Give more credit to our creative scene

WE MUST be doing something right if our tiny population can put forward such stellar talent as Judith Huang and Dawn Lim, the only non-British winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition recently. Nor are they the rare exception - in previous years, Singaporean student-writers such as Teng Qian Xi and Nicholas Liu have won the same award.

Their success suggests that far from being a bunch of ivory-tower navel gazers, our home-grown creative talents are more than capable of producing thoughtful, incisive work that appeals to an international audience. We've also become more than just savvy business users of English.


A QUALITY education in the language arts is a critical factor. So too a nurturing ecology that has grown over the years - enrichment initiatives such as the Creative Writing Programme coordinated by the Ministry of Education, greater opportunities for publication, and a solid support network of experienced mentors.

Another factor is an increasingly global outlook. Half a generation ago, few student-writers would have thought of submitting their writing to an international writing competition, much less winning one. These days it's par for the course for our artists and writers to participate in major festivals abroad, or to be published overseas, even if they do so without media fanfare. Some have been featured in the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, others have collaborated with film-makers in New York, and even nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in the United States.

Straits Times columnist Cheong Suk-Wai has pointed out that our creative scene appears debilitated by personal obsessions and peccadillos. Perhaps it's a case of flamboyance being more readily noticed than quieter affirmations.

Just this week, poet Toh Hsien Min, a former president of the poetry society at Oxford, was among those invited to an Ubud arts festival partly to mark the second anniversary of the Bali bombings. In August, noted Malaysian director Krishen Jit directed a KL production based on published writings from Singapore, wielding more wit and social bite than skin or shock tactics.

Such interdisciplinary, transnational initiatives need not be confined to the arts scene. Nascent creative industries such as film-making, gaming and publishing have been injected with a healthy dose of expertise and financial support. Yet an award-winning international documentary-maker based here has pointed out that as these content-intensive industries gain ground, the availability of quality material to work from will become much more critical than technical flair.

Impeded by a dearth of good scripts and stories in the industry, a number of producers are looking to our poets and novelists as a possible new source of fresh content and creative skills. Hardly surprising, given that the barrier between the creative scene and industry has always been somewhat porous, and rightly so.

Recent initiatives, such as the National University of Singapore's The Arts House Writing Fellowship, which offers a whole year's salary to a full-time writer-in-residence, are beginning to recognise content creation as a key part of the value chain - requiring as much investment in time, energy and resources as the more technical stages of production and marketing; and as with any risk-bearing venture, without any immediate returns on investment.

If students can win international accolades while swotting for their A levels, imagine what more could happen if we let them have a go at it full-time.


BUT why stop there? Embedded in our compressed history and frantic daily news is an untapped wealth of potential material. News features like Wong Kim Hoh's A Life Less Ordinary, for instance, have thrown up more intriguing real-life personalities than your average Hollywoodean script. Humour columnists such as Mr Brown and Colin Goh have turned our national pastime, bellyaching, into belly laughs. And surely there are at least a few solid biopics to be gleaned from the legacies of our historical figures and ordinary heroes. Why sell ourselves short by assuming that the honest stories we offer will be of limited interest elsewhere?

There's also something to be said about the current situation where many writers, among other creative individuals, make room for their craft while holding down a day job, often as respected professionals - such as lawyers, teachers or journalists. They are able to bring to bear a certain down-to-earth maturity, real-world experience, and common sense to their creative work, having been in the trenches of making a living and working with regular folk. There could be less flashy style, but perhaps more substance.

It's our loss if we fail to set our collective sights beyond the usual charmed circle of creative types when looking for our own tales to tell and sell to the world.