Raffles Reviews – A Look at Singapore’s Luscious, Layered, Local Literature

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Noor Adilah (17S06B)

This article is part of a series of genre reviews done in collaboration with Raffles Reviews, an instagram page by Raffles Debate. Click here for more beautiful photos of Rafflesians with their favourite reads.


Singlit. A brand of literature produced by Singaporean writers, for a Singaporean audience, centering around Singaporean stories. Strangely enough, despite its Singapore-centricity, many people find this brand of literature more foreign than books written overseas.

Why are we so detached from our own country’s literature? Does Singlit necessarily portray Singaporean realities? And, after all, why should we support local literature?

Press talks to 3 Singlit fans – Muhammad Syazwan Ramli (17S07D), Karen Cuison (16A01D) and Nikolas Lim (16A01A), to find out the answers, and get to know more about why Singlit is special to them.

Nikolas Lim, with Mammon Inc by Hwee Hwee Tan

Why are you drawn to Singlit?
Nikolas: As cliché as it may be, SingLit really is uniquely Singaporean. It’s fresh and exciting, and more often than not becomes an expression of local flavour and culture.

Syazwan: SingLit is commonly written surrounding a motif and theme which is problematically pervasive in society, and in that way is intellectually stimulating, as well as emotionally evocative. It isn’t hard at all to find SingLit discussing themes such as nationalism, divorce, love, solidarity, childhood, death and so on. Singaporean writers are also able to write with a flair and beauty which is unique.

Singaporean poetry is more raw, unrefined, provocative – perhaps because we are trying to find our own style rather than follow the style of poetry written (and spoken) elsewhere. It is this distinctiveness of SingLit which I find intriguing.

How important is supporting local literature to you?
Nikolas: I think it’s as important as how much we treasure upholding our Singaporean identity – Singapore as a nation has very little history or a native culture and as a result we have few things we can truly call our own, much more so in terms of the arts. Apart from that, it’s always a good thing to support homegrown talent. Not only is it usually more physically accessible, but often we are able to connect with it more than Western literature.

Muhammad Syazwan Ramli, with his book We Were Always Eating Expired Food by Cheryl Julia Lee

: Frankly it is not particularly important to me which is why when something holds my attention, that’s quite an achievement.

“Singaporean poetry is more raw, unrefined, provocative.”

Syazwan: Supporting local literature is incredibly important. It is no longer 1969 where the late Lee Kuan Yew coined the maxim which qualified poetry (and therefore literature, by extension) “a luxury we cannot afford”. Today, SingLit is enjoyed by many, both in and out of Singapore, practiced and studied in Singapore as a subject, and written by full fledged writers who pride themselves in their ability to hone, practice and spread the craft. These are the stakeholders which ensure that our local literature scene right now is currently thriving stronger than at any other point in history.

How can we best support local literature?
Karen:  I think the best way to support Singlit right now is not with more eyeballs but with more criticism. [It] needs that conversation & critical appreciation going for sustainable growth.

If you could tell everyone to read 1 Singlit book/poem/play, what would it be?
Karen: A toss up between Everything but the Brain by Jean Tay and Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe.

What Gives Us Our Names
What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang

: Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at. As a Malay myself, I find the book to be a raw portrayal of life as a minority in Singapore, which was why I enjoyed it. I’d also recommend my friends to possibly participate in SingPoWriMo, to perhaps get them in the swing of writing, as well as learn more about SingLit.

“SingLit really is uniquely Singaporean. It’s fresh and exciting, and more often than not becomes an expression of local flavour and culture.”

Nikolas: I think I’d go with What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang.  It’s an extremely accessible piece of work that explores personified emotions and personal complexities. I feel that it really captures what it means to be human, and yet reveals the nuances in individual characteristics that makes everyone unique.

You are trapped on an island. Name 3 Singaporean writers you would want as company.
Karen: Amanda Lee Koe, Teng Qian Xi and Natalie Chin

Syazwan: I’d choose Alvin Pang, Marc Nair, and maybe… Christine Chia. All 3 are prolific writers, but differ in terms of style and preferred theme.

Nikolas: Neil Humphreys for entertainment so I wouldn’t die of boredom, Theophilus Kwek for companionship and Stephanie Ye for a rational voice and somebody to talk to about cats. (I hope it’s a cat island)

Everything But The Brain
Everything But The Brain by Jean Tay

Give us a quote you can’t forget from Singlit.
“Because someone will put up a sign that reads:
Do Not Step On The Cirrus Clouds.”
– from Why A Man Cannot Have Wings by Alfian Sa’at

“You will learn me all over again. Words you’ve known since childhood, tongues of your adult life, all will take on new meaning. Not once, but once again  
Slowly, I become your path to a greater existence, perhaps to divinity
Finally there is speech; there are words of reality
You will learn. And then you will be silent.”
– from Language by Krishna Udayasankar

Our Singlit Pick: Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at

malay sketches 1
Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at

The title is reclaimed from a  colonial collection of illustrations and anecdotes surrounding Malay customs by Frank Swettenham. In his own book, however, Alfian Sa’at writes in vignettes and short stories, depicting what it means to be a Singaporean Malay. A quote from Frank Swettenham’s Malay Sketches conveys most accurately the authors’ intentions in writing both their respective books.

The tale of these little lives is told. If I have failed to bring you close to the Malay, so that you could see into his heart, understand something of his life… then the fault is mine.”

malay sketches 2
Illustration from Malay Sketches

Alfian Sa’at captures a full spectrum of uniquely Singaporean Malay experiences, from the experience of a sudden, intense, alienation a boy feels when he cannot speak Malay to his barber, to the haunting parallels between a breast cancer patient and the infamous hantu tetek (breast ghost) in Malay folklore.

This book defines what truly makes Singlit unique, important and beautiful. It expands on the opinions and stories of the minority Malay race in Singapore, and still fits seamlessly as part of the larger Singaporean narrative. It is informed both by pressing social issues and simple, digestible snapshots of everyday life. Alfian Sa’at successfully depicts these experiences without alienating them from the rest of Singapore, opening up his prose so that his writing may facilitate understanding and appreciation especially from non-Malay readers.

malay sketches 3
Losing Touch from Malay Sketches

This book is perfect for readers new to Singlit. Alfian Sa’at guides readers through a world that may be completely foreign or familiar to them with the same sense of simplicity and sensitivity – a comforting and thoroughly riveting read from start to end.

Check out Raffles Reviews here for more interesting reads.

All photos credited to Raffles Debaters unless stated otherwise

Literature mentioned:
Everything But The Brain by Jean Tay
Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe
What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang
Why A Man Cannot Have Wings by Alfian Sa’at
Language by Krishna Udayasankar

Me Migrant by Md Mukul
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at
Malay Sketches by Frank Swettenham

150100cookie-checkRaffles Reviews – A Look at Singapore’s Luscious, Layered, Local Literature


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