Gweek Speaks Free in Cape Town!

March 18, 2011

The following text was read during the South Africa launch of Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011), as part of Spotlight Singapore at Cape Town, at the Alphen Hotel in Constantia, Cape Town, on 18 March 2011. It is also available at For the launch speech delivered in Singapore, go here.

Very distinguished guests, Cape Towners, fellow Singaporeans a long way from home, ladies and gentlemen –

Let me persuade you to spend three minutes with me in my mind.

When Ethos Books contacted me to helm a book project that could aptly celebrate this economically creative meeting between Singapore and South Africa, I was only too happy to help. In my heart of hearts, I knew that there was possibly only a handful of ways to do this respectfully.

In the ’80s of my youth, I was exposed to South African writing in school and had explored, as some young people then did, the works of its authors that had become modern classics. In the ’90s, as a young adult, I found myself joining much of the world in excitement over the emergence of democratic South Africa, experiencing this new territory of its mind called hope. In the year 2000, at a graduate school in London, I finally made my first South African friends.

Through literature, world news, and personal stories, I have come to appreciate a people whose culture is as different as it is – in some resulting aspects of multiracialism, multilingualism, and the weather – similar to my own. Through this appreciation, it seems natural to me what the challenge of our anthology must be. Any attempt to talk about ourselves that overlooks or simplifies the differences between our histories and cultures would have been dishonest. To ignore those incommensurate aspects of our identities, what is formed by our living for ourselves and for others in our own communities, could even be perceived as impolite.

Conversely, to turn from ourselves and talk about our relation to big happy themes such as love, beauty, and nature – you know the whole list – may indeed be life-affirming. This move allows us, after all, to share in what everyone enjoys and enjoys enjoying. But, as its sharedness is abstract and random, the connection cannot hope to last very long. A face that turns to smile for everyone is just not special to someone.

My challenge then is to find, within the universal, the closest point between our inner experiences, a way to give a wink, a glance, a full-frontal beam that can say specifically: this is for you. What has etched South Africa into the world’s imagination is the determination it showed in seeking to overcome not-too-distant racial struggles, its historic triumph, and its current continuous vigilance. In this drama have been all the elements of the human spirit as it fights for its own image in the Other to maintain basic dignity: a clarity of conscience, a commitment to just ideals, courage, perseverance, humanity, compassion that identification compels, forgiveness, and hope.

These struggles that often make up the deepest ethical struggles within every human is what I aim to recover here in the modern literature of Singapore. The focus is a unique one: Man/Born/Free stretches across nearly six decades of Singaporean writing in search of various voices from the same literary conscience as they speak out on a range of pertinent and symbolic issues. These issues span from discriminatory social perception and the misuse of power to the loneliness of the imprisoned soul.

The writings have been scattered previously throughout different journals and books, some of which are already long out-of-print. They have been selected and strung together here in a unique way that can describe the many dimensions of the human spirit as it contemplates on its own essential sustenance: freedom and an innate understanding that all humans are born equal.

The publisher of Ethos Books, Mr Fong Hoe Fang, cannot be with us on this trip. He has sent a representative, Mr David Leo, who, in fact, flew to Singapore from Canada in order to lead a delegation of Singaporean writers present among you tonight. On the behalf of Mr Fong, I like to relate his offer to publish a book complementing this one, or combined with this one, that will select and showcase South African writings on the same issues. That theoretical future component can serve as a prequel of sorts because it is through the lens South African writings of struggle have helped to forge that Man/Born/Free’s focus is possible today. It is the social consciousness of South Africa – whose best form combines ethical convictions and peaceful action – that has allowed us Singaporean writers sometimes to talk about our own.

I read before of how, during the North American Indian tradition of potlatches, a tribe might show its true wealth and sincerity by destroying something of great value it had before others. If the most valuable thing in Singapore is also an element of great vulnerability, then it must involve not so much the extent of our material success as our failure to be socially responsible for one another enough.

There is no perfect society in the world: we are all always striving to make our own better not just for ourselves but also for our fellow countrymen and -women. To say this is not to lament that real achievements cannot ever be made. Rather, even before the best of what we have offered, we cannot afford to be complacent and self-congratulatory because our freedom and sense of humanity are always being lost through the backdoor.

So this is an honest gesture of friendship from Singapore which the featured writers and I present to you all here. Progress cannot be defined by economic health alone but primarily by how much we hold on to what is decent and how we behave towards one another, regardless of our economic considerations. As such, even as we strive to strengthen our own national economies, we ought always to be careful not to, in the process, lose our capacity for humaneness, lose our understanding for the least among us: the poor, the suffering, the unjustly treated, the disenfranchised, and so on. We ought not to fail to work to restore to these a sense of dignity as equal humans – regardless of whether or how they may have failed themselves or others. We ought to aim to construct a more compassionate and responsible economy.

In closing, I like to thank the owners of this beautiful historic house in this most beautiful historic city of Cape Town. Open the book Man/Born/Free if you haven’t done so yet: it too welcomes you.

Thank you all.

Gwee Li Sui

2 Responses to “Gweek Speaks Free in Cape Town!”

  1. Beautiful Moon Says:

    Respectable speech hitting the mark.
    I feel you’re very brave and honest.
    And I’m really looking forward to the day I can open the book ! ^^

  2. Gweek Says:

    Super-moon, I love you! 🙂

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