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Contemporary Literature from Singapore

Abstract

Literature in Singapore is written in the country’s four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. The various literatures flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of print culture in the British colony, but after independence in 1965, English became emphasized in both the education system and society at large as part of the new government’s attempts to modernize the country. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil were seen as mother tongue languages to provide Singaporeans with cultural ballast while English was regarded as a language for administration, business, and scientific and technological development. Correspondingly, literatures in other languages than English reached a plateau in terms of writerly output and readership during the 1970s and 1980s. However, since 1999, with the state’s implementation of the Renaissance City Plan to revitalize arts and culture in Singapore, there have been various initiatives to increase the visibility of contemporary Singaporean writing both within the country itself and on an international scale. Translation plays a key role in bridging the linguistic and literary divides wrought by the state’s mother tongue policies, with several works by Cultural Medallion winners in different languages translated into English, which remains at present the shared language in Singapore. Literary anthologies are also invaluable forms through which the concepts of a national literature and national identity are expressed and negotiated. A number of anthologies involving Singaporean authors and those from other countries also highlight the growing international presence of and interest in Singaporean literature. Several anthologies also focus on the topic of urban space, city life, and the rapid transformation of Singapore’s physical environment. Writings about gender and sexuality have also become more prominent in single-author collections or edited anthologies, with writers exploring various inventive and experimental narrative forms. A number of poets and writers are also established playwrights, and theater has historically been and continues to be an extremely vital form of creative expression and cultural production. Graphic novels, crime and noir fiction, and speculative and science fiction publications are also on the rise, with the awarding of the Singapore Literature Prize to Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye signaling that these genres merit serious literary consideration. A number of literary publications and materials related to Singaporean literature can be found on the Internet, such as the journal Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the website Singapore Poetry, and the database Poetry.sg. Various nonprofit organizations are also working toward increasing public awareness about literature through events such as Singapore Poetry Writing Month, the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the Singapore Writers Festival and National Poetry Festival, and also through projects that exhibit poetry in train stations and on public thoroughfares.

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