Don’t blame art, it’s people who politicise it: Writer Gwee Li Sui goes On The Record

Don’t blame art, it’s people who politicise it: Writer Gwee Li Sui goes On The Record

Gwee Li Sui talks to Bharati Jagdish about the culture of reading, censorship, arts funding and public discourse on controversial issues.

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Literature is not about serving the state or a national purpose, says writer Gwee Li Sui. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)

SINGAPORE: It may now be a lesser-known fact, but writer Gwee Li Sui was a pioneer in the field, having the distinction of writing Singapore’s first full-length adventure graphic novel, Myth of the Stone, in 1993. 

He is a proponent of making literature accessible, with his other works including Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998), One Thousand and One Nights (2014), and The Other Merlion and Friends (2015). When he’s not writing, Gwee teaches, judges top literary awards in Singapore and overseas, and weighs in on public debate, on issues ranging from the dearth of cultural intelligence in Singapore to Singlish.

While he is a noted literary figure in the local scene, Gwee confesses that in school, he frequently failed literature, due partly to teachers who he feels just didn’t cut it. He’s now made writing and teaching literature his life’s work.

He went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about the culture of reading, censorship, arts funding and public discourse on controversial issues. They first discussed the dwindling number of students opting to take literature in schools today. 

Gwee: To be fair, this has been a trend for quite a few decades already. And ultimately, when I sit down and think about it, because of how our whole society (is) structured – the focus on academic subjects and economic success – it’s not going to help, even though a lot of literature lovers have been making the case that bringing literature back to school will help.

A lot of people think that that’s the way to go about changing the landscape. I don’t think it works that way. In fact, we have gone down that path where we taught literature in school and got people to read the books. But subsequently these people went on to never read another book. So if you ask them what the last book they read was, they mention the one they read in secondary school. The reading culture is quite distinct from it being taught in school.

Bharati: Are you saying that in fact, having literature as an academic subject in schools has killed many people’s love for reading?

Gwee: Even though we don’t like to admit it, it’s true that it’s a big camp of people who did literature but never went on to read a lot of books after that. It could be that it’s badly taught, but I think the whole exercise of reading, the whole infection of reading has to be discovered by itself. It cannot be taught. I know people who never did literature in school and they went on to do engineering, law, computer science, but they discovered reading. And they read a lot. These are the people who will actually become lifelong readers. And these are the people who are better examples of literature and loving literature than the people who were taught literature in schools.


Bharati: Since you feel that there is no connection between taking literature as an academic subject and becoming a lifelong reader or writer and that in fact, having it as a subject in school could hamper the culture of reading, do you think it ought to be removed as an academic subject?

Gwee: I’m not sure I would go to the extreme of saying that it’s not a good thing, but we have to be careful when we push it as if it is the answer. I do not think it’s the answer. In fact, it creates an impression on a large chunk of people in Singapore that literature is only for schoolchildren, that reading is something to do when you are young but when you are old, you work, you do the “real-life” things.

The impression is made that reading and writing is for young people. It’s not something that you can make a career of, it’s not something that can inform your thought patterns when you’re older. It’s not something for adults. It’s not something that can be connected to political questions that we encounter these days. We create that impression by limiting literature to the schools.

Bharati: But you can’t say that in Singapore we’re limiting literature to the schools. Because over the years there have been campaigns to encourage reading among the general population, among adults as well. The National Library Board (NLB) has initiatives to encourage this. So it isn’t restricted to schools. But my concern is if you feel that it being taught in schools the way it is currently, is doing damage to the love for reading, maybe it should be removed altogether and these other initiatives to encourage reading should be stepped up in the community.

Gwee: I think it should be there for people who want to pursue that path and want to have that kind of knowledge. I think it ought to be encouraged if it can be. But I think cases that are not right should not be made. One case for example would be to say that if we take away literature from schools, we will have fewer creative writers in the future. That’s not right. If you look at someone like Dave Chua, someone like Yong Shu Hoong, our very eminent writers in Singapore, they didn’t come from a literature background. Yet they went on to write. We have to be careful to link. What I’m concerned about is that the study of literature should not be locked to schools. It ought to be taken out to society and be spread as a form of cultural knowledge.

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Gwee speaking at The Arts House. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)


Bharati: Why do you think we haven’t succeeded in doing that in spite of reading campaigns?

Gwee: If we look at the media, at the press, the tendency to deal with literature is to talk about prizes, is to talk about writers getting international publishers. They tend to talk about what the writer’s life is like. They do anything but talk about the books! We do not discuss the content of the book. We do not discuss the issues involved in the book. We do not bring the issues into society and deal with what’s currently happening, find connections. There’s so much cultural content missing in the public sphere.

Bharati: On radio, we’ve done several programmes in which we do discuss the content of the book and how it might relate to the things you talked about. Why do you feel those are not adequate?

Gwee: If you are talking about the ones by the library, I think they’re rather successful.

I just wonder whether that could be encouraged at all or we should just in general change the way we talk communally and then subtly make it important.

What I mean is that it isn’t just an initiative for the library to do or radio to do. It has to be something that is seen by various institutions when they are enlightened, to be important, to be part of their own conversations.

Bharati: How do you think we can practically achieve this?

Gwee: For starters, it would be good if an MP could cite a Singaporean writer. Then we change the dialogue where writers stop becoming just people in a corner in a library activity, talking to people who are interested. They become part of a larger conversation. I think as a writer in Singapore, I feel we are not allowed to enter the sphere of a larger conversation.

Bharati: Why do you feel that way?

Gwee: Because we don’t have an audience. We speak through our books, we speak through our poems, people read our stuff but it’s still the same group of people. We hope to find new voices to engage the issues but again, that’s slow.

It’s tied to how the press covers us, how society perceives what we are doing. If you’re seen as just doing subversive things, that’s not very helpful. Because the point of literature or at least for writers is that we want to explore possibilities. We want to ask questions. We are not against any techniques per se, or any way of seeing the world per se. But we are never happy with any way of seeing. Let’s just put it like that. No technique is going to be satisfying. That’s our job. Our job is to be free, to be able to look at things from various angles.


Bharati: Before we talk about speaking to more people through your work and finding new voices to engage in the issues, you mentioned the word “subversive”. It really depends on how one defines “subversive”, doesn’t it? So what you might think is merely thought-provoking, the authorities might see as subversive. While I’m sure, you wish the authorities could see it through a different lens, are you ever able to see it through the lens of the authorities?

Gwee: Subversiveness, as you rightly pointed out, is defined by people in power because it questions their positions, their initiatives, what they want as programmes and as policies. But that’s not what writers do. They question, they draw out what people may be thinking. Rather than seeing it as trying to mobilise forces to go against authority, why not see it as a kind of feedback place where you’re actually hearing voices that can help you change and render your programmes and policies better.

There are real questions that writers raise even though we write it in fiction, even though we write it in a form of very beautiful poetic terms. But the questions are real.

In that sense, I feel we need to understand the difference between political subversion and artistic subversion. There is a distinction. It is a laboratory space. It’s a place that you go into that is slightly outside real life where we can do things and think thoughts and then go back better-informed.

Bharati: But we’ve also seen art be capable of causing unrest, of causing people to have explosive disagreement. So can you entirely blame the authorities for being more careful about this?

Gwee: Yes, that is really about the application but you don’t go back to the source of writing and then blame it. There are people who are politically motivated and they are going to take anything and politicise it. It is not the source that is the issue. Which is why I say we need to understand where literature is coming from, where writing is coming from, what art is doing and not blame art. Art may be there provoking these thoughts, but it is people who ultimately take them in different directions.

Bharati: I understand completely but you admit that it’s about the application. There will be actors even in the artistic space, whose intention is to politicise something and possibly mobilise forces. One might say this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good thing, but not always; and the authorities sometimes play it safe. Can you see it from their perspective at all?

Gwee: That is possible where the writer is using the writing to convince people to do a certain something. But that’s not all there is, you see. You can’t fail everyone in the class because one person is that. Or you can’t blame the whole platoon for being bad soldiers if one soldier were to misbehave. Also, I’m not going to say that what this person is doing is necessarily wrong. If you look at Soviet Russia, those writers who wrote at that time against authoritarian forces, they were doing good. But I think when we have a more complicated society like ours, it’s more about mediation. Work ought to be seen also as ways of mediating, of changing society for the better. In the end, we ought to recognise that writers, like anyone else who is directly connected to social life in Singapore, want it to be a better world.


Bharati: Recently, writer Sonny Liew has been making headlines again for winning awards for his graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye – a book that made headlines because the National Arts Council (NAC) pulled its funding for it. Another major headline in the book world in the last few years was when the NLB received complaints about Three to Tango which supposedly went against family values. You personally withdrew from NLB events in protest at NLB’s reaction to this.

Has censorship ever touched you in that manner personally?

Gwee: Yes it has. It’s hard to be a serious writer in Singapore without it touching you. In my case I think it deals more with stuff I edit or want to put in anthologies. Either funding gets pulled or I get flagged for having certain pieces included.

Bharati: How do you process the recent developments I’ve mentioned?

Gwee: You raised some examples and they all pull in different directions which means the issue itself is very complicated. In Sonny Liew’s case, the book is sold in every bookshop, it is widely available.

Bharati: Yes, even in Singapore, let me make that clear.

Gwee: Yes. That’s right. So the pulling of funding means something else altogether from being pulled off the shelves.

Bharati: Let’s talk about funding first.

Gwee: This raises a whole bag of questions on funding. The thing we ask is whether funding should be tied to political concerns and not artistic concerns, and therefore whether NAC itself should be a bit more separate from the ministry, from all these considerations that are tied to governance.

Bharati: But one could say on that issue that we know what the NAC is, that it is tied to the Government, and the Government has the right to say “no” if it feels the work is going to go against whatever national agenda it has. The NAC doesn’t pretend not to be tied to the Government and this is something that writers and artists need to go into with their eyes wide open.

Gwee: That’s right. So the issue with that book was that given that agenda, it should not have passed the first round, rather than have its funding withdrawn at the last minute. The other issue that I want to raise is a question, a provocative one. Why do we only having one source of funding? We should have different bodies for different considerations and therefore if there was one that is more independent, not tied to government money, maybe it would have been another alternative for a book like that to get funding.

Bharati: But it’s not like it’s not allowed. Private individuals and organisations can fund the arts. It’s up to you to get them. Isn’t it a question of whether artists seek funding from other sources and whether those other sources are willing?

Gwee: And whether we have those other sources. That’s the question for that book.

Bharati: One could say we are only seeing this situation in Singapore because writers and artists themselves have failed to convince people, to make a case for themselves, a case for reading more, for thinking critically, for funding such work.

Gwee: It’s not the writer’s responsibility I feel. Our responsibility first is to write.

Bharati: True, but also why do you write? You write so that you can also engage society, make an impact, right?

Gwee: No, I think we write because we have certain existential issues that we grapple with as a person living in society.

Bharati: That sounds self-indulgent.

Gwee: It’s not self-indulgent, because writers feel that in seeing our issues and then to go with a conscience, we are finding something that someone else may actually understand as well. We don’t think we need to step out in order to understand. We feel that we step in to be able to become universal. And that’s a difference.

Bharati: Earlier you lamented about not having an audience and you spoke of the hope that you’ll find new voices to engage the issues. If you feel that’s not your responsibility, whose do you think it should be?

Gwee: I don’t think writers not being to reach their audience is the writer’s fault. We don’t have the instruments, the levels in place where the writer’s work can reach out to a certain audience.

At one stage of course there’s the censorship, there’s also the level of values. We have a work culture that makes it irrelevant to read. We also have a level of propaganda which is that writing has to reach a certain economic advantage or political advantage in order to be celebrated. Or it has to talk about nation, or talk about certain places in Singapore in order to be of value. We have so many layers that makes writing misunderstood.

Bharati: I understand that you have several things working against you. But while this is a complex issue, involving a lot of different players and societal factors, shouldn’t you bear some responsibility?

Gwee: That’s a lot of things you want a writer to do. Our first responsibility is the art.

Bharati: But what is the point of the art if it doesn’t make an impact?

Gwee: It will make an impact when you read the work. It cannot make an impact until the work is engaged.

Bharati: So if you don’t want to take responsibility for that, who do you think should?

Gwee: Okay, on one level, the different agencies do engage us and bring us in so that people can listen to us talk. In that sense, the library is taking up the responsibility. When you say it’s the writer’s responsibility I keep wanting to stop going in that direction because at some stage it’s all going to collapse back on us and the writers will have to do everything. We’ve already for a time been doing everything. Sometimes we are also self-publishing. Sometimes we are being our own editors. Poets anthologising poets. Writers publishing writers. That’s sad. We have to go beyond saying the writers do everything.

Bharati: You mentioned earlier that it would help if the media covered writing differently. Or if the Government saw art differently, or if MPs stepped in too, and if more people and organisations stepped in to fund art, but at this point, surely you have to make a case for it at least to them, especially if people aren’t voluntarily stepping up.

Gwee: There are a lot of writers. If you talk to a hundred writers, there’d be hundred different opinions. Unfortunately you’re talking to one who is very patient. I have no idea when my impact will be made and how it will be made. It may be only in a hundred years when someone realises or finds depth in my work. If it takes a hundred years to get to a reading culture, again I’m fine with that.

Bharati: But it’s clear that the current state of affairs is not satisfactory to you. At the heart of this is the question of why people aren’t voluntarily stepping up. Earlier you said “we have a work culture that makes it irrelevant to read”. This is just one of the issues you mentioned. While you’re willing to wait however long it takes, how do you think the process can be accelerated for others?

Gwee: The issue here also is that we are very impatient as a people. We want things to happen overnight. If we want a reading culture, we want it now, or next year or in 10 years. Let’s start a campaign. Sometimes when you push like this it has reactions. People want to go another way. If you make people do things, people may not agree with you and they want to do something else. I say let it evolve but again let people discover the importance of becoming more culturally intelligent people.

Bharati: So you feel, let it happen organically.

Gwee: Let it happen organically!

Bharati: What do you think will give us the impetus to transform though? Some of the obstacles you’ve mentioned seem like they’re here to stay. If we left it to happen organically, it may never happen.

Gwee: So we are back to the point that I raised earlier. The fundamental issue is not education in schools. It really is education at the societal level. Our people have always been a very functional people. They think of life in terms of work. But if we want to think how to broaden our lives so that it becomes more multifaceted, a more beautiful thing, then we have to allow for the depth of discussion or depth of thought. And how are we going to think like this if in society, people don’t really take reading seriously. Reading can deepen the discussion. When you read, you put yourself into another person’s mind, you get to understand the complexities of different ways of living or thinking.

Bharati: Earlier, I asked you how you think this can be achieved – encouraging reading within the community and you mentioned maybe some MPs should talk about it. Why should it be spearheaded by them?

Gwee: In our society, we look up to authority still. Maybe at some stage, in 30 years’ time, we will stop thinking of it like this. Right now, we still think if I want to think about a subject that is literary or artistic I go to a professor. We don’t think that the person next to us is capable of giving us wisdom or insight that is as good as or sometimes better than the writer or professor. We have not reached that stage. So I think at this point, it would be great if there is a certain leadership to say that literarily speaking, our politicians are engaging our writers and considering the subjects they are talking about. They are taking our writers seriously and not writers as entertainers.


Bharati: How do you think we can get to that stage though, where we don’t need to take cues from the Government or agents of the Government?

Gwee: Political leadership is one. The other thing is media leadership. They have to go beyond reporting newsy subjects that deal with Singapore’s international reputation. Face it. Singapore literature is not about its place in the world. It’s about its place among us. And if we cannot talk about it and we look to other people to talk about our work, and reward our work before we can celebrate it, that’s embarrassing.

Bharati: You did mention in a piece of writing some time ago, “to state technocrats, good Singaporean writing ought to be something more. It must further respect the establishment, be a money spinner and gain international recognition”. You don’t agree with this clearly.

Gwee: Because it’s not about those things. Literature is not about serving the state, or political purpose. It’s not to state a national purpose first. It’s to serve a reader’s mind. It’s to help a reader’s soul to deepen. Those are the things that are fundamental. Which is why if we can’t find it in ourselves to love our writers, then don’t go and celebrate it when a book later on wins an international award. Because then you’re not being truthful. And that’s very embarrassing.

They tell me: “We are covering literature.”

I say: “No, you’re not!”

Talking about prizes, talking about international awards or writers finding international publishers, or celebrating the fact that Singaporean writers are going global – just that is not going to help the culture either. How does that help someone here struggling with these issues and still wondering why I should read the Singaporean book. Do you need the validation from all these other people in order to get you to read? That’s sad.

Bharati: You alluded to this issue earlier and I’d like to go back to it. All the things that you’ve said that can benefit a person through literature and deeper thinking might be negated by the survival narrative in spite of the fact that many of us in Singapore should be higher on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Even when it comes to literature and writing, many ask, how can I make money out of this, or they read self-help books on how to be a millionaire – nothing wrong with that, but if that’s all one reads, I’m sure it would concern writers like you.

Gwee: Yeah, I think this happens a lot in Singapore. What is its use? Why is it good for me? Why should I bother? We have that concept. We don’t step out of ourselves. There’s that inherent kiasu- ness that doesn’t go away in Singaporeans. I’m sure it has various permutations around the world as well, but our concern here is about Singapore. I’m not sure whether that can be helped. Everybody is both his or her own problem and his or her own solution. 

You have to step out of yourself and learn that life is beyond all these things. Life is not a job that you take. It is not about being more wealthy. It is not about security only, at the expense of values. We keep talking about values in Singapore on so many levels. But sometimes I wonder even then if the values too are meant to serve larger utilitarian purpose.

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Gwee Li Sui speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)

Bharati: We talked about funding issues earlier. What about the cases of books being taken off the shelves?

Gwee: Now, that’s a clearer case for me of censorship. Because in that case, we should have a proper discussion about what goes into which section of the library. I think the final solution the library had, which was to move the penguin book to the adult section, that was a good compromise. It should have been a compromise right from the start rather than a threat to destroy the book.

Bharati: At which point would you draw the line though? Some artists I’ve spoken to have said nothing should be censored ever. It’s all a matter of how you encourage the ability to analyse, perhaps, how you calibrate discussions around a piece of work no matter how explosive or offensive it’s deemed by some. But at which point would you say it’s okay to censor? Censoring certain types of content may be justifiable. Or do you too feel it’s never okay?

Gwee: I’m a writer and also someone with a history as an academic. Both sides of me feel very strongly against censorship because as an academic, you need this material to be there to be able to say there was evidence of this kind of thinking. It has to be stored somewhere. Maybe limit the people who gain access to this book, but not destroy it. And sensibilities may change. And sometimes you realise that what you feared was not worth fearing in the first place. And that would be an interesting artefact; that at some point in time, people thought a certain way. The historical side of me would say all this stuff is useful.

As a writer, it’s a whole other issue. I’m torn between many sides of myself when it comes to this. As a writer, we hate talking about censorship. Totally hate it. Because censorship is so against what we do. To be able to write, your mind should be free to explore. And you can tell the effect of internal censorship, self-censorship on people, on writers when they write, when clearly they could have gone to a certain point logically in their writing, but they don’t and they stop themselves. And the book becomes less effective. They become less able to come to terms with the truth.

Bharati: How would you assess the literary landscape right now, in terms of the willingness of Singaporeans to contribute to the scene with their own work and take a career in writing forward if they are so inclined?

Gwee: There’s definitely a shift and it started with, if I’m not wrong, Catherine Lim. The first writer to step out of a full-time job and say: “I’m just going to write”. Previously writers had full-time jobs and writing is what you did when you were free or at night. But Catherine Lim inspired a generation which is mine, to think outside that limited Singaporean box and to believe that if we take that one step out, another step will appear. Take two steps out and another step will appear.

You just have to believe that the way will shape around us. And that’s what I want to offer as hope for new writers today. There are more of us now, and as more of us do so, the industry is created. And you just need the courage to want less. I think, in the Singaporean mindset, we tend to want a lot. We tend to think that if we stick to a stable job, if we stick to the common Singaporean path that has been written out for us decades ago, everything will be certain and we will live a comfortable life. Then we talk about self-belief and confidence, but all that means nothing without courage. It’s not an easy path. It may lead you to nowhere but if you are staking a lot on your own self-belief, that conviction and commitment to writing will take you somewhere. I’m in the middle of that journey so I can’t tell you how it will end.

Bharati: You said writers need to want less – do you mean even in terms of accolades as well?

Gwee: Yes, which of course becomes a very strong challenge as well. You see, we leave the path of wanting more financially, wanting more materially, only now to face this challenge of the temptation of wanting accolades. That is a distraction in many ways. The idea here is, I mentioned earlier, to look inside. Look inside and find the thing you need. In the history of writing, writers that are celebrated, that we still celebrate today, are few. Many writers are discovered long after they pass away. We have to be careful to think that accolades are what distinguish us. But nonetheless as human beings we tend to let that affect us. We think we are not good enough. One of the big things that haunt writers is this lack of faith in yourself. And we torment ourselves all the time by thinking less of what we’re doing. And so there is this inner struggle that goes on.

Bharati: Why did you personally choose this path?

Gwee: If you’re a writer, a creator, if you’re an artist, there is a side of you that will not let you go, that will keep eating away at you until you pay attention to it. I was a university teacher full time for many years. And this part of me that didn’t have its time felt like a neglected child. It was screaming and shouting all the time. It wasn’t giving me a good night’s sleep. I was getting miserable.

I was getting white hair.

Bharati: I can see it’s getting back to black now.

Gwee: Yes! And I was becoming short-tempered. I found that my values were increasingly challenged and I said I need to do something about this. If you are a creative person, that side doesn’t let you go.


Bharati: Over the years, you’ve also weighed in on the tone and texture of public discourse on important social issues. Why do you feel strongly about this?

Gwee: Increasingly in societies around the world, we have parts that are becoming intolerant of other people’s views. And I wonder whether one answer could have been reading. One answer could have been cultural discussion. People should be able to enter another person’s mind and understand his or her own values and then see why the person thinks that way or says another thing. Then we become more tolerant and more able to accept another person. That’s missing.

I think long ago, during our parents’ generation, people had this understanding because they communicated. But in an urban reality, we become all just locked, come back from work, in our little HDB flats. We don’t see people of different lifestyles. We don’t engage with people from a different background. We may call ourselves multicultural or multireligious but that just means I stay in my own religion and I stay in my own ethnic background. I don’t explore. I don’t understand why people see things different. And that’s the first step of the problem. The second step is then we assume other people think like us.

Bharati: And when we found out they don’t, we don’t know how to deal with it.

Gwee: We get angry.

Bharati: In 2009, you caused quite a stir when you commented on the AWARE saga. You wrote a Facebook note urging people to keep religion out of it, out of secular organisations. Why did you feel so strongly about this?

Gwee: The problem I saw was militantism versus understanding.

Bharati: Intolerance.

Gwee: Yes. People are too quick to act. Too quick to want their feelings heard. Aren’t appreciative of other people’s perspective.

Bharati: We’ve seen some examples of this lately as well, when it comes to moral debates on issues such as homosexuality. In your opinion, between 2009 and today, to what extent have we evolved at all in terms of how such public discourse takes place?

Gwee: Good question. I think what has grown is our awareness of the various techniques people use to hide the lack of strength behind an argument. But the divide still stays. What I mean is that now at least we understand things like astroturfing. We know that when a petition is signed it could just be a few people pretending to be a lot of people. But I don’t think we’ve grown in understanding at all.

Bharati: Why do you think that hasn’t happened?

Gwee: It’s global, if you notice. That’s a spirit of the age we’re seeing. We need to push for mutual understanding but right now we live in a deficit of that. What we have instead is people feeling that they are the victims. Everyone thinks that they are the victims. And that they think that from their position they have a right to go after another person.

Bharati: There’s no silver bullet for this sort of thing. But it clearly does concern you quite a bit. What do you think is the way forward?

Gwee: Whether it’s in literature or in religion, the answer is there, because in both I feel the call is to be open, to be able to live under another person’s skin. And in literature and in religion, there’s the conflation of values. Therefore, for me, they are not split sides of what I live and think, they are in fact quite connected. Therefore, I see this continuity.

I feel like, as opposed to what some people are thinking, it’s not a call to be less religious, to be less spiritual. But if religion and spirituality is your concern, then perhaps you should look into it as a way to better your understanding of human nature. And you are the first problem. I think every religion teaches that. You are the first problem. You have to get over yourself.

In literature you have the same solution which is that when you read, you put yourself into another person’s mind, another person’s heart. It need not be fiction, it need not be poetry. It might be something like a manual on how to make a television. You are drawing on someone else’s knowledge. The fundamental point about reading is that you are learning from someone else. Now we have to take that seriously, to be able to step out of ourselves, take ourselves less seriously.

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"Singlish is not broken. Don’t try to fix it. Literature is doing something. Don’t try to limit it," says Gwee. (Photo: Gwee Li Sui)


Bharati: Another issue that you’ve been giving attention to is language – which is natural for a writer, I guess. You wrote an article about Singlish which caused quite a stir last year.

You said in that article “state ministers, rather than re-examining the pedagogy in schools, began blaming Singlish for the declining English standards”. You don’t feel declining English standards are at all related to the use of Singlish in everyday life. Why are you so convinced?

Gwee: Yes, because I think Singlish is quite distinct. It has its own grammar. It has its own way of structuring and thinking. It has its own vocabulary. So if you don’t make the distinction between what is English and what is Singlish, you’re not helping. You’re saying whatever is bad English is Singlish. That’s confusing the two. The better way is to distinguish the two and not confuse Singlish with bad English. There are linguists who argue one way forward is to teach the grammar of both Singlish and English. So that people can know the difference. I feel personally there’s no need. Because Singlish itself is still evolving. That means its grammar is still changing.

When I read essays I often find that they are using improper English, broken English. We are not even talking about Singlish or translations. It’s improper English which is not related at all to Singlish. They are not using Singlish words, they are not using Singlish syntax and all. But it’s the way they get their tenses wrong, they get their understanding of particular words wrong. They don’t have a verb in the sentence. That sort of mistake. Those are not Singlish mistakes. Let’s be clear. So I think we are going after the wrong enemy if you keep insisting that it is. Because from what I see when I mark, it’s not Singlish.

Bharati: You say it is the pedagogy underpinning English in schools. So what’s wrong with the pedagogy?

Gwee: I think the way to go ahead is really to teach as English was previously taught: The rules of English, the grammatical rules and all. Give them proper names, let them know what all these mean. It has to be in place in the schools. Why? Because the moment you step out into the workplace, it’s even harder to control. You have so many other speech forms out there. We’re not even talking about Singlish, we’re talking about American lingo, street lingo, the influences from the different dialects. I think you have to ask the language teachers about this. But certainly you have to teach proper grammar, syntax, vocabulary. These have to be in place.

Bharati: Chang Li Lin, who is the press secretary to the Prime Minister responded to your article and she said that English is not the mother tongue of most Singaporeans, mastering the language requires extra effort. Using Singlish will make it harder for Singaporeans to learn a new standard English. She also said not everyone has a PhD like you do. You can code switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English. But the rest of us just may not be able to.

Gwee: Actually, the personal story is that I started off speaking bad English and then went back to Singlish. In school I learnt English and I learnt to differentiate them. That’s how it is. The connection is a bit different. The order of events differs as well. But once people are taught proper English properly, they will know what is not proper English. And they will learn for themselves which part is coming from other countries, which part is Singlish, which part is from the dialects.

Bharati: Certainly you feel that declining English standards are not a justification for silencing Singlish.

Gwee: Yes, because there are going to be all these sources anyway. What I think we ought to do with English is to get that right. Students will be able to then, on their own, see the knowledge about the other grammatical structures for themselves as belonging to something else.

I see Chang Li Lin’s point of view, I respect her point of view. It’s not an easy task for the Government to meet and solve this problem of falling English standards. It is tough. But I wish we didn’t do it at the cost of something else which, if we killed off, we will realise 20 years down the road, was important to us. And we have done that so many times, we have done that architecturally as well. We have to be smarter than this. We have to learn the real lessons and be careful about killing things off. Because once they’re dead, they’re gone.

Bharati: The Singlish issue is a microcosm of a larger issue for most people. What that larger issue is, could differ from person-to-person. What is that larger issue for you?

Gwee: The larger thing is maybe what politicians would say: “Don’t fix what’s not broken.”

Singlish is not broken. Don’t try to fix it. Literature is doing something. Don’t try to limit it. Things that we don’t understand – another person, another religion, another point of view, another sexuality – understand it, don’t destroy it.

Walk a day or walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. See what it’s like and then let the human side of you take over and decide what’s the way to go. I think we are losing that bit of ourselves. Our attachment to being common, to being human. A part where I’m not just about me, I’m also about you. That part has to be revived, has to be recovered. 

Source: CNA/cy