Betsy Tan

Twenty-eight-year-old Ng Yi-Sheng made history when he became the youngest writer to win the Singapore Literature Prize. His first (yes, only his first) book of poetry, Last Boy, won the local equivalent of the Pulitzer this year (see here). He also recently made waves for lobbying against DBS Bank’s charity tie-up with Focus On The Family, a Christian organisation said to be anti-gay.

He takes time off his trailblazing lifestyle to answer a few questions from Betsy Tan .

Your first book of poetry won the Singapore Literature Prize. What does winning the award mean to you?

It means I have $10,000 more in the bank, so I’ve finally been able to get a checking account! But seriously, I’m extremely flattered and more than a little scared. I’m used to thinking of myself as a young, promising writer who’s slightly on the margins because of my sexual orientation and my general delight in weirdness. Now I’ve won this prize, which suggests that I’m:

1) mainstream

2) at the peak of my career already.

Neither of which is very sexy.

I’m also conscious of how a lot of really cool and important writers like Boey Kim Cheng, Haresh Sharma and Alfian Sa’at, didn’t win the top prize, whereas many of the top winners of the prize, like Rosemary Lim, Roger Jenkins and Tan Hwee Hwee, produced no important books after winning. Perhaps I’m being superstitious, but it seems to me that the prize might carry a curse, like the treasure of King Tut. (Beware!)

When did you realise you were a poet and who were your literary influences?

I think it was probably back in Primary 6 when we were putting together a class magazine. During a certain week, I was sending the editor a new poem every day. I think I realised at that point that I was a little obsessed with writing poems.

My literary influences? The Polish Nobel Prizewinner Wislawa Szymborska is a major one, and there’s also some Anne Sexton and Pablo Neruda in there. But it’s hard to be sure of the rest. I think I owe a lot to the fact that I went through the SPH-sponsored Creative Arts Programme when I was a kid, so I got to meet a lot of other young writers in Singapore, people like Alfian, Aaron Maniam, Toh Hsien Min, Teng Qian Xi, Grace Chua, Koh Tsin Yen. That’s a case of influence too: being part of a literary community and picking up part of their voice.

Poetry as a literary art form has a small audience. In Singapore, the audience is even smaller. How do you feel about the fact that 90 per cent of Singaporeans don’t care about what you have written?

I’m astonished that 10% of Singaporeans actually do care! Really, most of us artists are making stuff to satisfy a hunger in ourselves. If anyone else appreciates it, then that’s an added bonus.

Really, I can’t complain. I’ve been helped so much by the fact that I’m writing in the 2000s, when the Singapore government’s been giving the arts a lot of financial support (imperfect, but still way better than many other countries), and gay culture is embattled but tolerated and proud. The fact that I’m gay really has been to my advantage, in terms of writing material. And of course, there are many gay readers who got interested in my work because I’m gay. I do have a certain audience, and I’m grateful for that.

What do you think can be done to improve the literary arts scene here?

Man, I hate this question. But here goes:

a) Make the Writers’ Festival happen every year, not once every two years.

b) Incorporate more Singapore literature (in all four languages) in the school syllabus.

c) Embark on a Reading Campaign

Oh I know, it makes me sick to even suggest it, but it’s sad that so few people read on the MRT. Is staring off into the distance really that entertaining? And yes, I know there’ve been some small attempts made in this arena.

d) Convince our best writers to stop writing poems, because too few people read them, and get them to start writing self-help/ cookbooks /sci-fi about wizard teenagers having sex. Or whatever makes a bestseller these days.

Honestly, commissioning stuff works quite well. The Library commissioned me to do a novelisation of the movie “Eating Air”. That was great fun for me and I think it’s selling okay.

Singaporeans are generally caught up with making a living and now with the recession, keeping our jobs. Do you think the arts is only for a select few with the financial resources and time for it?

Of course not! Besides the fact that a lot of art is free (e.g. free art galleries) or cheap (e.g. watching an arty movie), I do think it makes us smarter – makes us more sensitive – makes us feel more human. But as an artist, I’ve got a biased opinion, don’t I?

You know, it’s fascinating to look at what happened to the arts over Singapore‘s history. In the 1950s, there was quite a flowering of the arts, in painting, drama, film, poetry, music. And a lot of these art activities had political undertones too, connected with the Communist Emergency and the battle against colonialism.

But when the PAP took over in 1959, its agenda was all about hard work, efficiency and productivity, the same things we value now. The arts weren’t seen as important, except for National Day-style propaganda festivals of multi-cultural traditional performances. We’re told that the arts were neglected, but it’s also arguable that the arts were suppressed, because the independent thinking that they encouraged was dangerous.

Then in 1990, the government set up the National Arts Council to promote the arts, specifically because Singapore was developing towards sophistication, and it needed a full calendar of arts activities to become (or at least resemble) a culturally vibrant city-state. Since then, the arts have flourished.

So now, when you go out to attend some angry, anti-government arts event, you might feel you’re rebelling against the PAP. But sadly, you’re still part of the machine – you’re just following the government’s new orders to go out and do something creative.

Do you think literature has any “teeth” i.e. can it effect social change and change mindsets? And do you see that happening with the work that local writers have generated?

I really don’t know. I know that writers overseas have become iconic as freedom fighters. Remember how the poems of Bei Dao became anthems at the Tiananmen Square rallies? But it’s hard to say how influential those writers actually were on the movements that canonised them.

To tell the truth, I have a suspicion that non-fiction is more powerful for political purposes than poetry, fiction or drama. My book “SQ21”, for example, was able to humanise gay people in Singapore more genuinely than a work of fiction could. That’s why I think it’s so important that a site like The Online Citizen exist.

Recently, you lobbied to boycott DBS for its support of Focus on The Family, an anti-gay Christian fundamentalist outfit. Do you see yourself as a gay activist?

Yeah, but I don’t think I’m a very good one, because I’m so lazy and badly organised. I’m not even a member of the main gay e-mail group, Signel, because I don’t want too much junk mail. Instead, I’m a member of an online lesbian forum. Much less stressful.

In the case of the DBS protest, all I did was start a Facebook group and send out the news to several of my friends who’re more dedicated than I am. My friends like Alex Au and Sylvia Tan wrote the articles that went up in various news media. I just went on with my own life, mostly, and then checked back and discovered that the Facebook group had 1,000 members.

What I really wanted to accomplish was to have gay people in Singapore recognised as a consumer group. DBS was acting as if it wouldn’t matter to anybody that their selected charity was linked with an anti-gay agenda. Well, for some of us, it did matter, and we told them so. I’m sure if they’d been donating to a group with an anti-Christian agenda, a Christian group would’ve protested similarly.

I haven’t really done very much activism in total. I document censorship, I organise queer literary readings, I write books, I go to support my friends like Seelan Palay and Isrizal when they’re on trial for being far braver than me. I really should do more activism, and I’m not talking about gay rights, I’m talking about human rights in general.

Obviously, gay rights is something close to your heart. Are there any other political issues that you as an artist would like to explore?

Oh man – where to begin? Freedom of speech, race, religion, neocolonialism, pragmatism vs. idealism, third world vs. first world, capitalism vs. socialism, language, ageing, the class divide… and of course sexual rights beyond “gay”.

The truth is, everything is political. And everything, if written about properly, is fascinating.


A poem by Yi-Sheng:

*Akan Datang*

Last night the mane-headed monster destroyed the city

rose from the pirate bay then drowned in salty vomit

cathedrals of mirror on candy-stone temples

durian brassiere old man rode in on an origami tiger

rose-milk elephants in his wake radioed his queen

in a band-major outfit firework cannons at pentatonic scales

waxwork children running behind in green sarcomas

indigo batik molotov bottles of distilled pee in hand then

suddenly came the plaster dragon the stadium rose from its

crumbling earth we screamed we sang the columbaria

opened lips a field of orchids my grandfather’s ashes

became one with the wind and golden moon the starry feet

sprang into a leak so fleet commuters flooded a

power-suit ballet and island bumbled deep-down

dinghy fishtail sons and scuba daughters flag floats

up above and I lay trembling on the coral basement,

snot-nosed crying I am in love, I am in love


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