Gweek is SUSS Guest of Honour!

September 7, 2019


Below is my address as Guest of Honour at It’s #LIT: Millennials Writing in Singapore” organised by the School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, Singapore University of Social Sciences, on 7 September 2019. It was part of a biennial Languages in Singapore forum series.

Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President of SUSS; Professor Tsui Kai Chong, Provost of SUSS; Associate Professor Ludwig Tan, Dean of the School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences; forum speakers; ladies and gentlemen.

I won’t be giving my address in Singlish. If you’re expecting it, sorry, wrong forum. I understand that this afternoon’s forum, called Language in Singapore, is a biennial affair. It showcases Singapore’s 4 official languages as they develop and thrive on our shores.

You have surveyed film, drama, and language before – and it is finally literature’s turn. The focus is millennial writing, and I am emotional that you will have me as your honorary millennial. I hear that our MC, Associate Professor Lim Beng Soon, has his birthday today… so he can be an honorary millennial too!

This is how I will be remembering my time up here. But what should I say without betraying your flattering mistake? I shall resist doing a “When I was your age” spiel – because that says too much, and it’s all long in the past anyway!

I can talk about how Singaporean literature got here, what we did and didn’t do that got us here, but it won’t mean a lot, practically. The past had been a different place, with different conditions, different urgencies, different values, and different players.

Just the other day I needed to explain a colonial hang-up to young people. It isn’t the headache you get after a long night at a London pub. (That’s a joke: why isn’t anyone laughing?) Besides, what is it the philosopher Hegel was said to have said? “We learn from History that we don’t learn from History.” So we aren’t going to learn.

As such, let’s try something else. Let me differently do a “When you get to my age” spiel – which concerns more the future? It is still an old person thing, but at least such an invitation should be less abstract. It is to get you to think more seriously about the present.

The present – in case this needs my saying – doesn’t last. It’s already mid-sentence at this point I am referring to it… and, at this point, over. You see, however stagnant or draggy life may feel, change is always taking place. Today’s millennials will be tomorrow’s Gen X-ers. Today’s angry young men will be tomorrow’s whiny unkers. Today’s celebrities will be tomorrow’s has-beens. Who we now call innovators will soon be conservatives.

This is the way of things. We who write, write because the present expects us to. And we read not just to forget time or to meet time but also to find out what will remain, or has remained, timeless.

There are many electrifying young writers today, some of whom are with us here: Nuraliah Norasid, Sithuraj Ponraj (whom I just learnt cannot join us), Daniel Loke, Tan Kah Wai… Noridah Kamari, I’m not sure if you’re considered a millennial. If not, you can also be an honorary millennial!

But, thinking in context, we’ve always had electrifying young writers. Lee Tzu Pheng, Dan Ying, Suratman Markasan, and KTM Iqbal were young once too. As am I, still.

This point is made not to trivialise millennials. What I wish to stress is that all writers are, and will have been, young. What the young and new do draws on the conditions of the present – the fair with the unfair – but they are also transforming time, one way or another.

Today’s new writers bring fresh eyes and show up new urgencies but in their generally sharp, pared-down styles – a feature of this age. They are more cosmopolitan in sensitivity than most other writers have ever been. They are confident in their disregard for tradition, even literary ones, and yet they make no apology when they exhibit vulnerability. They feel no baggage in re-thinking the universality out of which they go on to seek justice.

Information is readily at their fingertips, but so is misinformation. This makes personal their quest for not just truth but, more centrally, fiction – because fiction can speak for absences and invisibilities. The circumstance firms up, as such, their love for emotional responses.

Materially, millennial writers have greater, more powerful access to their own visibility. They can publish as well as self-publish, which comes cheap, saving on warehouse space if they do print-on-demand and on distribution if they e-publish. They can even do it free, instantly, via websites, blogs, and social media.

With such empowerment is also more immediate anxiety over reception, and the battle with one’s ego becomes far more complex. Given Singapore’s global standing today, literary curiosity is sure to come our way, and some will gain unprecedented fame – for better or for worse.

A path through an explosion of possibilities isn’t easy to walk. But everyone tells you that, as a writer, you just write what you want. As a reader, you just read what you want. This isn’t very helpful. So I shall offer 1 simple provocation. Ask yourself: what will I think of my current self when I get to Unker Dr Gwee’s age?

For writers, it may involve clarifying who you are writing for. Please don’t be quick to answer “Myself” – which is cliché and untruthful. If it were for yourself, you wouldn’t have need to publish. Who do you want as your readers, and what do you want from them? In a sea of intentions, what motivates you to write?

For readers, ask: just what am I reading? What is it I’m bound to the mystery of reading, in the infinitude of materials, to read? What motivates me to read – without hype or peer pressure?

To be split this way, between you now and you-to-come, can help keep you from being consumed by the present. The current post-industrial, hyper-economic world is indeed this monster that consumes everything, sparring none: not religion, academia, or childhood, let alone books. A broader commitment to time, to process, secures for you perspective. It manages fulfilment – of a different, lasting kind.

So my basic point is the same for writers and readers: don’t engage literature blindly or shortsightedly. Creatively wish to be able to thank yourself, from hindsight, for how you’re writing or reading now. If I have begun by talking about rootedness in time, in trends, I’d like to invite you at length to unroot yourself just enough to be useless to trends. Only half-live in this present.

It is so that, in the future, when you look back at yourself, you will know yourself not to be the bending reed of a time. In this future when you look at post-millennials as I look at you now, you can beam with exhilaration for the journey others don’t yet know is theirs.

Thank you.

Gwee Li Sui

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