Why I'm Not Writing a National Day Listicle
Is today the day to celebrate Singlit?
9th August is Singapore’s National Day. In the book world, this meant waking up to posts from businesses and bookstagrammers doing their yearly Singlit round-ups. I get it. National Day is a public holiday and is the perfect peg to make content timely and relatable. There is nothing wrong with this either. I think Singaporean writers, as a whole, deserve more attention and I’d be thrilled if local readers decided that today was a good day to learn more about them.
I saw this and was struck by a pang of anxiety. Was I, now a content creator, missing out on a crucial opportunity to promote the newsletter and my brand? I thought it about it for a few minutes and decided against it.
Here’s this newsletter in a nutshell:
First of all, what even is Singlit? As I tweeted, I’m personally still struggling to articulate it. Here’s my stab at a diagram to map popular conversations I’ve heard about Singlit.
My Venn diagram falls apart with a little interrogation. What makes a Singaporean author? Is it their citizenship or is it something more intangible like the amount of time they’ve spent living in Singapore or their commitment to the local literary scene? Could an overseas Singaporean like Kevin Kwan, who has allegedly not been inside Singapore’s borders since the 1990s due to his evasion of mandatory military service, be considered a Singlit writer? He is certainly the Singaporean writer with the highest name recognition on an international stage but, as far as I know, he has minimal contact with other Singaporean writers. How about a writer like Linda Collins? Her two books have been published by local presses and she has lived in Singapore for over 20 years. However, she is neither a citizen or a permanent resident and is ineligible for awards like the Singapore Literature Prize due to her visa status.
The categories “about Singapore” and “Singaporean sensibilities” are even more tenuous. Do the Singlit bona fides get more credible the closer one gets to the centre of the diagram?
I’m not interested in defining Singlit here. I’m still undecided on when to use the term Singlit and what it means to create a label for work that is often tied together by material reality (state funding, awards, publishers, reading venues, inclusion in anthologies) but not always by preoccupation, genre, or style. What’s important for this discussion is that Singlit can still be an umbrella term that is amorphous and expansive. That becomes less possible on National Day.
In my view, National Day is a day for commemorating a specific understanding of Singapore’s history. If you’re not familiar with it, 9th August is the day Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965. The day does not commemorate Singapore’s independence from the British colonial powers, the end of Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, or any other potential milestone that could mark the “birth” of a nation.
This is how one character in the play Merdeka views the choice of date:
Independence Day would be about freedom. But National Day is about vulnerability. It reminds us every year of how we got kicked out, how nobody thought we could survive on our own.
In the state’s language, National Day is when we celebrate “how far we have come” and how “with every generation there's more to be grateful for”. Musicians are enlisted in the institution of penning the National Day song, an annual institution that I find rather boring. There is little nuance possible in a National Day song: the lyrics must be uplifting and unifying. The melodies might be better one year, another year might have more inventive lyricism, but the songs serve a clear purpose: nation-building.
Here’s poet Joshua Ip’s view on the latest track. You can read the rest of his analysis (on previous years’ songs) here.
The music, the yearly parade, the show of military might; they all tread familiar ground. We celebrate a story of overcoming hardship and linear progress. One might argue that that is the state’s job. I’m not here to comment on that. I am here to say that that’s not a writer’s job.
My reluctance towards highlighting Singlit on National Day is because I want to put as much space between literature and the project of national patriotism. Yes, there are some works, writers even, who see no conflict between their writing and the construction of a national (mythological) identity. That is their prerogative. To me, however, good writing looks to complicate well-trodden narratives.
I’m thinking of Jeremy Tiang’s collection It Never Rains On National Day, not just because of its name but because it’s one of my favourite books about Singapore. It’s a collection of short stories that’s a great example of how the complications necessary to make good literature. The characters in it don’t sit at the centre of “Singaporeanness”. They are migrant workers on St John’s Island, transnational couples, bonded government scholars on Norwegian trains to nowhere. I could put the book on a National Day list but that would betray a misunderstanding of the text, in my opinion.
There is plenty of value in Singlit. I think Singaporean books should be taught in schools. I’d love it if more Singaporeans could name, let alone read, Singaporean novels. Every city needs a literature scene. Ours will grow with more monetary and moral support. But the scene doesn’t need to be emblematic of the state. I’m not sure any art should. There are many other days for us to have conversations about Singlit.