Reclaiming Literature for Singapore

Alvin Pang

Some months ago I was given the opportunity to curate an anthology of contemporary writing from Singapore. The result was a selection from thirty-nine living Singaporean writers spanning multiple genres working in the four major literary languages (Chinese, English, Malay, Tamil) in use today.[1] The anthology was published in the US, in English; it was the first time many of the selected works had been translated. The oeuvre of these established authors with long literary careers and national accolades, although well known in their specific language communities, was virtually unknown to other Singaporean readers.

It is a pity that a society built on a rhetoric of multicultural strength should have neglected (for decades!) to invest adequately in the basic work of translation – an effort which might have bridged the language divide and helped pool the collective intellectual and cultural energies of our most creative minds. For this particular book, I made the conscious point of not sorting the texts in the volume by their original language (as was a habit in many anthologies in the past). The work of these writers, I felt, ought to be read as contributions to our collective intellectual, cultural and social discourse as a nation; they ought not be pigeonholed in treatment or scope to the concerns of any one particular community.

The exercise proved worthwhile: It became evident that many broad themes of interest to the Singaporean imagination cut across boundaries of age, language and text-type. Memories of oppression, political strife and social crisis persist. Questions of class, nationality, identity and race recur and converge. Language emerges as a ground for contention as well as mediation. Gender and sexuality are subjects of inquiry and deconstruction. Poets, novelists, playwrights and essayists with diverse beliefs meditate on the place of faith and spirituality in the midst of urban modernity. Indeed, for an avowedly secular nation, one remarkably common theme in our collective literature seems to be the fraught and oft ambiguous interface between the sacred and the profane:

alas the wise owl says
man is but a living corpse
a pig
a horse
old dogs

(from “Human”, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed)[2]

Our best writers clearly tread some uncomfortable waters, but not carelessly – they are hardly pariahs in their communities. Despite a popular (and perhaps not altogether unwarranted) impression of timidity, contemporary Singaporean writing does not shy away from political and social comment. Cultural Medallionist Yeng Puay Ngon’s Ginsbergesque long poem dissecting an urban existence in which “life is a balance sheet, life is a slot machine / life is prayer is a necklace of proverbs,” might well have been written after last month’s headlines:

there is no eden, there is no jerusalem
this is wasteland, this is utopia
this is monte carlo, this is your and my casino
this is my inferno, this is your paradise
they gamble their shoulders, cast their heads as dice
they are a species of well-dressed monkeys, animals wearing hats

(from “On the Operating Table”, Yeng Puay Ngon)[3]

In fact, Yeng’s poem was first published in 1968; it only became available in English as part of this anthology project in 2009. Have we been missing out, perhaps for decades, on a larger creative commons of insight, artistic innovation and divergent perspectives simply because we haven’t made enough effort to listen to each other?

Singapore’s collective literature is the slow fruit of a long period of synthesis and syncretism that predates Independence; it has drawn from and continues to participate in some of the richest and deepest cultural traditions in the world — including cultures, moreover, that are once again making their presence felt on the world stage. Writers from the Chinese circuit demonstrate the subtle assurance of centuries-old praxis in ‘san wen’, a still-popular form of creative non-fiction; they are also prolific practitioners of microfiction (both currently fashionable forms in world literary circles). The magic realism in Isa Kamari’s fiction, Xi Ni’er’s barbed quips, Elangovan’s scatological verve or Johar Buang’s Sufi-informed visions would not be out of place in international literary discourse. Yet to date relatively little of this diverse body of work has been made available outside its original language community. It is possible to imagine that voices which might have brought cumulative force, wisdom and synergy to common concerns (such as domestic abuse, disenfranchisement, or the negotiation between faith and politics), have instead been kept separate in communal silos by this lack of translation and literary exchange. It might even have prematurely limited the market and readership of otherwise highly regarded works.

So these are low-hanging fruit, largely unplucked: translated works (in as many linguistic directions as we have the appetite for), even with older sources, could form the authentic basis of an expanded collective Singaporean repertoire. Better a late harvest than never. Nor, should we choose for pragmatic reasons to approach these texts initially in English translation, do we need to be unduly concerned about cultural compromise. Although the TUMASIK anthology was presented in English, its many voices transcend monocultural expectations: they swim between tongues, vernaculars, conventions and codes. What comes across is not the transient (nor naive) literature of a distanced, disparate and dispirited people, but of a community which is complex, diverse and cosmopolitan; whose writings carry heart and answer conscience.

Remarkably, there is evidence to suggest that this sense of Singaporean letters expressing an organic and unbowed social consciousness predates Independence by a stretch. In a recent anthology intended to give a historical account of Singapore literature in English, [4] the editors trace the earliest examples of creative work in English by Singaporean [5] writers to the Straits Chinese Magazine, a literary journal founded in 1897 by Dr Lim Boon Keng and Sir Song Ong Siang.

Lim and Song are better known today as eminent figures in the economic, social and cultural history of Singapore. Both men have had a significant if subtle impact on Singapore’s intellectual heritage, yet their parallel contributions as literary editors and writers (Lim’s novel, Tragedies of Eastern Life, was published in 1927) are not as well known today. Nevertheless, their many public initiatives demonstrate the diverse ways in which the local community in pre-Independence Singapore began to take ownership of their own social and cultural affairs. Evidently, these two pioneers considered it a priority to support the native use of the English language for aesthetic and intellectual – not only commercial or administrative – purposes.

Intriguingly, both Lim and Song were contemporaries at Raffles Institution [6] at the time that a student-run literary school magazine, The Rafflesian, was launched in 1886. Indeed, both boys were mentioned frequently in its pages for their achievements; Song had stories published in it, [7] and was closely involved in its production until he stepped down to pursue university studies in September 1888. [8] It appears that the school culture was one which encouraged ambitious literary efforts among its community of local students – at one point it was even sold to the public. The tenor and spirit of these early student initiatives appears to have carried over into Lim and Song’s subsequent public contributions to early Singapore’s cultural scene.

Nor, it seems, were Lim and Song alone in this regard: A largely unexamined collection of early issues of The Rafflesian (which remains in publication today) resides in the school and national library archives: they contain page after page of creative content: poems, essays, short stories, illustrations. An 1887 issue features several Rafflesian poems dedicated to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria – an occasion for which the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote his own contemporaneous Ode. These were not mere student imitations of faded foreign forebears, but bright young men engaged with contemporary letters. Although positioned well away from the centre of world affairs, these young students living in Singapore were responding, in real time (and in appropriate style for their period yet with distinctively local tropes) to events involving contemporaneous figures that have now passed into world history. They were inserting themselves into the middle of things with unselfconscious glee:



Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
In famous Kampong Glam,
Strolled many hundred,
“Forward, all ye hungry,
Go for the fruits you see!”
Into the largest fruit-shop,
Plunged many hundred.


“Forward!” was but once said,
Yet no man disobeyed,
For hunger made them see
The order was no blunder.
Theirs not to beat retreat,
Theirs but to go and eat,
Oh, what a glorious feat!
Into the best fruit-shop,
Moved they in plunder.


Fruiterers to right of them,
Fruiterers to left of them,
Fruiterers in front of them,
All wildly thundered.
Stormed at with shout and yell,
Boldly they moved and well,
In for the mangosteens,
In for the rambusteens,
Went many hundred.

Anon. (The Rafflesian, August 30, 1888) [9]

It is not my purpose to argue for the literary merits of old work in a student publication. What fascinates me most is how these efforts suggest an active and confident intellectual engagement with the issues of the day, by pre- and early modern writers in Singapore. The Rafflesian may be one of our few records of a continuous, socially engaged literary culture that has existed in Singapore since the 19th century [10]: in which case, we may have to rethink the roots of our literary and intellectual heritage by many decades.

We know that students and recent graduates of the school wrote for the magazine; early on, the magazine received contributing letters from doctors, lawyers and academics. The topics it covered ranged from “the sonnet craze” to commentary on newsworthy events, even accounts of being interned under the Japanese Occupation. There are examples of student writing that suggest the sort of growing ‘Malayan’ social consciousness which was to culminate in the political movements leading to nationhood. Here is one from 1947:


In Malaya were we born, and in Malaya bred –
Now are we scattered over oceans wide
Yet here forever do our hearts abide
No matter where we earn our daily bread.
Once, when in our hearts there was no dread
Of war, Malaya did the Nations guide
To her shores. Nations did their quarrels hide
And joined hands here, by Commerce led.
Now again hath calm returned –
Again are peoples’ hearts at ease,
For fires of war have now out-burned
Malayans! let all quarrels cease
And once again let footsteps here be turned
To commerce, trade, and other fruits of peace.

D. K. SEN, Std. VIIIB (The Rafflesian, June 1947)

The anthem-like tone of ‘Malaya’ anticipates the more overtly nationalistic verse of later literary pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s such as Edwin Thumboo, and suggests a post-war cultural groundswell from which even English-educated Rafflesian students were certainly not cloistered.

Another poem from The Rafflesian in the late 1950s is reminiscent of Eliot or the Imagists, but also distinctly Singaporean in context:


Dust covered street, almost deserted.
The trishaw rider waited,
Piles of laundry clothes on his tiny seat.
The grass-cutter stopped to wipe his sweating brow,
The road sweeper swept and chewed and spat,
The ice water stall lay open to the sun and dust;
The owner nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps he was there
With the brown uniformed men, the men in singlets,
Men stripped bare to the waist,
All dozing under the tree beside the street.

Tan Jin Quee, Form Five (The Rafflesian, May 1957)

Jin Quee’s vivid evocation of a late 1950s Singapore street scene is thoughtfully observed and socially aware. This is not imitative student poetry about daffodils or gritty London streets, but an earnest attempt to get at an urban reality closer to home, with its own castes and rhythms. It is a bona fide Singaporean poem. The adult Tan Jin(g) Quee was to forsake neither his literary nor his social sensibilities – he became an editor, Assistant Secretary General of the Singapore Association of Trade Unions, an opposition candidate for Parliament (losing narrowly to the PAP’s S.Rajaratnam in Kampong Glam), and a political detainee. His adult poems, dedicated to the likes of Chia Thye Poh and Lim Chin Siong, and documenting his experiences as an ISD detainee, were featured in a recent anthology on imprisonment and exile. [11] His student literary efforts in the pages of The Rafflesian should not be too readily dismissed as mere schoolboy indulgences: the Child was Father to the Man; his art was parent to his politics.[12]

It is time to put aside the notion that intelligent, literary use of language (be it English or any other tongue) in Singapore dates only to around Independence. It is time also to look past the myth that our past and present literature has nothing serious to offer the national conversations of today and tomorrow. Instead Singaporeans should locate themselves as part of a much larger and older community of fluent, creative and critical language users (including of English) whose literary efforts have been devoted to many worthwhile purposes. No longer stepchildren nor foundlings, our writers should feel free to draw on, be inspired by and build upon a much more expansive native body of pioneering creative writing across our many cultural and linguistic traditions. Literary and cultural history is replete with many a work which, while not particularly influential in its day, became newly inspirational after its time. By rediscovering the endeavours and experiments of our extended family of literary predecessors, we stand more ready (and more obliged) not only to break that first intimidating silence of the blank page, but also to confidently engage with important issues that those who live on this island have grappled with through the decades: timely questions of identity, duty, community, social justice, and our place in the world. Far from being “a luxury we cannot afford”, our collective literature is a resource that we should no longer ignore.


[1] TUMASIK: Contemporary Writing From Singapore (Autumn Hill Books/IWP/National Arts Council, USA: 2010).

[2] From TUMASIK, page 97 (Based on a translation from Malay by Hameed Ismail).

[3] From TUMASIK, page 212 (Translated from Chinese by Goh Beng Choo and Alvin Pang).

[4] Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology Of Singapore Literature, edited by Angelia Poon, Philip Holden; Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, (NUS Press 2009).

[5] The term “Singaporean” of course predates our nationhood; in the 1838 school minutes, it was used to refer to a native resident of the Settlement of Singapore.

[6] Singapore’s oldest school, founded as Singapore Institution in 1823 at the behest of Sir Stamford Raffles.

[7] Including “The Secret: A Tale by S.O.S.”, in the inaugural issue, March 1886.

[8] As noted in The Rafflesian, Sept 1888. It is possible that Lim Boon Keng was also active in the magazine’s activities and may have been a contributor and promoter of the publication during his time in Britain. He is certainly mentioned fairly often, as a high-achieving student and scholarship winner.

[9] “[Should a copy of the above be sent to Lord T? — Ed. R.]” asks a note at the end of this pastiche of Lord Tennyson’s famous (and relatively contemporary) 1854 poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” It may well have been, since Lord T was still alive and active at the time.

[10] It was certainly regarded as such by several esteemed readers, including J. Simson Storrey, a lecturer at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Service College, who was prompted to contribute in May 1888.

[11] Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems And Prose On Imprisonment And Exile (Ethos Books, 2009), Edited by Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew.

[12] There may well be other examples. Indeed, many of the Rafflesians who are recognised as key members of Singapore’s literary ecosystem today – such as Alfian Sa’at, Daren Shiau, Isa Kamari and Kirpal Singh – can trace their creative roots to their formative years in school.

Alvin Pang is best known as a poet, writer, editor, anthologist and literary catalyst. He was named 2005 Young Artist of the Year for Literature, and awarded the 2007 Singapore Youth Award for Arts and Culture.

This article was adapted from two previous pieces: the Preface to TUMASIK: Contemporary Writing from Singapore, and “The Rafflesian As Literary Pioneer” (ONE: The Raffles Institution Alumni Magazine, Issue 01, 2009), and incorporates new research from 2010.