reach out to more people in a swift manner. Also, the posts are more time sensitive and you can elicit feedback via the comments section instantly. There are actually some trolls that are paid to talk nonsense and flame bloggers. Such comments might actually have the effect of forcing the blogger to adjust their writing style etc. Different social media platforms should be used for different purposes. The whole idea of using social media is that it is more horizontal and decentralized in nature. Therefore, it is possible to reach out to more diverse groups of people as compared to traditional media. However, social media can become dangerous when what is popular becomes the new narrative. Also, the problem of cyber bullying and hiding using anonymity might become more prevalent. One should not spend too much time on social media or treat social media as their form of obtaining news. The modern generation of people have a short attention span and usually can’t read beyond 1000 words per article. As an author, you are only as good as your last article. Twitter is not popular at all in Hong Kong. Social media in good in the sense that it can offer alternative viewpoints that traditional media can’t

International Criminal Minds. Often, murderers try to be perfect, but they are not. Is it possible to plan a perfect murder and get away with it? It might be. However, humans are not infallible and people might accidentally reveal their plan to others, thus foiling it. The easiest way to get away with it is when you have no connection at all to the victim and leave no clues at the murder scene. Nowadays, in modern cities, CCTV and smartphones are prevalent. It is difficult to get away with crimes. One of the speakers was Japanese writer, Fuminori Nakamura. Murderers often act against the victims whom they already know. Some suffer from irreparable damage from people that they know or claim to know. There is always this debate about what is good, what is bad etc. At times, the divide can be very fine indeed. It is common for drunk people to act in more violent ways than usual. It is usually quite difficult to catch lone wolves. Crime novelists are usually interested to find out what people’s motivations are and what causes them to commit crimes. Sometimes, the trigger might not even be a very big or significant event. Should novels end off with a sense of hope? Crime fiction is all about trying to solve mysteries and puzzles. In this way, it parallels life as there are always problems to be solved. Often, we find those around us mysterious and want to get down to the root of the problem etc. Essentially, we are trying to solve the puzzles of other people. Crime is becoming a more popular genre in fiction. Crime could be also seen as a mirror to society. Some books try to ‘glorify’ or celebrate violence in order to get readers hooked onto the plot. There are many aspects to crime and murder is just one of them. ‘Gone Girl’ has sold really well and it is a psychological thriller. Not all crimes are of the stereotypical type where a young female victim gets raped. Japanese Manga tends to feature more violence, for instance, the ‘Dragonball’ series. However, the writers do that because they intend to bring the dead back to life. University murders are often a plot used by British crime fiction authors. The problem is that when people disagree, things start to happen. Countryside crimes are very common. For beginning authors, it is important to write what you already know and with what you are familiar with. Learn to emulate the best authors at the start of your writing career. To draw readers, hook them with the impossible. Learn to find the right person if you are trying to conduct research. If you observe others, you will realize that people like to talk about their own experiences and expertise. People like talking about themselves.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The panelist examined celebrities. What was fame like in the 19th century? Alfred Wallace was a biologist who competed with Charles Darwin. Apparently, they had similar research but only Darwin was renowned with the theory of evolution as he published first. Avi Sirlin wrote about Alfred Wallace in his book and how under-rated he was. During their time, if you revealed ground-breaking research which wasn’t accepted by religion, there would be an uproar. Therefore, scientists need to play their cards carefully. There was always this debate of Science vs Religion. Is life in the Science community about trying to become famous and claim credit/discredit your competitors? Some of the famous starts in the 1950s included Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Elvis Presley etc. They, unlike the scientific community, are good looking people. Looks matter greatly in the entertainment industry. The pop culture emerged because teenagers were empowered and there was this globalization of the entertainment industry. Therefore, popularity in the scientific vs music industry is completely different. Luck matters as well. The advent of the Internet and modern technology has certainly helped entertainers to flourish. However, does it also present too much competition? If anyone can sing and record themselves on YouTube, would there be too low barriers to entry? Do successful musicians still require a producer, director etc? Even politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron were appealing in terms of their looks. Do looks matter in politics? The new Canadian PM certainly fits that category too. Modern society is becoming more visual and reliant on looks. Given the power of the press, it is essential to be on good terms with the media as any negative coverage might just kill off your career. There is an increasing shift of traditional Western dominance of pop culture to the East. People are becoming more exposed to music in Japan, China etc. China is a dominant market which cannot be overlooked at all. Will we see media personalities entering politics in future, given their good looks and popularity to begin with?

It’s Nature’s Way of Telling You. Rob Cowen wrote a book titled ‘The Common Ground’. It was about his experience living in a house in the hedge land in a countryside in England. Since young, he has been fascinated with nature and its relation with humans. Nature always brings new perspectives. One has to be observant and watch the details. There was a point in his life where he was repulsed by the human world, economic recessions and all. He felt that humans were living in their fake and virtual world which was surrounded by concrete structures. In the hedge land he was in, there was untapped natural beauty, with many bird and animal history. There is certainly a rich tapestry on disused land. Throughout his stay in the house, he took down field-notes, which eventually became material for his book. Being in touch with nature allows you to be in touch with the past and the future. It might even allow you to find answers for why are you placed on this Earth. One can find a profound sense of identity by living with nature. Humans did not have to evolve and grow to like nature. It is sad that some people in modern society have lost touch with nature and are simply too busy to even care. It is important for the human soul to be attached to a place/location which they can always return to. Hunting for your own food can be a therapeutic and out-of-body experience. While technology is useful, do not be over-reliant on it. In Japan, taking a bath in the forest can be a way to heal mental illnesses. One should learn to be mindful of their surroundings. Green spaces like ‘The Green Corridor’ offer much for people to admire. However, Singaporeans need to lobby and campaign for such places to be preserved. Man-made and curated beauty cannot compare with pure natural beauty. Nature is indifferent to humans and it can rear its ugly head too. Humans and nature are inter-wined into one common entity. We are inseparable.

SWF

Singapore Writers Festival 2015 (Part 3)

For part 2, click here.

What is the point of reading literature? Is Singapore at a crisis point in terms of number of students studying literature. The numbers of students studying is declining. Is this concerning at all? Does the rousing turnout at the Singapore Writers Festival mean something? It is important to build a literary eco-system and change the way literature is taught in schools. Literature trains critical thinking and builds a core of critical readers. It also hones critical thinking. There is still this perception that literature is for the elite and for those who have done well in the English language. It is important that more students take literature, believe in it, and convince the future generations to take it as well. The speakers suggested incorporating literature in the study of humanities and the English language in school. In the early days, literature was too associated with the British and the ‘high’ culture. As a result, English literature was separated from the study of the English language. Many in Singapore see language as a form and tool of communication. Reading a book can give you insights which may not be present when you watch a movie made of the same book. It would be good to start students from young, even at the pre-school level. Parental influence and emphasis on reading is also very important for the child. Teachers could be taught how to select rich text for the children. There is currently little data on reading habits in Singapore. One could argue that the arts is not necessary as it does not help to build material wealth. However, the fact is that there are many benefits associated with reading. For instance, it hones your imagination, makes you more human, builds empathy etc. There are segments of society who are very dismissive of the arts as it doesn’t allow one to make a lot of money. Reading must be seen as something that is pleasurable and should be looked forward to even after one leaves school. It also is a great way to hone language ability. In Murakami’s book ‘The Elephant Vanishes’, one of the themes is that of the power of reading and how it can hone philosophical thinking. One way to encourage more to read is to make reading more social (for example: book clubs, SWF etc). Ultimately, literature can be seen as a great equalizer. The poor should read even more as it enables them to dream of a better future and make their life more ‘rich’. The more society reads, the more the chances of writers emerging. Reading is a great way to expand one’s knowledge and imagination. Back in the 1960s, Singapore was more about survival and people had to work hard to make a living. As a result, there was less emphasis on reading and on building an arts culture.

Our Lives, Our Stories. This book is a collection of memoir writing exercises which are all autobiographical in nature. There were a total of 7 authors who each wrote about 3000 words each. The book was published by the National Library Board, Singapore. It all started with a writing workshop at the library. The workshop taught skills like guided autobiography writing. One story was about an author recalling her past as a child helping out in the kitchen in Malacca. Back then, people cooked dishes like salted vegetable and soup. There is still value in traditional cooking in modern society. Recalling the past helps recollect and bring back nostalgic memories. Another story was about the author’s late father. It recalled the moments of how he set foot in Singapore. Her father had a great influence on her life. The third story of how an author recounted the years before her mother’s passing. A major theme of the stories are that of traditional culture, like the Peranakan culture. In the past, families or neighbors traded food with one another so that each family could try different types of food. In general, most grandparents were strict and children grown up to be exact and disciplined. Life is essentially a long journey and it is all about a stream of consciousness. By default, many people live their lives on auto-pilot and do not reflect very much on the past. Writing helps to aid the reflection process and can be therapeutic in nature. After the workshop, many of the authors were pushed and motivated to continue writing. The workshop had the effect of kick starting the habit of writing. Even if your work is not published, writing is a good form of healing and can aid one to overcome grief or grow to accept difficult situations. One can always keep a journal. Knowing your past helps you understand your present situation better. Writers who often write about memoirs usually feel obligated to share with the world something important to them.

Wanderlust and the Promise of the Other. People love travelling for a myriad of reasons. One of which could be to escape the pain after a divorce, for instance. Travelling to a new world brings about new beginnings for all. The featured authors all write from direct experiences. It is always possible to find something new about yourself while travelling. While on the road, keep walking till you get lost. There is inherent beauty in taking the less-trodden path and taking a detour. Even if you take a detour, good things might happen. While travelling, most will realize that not everything goes according to plan. For instance, one of the authors wrote about his experience when he missed his flight. Sometimes, it is helpful to do things that are common to the natives. For instance, one could take a train in the peak hour traffic. It might be difficult to structure a coherent plot when travel experiences are so scattered. At times, experiences help shape your plot. It can all come together. One can worry about the form of the story later, after the first draft. It is also common to add spice to the character’s lives so as to make the plot seem more interesting. When you feel bored overseas, it can also add flavor to the story you are crafting. Language is essentially only one form of communication. When you don’t speak a common language with a native, you will perform hand gestures or body language in order to get your message across. If you can’t fully comprehend what the person is saying, you can interpret his body language and guess what is he trying to say. There is beauty in silence too. Because you can’t speak a common language, you tend to be aware of non-verbal cues and be naturally more aware of your surroundings. Researching on the place before you travel can only do so much. It certainly won’t expose you to the soul of the country and the heart of the city. Often, the books only feature touristy places. Also, sometimes, your travel plans might be disrupted for various reasons. As a result, you might feel frustrated that your plans are not coming to fruition. However, it is important to appreciate the detour. When travelling, one can just plan the essentials like accommodation and transport. It helps to stay with the locals as that represents a more unique culture of the place. Try to write from your own travel experiences.

Critical Stage: Literary Reviews. Is criticism and book reviews important in the literary world in Singapore? Currently, there is a limited number of book reviewers out there. The Straits Times’ Life section did cover book reviews for a few years before ceasing to continue. Currently, there is only a book column in the ST on the weekends. However, it usually covers only foreign books which the general public finds popular or appealing. With the advent of the Internet, reviewers can review books on blogs, social media or good reads etc. Social media has definitely changed the book reviewing landscape. It is natural for authors to want to find out what readers think. There are opportunities for writers to get feedback. The literary scene in Singapore is booming and writers need to get the word out that they are published. It is common for writers to review each others’ work. There is certainly an art to reviewing books and a reviewers’ role should be taken seriously. The Straits Times still has a big part to play in promoting Singaporean literature. There are many publishers out there. The Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS) is a book platform to review Singaporean literature and for writers’ to get feedback. There might be issues of conflict of interest if authors’ review fellow author’s work and if they are close friends etc. It is important to stay objective when reviewing books. When reviewing, it is important to try to stay neutral and objective. The truth will allow authors’ to learn and improve on their literary style. There are basically two types of reviews. The first is more about ‘rating’ a book. The second type is more of a critical essay. This form is definitely more value-adding. Critical essays enable the author to understand how their other works may have affected their current works, or even how their writing styles might be similar to other authors. In general, it is important to have critics. Do reviewers have such a large viewership that they can influence what others read? Everyone is entitled to voice their opinion online. Authors shouldn’t argue with reviewers who have given them a bad review. Readers are discerning and intelligent people who know how to differentiate a good review from a bad one. Authors are certainly not entitled to receive reviews. Is writing its own reward? Should you even care about reviewers at all? Writers need to market their books because of the booming publishing scene in Singapore. Therefore, reviewers serve an important function of raising awareness for author’s works. Naturally, there is always an element of subjectivity to book reviews. The fact is that Singaporean books are not being reviewed much overseas. Reviewers need to ‘have mercy’ in their reviews as issuing a nasty review might kill an author’s confidence to publish more works.

The Fluid Identities of South East Asia. SEA has a rich colonial history. SEA in the past has been associated with port cities and trade routes. Is the colonial mindset weighing heavily on our culture? Were we exploited by the colonials? When there was still the Malayan Archipelago, people moved about because of trade routes and wind direction. The Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch came to SEA. Nation-states only emerged after colonialism. Many SEA nations tried to dissociate themselves from their colonial past. However, Singapore embraced it and even now, many roads still have British names. We sort of incorporated what the colonials had and integrated into our culture. Have we lost our roots with our ancestors in China? Indonesia is separated within districts and each has its own unique culture. Each district has its own strange rituals and dances. Is this politically motivated? In Indonesia at least, their identity is very much tied to politics. Even in HCMC, you will see colonial buildings being restored. However, is this just to attract tourists to Vietnam? Some SEA cities have European quarters and ethnic quarters as well. In Singapore, there are many remnants of the colonial past. In an increasingly globalized world, will there be a homogenization of cultures/ethnicities? In general, the people with mixed heritages generally do well and thrive in society. For instance, the Peranakans are doing well in Indonesia. They have found their place in society. In the past, Islam spread in SEA mainly because of trade. However, is the movement getting too radicalized and fundamental in recent times? How can SEA stay relevant with the rise of China?  China is practicing what is called ‘covert’ colonialism by exerting soft power. The fact, however, is that China has been around in SEA before colonial powers. There is always still debate between ethnic and national identity. Malaysia and Indonesia occasionally debate over where did certain food/culture originate from? Each of them want to lay claim to it. There might be an element of truth when some Indonesians say that they prefer to be colonized by the British as compared to the Dutch. The British, hypothetically, would have been able to introduce the rule of law and bring order. The Dutch, it could be argued, that they did not introduce anything new to Indonesia.

SWF