“Is there a ministry of definitions?”: an interview with Yeow Kai Chai


Rosie Milne talks to Yeow Kai Chai, Director of Singapore Writers Festival.


The theme for the upcoming 21st Singapore Writers Festival (2-11 November) is the Chinese character represented in pinyin as jiè, in its widest sense meaning “the world at large”, or “the universe we all inhabit”. It’s a theme which inevitably prompts thoughts about home—and thus about the Festival’s home city. So this seemed a good time to ask Yeow Kai Chai, poet and Festival Director, about whether there is such a thing as Singaporean literature and if so, what it is.

Singaporean literature exists, he said, but that what matters more than its classification as Singaporean, is its quality: “Is there a ministry of definitions? When it comes to any writing, from anywhere, what matters is whether it’s good or bad.”

As to what it is, he was generous in the scope of what he’d include:


Singaporean literature is anything written in Singapore, by Singapore citizens, or permanent residents. What they write doesn’t have to be about Singapore.  It could be spec-fic, for instance. It includes, too, anything written by Singaporeans in the diaspora, and again it doesn’t matter what they write about. Writing about Singapore, either by expats living here, or visitors merely passing through, also counts as Singaporean literature. Anything with a point of view on or about Singapore could count as Singaporean literature.


Fine, but if any novel, or play, with a point of view on or about Singapore could count as Singaporean literature, need it be accurate about Singapore? “Of course not. There is no burden of accuracy, except in historical fiction.”

Here I begged to differ—I think there are things far more important than historical accuracy in historical fiction—Kai Chai granted me the point, and we went on to discuss accuracy in the context of Kevin Kwan’s contemporary romp, Crazy Rich Asians:


Kwan may now live in America, but the novel is a projection of his memories. It’s biased, yes, and it’s not accurate—far from it, it’s wildly over the top—but it’s entertaining. It’s fantasy. There’s of course room for that, for escapism, in Singaporean literature.


Kevin Kwan, an American-Singaporean, writes in English. In Hong Kong, for example, writing is split between English-language literature, which, when known in the wider English-speaking world, is often by expats, and Chinese-language literature about which the English-speaking world knows little, because little is translated. Singapore is different: it’s not just Singaporean writers in the diaspora, and expats, who write in English, so too do many Singaporean writers who have remained in the city state.

I asked Kai Chai if he thought the fact that so many Singaporean writers write in English helped promote the idea of Singaporean literature:


No. I think the idea of Singaporean literature, such as it is, is less to do with English, and more to do with market forces. This distinction between Singaporean literature, and other literature, is one made by publishers, and marketing people, not by writers. No writer wakes up and thinks: today I’m going to write Singaporean literature. Writers wake up and think: today I’m going to write something great.


Fair enough. But surely an author might want to write the “Great Singaporean Novel”? Kai Chai wasn’t so sure:


Things change so quickly, if you try to define “the Great Singaporean Novel” it’s immediately outdated. Why be prescriptive? Why suggest authors want to write this sort of novel, or that sort of novel? I just want authors to write good novels. Even if it attempted to be ‘the Great Singapore Novel’ would I want to own a piece of bad Singaporean literature? No. Quality transcends geography.


What about if an author wanted to write a novel set in Singapore where the setting was as important as the characters?


Fine. Let them. I’m not saying authors shouldn’t write about place, or that a sense of place is unimportant in a novel. But to repeat myself, it’s quality that counts. If this hypothetical Singaporean novel set in Singapore were a bad one, I wouldn’t be interested.


In addition to English, Singapore has three other official languages: Chinese; Malay; Tamil. I wondered if Singaporean writers writing in languages other than English had become widely known in Asia:


The author You Jin, author of novels, short stories, travelogues and essays, writes in Chinese.  She is popular in Taiwan and in China. Muugathasan, who is originally from India and settled in Singapore, has written an historical novel that has been awarded prizes in India. Many of our Malay language authors such as Rohani Din and Suratman Markasan do well in Malaysia.


Then there’s Singlish. I asked Kai Chai if he felt writers were ever using a scattering of Singlish, to trivialize Singaporean identity, particularly for an international readership:


Sometimes use of Singlish can sound false, or inauthentic. But if it rings true, Singlish, its ideograms and references, has an important role in Singaporean literature—you can’t police it. You can’t police language, any more than you can police tropes.


Finally, Kai Chai turned the tables on me, and asked if I’d ever review a novel purely in terms of whether it was Singaporean, or not. I said I wouldn’t. “I’m pleased to hear it,” he says.


For so many Singaporean authors, you pick up their novels, and you’ve no idea they are from Singapore. And when reviewing a novel, to concentrate too much on whether it’s Singaporean or not, strikes me as misguided.

Rosie Milne runs Asian Books Blog twitter@asianbooksblog. She lives in Singapore.