Episode 2 Transcript
Carolyn Newall 0:06
Hi all, and welcome to the second episode of our World Lit podcast. Today we’re going to be talking to Gwee from Singapore, about Singapore literature. Gwee is a poet, a graphic artist and a literary critic and if you google him, you get lots and lots of hits, and many of them are around the phenomena of Singlish. I encourage you to watch his YouTube talk, ‘Singlish is a language for the future la.’ So thanks so much for giving us your time Gwee
Gwee Sui Li 0:38
Thank you, Carolyn.
Carolyn Newall 0:39
I’ve been thinking a lot about two places I’ve recently spent time. The first was the UAE and the second was Singapore. Both of them are very young countries. Both have exploded developmentally in the past 50 years or so. The UAE did it with the help of substantial oil and gas money. But Singapore seems to have done it through an enormous act of will. Would that be accurate?
Gwee Sui Li 1:12
Well, on the point of Singapore, I think that is pretty accurate. It’s will and quite a lot of long suffering.
Carolyn Newall 1:20
What was required from people in Singapore. I mean, when I went back to Singapore in 2008, it was completely unrecognisable from the Singapore I had known in the 60s. What was required of the people of Singapore for that growth to happen.
Gwee Sui Li 1:38
Well, I mean, there are a lot of forces at work naturally, I mean, one of them is realising, after the World War, that, we really shouldn’t depend on foreign powers. Because I think when the Japanese invaded, it was a pretty much disappointment in the British ability to protect Singapore from what laid ahead. And so after that, there was a much discontent leading to a kind of spirit of independence of wanting to be self ruled. And we achieved that, from 1959 onwards. 1965 was when we broke free from Malaysia. And so that was a kind of a double disentangling, the first from the British colonialism and second from the area. And that, I mean, the second one, was also pretty traumatic for Singapore, because for a while, the people of Singapore and the people of Malaysia, we do feel like we were one family. But when Singapore has to leave Malaysia, that created a kind of psyche, where you kind of realise you are rejected, you need to find a way to belong, find a way to survive. Because Malaysia has been this hinterland, it has all the resources, they have all the space, and a lot of things were piped. Even today, the water comes from Malaysia. And so, because of all this, there’s this anxiety that we don’t have the things to survive. And so there is a lot of overcompensation, where we try very hard to work hard, and we are also willing to sacrifice a lot. The generation at a time, sacrificed a lot for the future. There was a strong leadership, of course, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was the was the big idol of sorts of the people because, you know, he led with a very strong fist. He also had a very clear vision of where he wanted to take the people. And so that was, on one hand, a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices. And also people have a idea, a sense of what I think is like a siege mentality, the idea that, if we, if we don’t do things well, it will be lost to us. It could be a hostility out there, you know, the world is a big place, a big scary place. So even though Singapore is known to be this international place, but also on land, there is this whole anxiety of globalism as well. So it’s a very strange paradox, where on one hand, we are very open, but on the other hand, we’re also quite closed and guarded.
Would this be a an appropriate place to then talk about the idea of the little red.
Yes. Oh, well, the idea of the little red dot was from a naughty comment that was made at one stage about it. Not really tied to the idea that it’s linked to China. In fact, I think we have quite a vague relationship. On one hand, we realise that we are small nation. In a world with big powers, and so there is a need to negotiate to find a way to not step on anyone’s toes. And so I guess internationally there is the need to maintain that balance with the West and with China. At the same time there is this danger of losing our own identity. And that is the internal issue, the internal issue is identity, the external issue is not to cross anyone We are so small that, you know, we can be easily swept away. We are very conscious that we are an anomaly in not just world politics, but in history.
Carolyn Newall 5:40
Yeah. I think it is hard for people who are not familiar with the area, to conceive of the idea that you can stand at, you know, one side of the causeway, and actually, you could swim across to Malaysia. In about, in not very long. It wouldn’t take long. It is very close. I remember my dad saying when they were there, you could get in the car and drive across. There were no checkpoints, there was, nothing. You could just go across to Jehore for dinner if you felt like it.
Gwee Sui Li 6:21
Carolyn Newall 6:21
It’s not like that now.
Gwee Sui Li 6:23
No, no, I mean, after independence, things changed. And especially now with this COVID situation. I mean, the border is closed, completely. And so we have this heartbreaking situation where, people will be standing on opposite sides of causeway waving to each other, and they support each other. I mean, for loved ones who lived on on different sides, you know, because we can’t visit them now.
Carolyn Newall 6:51
And Singapore takes its lock down very seriously.
Gwee Sui Li 6:55
Yes. And no, I think it knows that the situation in this time with this is, hard. The very early lesson with the foreign workers community, I think that’s the one that really totally broke complacency we had at first, thinking that it could easily manage this. But when it started to spread really bad in the migrant community, thats when they kind of realised that, you know, things have to be taken really seriously. And a lot of the old, I think very harsh measures came back in
Carolyn Newall 7:29
Singapore is incredibly good at managing those sorts of things.
Gwee Sui Li 7:37
Yes, I think, because I’m always managing is tied to law and order. You know, I mean, I think there has never really been something we put aside. In fact, I think since the Lee Kuan Yew days, the law has always been a way to get people to fall in line. And so you know, when it’s needed, like a time like this is very effective.
Unknown Speaker 8:01
Writer, Rachel Heng spoke in 2018, I think it was, about other people’s bizarre focus on Singapore’s laws about chewing gum. And she lamented that, that was all she got asked about, and she didn’t get the chance to talk about the Hawker food, the importance of getting the chicken rice, right. All the government campaigns, you know, whose posters and mascots chart the years of childhood, the national campaign, speak good English movement, etc. And when she looked back, and I think it’s interesting, she no longer lives in Singapore, but she notes that her novel ‘Suicide Club’, like most of her others was talking about home. And no matter where she lives, Singapore still home. So the ideas of state paternalism, metric driven notions of success, and the darker side of meritocracy, had all been deeply inspired by her upbringing. And can you? Do you want to talk to that? Explain a little bit about what she’s getting at?
Gwee Sui Li 9:18
Well, yes, um, how should I approach this? Now, generically speaking, I think all these aspects are right. But living in Singapore, at least, definitely over the years, you will realise that, you know, surprisingly, there are many ways to per-mutate these things. You know, they can change they can be in various forms. So, the way I experienced paternalism, when I was a kid was not the same as the way I experienced paternalism in the 90s, and definitely not the way I am experiencing it now. Singapore, changes and doesn’t change. So there is this very interesting way in which it’s really different. So, I guess for me, if you were to be fixated on the chewing gum, it really does harp back to the 80s, 90s. Around that time, when there was a new infrastructure in place, I remember the putting up the MRT lines. And then there was there was when the concern of people sabotaging grand projects like that led to the need to ban chewing gum. But then there was, of course, debated and then subsequently, they allowed it to be used. You can chew gum, but you just can’t buy it in Singapore. So there is this kind of subtleties, kind of great gray areas in which we deal with these issues. And also, when I was a child, the campaigns were definitely a big thing. Whether it is ‘keep your hair short campaign,’ ‘don’t waste water,’ ‘Speak Mandarin.’ You know, ‘don’t litter,’ ‘don’t spit,’ ‘flush a toilet’. Now all these campaigns are was a very big thing when I was young, you know, and to make them really enjoyable, you have all these mascots, very cartoony, cute, the mascots and jingles and all to help you get the message. I mean, and this is necessary. I can see why it’s necessary, because we are in one generation moving people from very rural lifestyle into urban lifestyle. In one generation, my father’s generation, specifically. and I think my grandfather’s generation, Didn’t really got used to it. So I think when we moved into the Housing Board flats and all, I think my grandfather is the one, my grandfather, my grandmother and that generation seem to be the most diminished as a people, whereas my father’s generation, my mother’s generation, they have to deal with this shift. So a lot of their habits, a lot of behaviours have to go. And so the state came in as a way to speed up the change in lifestyle. And so this was how all these campaigns came to place. But of course, they were kind of reactions to them, because they felt like, as was pointed out, it is very embarrassing in a way to have rethought this, what in a more developed country would be considered a pretty standard norms of behaviour. And so they have done away with that. Singapore today, I think, have really very minimal use of these campaigns. I mean, unless it’s something that they feel they needed urgently to push out as a message, like currently, you know, ‘washing your hands’ and ‘wear your mask’. And then they have to resort to that, when they need to have an urgent message out, they will resort to that. Because we do have a history of using those campaigns, but if not, they will not use it these days. That has been set aside in a way because I think the idea is that is not an effective or critical way of getting people to engage issues. They will rather have people talk about it.
Carolyn Newall 13:19
Can you talk a little bit about the the darker side of meritocracy. When you look at meritocracy in its purest forms, it makes sense, you know, People, they earn their place. But when you explore it further, as a building block for society, it doesn’t necessarily always work out that way.
Gwee Sui Li 13:48
Yes, I think you’re right. I mean, even the word meritocracy, it had an ironic origin, right? I mean, I’m sure you know that. And in that sense also, I mean, unfortunately, we seem to embrace it as if on a kind of idealistic level, on the level that we think that in terms of principle, it is something to be celebrated and something to be adhered to. But once you start to put into practice, and this is the nature of people and the nature of society, you start to find the loopholes, and start to see the gaps. And it doesn’t really work when you apply something like this across the board, or as an ideology across the board. In this case, for example, I think Singaporeans typically are great at finding loopholes and problems. Loopholes as a way to survive or to try when a system of practice hinders you. I mean, we have this word in Singlish, ‘kiasu’ right? Which means scared to lose or, always to have the advantage over another person. In a rational way. And so it can very easily expose the loopholes in meritocracy. Here’s an example. If you send all the kids into schools, of course, by educating you give everybody equal chances, but then a kiasu parent, or parents or a set of kiasu parents who want to send their kids to the better school, because that will give them a better chance of better education that will be above anyone else. And to do that, you know, they will usually go for the traditional or richer schools, because they feel like they will be able to give them that facilities. And so the government would step in and say no, they tried to stop that. And then they start to move the principal’s around. You know, they tried to make other schools as good as the so called good schools, and so there was a time when there was a tagline that ‘every school is a good school,’ right? You see, that’s a very interesting thing, whenever the government or people try to find a way to solve the issue, someone will find a loophole as a way to get their own advantage.
Carolyn Newall 15:58
And I mean, parents do it here too, parents have been known to go and buy a house, or move into the area that is covered by the school they want their child to get in to.
Gwee Sui Li 16:10
That’s right, that happens.
Carolyn Newall 16:11
I think parents everywhere do things, it’s no different in Australia than it is in Singapore. So now that we’ve covered some of the sort of general things about the way Singapore functions and the way it manages different things, I’d like to move onto the literature, the different kinds of literature, that are produced in Singapore. And one of the most interesting things about Singapore from the perspective of others is that there are actually four languages there are mother tongues, which are Tamil, I believe, Malay and Mandarin and then the language of commerce and education is English. So, can you talk a little about what that means, in the creation of literary works and in what is specifically Singaporean about that?
Unknown Speaker 17:20
It is important when we think about Singaporean literature, that we do not work with one tradition, that is the English language tradition. There are four main languages in Singapore, including Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, and there are therefore, four parallel literary traditions that we have on the island. It is because firstly, of colonial history, and then secondly, with the engagement with the world, the English language literature has come to the fore when we talk about Singaporean literature. But you know, the different traditions really do say in part, the same thing, but have reflected them differently according to the traditions. They also bring in different considerations about what Singaporean writing ought to be thinking about, focused about. I think with Chinese and Malay literature, for example, they are very concerned with the relationship with customs and values and also reactions of readership from the larger culture, to which linguistically they are connected. With Malaya literature, I think there is also this dimension of religion, that you may not see as strongly in the others, the consideration of spirituality and thoughts contained in it, in them. So, we need to remember this, that Singaporean literature is a multi prong multifaceted object and there are so many voices in it, not just within each language, but also with all four languages. And so, it has to be considered in that complexity, in that multiplicity.
Carolyn Newall 19:22
One of the things that interested me as I was doing some of my reading, and this is pointed for you, is the the idea of different genres of literature and the popularity of poetry and playwriting in Singapore literature. And I read that after independence in 65, there was a new wave of writing that emerged, and that it was predominantly expressed through poetry and that poetry has continued to have a respectable following, and much of the works of Singapore that have been published are poetic works. And I wonder whether poetry therefore, are there things you can do with poetry that you couldn’t know, perhaps do with prose? And so poetry allowed writers to touch on aspects that they wouldn’t have got away with in any other way.
Gwee Sui Li 20:33
Mmm, good question. But to contextualise it, I think things have again, changed in the last 15 years. I mean, poetry has stayed popular, until today, you’re right to note. But, fiction, novel writing, short story writing, has a renaissance of sorts, in the last 15 years. So right now, because of the support that fiction gets, through awards, through prize money, in a sense, and also through encouragement, and also through writers making it big elsewhere. That gives it the kind of lift that they needed In the last 15 years, fiction has definitely taken off in a way that we have not seen in the past. But you’re right to say that for a long time, it has always been poetry, and maybe a bit of playwriting. The reasons are varied. I think at the start, at the time when, Edwin Thumboo was the big name driving poetry in Singapore, he was at a time an academic, and also a professor at the National University of Singapore. At that time much of Singapore literature was being driven and being encouraged by the university, which it isn’t these days. So there’s definitely that shift, a moving away from an authority controlled form of literature. But at that time, poetry was important because of ?. There may be a few volumes of poetry, but there were a lot of anthologies, and anthologies are historically important for new people. Because it is a means in which people can easily contribute creatively, many people can easily contribute to a work. And it gives you a spread of psyche, a spread of artistic forms, and therefore, a way to show what the future could be, if each of these would go on to be a writer. And so anthologies at one time were really a way of encouraging the writing. Because at that time, a writer may not have, let’s say, even 50 poems in his drawer, he or she might just have like, two or three poems, which made it good for anthology but not necessarily for a book of poems. That’s one aspect, another aspect, and this is a point first made by a professor, who argued that it could well be because people in the nation building years, that means the 70s 80s, and perhaps early 90s, were too busy with, having a career, supporting their family, trying to pay off loans, trying to make the country work, you know, we talked about it being hard working at a time. And so people did not really have time to do something that needs months to work on like a novel, perhaps you will get some short stories, but poems are easily the most creatively pragmatic form to work on. And so this is why poetry was more common, not just as something that is written, but also something that’s read. You know, it’s very easy to find that say 10 minutes during lunch time to read a poem. I want to read novel, you have to really commit yourself to in a few days. And so that was the reason, but I think in a sense we moving from the 90s, late 90s onwards into a different realm. I think Singapore being a bit more established, people are finding themself very comfortable in that kind of affluent state. And people are not necessarily wanting to choose that kind of very crazily successful lifestyle. Then we have, people just willing to sit around and ask, really, frankly, to me pretty basic questions, ” What is the meaning of life? ‘Why, what am I doing all these things for?’ and then you get people doing novels and short stories and this I think, how you win?
Carolyn Newall 24:39
Yeah, Catherine Lim is a writer that obviously is known in Australia and other places, her short stories particularly. So I understand that about anthologies. That makes sense. But when I was there, we took some of the girls to Raffles,(Grammar School) they were holding a poetry reading, at Raffles, and there were a number of poets who were there. And I was outside in the hallway, talking to one of the organisers, and I said to him, so where are the dissenting voices? And he said, in Perth! And I noticed in my research here that a number of the Singaporean writers actually don’t live in Singapore anymore. Is that significant?
Gwee Sui Li 25:43
I think it’s not fair to say that we don’t have dissenting voices. It’s just that if you’re going to look for them, you’re not going to find them at a school event, you’re not going to find them in a National Event, you know! Because they’re probably not going to get invited. So let’s remember that. And secondly, also, I think people leave Singapore, writers leave Singapore for various reasons. I think, for example, the poet, Koh Jee Leong, who writes remarkably great poems that talks about the gay lifestyle, and all. I think he’s made to work in the US, in a sense, because I just see his growth and it’s tremendous, but he felt like he just couldn’t find… he found himself creatively limited, unable to explore the kind of feelings and thoughts that he could here. So he needed a bit more of that free space to do it elsewhere, and he did. Where as a poet or even playwright like Alfian bin Sa’at who probably you will find regularly in the news, because the government does have a thing against him, in a way. And, you know, he tried in this environment, because precisely, it gives clarity to the things that he believes in, it gives clarity to the things that he feels he should be fighting for. He feels it is easier for him to see what injustice looks like, you know, and so, therefore, that gives him the kind of energy to write even clearly and emotionally in Singapore. So in essence, we really is what kind of energy your work, draws from, and that then determines where is the best place to write.
Carolyn Newall 27:40
I came across KTM Iqbal, the Tamil writer, who said that what best describes Singlit is its openness and broad mindedness, and that authors are not afraid to write about what they believe in, including those related to unusual or sensitive topics. And I wondered whether, he is an older writer who’s been writing since 1957, how valid do you think that actually is?
Gwee Sui Li 28:25
It is valid to a degree and I wouldn’t say that people who dissent are necessarily always in agreement with each other. They could also disagree with each other on various aspects, on what is the proper thing to dissent on. So I mean, for a lot of writers today, I guess, the issues tend to always be, mostly be domestic about issues, social issues, ideologies and all. But I think for older writer, there will be more disagreement over form over practitions about what you can write about, the right way, how you should be writing, and the disagreement is, I think more along those aesthetic lines. I also feel writers have different strategies, and your game has to be tied to their personalities, and also the persona they want to put out there. So if someone has a persona that is not tied to social engagement, of course, what they write about and how they write will be more direct, more transgressive, and perhaps more current, and also on issues that are more sidelined. But I think writers, poets, playwrights who are not comfortable with rocking the boat, not comfortable with making this the main thing that would define their persona, they would be more willing, I guess, to make their writing less confrontational. They would deal with the issue still, but being creative writers, they will always be able to creatively write in such a way where it is more provocative than offensive. That happens. I’m not going to say that these people cannot be considered dissenting, because clearly I feel they do write in a spirit, they do not agree with what is going on. But they do not necessarily have to put it in a way that is very confrontational. So again, it depends on the creative style, the creative personality, and how they produce different ways of approaching contentious issues.
Carolyn Newall 30:58
Alfian Sa’at? Is that how you pronounce it? He seems to be quite comfortable with saying what he thinks. About broader sociopolitical things, in Malay more so?
Gwee Sui Li 31:15
I think he’s a very interesting person as well. Because I think he’s able to see things that I guess most Singaporeans would not be able to see. And secondly, also, because from the start of his career, with his book, ‘One Fierce Hour’ in 1998, he has really had image of being a kind of rebel, a writer who I mean, that was the authority in his face, everything that he hates about it. And so he has that already as his image. And so because of his craft and all, and his ability to write very fluently and also very concisely, I think, and very sharply about issues, he’s able to get that kind of engagement. I mean, I think with some other writers, you might not be able to achieve that sort of consistency in a way that Alfian is able to achieve. He has definitely managed to maintain this for the last 20 over years of his writing career. And I must say at one point that what is interesting, and what may be telling, and I’ve said this a couple of times, and I’m not sure whether anyone understood what I tried to make his point, is that I noticed that with Alfian, he may have a lot of admirers, but he doesn’t have a lot of followers. I mean, as in disciples, people who will write in his style, whereas there are writers who are less, I guess, confrontational, less dissenting, who have a lot of followers, but may not necessarily have a lot of admirers. You know, it’s a very interesting thing that he’s doing I feel like his courage definitely, his genuine engagement is the thing that draws both admirers and haters. But yet, you know, I wish he had people who feel inspired to write in his name.
Carolyn Newall 33:27
That is a really interesting point. It’s like, the Facebook profile that gets lots of likes that nobody actually speaks on it.
Gwee Sui Li 33:38
Yes, yes, yes. And you said earlier that you kind of like my quote on my email, which says, I can’t remember, what is it?
Carolyn Newall 33:51
It says, ‘Getting into trouble in Singapore is dangerous, because a lot of people will help you.’
Gwee Sui Li 33:57
Yes. And I think it ties up with this, because I think a lot of people want also do get Alfian into trouble you know, in that sense, either by supporting him unconsciously, not realising that they’re actually in a way that may actually get into more trouble. Or secondly, people who disagree and precisely want to misinterpret what he’s doing in a way that gets him in trouble.
Carolyn Newall 34:29
Yeah, now that is a really interesting point. I think I remember. Well, I remember hearing the information on a radio broadcast, and I can’t remember if it was, I think it was 2008. Where Lee Kuan Yew actually came out and said that he had been wrong in the way that they suppressed creativity. And it wasn’t like ‘oh, I am wrong, I did a bad thing.’ He was sort of pointing out the one of the side things that happened, the result of that sort of act of will to build this new nation, was that creativity got sidelined?
Gwee Sui Li 35:16
Yes. I think the famously the line that was attributed to him was that he said that poetry is a luxury we cannot afford, right, yeah.
Carolyn Newall 35:25
But then he was saying that actually they built this incredible nation, but to build the, the essential soul of the nation, the spirit and the soul of the nation, required those other things, the creativity that builds the richness into the society, which I found really interesting, and would account for the changes that you’re talking about being made in the last 20 years.
Gwee Sui Li 35:57
Yes. Well see, I suspect that ultimately, the framework is kind of burckhardtian, after the Jacob Burckhardt idea, in his famous book ‘The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,’ which is that, you know, you begin with all this independence, small states, and what is originally the most important things with the founding of this, is the basic bread and butter issues, getting the political structure right, getting the powers there, to be able to control and effectively use resources. And once all these things are done, then we can talk about culture, because the powers will pay the patron to the artists, they will pay them, it will help them to grow. And therefore you can have a renaissance in Italy. That was the idea that was put forward there. And I don’t think we strayed too far from that idea, the idea that at first, we need to really get the state into a certain shape that is efficient. And once people are looked after, then you can allow culture to thrive. That is assuming that art is just something to do in a service of power.
Carolyn Newall 37:05
Well, yeah, that’s true.
Gwee Sui Li 37:08
You know, what if art is about questioning, what if art is about competent, a more critical state of of living? Or about asking essential questions about what life is an about? Now, what if art is about all those things that necessarily may not support an economic model?
Carolyn Newall 37:23
And that’s exactly what creativity is, isn’t it? That’s what we look to our writers and poets and film makers and painters to do.
Gwee Sui Li 37:33
But we don’t all have the same idea of what creativity intends or entails. Because I think in Singapore, we have this very strange thing you must have encountered this, when you were here that we still think we can master creativity, you can teach creativity. You can make people more creative, more critical. You know this is pretty interesting. I’m not sure whether you can do these things, or whether these things is very much part of nature or nurture, you know, those kind of questions, but we don’t we don’t even go there. We actually feel like you can go to a school and get, you know, taught to be creative, taught to be critical.
Carolyn Newall 38:11
Yeah, I think you can be taught to be critical. But I don’t know that you can be taught to be creative.
Gwee Sui Li 38:18
I’m not sure no. But to ask the question, then set that itself is necessary, we need to ask the question, is it possible to teach these things, but we don’t even go there, we just assume that it can be done. And that itself is pretty uncritical and uncreative itself.
Carolyn Newall 38:34
I remember I was I was in charge of 2 H. And you’ll understand what that means. That before 2 H, there was 2 A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. And the girls in my class were streamed accordingly, they were in 2 h. So I spent about three months trying to convince them, well no, I think I managed to convince a few, that they weren’t actually the dummy class. And there were some incredibly creative girls in that class. But they didn’t, they thought differently, they were creative. But they just couldn’t meet the standards in the areas that they were required to. And I think that in those lower classes, or what was seen as lower classes, people didn’t expect as much from them, so that they actually could get away with a little bit more experimentation. But they didn’t value their creativity because that wasn’t what they were being tested on, which I found was a bit sad.
Gwee Sui Li 39:52
Yes, um, when I was teaching in the university in the last decade, I felt the same way as well. I mean, some who I thought were pretty critical minded students, they don’t necessarily do well in the exam. You know, because I guess they haven’t found a way to structure their minds to answer questions. But that is a good thing, because they are still on a quest of asking questions, on a quest of finding answers, and maybe they’re not going to get there in time for the exam. But unfortunately, our educational system is such that there is a kind of deadline of sorts to achieve these things. So that’s that.
Carolyn Newall 40:42
And, okay, look, I am so grateful for your time today. But if I could ask you a one more question to finish up on. If you had to pick one text, one writer that define Singaporean culture, who would it be? Or what would it be?
Gwee Sui Li 41:03
That defines Singapore culture? Yes.
Carolyn Newall 41:05
So one piece of work that a person who wasn’t familiar with Singapore, but could read this book and with research, understand. Like, Rachel Heng, talking about the Hawker markets.
Gwee Sui Li 41:32
I mean, I don’t know how to put this because I feel it really depends on what aspect I want to go at. I would say that if you want to get to a sense of what being Singaporean is about, the kind of very ironic, less than self conscious, unfortunately, form of existence, I would think that a poem like ‘My Country and My People’ by Lee Tzu Pheng, a very early 70s poem has managed to capture that pretty well. She wrote that poem when she was a young woman and I thought that she got quite right, the kind of struggles we still face today about Singapore, and the way we institutionally think about progress, but also the things we unfortunately sacrifice in the name of progress, that’s in that poem. But I think a raw, angrier form of this would be the one by Alfian Sa’at, which is itself a take on Lee Tzu Pheng’s ‘My Country and My People,’ which is ‘Singapore You Are Not My Country’. I mean, this is a very controversial poem because recently, even in politics, he was condemned again, as a poem that shows his disloyalty towards the country. But I don’t really think that the poem is about that, I feel that poem is really about looking at all the things that we are not doing right, you know, there’s going wrong in a country. And so in a very, I think, ironic way that a poem that is so critical to country, I would think that is actually fundamentally very Singaporean. That, and I think, if anyone wants to look across the whole history of Singapore as a kind of introduction to the history of Singapore, these days, you can’t do better than a book like Sonny Liew’s , ‘The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye’ a graphic novel, but he managed to cover the last 50 years of Singapore in excellently excellent, brilliant, beautiful way, in art.
Carolyn Newall 43:38
Well, thank you, I will do my research and find those poems that you have spoken about these pieces of literature and include them with the transcript when they’re ready. Gwee, I can’t thank you enough for your time today. It’s been great to talk to you, it’s good to get the, cultural understandings of a Singaporean to light the way to those of us who are trying to read Singaporean literature.
Gwee Sui Li 44:16
Yeah, it’s really lovely talking to you.
Carolyn Newall 44:21
Thank you to our guest Gwee Sui Le from Singapore, and to all our listeners tuning in from around the world. This has been the second episode of the World Lit podcast, and is brought to you by We Teach Well, committed to providing equal educational experiences for all teachers and students no matter where they live. If you have any questions or would like to send any of your suggestions for the literature you’d like to learn more about, contact us at [email protected] We hope you are enjoying our podcasts. So please make sure to like and share and subscribe to our list so that you can stay up to date with all our latest news, initiatives and upcoming episodes. In our next episode, we will be talking to Angela Tutty, a New Zealand English teacher and I can promise you it will be interesting.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai