The past week witnessed the ninth edition of the Young Writers Festival, a companion act to the Singapore Writer’s Festival but directed more so at teenagers and young adults who are just starting out with their writing. As always, the line-up boasted of names that I used to only see on my book covers and/or theatre playbills – and quite naturally, it was the latter I was more excited for. My most memorable discussion during the weekend was the panel held by Alfian Sa’at and Haresh Sharma, arguably the two greats of the Singapore theatre scene, who were slated to talk about using humour as a device in their plays but as always, meandered to other more general topics as well.
A topic Sa’at brought up – one which struck me so much so that here I am, pinning down my thoughts into words – was that of a need for uncommon spaces. He agreed that common spaces are necessary for unity and fostering bonds amongst each other but felt that uncommon spaces, which the theatre is part of, were crucial to air out controversial and unpopular opinions that a lot of us may hold. He cited theatre as free space – for that timespan of the play, everyone was free to indulge in an innocuous breaking of the rule of law.
I agreed with him wholly, yet I also recognised the position of privilege we are both speaking from.
The main qualms with the literary arts scene in Singapore have been the undeniable facts that it is neither cheap nor readily available. Books have become more easily accessible – a select few are even stocked in Popular now! – and one no longer has to trudge down to Tiong Bahru to locate BooksActually. However, Popular seems to only stock, well, the popular fiction. If you were someone more interested in poetry and plays, that trip down is unavoidable.
The price tag doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years, though. There still remains an invisible tax pinned on Singaporean authors and it is understandable if one thought about how standalone and autonomous the local publishing scene here is. In order to reap some form of profit from the books, they have to price it that high. That excludes a large part of your possible readership – especially the younger spectrum. In my time (which sounds extremely archaic, but it was less than a decade ago), those who quoted local authors and talked about their books were definitely rich. Much more than intellectual, it was seen to be the penchant of the upper class. Who had time to indulge in the local arts scene when it cost so much and might not even be as good as the international productions?
That stigma continues on till today and late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s words (and the title of a brilliant anthology of local poets’ work) still ring true – “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.” It is the very same luxury I indulge in biweekly, either through attending workshops or purchasing works of local authors or, my favourite, watching plays. Theatre is indeed a parallel universe where your most acerbic of socio-political commentary becomes your foundation of humour. It’s often indulgent. No, I don’t mean the set designs or the grandeur of the opening day or the smattering of local celebrities one would find in almost every show. I mean the importance of the event itself. Theatre has developed into an event, one where people dressed up to the nines and treated literature and behaved as if being able to afford the arts is the highest pinnacle of human success.
We propagate the stigma and we are the only ones who can dispel its myth. The idea of local literary arts being an epistemic community and one of left-wing liberals is slowly being dismantled through its constant promotion and public awareness activities. Events such as Young Writer’s Festival, though still exclusive and still only known by my more “artsy” friends, increase the general awareness of these authors. Putting more local books on shelves where people can physically see them is important as well. It literally brings the books to the foreground and registers them in our consciousness. With more major brands carrying local authors, the untrue assumption of it being too expensive or not good enough will slowly whittle away.
Another initiative, one that has taken far too long to materialise, is to educate the younger spectrum. Thus far, the only form of Singlit (as it’s colloquially know) that the youth have been exposed to would be The Singapore Stories, a tired and well-worn book whose cover boasts a mess of colours and whose stories have been memorised by far too many generations of students. It’s only been a few years since Haresh Sharma’s Off-Centre was introduced as one of the texts for O and N-level testing and so far, it’s only been Sharma’s work that has managed to break the literature glass ceiling. It’s important to incorporate local literature into not only the literature students’ daily lives but the rest as well – the English language curriculum should feature their works as well. The more exposure students receive of the offerings we have at an early age, the more involved and proactive they will be as they grow older.
The only way the damning term of “luxury we cannot afford” can change is if the authors and works we love so much becomes available more readily for public consumption. Without changing assumption of “luxury” to an understanding of “necessity,” the status quo will remain the same.