Telling The Singapore Story

Local writers are not only putting Singapore on the world literary scene, they are telling these stories in their own unique ways. By Stella Danker


Younger writers such as Amanda Lee Koe (right) and Cyril Wong (bottom) are carrying the next wave of Singapore literature featuring the voices and stories of their generation, says Epigram Books’ publisher and chief executive Edmund Wee (top).



ohamed Latiff Mohamed tells stories of the Malay community that sometimes even Malays themselves find uncomfortable to read and hear. They are often about the disenfranchised, the poor slum dweller, the prostitute and of how the Malays lost political power.


Author Latiff, 64, who was born in Singapore to an Indian father and Malay mother, says his stories “concentrate on the Malay soul and their politics”.

He writes of the struggles faced by the Malay community in the years before and after 1965 when Singapore was separated from Malaysia. Some of his essays have been selected as O- and A-level literature texts for schools in Singapore and Malaysia.

Mohd Latiff Mohd writes about the struggles faced by the Malays in the 1960s.

Latiff, who pens his works in Malay, is a veteran of the literary scene with five published volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories, and five novels. Among a string of accolades, he is a three-time winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and was awarded the Cultural Medallion last year for artistic excellence.


Latiff grew up poor in the slums of Geylang, during turbulent times made infamous by student demonstrations, strikes and racial tensions. This greatly influenced his works. He tells the story of what it was like to grow up poor, of the desperate lives and deaths that seemed not to matter in a city in pursuit of wealth.

He published his first novel, Kota Air Mata, in 1977 when he was 27. It tells the story of a young teenager named Ani, who is desperately poor, has a drunk for a father and does not have enough money for his school fees.

His 1996 book Batas Langit (Limit of the Sky) looks at the Malay community in pre- and post-independent Singapore which made up the bulk of Singapore’s urban poor. Its main character is a teenage boy Adi, who lives in a village with a bomoh (witch doctor), and tells of how the Malay community lost political power when Singapore was separated from Malaysia.

It was translated by Epigram Books into English last year and retitled Confrontation. Another of his novels, 2002’s Love’s Pilgrim, will be translated into English and released later this year. Latiff’s works have also been previously translated into Chinese, German and Korean.

Latiff, says of Confrontation: “I am really happy that non-Malay readers can learn about the political history of the Malays and how they lost everything in Singapore.

“I want to record history so that the next generation will know the story of what happened to Singapore’s Malays. I want to tell the truth to the world. The younger generation of Malays don’t know their past, their history and heritage. That is sad.”

He hopes Confrontation will become a textbook for A-level students.


A new breed of writers emerged during independence, which led to today’s local literature classics by the likes of Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng and Catherine Lim.

Edwin Thumboo’s poems were part of the cultural expression of post-independence Singapore.

Lim in particular, has produced works which addresses the role of women in typical Chinese society and culture. Once a literature teacher, Lim has published two books of short stories — 1978’s Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore and 1980’s Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories — which have been used as O-Level textbooks. Lim, who was born in Penang, is one of Singapore’s most prolific writers, with nine collections of short stories, five novels, and two poetry collections. Her best-selling The Bondmaid, published in 1995, sold 75,000 copies, was made into a film and cast her on the international stage. She has been awarded the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letter (France) in 2003 and an ambassador of the Hans Christian Andersen Foundation (Copenhagen) in 2005.

Catherine Lim’s works addresses the role of women in typical Chinese society and culture

Lim’s works are studied in local and foreign schools and universities and several have been translated into other languages.

Indeed, Singapore classics are enjoying a renaissance. They tell stories of an earlier time that are becoming relevant to the younger generation, who want to know what life used to be like.

To that end, Epigram Books republished Tan Kok Seng’s Three Sisters of Sze in 2012 and Son of Singapore and Man of Malaysia earlier this year as part of its Singapore Classics collection.

The late Lloyd Fernando wrote about issues like racial conflicts in his books, while Tan Kok Seng’s books give a glimpse into Singapore’s formative years.

Other books in the collection include Lloyd Fernando’s Green is the Colour and Scorpion Orchid; Goh Poh Seng’s The Immolation and Stella Kon’s The Scholar and the Dragon.


Singapore classics have also been making their mark overseas. Tan Kok Seng’s books, written in Chinese, have been reprinted numerous times and translated into English, Japanese and Sinhalese.

His works are supplementary readings in local schools schools, where he sometimes gives talks. He says he has received letters from readers in Europe and the United States telling him how much they enjoyed his stories.

Tan says: “I’m surprised. My life is so simple. I needed to work at a very young age. I think the students today are interested in how different my life was.”

Tan grew up poor with six brothers and five sisters on a farm in Upper Serangoon Road rearing ducks, chickens and pigs. He only completed a primary school education at the Holy Innocents’ High School in Upper Serangoon. He left school to work full-time on the family farm. When this was not bringing in enough money, the teenage Tan worked along Orchard Road as a coolie. This is what he writes about in his first book Son of Singapore (1972).


Tan’s literary career started quite by accident. He was a driver in Hong Kong for British civil servant and writer Austin Coates who authored City of Broken Promises, among other publications. When Tan’s family decided to return to Singapore, he was bored and started to write about his early life growing up in Singapore.

Coates stumbled upon the stories which were written in Chinese and asked about them. Coates told Tan that his stories were too important not to be shared and helped to re-tell them in English. They were later published.

At one point, the Hong Kong film company Shaw Brothers toyed with the idea of adapting his books into a movie. Tan has taught himself enough basic English to deliver his talks to secondary school and pre-university students and to read English books.

Tan Kok Seng’s books are supplementary readings in local schools.


“I’m surprised. My life is so simple. I needed to work at a very young age. I think the students today are interested in how different my life was.”

— Author Tan Kok Seng


J.M. Sali, left his home country of India for Singapore, when he was 25 and is now hailed as one of our literary treasures.

Sali, now 75, was born in Madras and has more than 55 books and about 80 plays to his name. He has also had many of his 400 fictional short stories translated into English, Hindi, Urdu and Sinhalese. His first book was a children’snovel called Iru Kankal (Two Eyes) published in 1961 — about three friends a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian.

Sali has also written five books on the late martial arts expert and actor Bruce Lee and three books on the former champion boxer Muhammad Ali. Three of his books will be translated into English and reprinted next year, including Antha Naal, (That Day), which is a collection of Singapore short stories.

Alaikal Pesukinrana (The Sound Of The Waves) is used as a textbook at the Singapore Institute of Management. The 80-page novel published in 1975 tells a tale of love and sacrifice centred around a man who marries in India but leaves for Singapore to find a new life.

Sali, whose books are also used as text books at universities in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, says: “I have been writing since 1955 and I am still writing and publishing books in spite of my age. But I am not looking for fame or fortune.”

Sali is a 2012 Cultural Medallion winner and his collection of 22 short stories entitled Nonbu (Fasting), received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award for Tamil Fiction in 1996, two years after it was published.

Other awards Sali has received include the Thamizhavel Award in 2001 from the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers, and the Kavimalai Award in 2005 from the Kavimalai Poets Association (Singapore).


“I have been writing since 1955 and I am still writing and publishing books in spite of my age. But I am not looking for fame or fortune.”

— Author J.M. Sali (below)

J.M. Sali has written 400 fictional short stories, translated into various languages.


Epigram Books’ publisher and Chief Executive, Edmund Wee, 62, wants to create a new chapter in Singapore literature. Since he got on the local publishing scene in 2011, Epigram has published 120 English titles, written by Singaporeans.

He is also publishing out-of-print novels, translations of Chinese, Malay and Tamil novels by Cultural Medallion winners and plays that have already been performed. This year, he has set his sights on publishing 60 titles and and he dreams of opening a bookshop selling only local titles.

Wee adds: “In the flush of independence, we had a body of writers who were keen to write about the new Singapore but soon we were caught up in nation building and the emphasis was on science, maths and engineering. So, for about 20 years, after the likes of Catherine Lim, Goh Poh Seng, Tan Kok Seng, etc, we stopped writing.”

“I was quite disheartened with the state of trade publishing in Singapore. So far in Singapore, there is basically only one narrative — Singapore is small, has limited resources, and its people must work hard so we can have economic growth.”


“There is basically only one narrative — Singapore is small, has limited resources, and its people must work hard so we can have economic growth.”

— Edmund Wee, Epigram Books’ publisher and Chief Executive

But there are other tales that Wee hopes will be told by younger writers of today such as Cyril Wong, Amanda Lee Koe and Alfian Sa’at.

“We need more stories — about corrupt civil servants, the spies among us, the immigrant’s tale, tales from a neighbourhood or block of flats, the grassroots, a cynical detective, modern families — like you find in all countries.”





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