Diversity’s the Word

by Megan Tan Yunxuan, Republic Polytechnic

ONE IDENTITY, MANY VOICES: Writers Balli Kaur Jaswal (left) and JY Yang discussed how the Singaporean identity is often more than what the public is presented. (PHOTO BY MEGAN TAN YUNXUAN)


What defines the Singaporean identity in our literature? How does one present Singaporean identity in fiction? What do we consider the Singaporean identity to be?

These were the questions raised at the Singaporean Identity in Contemporary Fiction panel during the 2018 All In! Young Writers Festival.

Held at *Scape between March 16 and 18, this year’s edition marked the Festival’s tenth anniversary. On March 17, the second day of the Festival, writers Ms Bali Kaur Jaswal and Mx JY Yang participated in a panel session examining the Singaporean identity in Singapore literature.

“The prevailing idea is that ‘Singaporean’ and ‘Chinese’ are synonymous,” said Ms Jaswal, a former high school teacher and is now the author of three novels, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Sugarbread and Inheritance. She felt the Singaporean identity should also incorporate minorities, and cited her own example where she sees herself as part of a “minority group within a minority group”. Ms Jaswal is North Indian but does not speak Tamil nor celebrate festivals such as Deepavali.

The panellists also discussed how Singaporean literature, known commonly as SingLit, should be defined. Both agreed that SingLit is hard to define and they would like to hear more from different communities in Singapore, such as those who have a disability or belong to different socio-economic brackets, and groups that may have been marginalised by the narrative that the government presents of Singaporean identity.

Ms Jaswal said: “I think we also need to question the narratives that are being put out there. When something is put out there that is from a very singular narrative of Singapore, there are lots of things that have been published that are still, unfortunately, from a very sort of narrow perspective of Singapore.”

She added: “We should question those things or at least remind ourselves that it’s only one idea of Singapore and that there are other voices that exist and we need to seek those stories out.”

Mx Yang, the author of the Tensorate novellas, felt that giving access to aspiring writers to publish their work would be key. “I really appreciate that there are a lot more publishers in Singapore who will take chances on people in marginalised groups, who are open to submissions from people no matter what your background,” MX Yang said. “As long as you want to write, as long as you have something, they’re willing to look.”

Ms Sarah Lim agreed with Mx Yang’s assessment of SingLit now. “It’s very comforting to know that we have more options now,” Ms Lim said. “I grew up with Edwin Thumboo, Alvin Pang, and then as I grew older, Cyril Wong, Alfian Sa’at, so it’s nice to know that we have more options now even though there’s still a lot of barriers we need to overcome.”

This news story is written by Megan Tan Yunxuan, a Republic Polytechnic Diploma in Mass Communication student.