Sayang, Sayang: Singapore Writers Festival 2016

By Joan Ang (17A01B)

It is an oft-repeated declaration that Singapore does not have many arts events — and that those it has are largely inaccessible to the layman, being held by an “inner circle” of “artsy people”, who are largely interested in engaging themselves and their friends, except when trying to garner support for their products and productions.

As this writer is an arts student, it is admittedly very hard for her to refute this claim. What she can do, however, is introduce you to an event that she personally finds very accessible — the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), held this year from the 4th to the 13th of November in the Civic District.

Held first biannually and then annually, SWF happens at the end of every year. Each year sees authors, poets, musical artists and other speakers invited from both our own country and around the globe to present and perform in Singapore over the course of ten days.

While largely English-based, the Festival does present events in the other three national languages, and this year, offers twelve events with accompanying sign language interpretation. The Festival aims to engage people in the arts as a whole — not just through writing and storytelling, but in performance, the visual arts and music as well.

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The teams from last year’s Closing Debate: This House Believes Singaporeans Are Not Dreamers © The Straits Times.

The programmes at the Festival are divided into five tracks, namely, SWF Stage (for performances and lectures), SWF Pop (pop-up events and performances), SWF3 (targeted at families), SWF Class (masterclasses and workshops) and SWF Beyond (panels, screenings, exhibitions and more). While some events are ticketed individually, SWF does have some free events, and a Festival Pass ($20) will open up the remaining 140 or so events at the Festival.

Each year, SWF chooses a Country Focus, to share and exhibit the writing and culture of the country in question. This year, they have chosen Japan, with nine events involving writers from Japan discussing their country. This is not limited purely to fiction writers — Japanese poets and manga artists have also agreed to come for the Festival, such as Gosho Aoyama, the creator of the Detective Conan series.

Looking to find out more about SWF, we at Raffles Press interviewed the Festival Director for SWF, Mr Yeow Kai Chai, regarding his thoughts on the Festival and the arts scene in Singapore.

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Festival Director, Mr Yeow Kai Chai. © Kitaab.org

  • How long have you been working with SWF/the National Arts Council, and in what capacity?

I have been working as festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival since December 2014.

  • What’s your favourite part of running SWF?

There’re so different many parts of the festival that I enjoy, from the conceptualisation of each edition to inviting the authors. But what I enjoy the most is to see the festival come to life, and witnessing the audiences enraptured in the talks and lectures, or posing questions to the authors, or enjoying the inter-disciplinary programmes involving text and other art forms. There’s the sparkle in people’s eyes, the excitement in the air, the wonderful feeling of having learnt something valuable, that I look forward to.

  • What was the inspiration behind the theme for this year’s SWF? And what does the theme mean to you personally?

It’s the first time we have chosen a non-English word as our festival theme, and we think it’s important to send the message that we are a literary festival situated in South-east Asia, and our commitment is to this part of the world. ‘Sayang’ is the perfect theme as every Singaporean understands and appreciates its layered meaning, from love to a wistful sense of regret. For me, ‘Sayang’ also reminds us to reflect on what we value most in our lives. What do we live for, and what are the things that mean the most to us? These are the questions I keep in mind.

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This year’s programme booklets, featuring the Festival theme, ‘Sayang’. © SWF Official Facebook Page

  • If you could recommend three events from this year’s SWF, what would they be and why?

I would recommend everything of course, but if I have to choose, then I would exhort everyone to support SingLit – Singapore literature, for short – by attending three SingLit-related events.

The first would be Between The Lines: Rant and Rave II, a theatrical performance which tells the story of Singapore literature from the post-colonial, nation-building days to the literary activists of today (http://bit.ly/2eCYHV0). The second would be Unwritten Country, a double-bill lecture featuring two of Singapore’s best writers, Gwee Li Sui and Boey Kim Cheng, who will talk about the future of SingLit as well as the concepts of national and personal identity (http://bit.ly/2f8eT3g). The third would be Cache, an inter-disciplinary collaboration between musicians (enec.e and SA) and writers (Jennifer Anne Champion, Hassan Hasaa’Ree and Tan Chee Lay) who will perform startlingly original musical works (http://bit.ly/2eniYSH).

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Promotional art for ‘Between The Lines: Rant and Rave II’. © SISTIC Singapore

  • How do you decide the author/event line-up for each year?

We peruse the list of authors who have new books out, and also those who we feel fit our festival theme. At the same time, we are always on the look-out for new and emerging voices. We do want everyone to come to our festival, so we try to cover a variety of genres and interests as well.

  • Are there any specific goals that this year’s Festival is trying to focus more on?

We feel that the Festival should reflect the concerns and developments of the world, ranging from the refugee crisis to the cybersecurity threat, and therefore, we hope that festival goers would be more informed and invested in the society we are living in.

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Privacy versus Surveillance: What the Panama Papers Mean For Everyone in the 21st Century’ is a lecture by Frederik Obermaier, one of two journalists who broke the Panama Papers. © SISTIC Singapore

  • What are some hopes and aspirations that you have for the literary arts scene in Singapore?

These are exciting times. The literary arts are growing exponentially, with many grounds-up initiatives and an interesting generation of voices across genres.  My aspiration is that we can become more inclusive and open-minded to the possibilities of the word, and also to exchanges of ideas. We should move from didacticism to polyphony, and get those brain cells working.

  • What direction/s do you see the local arts scene heading in over the next 10 years? (For example, are there any genres that are becoming more popular to writers and/or readers?)

That’s a big question and I wouldn’t pretend to speak for the entire local arts scene. In the field of literary arts, I see writers who are venturing into speculative fiction/science fiction and graphical novels, and a revival of fiction with many new fiction writers coming on to the scene. Poetry will always be popular, of course.

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The official promotional art for this year’s Festival. © SWF Official Facebook Page

Singapore Writers Festival takes place from Nov 4 – Nov 13 at the Civic District. For ticketed events, go to: bit.ly/SWF16Ticketed and for Festival Passes, go to: bit.ly/SWF16FestPass. For more information, go to: www.singaporewritersfestival.com

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