Stand Up for Something

We asked if any Singaporean writers would be willing to raise questions at the Singapore Writers Festival about Tan Tarn How's list of 15 academics, artists, and writers who suspect they have been denied jobs in academia or asked to leave their full-time or part-time jobs in Singapore's higher institutes of learning because of their activism or criticism of the government. We are pleased to discover that playwright, fictionist, poet, and translator Alfian Sa'at spoke movingly about the need for solidarity among writers at a special festival tribute to pioneering poet Lee Tzu Pheng yesterday.

"The year was 1998. I was 21 years old. I had just completed my first manuscript, which included the poem 'Singapore You Are Not My Country'. Excited with what I had in my hands, I showed it to a senior poet and academic. I still remember that moment in his office, the both of us looking at his computer screen, his finger on his mouse. And then I was told, "Don't publish this."

The reason given was that I was still young, that it was better to wait for others to test the waters first. The implication was that I would get into trouble. I tell this story not to accuse this poet of being an active agent of censorship. 44 years separated us. I cannot speak of the experiences that might have shaped his instinct for caution. And it is very difficult sometimes to discern whether someone is trying to protect the figures you are criticising or trying to protect you from their wrath.

I was alarmed, of course, but not completely deterred. And so I sought out a second opinion. This time, I consulted Dr Lee Tzu Pheng. I told her of the warning I had received. She turned over a few pages of my manuscript, which she had already read. And then, in that soft, thoughtful lilt of a voice, she said, "I don't think there's a problem." I was immensely relieved. This was another poet I respected, also from the academic establishment, and surely her assessment was a considered one.

A few months later, my debut poetry collection, One Fierce Hour was published. Dr Lee reviewed it for the Straits Times. The review helped to situate my book in a way that could shield me from accusations of using poetry as a vehicle for dissent or who knows, even sedition. She quoted Yeats who said, "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry." She identified how criticism was often an act born out of love. I am truly indebted to her for extending a wing over who I was then--a vulnerable nestling.

If the other poet's way of protecting me was by telling me not to publish, Dr Lee's way of protecting me was by defending the work. Maybe this is the difference between father figures and mother figures. And today, in the same spirit of speaking up for fellow writers, I'd like to address an issue that has been troubling me, because it involves the tragic diminishment of our literary, academic and intellectual scene.

Over the past four or five years, I have seen some of my friends denied positions in academia despite their undeniable qualifications. There are other friends, non-Singapore citizens, who could not get their visas renewed, despite having taught in Singapore for years. Often an educational institution would want to hire them or approve them for tenure, only to hit a roadblock, often at ministry level. This will be either the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Home Affairs, in the case of visa approvals. Requests for explanations would be unanswered.

The one thing that seems to connect all of them is a history in some form of activism--in areas such as human rights, migrant worker rights, animal rights-- and writing and research sometimes critical of state policies and ideologies. And for this, some were forcibly uprooted, some barred from entering the country while others denied employment opportunities.

Even as we are celebrating, at the Singapore Writers Festival, our freedom to write and express ourselves, there are others who are penalised for exercising those same freedoms. And I ask that we all stand in solidarity with them.

Some of you might ask--is it wise to speak up against something which is shrouded in bureaucratic secrecy? Without the facts at our disposal, how do we mount a complaint and demand redress? But it is precisely this wary silence that enables the authorities to act with impunity. And we have seen very recently what happens when the empirical was obsessively privileged over the anecdotal--countless women disbelieved when they related their encounters with sexual violence.

We are often told that Singapore is a small country, and that its most valuable resource are its people. What this means is that it is against our national interest for us to persecute some of our brightest talents simply for their politics. And conversely, for us to reward mediocrity as long as it demonstrates political loyalty. Even as we try to dismantle discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, age, class and disability, we have to ask why it is that discrimination based on political beliefs is still being tolerated in our society.

And considering how so many of these people are practically storehouses of knowledge with irreplaceable expertise, this kind of crackdown is not state repression as usual. It is worse than that--a form of national suicide.

Tonight we celebrate the life and work of Dr Lee Tzu Pheng. This year's theme for the Singapore Writers' Festival is 'Aram', a Tamil word meaning 'goodness or virtue'. I believe that for Dr Lee, the exercise of whatever power and influence she possessed could never be detached from the exercise of virtue. There are others like her, including the former Chairman of the NAC, Professor Tommy Koh, who once defended a theatre company when it was accused of using art as cover for politics.

But we need more. Especially up there, at the level of the ministries. And when that day arrives, who knows, I might be moved to pen a poem called 'Singapore You Are My Country. And My People.'

Thank you."

Note: One of Dr Lee Tzu Pheng's most famous poems is 'My Country and My People'.

Alfian ended his Facebook note by describing Dr Lee's response to his tribute. After the event, Dr Lee said to him, "Thank you for standing up. If writers are to survive we must stand up for something." Our new press Gaudy Boy is publishing Alfian Sa'at's short-story collection Malay Sketches in March 2018.