Gweek Gets Excited!

February 19, 2011

The following keynote speech “The Excitement of Writing in Singapore” was read at the All In! Young Writers Seminar 2011 held the National Museum of Singapore on 19 February 2011. It is also available at and has been reproduced at New Asia Republic.

Here’s a name that always sets me thinking: “National Book Development Council of Singapore.” It is quite a mouthful, isn’t it? By its elaborateness and lumpiness, the name perfectly suggests to me the nature of the work-in-progress. After all, what is being developed? It is the book. We will come back to this point near the end of my speech. Along the years, writers have come to use a more affectionate, and simpler, name: “The Book Council”.

This Council is just a year older than me, but it may be a number of decades older than many aspiring writers here today. For some 42 years now, the Book Council has been a steadfast supporter and promoter of reading and writing in the public life of Singapore. So I want to start by firstly thanking Mr R. Ramachandran and his team, Miss Jade Yong and others, for putting together the present All In! event – and the National Museum of Singapore for the use of its premises. I also want to thank these for giving me the opportunity to share with yet another year’s audience of young and young-at-heart writers, new and perhaps soon-to-be writers.

The keynote title that is given to me is “The Excitement of Writing in Singapore”. But I don’t really want to spend the time convincing you of something you will realise to be inaccurate on your way home. I don’t want to be encouraging but dishonest. In a very real sense, there is little excitement to be writing in Singapore, little excitement of the kind we can confidently say is part of our general culture here.

Let me qualify that assertion so that you can all follow me more perfectly. I am not claiming that the act of writing cannot excite you the writer powerfully, authentically, and productively. I am not claiming that it cannot make you want to create more or to refine and perfect your creations, that it cannot bring you to discover and inhere the deep personal world of language. There is always excitement in writing in this sense here, but it is excitement of the kind you can also find in writing anywhere else, in any society and at any point of time in the history of a literate people.

We can, for example, always talk about the freedom to express one’s thoughts and to explore one’s fancy, a freedom that comes uniquely through speaking and writing. But there is a crucial difference between speaking and writing that merits my highlighting here. Sometimes, writing, like speaking, is about putting into some communicable form what we want to say and how we are feeling. But, with writing, it is more often the case that the process itself shapes and clarifies our thoughts and sharpens our convictions. The more it “cooks”, as the novelist Doris Lessing puts it, the better. Writing allows us to mull over, and then correct, extend, tighten, or even completely delete, what we would otherwise simply say carelessly.

Writing is not just the record of speech; it is more four-dimensional, with the inclusion of the time from first thought to final product totally transforming mere message. By this description, I am also hoping to sneak in a little advice; this will be the first of a lot of advice you will be getting in the course of the day. I am distinguishing for you writing of the literary kind from – in ascending order of normal vigilance – SMS-ing, emailing, blogging, and writing indulgently, journalistically, or popularly. Remember: it is a young reader who only enjoys your story. An older reader enjoys your language, but a truly mature reader sees and appreciates your editing.

We can also always talk about how, through this freedom to express and explore, writing enables the life of our imagination to leap forth. After all, writing engenders work, this often unseen hard work I spoke of, which F. Scott Fitzgerald describes as “swimming under water and holding your breath”. Through work, writing invariably changes the writer as an organic composite, a creature who thinks and feels. It transforms the dimensions of his or her mental world, which I shall submit to you now as the world that ultimately matters most, more than the world of senses and the world of received wisdom. It matters most because it is this world that can interpret the others. John Milton’s Satan, the hero and villain of his epic poem Paradise Lost, wonderfully describes its power: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

It is the imagination that has been re-defining the known world, its powers, values, and limits. The human imagination is the world’s underlying mover – not, as many will tell you, the economy. Economics itself is heavily dependent on the application of imagination; economists and policy-makers just don’t like to say as much. The imagination is our most productive organ other than our productive organs. Yet, you’re very unlikely to hear concerns over the mind’s low fertility rate being debated actively in parliament. We may speak a lot about wanting creativity in Singapore today, but what we really want is to mine the energy and feed it to the existing machinery of society, with its good gears and its bad, to keep it churning on. But can you imagine a world where the relationship is the other way round, where society serves a better form of itself as dreamt up from its foundations by the mind?

Let’s go on. We can also always talk about writing as a means to inspire people and to provoke them to engage the world or simply their own minds. The intention for this may be express or covert, and it need not be ideological, whether this be moral, ethical, religious, or political. Simply to entertain, shock, or give a healthy scare – à la Russell Lee – is also a kind of effect that communicates to readers the possibilities of experience within their own imagination. The lesson of all writing, that there is a whole lot more space inside you, is infectious.

But this effect is essentially intangible, much like the much-celebrated “positive effect” of hosting last year’s Youth Olympics. Keep this comparison in mind because I do not mean it as a sarcastic dig. We hear one too many times – and a good number of times from sorrowful writers themselves – that literature can change nothing in the world. Yet, this is true only to the degree that we also have no conception of a world where there has been no writing to keep individuals dreaming. Now that the wildly funded YOG has happened, whatever boost in international standing Singapore has come and will continue to enjoy will be tied to it in a way that cannot be calculated. Because literature has always availed itself to human civilisation and, whether we admit it or not, modern Singapore, we simply cannot understate the secret good social role it may have been playing.

Finally, we can always talk about how writing encourages us to pursue various forms of knowledge. This may not seem immediately obvious to new writers, but, when I mentioned earlier about the dimension of time “flattened” into writing, I did also mean this capacity for new understanding we should bring into the process. It may be mere insight into expression or some philosophical/spiritual insight. It may be the appreciation of a place, a culture, or a period in time that comes out of careful research done before, or in tandem with, the writing.

This contributes to what we usually refer to as depth, an absolute characteristic of good writing. Its end is credibility of some sort, whether for the fictional world and its characters, for the ideas being put out, or for the writing as a work of art. When Ernest Hemingway describes how a good writer must have “a built-in shock-proof shit-detector”, what he means is just this: a good writer knows when he or she is being lied to, when he or she is being short-changed. Good writing does not ultimately lie even if it is fictional or, at least, good writing is very good at covering up its manure.

All these I have related to you constitute the kind of excitement writers universally experience. As I have warned at the start, it is excitement not intrinsic to Singapore. To talk rather of some local generative and propelling energy – what Singaporeans can quietly congratulate themselves for and budding writers can tap into – may, in fact, mislead. We do have a small community of writers and a slightly larger community of readers engaging their works. We have a handful of small independent publishers putting out a collectively short list of new titles every year. We have various supportive institutions, like the National Arts Council, the National Library Board, the Book Council, the schools, and the bookshops, whose very existence seems inextricable from the life of writing.

But to have these does not excitement make, much less excitement of the kind we can consider identity-defining. “Small”, “handful”, and “short” are all telling words describing a more entrenched reality, one where you are likelier to see ten people playing handheld games on the MRT before you see one person reading a book that is not the Bible. Modernity and technology have long conspired to cast our future so strongly in terms of the visual that reading independent of some optically-aided medium – TV, films, internet, etc. – is requiring more and more effort and discipline on our part.

And you can’t cheat here to make the picture look rosier. Literature being read as part of school and university curriculum is very shady evidence for excitement. How many literature students – themselves few to begin with – actually develop their own reading universes outside of what has been imparted to them institutionally? My own visit to the Facebook pages of some former students tends to reveal that their lists of “Favourite Books” strangely coincided with my list of course texts. Meanwhile, their lists of “Favourite Movies” look more versatile and independent.

Then, there is the curse of writing in English, and I don’t mean Singlish. Because English is an international medium, writing here does not have the advantage that writing in languages linked to originating cultures and nations have. Those have their ready, tuned-in, and economically viable readership bases. But any excitement in the writing of Singapore gets drowned out quickly by the incessantly renewing excitement in English writings that come from all four corners of the world. The Straits Times isn’t really helping here: just check your Life! Books pages. You are competing with the products of other markets, all larger ones, which also have more established publishing houses within more developed culture industries, with systems of reviewing and advertising books. And that’s for readers in Singapore!

I can go on, but my barely adequate summary of the state of affairs here aims simply to do one thing: to make you realistic writers. The two parts of my presentation should show up by now the grim contrast between what can encourage someone to write madly and what makes even the most decorated Singaporean writer depressed. I dare say that, if you want to write in Singapore, you must inescapably contend with these two sides in the life of literature and re-arrange your priorities.

If – like many who have approached me before – you are planning to write for quick money or fame, I am asking you seriously to be prepared for a sobering reality. You won’t be selling in the tens of thousands, let alone hundred thousands – unless your book is a biography of your very famous grandfather, who happens to be a Minister Mentor. If you are writing primarily to express yourself, my invitation to you is to aim further and higher and be willing to commit to your art. The writing has to become more than just a medium, more than being your non-equal. The poet Felix Cheong makes this powerful observation that writing is “not a vacation
 from your life” but “a vocation
 that curses your life”. He speaks as a writer and especially a Singaporean one. There is an absolute truth in that. Write at your own peril; know the cost.

But I have already begun by hinting at the difficult work of book development in Singapore. The challenges are not to be underestimated, but remember this: the struggle that brings every book into existence in Singapore is really part of the story of “the book”, in the chapter that concerns its life and evolution in Singapore. In academia, there is, among the newer fields of study, a discipline called “the history of the book”. This discipline looks at the worldly dimensions of books in cultures, the extensions of literacy, reading practices, and other social occupations into them, how publishers, writers, and readers are related, and the impact of technology.

If you are writing in Singapore, in whatever capacity of talent, you are already part of this story. Perhaps then, there can be at least one clear excitement that comes only belatedly, from posterity, and that is the importance of your very mundane struggles as a writer at this point in Singapore’s history. One of my favourite poets, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa, makes this remark about the obstacles he faces: “Stones in the road? I save every single one; one day, I will build a castle.” I dream that this will also be your experience and that, one day, I shall be able to visit some of your castles.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui


4 Responses to “Gweek Gets Excited!”

  1. Good speech, Gwee. Tells it as it is.

  2. Gweek Says:

    Thanks, Jee Leong. I heard the kids got a huge dose of reality throughout the day!

  3. ABU in 505 Says:

    I was very impressed and influenced by your speech. I will remember some sentences including “Write at your own peril; know the cost.” for a long time. Thank you for so insightful and realistic and literate words!

  4. Gweek Says:

    Abu, i love you!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: