death by paper cut

{November 13, 2012}   The Lull after the Storm

so it has been raining a lot in tropical singapore. i love the showers, the downpour, the deluge, the torrent rain in singapore where it cools the weather down tremendously and still not rear its ugly head as natural disaster as it can in other places. when overcast, the sky has a brooding personality and a gravitas that commands reckoning, thereby evoking a pensive mood.

i perceive the recent heavy rain to be chipping away at the distractions and stripping away what’s unimportant as if in a cleansing of our minds. this central idea germinated in my mind and after hacking away at it for about an hour or two, the follow poem emerged.


The Lull after the Storm


Upon my pruning feet and in muddying pavements,

The monsoon rain beats down relentlessly.

Puddles form rapidly,

And in quick ricocheting succession

Link arms like a call to arms,

They merge and finding solidarity,

Defiantly surround me in a moat.

Taken captive, I yield

And stand before the watery fortress


At first indeterminable, inscrutable,

The rain pitter-patters to a drizzle

And pools into a glassy pane.

As if having washed away the day’s

Defeats with its dust and grime,

The slate is wiped clean to try again.

Venturing forth, I step ahead

Making my own ripples in

The lull after the storm.


{November 12, 2012}   Singapore Writers Festival 2012

I love how Singapore Writers Festival has evolved over the years to include a wide range of authors, fringe activities and social media to get the word out and people like me updated of events.

The friendly atmosphere and literary vibe was buzzing with anticipation at each session often filled to the brim. Standing space was limited at many events too.

Like last year’s Festival, the speakers this year were well prepared, very engaging and most importantly, genuinely interested in sharing their craft and experiences. Their humility was humbling. The questions asked by the audience was often thought-provoking and in itself an encouraging indication of a healthy and engaging Singaporean (and international) readership. It also gave me the opportunity to be exposed to writers that I am less familiar with and expand my literary horizon. Usually, I follow up with reading more about the authors and checking out their books.

Singapore Writers Festival 2012 Buys

Below are some salient points raised from the sessions that I would like to jot down for my own reference.

10 November 2012

Cherian George in Conversation with P N Balji

Programme Synopsis: Two media insiders trade views and insights on the independence and future of mainstream media in Singapore. Cherian George, academic and media observer, discusses his new work, Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore, with P N Balji, a veteran with more than 35 years’ experience in journalism. In light of former editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng’s recently launched tell-all book, OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, this is a must for those interested in media developments in Singapore.

  • Singapore is becoming more dogmatic than pragmatic.
  • It is intriguing that the ruling party can increasing assert its ideological dominance with diminishing use of overt power or violence. Something must be at work.
  • Social Media and the internet is a platform for much sharing of opinions, which can be a reason why people are less concerned with traditional media. However, traditional media must continue to be critiqued.
  • The information that editors have are usually taken to the grave with them. It is therefore very surprising that Cheong Yip Seng has published an expose that does not tell all, but tells much.
  • P N Balji himself has thought of writing a book about his experiences but has decided to keep these thoughts private firstly because he does not want to break confidence and secondly because of law suits that can ensue.
  • Transgressing the OB markers in Singapore will not cost you your life or job, however, depending how your payroll is funded, your career prospects might be stunted. Therefore testing the OB markers is dependent on your values and what you deem to be important.

Yahoo News! covered this event. More here.

Introducing Middle East Writing

Hisham Bustani, Izzeldin Abuelaish, Lilia Labidi

Moderator: Hussin Mutalib

Programme Synopsis:Made up of many countries, cultures, and languages, the Middle East is as connected as it is divided. Come listen to writers from Tunisia, Jordan, and Palestine discuss literature from their region and frame its contribution to world literature.

  • Izzeldin Abuelaish was born in a refugee camp but became a successful doctor with sheer hard work. He wants to use this medical expertise to heal the world, especially, in his part of the world and in spite of the death of three of his daughters in a time of conflict.
  • Lilia Labidi stressed that women writers from the Middle East need to be more recognised and acknowledged for their literary merit and contribution.
  • Hisham Bustani mentioned that although Israel is geographically located in the Middle East, its ideology and framing is very euro-centic. Israel and Israeli writing identifies itself more with the European and American narrative than the Arab narrative. Other points discussed about translation was expanded more in his next session, New Arab Writing.

Getting Lost; Getting Inspired

Featuring: Pamela Ho, Pico Iyer

Moderator: Yu-mei Balasingamchow

Programme Synopsis: Wanderlust. Exotica. Adventures. Such is the discourse we expect of travel writers, but what lies behind the romance of the road? This panel traces the connection from itinerary to captivating travelogue.

  • Information about a place can be found anywhere by anyone. Travel writing is about sharing one’s interpretation of a place.
  • Traveling does not necessarily need to be only for those with financial means. Countries with a lower cost of living are viable destinations and one’s own backyard can also afford places to visit and be pensive about especially in Singapore’s diverse cultural landscape.

David Almond

Featuring: David Almond

Moderator: R Chandran

Programme Synopsis: Straddling whimsical illustrated children’s books and dark philosophical tales, David Almond is clearly one of the most innovative children’s authors today. But his path to success was unlikely ― the Carnegie Medal Winner and twice Whitbread Book Award winner started out as a hotel porter. Listen as he recounts his fascinating journey from that to a popular author who has sold over a million copies.

  • Winning awards affirms not only the book, but also all efforts previously made in writing other books and working at other jobs. Before the success of Skelling, a book that took David Almond 5 years to write was roundly rejected.
  • Writing for children has to be authentic and genuine, not from a position of authority.
  • Writing is messy. The published book may be very neatly printed and coherent-looking, but the process of revising the text and sorting out the work is not as neat.

David Almond 1

David Almond 2

David Almond showing an enlarged image of his notebook when penning a story.

11 November 2012

Transcending National Boundaries

Featuring: Boey Kim Cheng, Koh Buck Song, Meira Chand

Moderator: Huzir Sulaiman

Programme Synopsis: What is Singaporean literature? Talking to this panel comprising writers with different ties to Singapore, we explore the usefulness or limitations of the term ‘Singaporean literature’ and try to pin down the elusive phrase.

  • By looking local, one is able to relate universally.
  • In a fast changing place like Singapore, some writers such as in this panel are compelled to dwell more about the past because it is very quickly making way for new developments.
  • However, they are the minority. Other writers in Singapore from a different generation will have different perspectives and thoughts about the past.
  • It is important for literature in Singapore to be pitched on a global stage for its own maturity and progress and not only be inward looking.

New Arab Writing

Featuring: Faeza Abdurazak, Hisham Bustani, Khalil

Moderator: Mimi Kirk

Programme Synopsis: In the rapidly evolving Middle East, what kind of new writing is emerging? Join this panel to understand the different facets of Arab literature today, including the role of translation, the impact of religion on literature, and the influence of a global readership.

  • Hisham Bustani:
  • “The Middle East” is a construct that has orientalist leanings, and this undercurrent should be recognised.
  • Readership of Arabic writing is limited. A best seller only prints 5000 copies.
  • Translation does open up to a much wider market. However, negotiating western structures of the publishing industries comes with its own drawbacks because the structures are euro-centric and orientalist in outlook.
  • When Hisham Bustani’s works are censored in Jordan, they become more sought after. He publishes in Lebanon where it is more liberal. The sectarianism in Lebanon opens up a space for freedom to publish.
  • Hisham Bustani’s works are more well received outside of Jordan than in his own country.
  • The Ministry of Publishing is the censorship board.
  • Khalil:
  • Writing in Arabic is not an option in Algeria because the French language is so much more prevalent and more ingrained in Algerian society.
  • Although there has been a rejection of French cultural imperialism, such efforts have failed to revive the popularity of Arabic or other indigenous languages.
  • For this reason, Khalil comments that he is flabbergasted when he notices that Singaporean Chinese seem to be so receptive to using the language of their colonial masters and wonders if this is at the expanse of local culture and language.
  • His book, Zahra’s Paradise is banned in Iran. However, it has found its way by illegal photocopying and underground dissemination which he is glad to have happened as he is not interested in gaining royalties from this politically charged book.
  • Zahra’s Paradise has been translated into many languages. However, in parts of the Middle East for example where this book can be found, the translation has muted its political edge because it has to be sensitive to the cultural and political sensibilities in context.
  • Arabic writing does not need to be in an Arabic language or in location in the Arab world. As long as the writer writes from the perspective of someone belonging to the Arab narrative, the text is Arab in nature. Common themes tend to be about struggle and struggle with colonial powers and occupiers.
  • Even so, there are 22 countries in the Arab world and opinions about the Arab narrative are very diverse.

My Book is Studied in Schools!

Featuring: Boey Kim Cheng, Gwee Li Sui, Haresh Sharma

Moderator: Jennifer Crawford

Programme Synopsis: Singapore writers talk about their works studied as texts ― is this the ultimate canonical nod? Who are the canon’s gatekeepers anyway? This panel discusses how students have responded to their works, and whether literature homework and exams snuff out – or stimulate – interest in reading and creative writing.

  • When books are listed as options for school to use as texts, its value do not depreciate because the books were written not for a school audience in mind but for the wider public.
  • Tell Tales edited by Gwee Li Sui started as a personal endeavour with the publisher to update an anthology of Singaporean writing and not as a text book. It was only later when MOE got interested in offering this book as a school text that negotiations between the editor and MOE began about which short stories are suitable or not. However, the stories themselves are not edited to anyone’s preference.
  • Gwee Li Sui made the choices based on the quality of writing and not just the themes. Any meta framing political or ideological is done by the readers and not by him. Anything can be read into or politicised.
  • Haresh Sharma and Boey Kim Cheng were surprised that their works were chosen by MOE. Haresh Sharma especially since Off-Centre was once disagreeable with MOH to be staged as a commissioned work by them because of the layers of complexity of mental illness presented.
  • In visiting schools and discussing Off-Centre, Haresh Sharma does not want to provide a “correct answer” to prescribed questions but rather engage in conversation about the book and perhaps provide some context or background.
  • Paul Tan mentioned that there is a local book listed as an option not taken up by any school. One  reason for shunning local texts he surmises is the lack of teaching aids and guide books as compared to canonical texts like To Kill a Mocking Bird. There are still some prejudice that local writing does not match up to canonical writing. And educators need to make a conscious effort in steering away from such sentiments.

The weekend in which the Singapore Writers Festival began, I attended a Cultural Medallion series that is not held in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival but does make some relevant points.
Thirunalan Sasitharan

Thirunalan Sasitharan

  • The canon is political because inclusion is a political act and exclusion is a political act.
  • Art is not apolitical.
  • Any art worth its name defies boundaries.
  • The canon must be what the world can offer us, what people are willing to pay for, not something to be valourised by the state or defined by scholars.
  • The canon needs to be constantly reviewed and critiqued, and not regarded as fossilised lists.
  • Theatre is art written in the wind.
  • Plays that resonate help us define ourselves.
  • Playwrights should have the vision, courage and audacity to put up on stage what does not seem to be deserving of being staged.
  • Singapore theatre must defy strictures. The elements of theatre and art must come from all around us.
  • In conclusion, Thirunalan Sasitharan read a poem from the an anthology of poems – Rag and Bone Shop from the Heart to illustrate this point further.

{November 7, 2011}   Marginalised by the Marginalised

Home is tracing the familiar lines

Of the silhouetted horizon against the setting sun,

Like the assuring wrinkles of kind smiles.


Home is greeting the coffee shop Uncle in my Mother’s tongue

Jiat pa buay? Chek puay. Ta bao, Kam siah!

As he, in a sleight of hand, concocts my teh as only he knows how.


Home is using my native language that I have been proudly schooled in

Vehemently wrangled in, dreamt in, romanced and fell irrevocably in love in,

And understood by, without being patronised Oh! You speak such good English!


Home is sharing my commute with those who are making

their way home in a place they call Home.


But now I have to be constantly reacquainted with the morphing skyline

And question myself in shameful forgetfulness, What used to be here?

And hang up my ancestral dialect in an act of betrayal for the Stepmother’s Mandarin tongue,

While reeling from the slap by my own Country Of Origin

When being told that I am not acknowledged as a native English speaker,

But merely an illegitimate child born out of the wedlock of Commercialism and Materialism.


Therefore, I am not Home.


Therefore, I envy you for

You can go back to where you came from

But tell me,

Where am I to go?

Councils in the UK has planned to shut down more than 450 libraries due to budget cuts. This horrendous news has sent shock waves among the educators, writers and the general public throughout the UK.

Julia Donaldson on the importance of libraries. “If you close all these branches, get rid of these expert librarians, we’re going to end up with a population of more illiterate people.”

Helena Pielichaty on the budget cuts. “They seem to be going for libraries, and all the arts, as a soft target. Life isn’t worth living without those things, and those are the things I pay my taxes for.”

Kate Le Vann on the valuable role of librarians. “…A lot of my readers get recommended my books by librarians…Librarians are really interested in books and have an incredible knowledge of books.”

Lesley Garrett on vital role of literature. “The idea that everyone in this country can’t have ready access to free literature is completely abhorrent. Libraries are the cornerstone of our society.”

Philip Pullman on the impact of library closures. “It’s a kind of inward loss, a darkening of things, a narrowing of horizons that will gradually make us a less informed, less intelligent, less aware, less useful, less imaginative, less kindly people than we might have been.”

In response to the planned closures, 5 February in the UK has been set apart for Save Our Libraries Day in which planned protests are taking place across the UK. These protests take the form of petitions, read-ins, author appearances, story-telling events and the sheer congregation of visitors to show how valuable these libraries are to the communities that will be adversely affected.

It has been noted that social media such as Twitter and Facebook lends a big hand in the quick spreading of publicity and support for the co-ordinated protests. The twitter hashtag #savelibraries has been used by twitter uses worldwide and gained even faster momentum by the retweets of authors like Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. The hashtag has also been picked by other countries such as US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands and climbed to the top few world treading hashtags within days.

In Singapore where we are are fortunate to have a well funded and well stocked National Library Board, consider the important role that you can play in the continual utilisation of the resources and services at your finger tips.

NLB Search Plus and the easy book reservation service are my most used features. I’ve also recently bookmarked Library In Your Pocket ( in my smart phone’s internet browser for quick access to library services on the go.

Consider the quote by Henry David Thoreau; “books are the carriers of civilization.”

If our library is ever threatened with closure, what would be your rally cry?

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

This book is dystopian literature that depicts what becomes of a society that prizes progress and efficiency above all else. Nothing has sentimental value, private aspirations are not permitted and people are harvested and genetically modified at the Social Predestination Room to fulfill their cog-in-the-wheel destiny.

Why bother to hope if you can control the outcome by means of passing everything and everyone through an assembly line production and more essentially, when you can determine the maximum potential for each individual and make that known from the beginning?

I’ve read three dystopian literature this year: The Giver, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World.

One common thread between all the depicted societies in that literature and history are banned or not made available. The novels then show how people are conditioned to be ignorantly happy and contented with life as it is now as the be all and end all.

More tellingly, the people depicted are all drugged to varying extents. In The Giver, people take “the pill” everyday to suppress urges of any kind. In Brave New World, people take “Soma” to feel high all the time. In Fahrenheit 451, the drugged induced are further made drowsy with mind-numbing white noise of media. In all cases, the awareness of sadness and dissatisfaction are banished.

You are living a lie, but if you don’t know that its a fraud, what wrong with being blissfully happy albeit very shallow.

Interestingly, The Giver and Brave New World deal with sexual desires in diametrically opposite ways. While the people in The Giver have sexual urges suppressed, people in Brave New World learn to have sex from the time they are toddlers having “erotic play.” In both scenarios, sex or the lack of has no sentimental value and do not result in procreation.

The idea is that without emotional attachment, there is also no maudlinness or tearful departures upon death which also comes at an appointed time according to schedule.

Books like Brave New World discuss the values of organised society. What do we prize more? Individual ambition, romance, art and compassion, at the risk of failure, dissatisfaction, uncertainty, and possibly (oh-god-forbid) inefficiency?


The Chrysalids – John Wyndham

Written in the first person, The Chrysalids accounts for David Strorm’s realisation and implications of his telepathic abilities in a tightly knit agrarian society where the slightest differences are punished and banished in the quest to distill Purity. The overarching theme for me is the definition of Man. Man as defined by David’s puritanical and fundamentalist society begins with outlining outward appearances and continues to imply anything “deviant”. This definition is contested as the reader is made to be sympathetic to the “deviants” themselves.

The text warns against extremism and blind bigotry that in this case renders the staunch religious-right inhuman in their treatment of people who are different and therefore inferior or contaminated. Although the text is a response to post WW2 traumas (Holocaust, Third Reich, Nuclear explosion and its aftermath), parallels can also be drawn to the harrowing realities of the decimation of Aboriginal people in Australia and coercive sterilisation practices such as Mississippi Appendectomy in the United States.

The text ends on an optimistic note when David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by a highly developed civilisation with telepathic abilities. However the happy ending is balanced by Michael’s earth-grounding decision to remain behind with Rachel. This underscores that the solution is not always to stay separate from those who are different or even cruel to you but to find a way to co-exist and embrace change, evolutionary or personal.

et cetera