I had a pleasant and surreal experience last week as I sat at a table surrounded by fellow Singaporeans discussing some of the recently published books in Singapore.
It was almost like ‘coming home’, remarked one of my Singaporean friends. Yes, but not quite, even though the experience I have had the pleasure to enjoy, was made possible by the largess of the National Arts Council of Singapore (NAC).
I visited the Singapore stand at the London Book Fair as a representative of the Monsoons Book Club. The eight publishers present were, I understand, some of the most active in the business, chosen by the NAC to showcase Singapore publishing.
I was impressed. Instead of looking at it as a half empty bottle and whinging about the absence of books from the stand such as the recently published Priest In Geylang, I was delighted that the designer of the Singapore exhibition pavilion had chosen the cover of a controversial Chinese book as one of the motifs for the stand’s backdrop.
The book Growing up in Lee Kuan Yew’s Era, Witten by a popular blogger Miss Lee Min Hui, is a critical account by a 30-something on some of Lee Kuan Yew’s policies such as the high pay for politicians. Before the publication of her book, it was reported that some even doubted if it could be published in Singapore at all. Credit in this case ought to be given to the NAC for taking an inclusive approach to accommodate such a critical work at this international book fair. I only hope the High Commissioner who also visited the exhibition, would choose this book along with other books as appropriate gifts to foreign dignitaries.
A book which caught my attention is the autobiography of Constance Singam – Where I Was – A Memoir from the Margins. The title speaks for itself, and the book will inform the world, from the insight of this veteran campaigner of women’s rights, the rough side of Singapore. One recurring theme is “fear”, and how she navigated around it. The book’s presence at the fair, paid for no doubt by taxpayers, is a promising sign for the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Oh yes, I do know that a fledging swallow does not make a spring.
During my formative years in the 1970s, I was always eagerly awaiting the next issue of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review which carried Morgan Chua’s sharp editorial observations of current affairs. Like many of my generation, I was a fan of Morgan Chua, and his hard hitting cartoon depicting the demise of independent The Herald newspaper after the sledge-hammer attack by Lee Kuan Yew on the independent press. His cartoons are still etched in the forefront of my mind.
For this reason, I was very grateful when publisher Edmund Wee presented me with a copy of LKY: Political Cartoons by Morgan Chua. My recollection of Morgan’s early editorial pieces brought back the nostalgia, but his more recent works telling the Story of LKY fall more within the genre of cartoon illustrations, beautifully and artfully executed no doubt, but lacking the oomph of his earlier works. All the same, the book fair achieved in bringing to the world’s attention, once again, the work of our cartoonist.
Without the largess of the NAC, a book such as Man/Born/Free, an anthology by Singapore authors would not, for example, be republished and made popular in South Africa.
So, cheers to those at the National Arts Council for their good attempt.
Who knows, maybe one day, the NAC will even showcase Monsoons Book Club’s Art of Disobedience. That will make my day.
This article first appeared on Monsoons Book Club.