Gweek Speaks Free in Singapore!

March 26, 2011

The following text was read during the Singapore launch of Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011), as part of The Arts House’s 7th anniversay celebrations, Writing Out Worlds, on 26 March 2011. It is also available at Scribd.com. For the launch speech delivered in Cape Town, go here.

Opening Address in 3 Points

1.

Man/Born/Free, as its name suggests, is about intrinsic freedom, what makes all of us human, and the private fight we have against those forces that constrain it. This is really how I am defining “human spirit” here, not by the greatness we often find ourselves invited to see in the giants among us: the exceptional Olympians, the inspiring leaders, the brilliant innovators, etc. Rather, for me, it is what is framed by 3 common aspects: [1] a conviction that we are all made to enjoy freedom, [2] an ability, through this, to identify, empathise, or celebrate with others, and [3] a willingness to be on the side of equality, conscience, struggle, and vigilance.

Man/Born/Free, this slim anthology being launched today, stretches across nearly 6 decades of already published Singaporean writings. There is nothing new here, only what is pulled together anew from various books, anthologies, and journals, with much material that is hard to find or even out of print. They are now represented here in very good company. This selection covers a whole spectrum of issues: from colonial oppression to forms of imprisonment, from racial tension to gender inequality, from self-censorship to the pressures of conformity, from materialism to extreme religiosity. I have only included 27 works, what is available in English or in translation to English from Chinese, Malay, and Tamil somewhere.

2.

This clarification should hint to you that I have worked under rather practical limits – ironically despite the book’s theme of freedom. There was frankly neither enough time nor enough budget to explore as-yet untranslated works: perhaps NAC should spearhead projects that can consistently bridge the different language communities. However, even with such constraints, at first listing, I came up to 67 poems and 15 stories. These then needed to be trimmed down to just a third of the lot, to the current core of 22 poems and 5 stories. The size involves another practicality: this volume ought not to overwhelm because it is tied to The Arts House’s involvement with Spotlight Singapore in Cape Town. It needed to appear officially during this week-long business-and-culture exchange between Singapore and South Africa which concluded some days ago.

However, instead of becoming just another book showcasing Singaporean writing with a general intent, what the featured writers and I have managed to shape here is something unique. Man/Born/Free is a little gem that responds, with the post-apartheid “new” South Africa as inspiration, to the themes of right struggle Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation” has made speakable everywhere. It is an acknowledgement that, insofar as humans are social beings, there will always exist conflicts with the conscience for which the writer must be a scribe. Because writers are never, in this sense, mere service providers, I have hoped that, as editor, I can do them justice by re-contextualising the role literature must play in any cultural exchange and insisting on this frame. I now hope that the project’s still theoretical extension – which will see South African writers themselves respond – is a step closer to reality as a result of this enabling.

3.

I must thank a few individuals present in the audience or in spirit, who have been invisibly vital to the book’s production: Phang Ming Yen and R. Ramachandran, who gave me advice, and the publishers of Ethos Books, Fong Hoe Fang and Chan Wai Han. Perhaps, atmospherically speaking, holding this Singapore launch at the Changi Prison Museum and Chapel might have been perfect, but the Old Parliament House is also good. To lead now, by means of provocation, into our time with our 4 guest panelists who are contributing writers to Man/Born/Free, I wish to share just one stray thought. I want to admit how, for some time now, I have come to suspect that a few words used to enrich discussion – what will no doubt emerge in our speaking later – are really useless for the end of having a discussion.

Maybe you already know what I mean here. Words like “political” and “ideological” seem to be construed these days as more about wanting or resisting change rather than about reason and fairness. Words like “dissident” and “radical” on the one side and “status quo” and “mainstream” on the other side are used to suggest numbers, who is in the majority and who is not, rather than describe what is more just, more compassionate, or more sensitive. These words have become labels in opposing camps to close down thinking and questioning, to reinforce divides, and to celebrate inflexibility and “do-nothingness”. I find myself often wondering whether anyone actually remembers that all we want, at some level, is the same thing, the chance to uphold what is humane for others and for our own sake.

But, without further delay, let me present to you our illustrious guest speakers this morning:

4 Panelists

Yeng Pway Ngon, also known to Chinese speakers as Ying Pei An, is a Cultural Medallionist. He is a novelist, a poet, a playwright, and a critic, and his works have been translated into English, Malay, and Dutch. He has received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for his novel A Man Like Me and the Singapore Literature Prize for Turmoil and Trivialities About Me and Myself. Rebellion, the first volume of his poems transcreated into English by Alvin Pang and Goh Beng Choo, was published last year.

Yeng contributes “The Misdelivered Mail” to our book.

Elangovan is a poet-playwright-director who works in both English and Tamil. A previous winner of the SEA Write Award, he has published 3 collections of poetry and 11 collections of plays to date. The collections of plays, Flush, Oodaadi, and 1915, have received the Singapore Internationale awards, and his plays are performed internationally. Two of his plays, Talaq and Smegma, are still banned from being performed in Singapore. He is the artistic director of the theatre group Agni Kootthu.

Elangovan contributes “Nocturne” to our book.

Anuar Othman works in Malay and is the author of 11 books to date. He has written across a range of genres, and his works have been translated into English and Mandarin. He won the Golden Point Award before in both the short story and the poetry category as well as the Anugerah Persuratan Prize in 2007.

Anuar contributes “13 May, 3 Citizens, and a Rooster” to our book.

Ng Yi-Sheng is the famous youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, which he secured with his first poetry book, last boy, in 2008. His books included the non-fiction SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and the recently edited GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose. Like the others, he works across a range of genres.

Ng contributes “The Audience” to our book.

Gwee Li Sui

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2 Responses to “Gweek Speaks Free in Singapore!”

  1. christine Says:

    Hi,

    I’d like your permission to copy this on to my Facebook “thoughts”, please?

    Words like “political” and “ideological” seem to be construed these days as more about wanting or resisting change rather than about reason and fairness. Words like “dissident” and “radical” on the one side and “status quo” and “mainstream” on the other side are used to suggest numbers, who is in the majority and who is not, rather than describe what is more just, more compassionate, or more sensitive. These words have become labels in opposing camps to close down thinking and questioning, to reinforce divides, and to celebrate inflexibility and “do-nothingness”. I find myself often wondering whether anyone actually remembers that all we want, at some level, is the same thing, the chance to uphold what is humane for others and for our own sake.

  2. Gweek Says:

    Dear Christine, you’re welcome to share those words, but do link back here? Thanks for your interest!


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