Goodness All Round At The Historic 20th Singapore Writers Festival

Sustained interest throughout the 10 days, including weekday events, propels SWF to new heights



SINGAPORE, 4 December 2017 – It was all things good as the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) capped its 20th edition with its perennial favourite, a full-house Closing Debate with speakers sparring over the topic ‘This House Believes That Kiasuism is a Good Singaporean Trait”, bringing the 10-day literary celebration to a close.


2          The Festival was organised by the National Arts Council from 3 to 12 November 2017 across various venues in the Civic District. It featured over 335 authors, speakers and artists from Singapore and around the world across more than 285 events, including a special SWF 20 exhibition featuring a chronology of SWF and various memorabilia from each edition. A commemorative booklet featuring SWF trivia and a special essay by Gwee Li Sui was also put together.


3          This year, the Festival achieved a record number of almost 25,500 festival-goers, a 25 per-cent jump from the 20,350-strong crowd last year (2016). The hotly anticipated closing debate was packed to the rafters at the Victoria Theatre, with over 600 in attendance and tickets fully taken up within one hour. This year, there were 78 Fest Pass and Free Events which saw attendance of more than 80 per cent (as compared to 43 events in 2016), out of which 44 events saw 100 per cent attendance (as compared to 30 events in 2016).


4          The authors and speakers eloquently addressed the Festival Theme of ‘Aram’, a Tamil term mentioned in the ancient Tamil text Thirukkural which refers to the ethical concept of conscience and virtue. The theme was illustrated in the Aram Conference, a series of talks and discussions in the first weekend. The keynote panel was Aram: The Intercultural Dialogue, featuring Singaporean speakers and audience participants speaking passionately in the nation’s four official languages, namely Tamil, Malay, Mandarin and English, accompanied by poetry, music and philosophical expositions.


5          The other ‘Aram-related’ panel discussions on topics such as inter-faith, cross-border conflicts and what youth want were also fully attended. Author Gwee Li Sui observes: “I’m impressed by this year’s ethical focus, with several sessions turned to how writing could improve the world. In this respect, the celebration of our literary pioneer Anne Lee Tzu Pheng was not just valuable but also appropriate. I appreciate the wonderful amount of attention given to speculative fiction too!”


6         Novelist Junot Díaz (Dominican Republic-US) also addressed the theme in his sold-out lecture, Hope and Resistance in the Age of Dystopia; poet Li-Young Lee (US) discussed ‘Aram’ and the virtue of poetry in his various panels, and poet Anne Lee Tzu Pheng (Singapore), this year’s SWF Literary Pioneer, emphasised the importance of spiritual growth in the inaugural Literary Pioneer Lecture. Advocacy comics producer Benjamin Dix (UK) examined issues such as those faced by the intersex community in Uganda; Hector Abad (Colombia) zeroed in on political violence; and writer Helon Habila (Nigeria) highlighted the plight of the Chibok Girls who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram forces in his country. In a tie-up with film distributor Anticipate Pictures, a series of acclaimed and thought-provoking documentaries were also screened: City Of Ghosts, a film about citizen journalists who risked their lives exposing the terror of ISIS forces in the Syrian city of Raqqa; and Safari, an expose on the lucrative business of big-game hunting in Africa.


7         SWF remained an important platform for audiences to have fruitful exchanges of opinions and learning opportunities with the literary stars such as Tony Parsons (UK), Etgar Keret (Israel), Simon Armitage (UK), Rae Armantrout (US), Edouard Louis (France), S Ramakrishnan (India), Lu Min (China), Jay Asher (US), Suki Kim (US), Madeleine Thien (Canada), Tash Aw (Malaysia), as well as some of Singapore’s well-known writers and artists Edwin Thumboo, Yusnor Ef, Sanisah Huri, Catherine Lim, Suratman Markasan, Sa’eda Buang, Suchen Christine Lim, Gwee Li Sui, Cyril Wong, and Youth Poet Ambassador Pooja Nansi.  


Well-attended Weekday Programmes


8          Weekday programmes are also more popular this year with a quarter of those held at The Arts House seeing full-house attendances. These include panels such as SingLit in Schools: What Should Students Read Next?, with young people, parents and educators packing the venue to hear Samuel Lee, Philip Holden and Heng Siok Tian, which is testament to the rising interest in Singapore literature; Travel Writing in the Age of Instagram, with Shivaji Das regaling a packed crowd about the magic of travel-writing; and Pioneers of the Singapore Chinese Book Industry, with many witnessing a rare congregation of the founders of Chinese bookstores in one event.


9          “It was indeed a very pleasant surprise to see how many people from across different backgrounds turning up on a weeknight, and queuing to get into such sessions such as An Evening With Anne, a tribute to our Literary Pioneer, Anne Lee Tzu Pheng. Clearly, Singapore is experiencing a literary renaissance, and I’m glad SWF has created an environment where everyone can enjoy a rich array of articulate discussions involving Pulitzer Prize recipients and Singapore Literature Prize winners, as well as discover emerging talents,” said Festival Director Yeow Kai Chai.


Spike in Attendance Figures


10        The overall spike in attendance figures is seen in more sold-out SWF Class and SWF Beyond events. Eleven out of 12 workshops and masterclasses were sold out, including How Fiction Works by Claire Keegan (Ireland); The Uses and Forms of Critical Writing by Dennis Lim (US); and Writing Funny Stories for Children by Philip Ardagh (UK). Five of the six literary tours were sold out and fully registered, indicative of the appreciation of the written word going beyond conventional books and poetry. These include the two Between Covers tours led by Phan Ming Yen of Global Cultural Alliance, who took participants to designers, publishers, printing presses and bookstores to get a better understanding of the literary ecosystem.


11        SWF3 (children and young adults) events were also a hit, with six out of seven events completely sold out or fully registered. These include The Writer’s Clinic by Deirdre Sullivan (Ireland); Unleash Your Writing Superpowers by A.L. Tait (Australia); and The Draw of Singapore’s Wild by Darel Seow. Three SWF Stage events were also sold out, namely When Fiction Becomes Fact: Sci-Fi and The Fate of Humanity by Ken Liu (US); Hope And Resistance in the Age of Dystopia by Junot Diaz (US); and the Closing Debate featuring Arianna Pozzuoli, Adrian Tan, Risi Budhrani, Petrina Kow, Gwee Li Sui, Shamini Flint, Oniatta Effendi and Ovidia Yu and moderated by Eleanor Wong.


Speculative Fiction Genre Pull Crowds


12        The tilt towards the hugely popular speculative fiction was unmistakable across the Festival, with many people attending the talks, panel discussions and readings. Besides Ken Liu, other crowd-pullers include Marie Lu (US), Marjorie Liu (US), Jay Kristoff (Australia), Lavie Tidhar (Israel), Aliette de Bodard (France), Lydia Kwa (Canada) and Chan Koon Chung (Hong Kong), as well as Singapore-based authors like Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, JY Yang and Krishna Udayasankar.


Warm Reception to Expanded and Inclusive Programming


13          SWF’s efforts to reach newer, younger and wider audiences were met warmly, as it expanded on its programming by reaching out to pre-schoolers and other underserved communities this year. As part of the inaugural SWF Class For Schools track, a new host of workshops were held to spark preschoolers’ early interest in the arts, and older primary and secondary students were treated to a series of interactive talks to fuel their imaginations. SWF brought four international authors Philip Ardagh, Eilot Schrefer, A.L. Tait and Jay Kristoff to 3,200 students from eight schools in nine programmes, where students who could not make it to the festival grounds could also enjoy SWF. A total of 1,300 preschoolers participated in 46 workshops and tours held at National Gallery Singapore by international and Singapore authors and presenters namely Israeli mixed-media artist, Hanoch Piven, Leila Boukarim, Lianne Ong, James Tan, R Chandran, Amy Cheng and Rosemarie Somaiah.


14         In addition, as a co-presentation with The British Council Singapore, SWF expanded its inclusive programming to make them as accessible as possible by providing several sign language and sensory-friendly events, as well as full wheelchair access.  Deaf, visually-impaired and disabled festival-goers also received complimentary Festival Passes this year, made possible by sponsors. This year, there were 87 attendees in 31 sessions with sign-language interpreters and note-takers. This includes Si Ma Guang and The Giant Jar: An Experiential Storytelling Event featuring Lee Seow Ser, Hidayah Amin, Tan Ai Khim and Hafidz Rahman.


SingLit Presentation


15       A total of 239 Singaporean and Singapore-based writers, poets and personalities participated in SWF 2017. Widely represented across a variety of panels and book launches across SWF 2017, this year’s Festival also featured special commissions by visual artist Alecia Neo as well as spoken word performer Deborah Emmanuel and DJ producer Kiat responding to the Festival theme via photo visuals titled Homeostasis and an original song Ocean Free respectively.


16        The Festival also teamed up with Tamil Murasu to co-present three events that were warmly received – a rare feast of the senses in a night of multi-faceted storytelling titled The Many-Splendoured Folk Art of Tamil Storytellers, a cross-disciplinary concert featuring Tamil rock and jazz bands putting poetry to rock music in Lyrical Roots: The Poetry of Music and a public reading of the best poetic contributions to Tamil Murasu over the years. 


A Year of Commemorations


17          As SWF celebrated its 20th edition this year, it also shared the spotlight with two other commemorative events – NS50 and ASEAN 50. To this end, writers from all the member ASEAN countries were presented at the Festival to celebrate half a century of friendship and communion for the regional bloc; and closer to home, the Festival also paid tribute to national servicemen with a panel exploring what it means to ‘serve’ the nation. In doing so, each community was able to highlight their individual ties to our national identity, where SWF served as a key meeting point for different communities to come together to celebrate their milestones collectively.


18        “We’d like to thank all our partners, sponsors and volunteers that supported us in 2017.  SWF always has been, and will be, a collective effort. We hope to sustain the momentum and success achieved by SWF over the last 20 editions and fully intend to keep the programming fresh and nimble in the years to come. In doing so, we will continue to present the world’s top literati to Singaporeans, and empower emerging and established local writers to be seen and heard,” said Yeow Kai Chai, Festival Director.


19       Next year’s Singapore Writers Festival is set to take place from 2 to 11 November, and will feature a theme with a Chinese term.