Spread the Word

Published on 26 October 2017

As the Singapore Writers Festival celebrates its 20th edition this year, we explore how its growth has reflected Singapore’s evolving literary scene.

By Pamela Ho

Photo: Kirpal Singh

Once upon a time, the literary festival in Singapore was a smallish affair, spearheaded by a small community of poets, authors and university professors who worked on a voluntary basis with tight budgets, and a simple wish to bring the love of the word to more people.

The poet and literary critic, Prof Kirpal Singh, an Adjunct Professor at the Singapore Management University, who was involved from the start, remembers how it all began with Writers’ Week in 1986. “There was really no certainty or coherence in the early years. We worked with miserable budgets and went around begging embassies to sponsor our writers. It was very hard!”

Even so, renowned writers graced those early events. Many were personal friends. “These wonderful writers came cheap – economy fares, cheap hotels. Sometimes, they stayed with us! And we would send them out to schools,” Singh recalls with a chuckle. “I remember Adrian Mitchell, the English poet, telling me after his school visit to Marymount Convent that a Primary 3 pupil had approached him to say, ‘My father says poets are better recognised after they’re dead. Is that the same for you, sir?’”


Writers’ Week began as a fringe event of the larger Singapore Festival of Arts. The early editions were helmed by Prof Edwin Thumboo, together with Singh and literary pioneers like Prof Wong Yoon Wah and the late Dr Masuri bin Salikun (better known as Masuri SN).

Thumboo, Emeritus Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of English Language and Literature, and the first Cultural Medallion recipient for Literature in 1979, remembers how the literary scene was, at the time, largely academically driven. “All the writing was done by university graduates because a knowledge of writing in the English language came from a formal study of literature. There was no other source of instruction.”

Which explains the impetus for starting Writers’ Week so that writing could be taken out of the academic context and into general awareness. “We believed in the general reader,” Thumboo says. “We believed there were people with an interest in literature, who never had an opportunity to go to university. You have to remember that, at the time, there weren’t any writing workshops or the National Arts Council to fund people, so the writers were the multipliers! And we needed a Writers Week to help generate an interest in both the reading and creation of literature.”


Photo: Elangovan

A phenomenon that probably helped expedite the democratisation of the literary arts was the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s.

By then, Writers’ Week had become independent, and the digital platform empowered a generation of non-academic writers who made their mark on their own without having to leverage any ties with academia. While we’ve always had non-academic authors like Catherine Lim, Goh Sin Tub, Isa Kamari and Gopal Baratham, the Internet gave rise to a breed of writers – among them, early adopters like Alvin Pang, Paul Tan, Aaron Lee, Yong Shu Hoong and Gwee Li Sui – who initiated and publicised their own events.

By the time the biennial Writers’ Week was renamed Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) in 1999, the community of Singapore writers had grown and matured. But it was not until 2005 that the Festival expanded its remit beyond the literary to explore new genres of writing.


Photo: National Arts Council

Themed ‘Text in the City’, SWF 2005 saw the inclusion of bloggers for the first time, with Xiaxue and mrbrown appearing in the festival’s line-up. “It really announced the arrival of bloggers as a legitimate form of communication,” says the Festival’s director, Yeow Kai Chai, a poet and former journalist who joined the Festival’s steering committee in 2007. “This move to include non-literary forms of writing reached out to new audiences who would otherwise not have picked up a literary text.”

The next year, 2006, was also significant because of the passing of one of Singapore’s literary pioneers, Arthur Yap, whose death became the impetus to launch the Literary Pioneers series in 2007.

In 2009, the Festival celebrated our first living literary pioneer, Prof Edwin Thumboo, alongside the launch of Reflecting on the Merlion, an anthology of poems written by writers who were inspired by his iconic 1977 work, Ulysses by the Merlion. In tandem with the anthology, a debate on the motion ‘The Merlion Has Been Maligned’, which was moderated by lawyer-turned-playwright Eleanor Wong, featured two opposing teams of witty writers, including lawyer-author Adrian Tan and Gwee Li Sui.

Gwee recalls the occasion. “Kai Chai called me and he sounded distraught. He asked whether I could help be an anchor speaker in a debate as someone had pulled out. We’re talking two or three days before the event! I said OK, although the truth was, none of us knew what to do. So my teammates Ng Yi-Sheng, Alfian Sa’at and I just went wild. Leong Liew Geok, on the other team, pretended to be the Merlion. We laughed ourselves silly. The rest is history.”

That debate quickly became a mainstay of the Festival. Renamed the SWF Closing Debate, it never fails to pack venues with a full-house every year. “Gwee found his calling that day!” Yeow says with a laugh, adding that Tan and Gwee have continued to be anchor speakers to this day.


Author and graphic novelist, Neil Gaiman, holds the record for the longest book-signing session in SWF history in 2009 – five hours! (Photo: National Arts Council)
Jung Chang, author of Empress Dowager Cixi, SWF 2013. (Photo: National Arts Council)

For Lee Tzu Pheng – featured Literary Pioneer for this year’s SWF – Singapore’s literary scene has also evolved with regards to readers and audiences. “Readership has certainly grown, and people have become more accepting of the fact that literary activities are of value,” she observes. “More young people are trying their hand at writing, and some have even published.”

Lee also believes that the Festival has played a part in ratifying the worth of literature and creative writing in the minds of Singaporeans. “By casting the net wide and inviting guest writers in different genres and disciplines, some of them of international stature, the Festival has continued to nurture more knowledgeable and appreciative audiences.”

Through the years, the SWF has lured marquee names like Neil Gaiman, Pico Iyer, Jung Chang and Paul Theroux, who have packed venues to overflowing, with some autograph queues lasting hours. So much so that as a reflection of the needs of the times, the Festival was declared an annual event in 2011, and for the first time, a festival director was appointed.

Under the guidance of Paul Tan, who held the post till 2014, the SWF embraced a fresh look and feel. In addition to making the Festival a ticketed event for the first time, he launched key initiatives such as Words Go Round (which reaches out to schools) and UTTER (which showcases collaborations between writers and filmmakers) to extend the SWF’s reach to new audiences, and the programming beyond the festival.

“I think there is still much work for us to do to make the SWF a festival for everyone, and not just for a certain type of audience,” says Tan. “As long as you’re interested in ideas and stories, there should be something for you. I hope that, by coming to the festival, Singaporeans will find a chance to discover a new writer, listen to the musicality of poetry, and fall in love with reading good books all over again.”

Not surprisingly, Tan has many fond memories of his stint, “but the most enduring must be how the festival grounds during the two weeks became a special community, where people came together to talk about literature and the ideas behind the books, where we saw children enthralled by storytellers, and people shedding tears when they learnt the true stories behind the novels. It was so easy to make fast friends and chat over a coffee.”


Through these changes, the SWF continues to serve as a platform that brings luminaries of the literary world to Singapore, and to present Singaporean and Southeast Asian writers to the world. “It has become a meeting point for translators, agents and festival directors who are looking for emerging writers from Singapore and the region,” says Yeow, who took over from Paul Tan in 2015. “We now position the SWF as part of a literary circuit that covers Ubud, Singapore and Hong Kong.”

In 2015, Yeow introduced five new tracks – SWF Stage, SWF Beyond, SWF3, SWF POP and SWF Class – to enable a more varied but targeted programming, and to attract audiences with more diverse tastes and interests. New genres were included to reflect what Singaporean writers were writing. According to Yeow, “those thriving now include travel writing, sequential arts [comics], and speculative fiction. We’re very aware of the scenes, and we keep a finger on the pulse by working closely with industry partners. The approach cannot be top-down.”

In recent years, the SWF has not only focused more on translation, which is important for this multilingual region, but also on collaborations across artistic disciplines including music, theatre, dance and film. For the first time this year, the Festival has commissioned a visual artist-photographer, Alecia Neo, to tell the stories of four communities based on the festival’s theme, Aram (which means ‘doing good’ in Tamil), whilst tying up with the National Gallery Singapore to explore synergies between the literary and visual arts.

“The arts can extend the word,” says Thumboo. “Recently, we had a few poems interpreted as dance. Beautiful! For us, dance is interesting. Just look at the number of dance forms we have in Singapore. In other words, we have the means here. It’s for us to experiment.”


This year marks the 20th edition of the SWF. Over 31 years, the Festival has attempted to reflect the evolving literary scene in Singapore, and to draw new audiences. Last year, it attracted over 20,000 visitors and engaged 41,000 through its year-round programme and social media efforts.

“I hope the Festival can be where important conversations for the society-at-large are generated,” says Gwee Li Sui. “In this way, it can go beyond being an annual 10-day affair to being our main proponent for cultural thought. I hope it can help raise the quality of life in Singapore by growing a love of knowledge, curiosity of the world, and reliance on the imagination.”

As festival director, Yeow hopes the event becomes a fixture on everybody’s calendar. “I don’t want people to think that it’s only for literary people. At the same time, I also want to make sure that the standards are high, so that we all grow.”

Singh agrees. For him, the measurement of success must go beyond counting attendance numbers. “Perhaps we need to look into the workings of highly successful literary festivals. Why, for instance, is the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival – much younger, run on a very small, tight budget – so successful? Or why is Hyderabad Literary Festival, which is not always well organised, is getting coverage in international media in ways we don’t? We can learn from others.”

Learn and, perhaps at the same time, turn yet another new page.

SWF 2017 Highlights


12 November, 7pm to 8.30pm, Victoria Theatre

The motion this year: ‘This House Believes that Kiasuism is a Good Singaporean Trait”. This ever-popular, irreverent and rambunctious debate features Singapore’s wittiest writers. Helmed by Adrian Tan and Gwee Li Sui as anchor speakers, and moderated by Eleanor Wong.

5 November, 1pm to 1.30pm, POP Stage @ The Arts House

Extend your love of words to songwriting with homegrown musician, Shak.

11 November, 3.30pm to 4.30pm,[email protected]

Jay Asher’s Young Adult novel, 13 Reasons Why, not only made the New York Times and USA Today bestsellers lists, it was also adapted into a 2017 Netflix series. Revisit the book with the author in the house.

12 November, 2.30pm to 5.30pm, Timbre Music Academy Hall, S$50

How do you begin creating an authentic universe for science fiction and fantasy? Australian author, Jay Kristoff, shares world-building techniques to help lay the foundation for your story. This ticketed workshop/masterclass is suitable for beginner and intermediate levels.

12 November, 9.30am to 11am, outside Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple
(73 Keong Saik Rd)

This literary walking tour led by Charmaine Leung, author of 17A Keong Saik Road (Ethos Books), traces the people and places of her childhood in this former red-light precinct, helping participants learn about her writing journey and process.

4 November, 4.30pm to 7pm, National Gallery Singapore
(Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium), $18.

A deeply personal film about a group of anonymous activists who risked their lives to document – and share with the world – the atrocities committed in their hometown of Raqqa, following its invasion by ISIS in 2013. The screening is followed by a post-show dialogue.

SWF 2017 takes place in various venues within the Civic District from 3 to 12 November. Find out more at www.singaporewritersfestival.com. Purchase tickets, and a Festival Pass ($25) which gives access to over 130 events, here.


Literary pioneer Prof Edwin Thumboo reflects on how Singapore has embraced the English language as our own, and the implications for Singaporean literature.

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