Country in Focus: Singapore Literature Prize 2018
By Mitali Chakravarty
The Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) gave out 19 awards for works in English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese across three categories – fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry at a gala organised by the Singapore Book Council (SBC) on August 6th, 2018.
The event included performances by the Nadi Singapura ensemble and the trio of Eunice & Friends. The well-known theatre actress, Karen Tan, compered the event peppering it with bits of humour and anecdotes.
The Nadi Singapura band gave a ceremonial and colourful start to the event with their drumming. This was followed by a speech by Claire Chiang, chairperson of SBC and co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts. As she has pointed out in her message, the SLP is ‘arguably the only literary award in the world that recognises such multilingual achievements’.
The awards were presented by former SLP winners, including Suchen Christine Lim.
Farihan Bahron, co-founder of a publishing agency and a much-awarded Malay writer, received two prizes this year, one for his poetry collection and a commendation for Malay fiction.
A.K. Vardharajan, one of the award winners for poetry in Tamil said that his book, Lee Kuan Yew’s Imaginary Childhood, had won the award because the book was about a very famous man, the founder of Singapore. However, he is an established writer himself and this book had won an award from the Singapore Tamil Writer’s Association in 2017.
Jeremy Tiang received the award for English fiction for his book State of Emergency, his debut novel mapping the leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia through a family saga spanning a large swathe of time, from the 1940s to the current day.
Lively performances by both the musical groups and video clips of the past winners discussing their reaction to the awards and its outcome punctuated the event.
The concluding speech by the executive director William Phuan reflected the history and future of both the awards and of the outreach events organised by them through the year, which include the launch of a Chinese translation of Isa Kamari’s Malay novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta, in September 2018, the launch of a Singapore Literature Prize commemorative book featuring extracts from past SLP winning works in November and the fiftieth birthday celebration of the SBC this December.
The awards this year spanned the diaspora of cultures that thrive in Singapore. From when it started in 1992, the award has evolved to create a platform to recognise excellence in the variety that is iconic of this island. In 1992, the first Singapore Literature Prize went to Suchen Christine Lim and a commendation was given to Tan Mei Ching. Both the works were in the English fiction category. Now the awards span nine different categories in four different languages!
This award is regarded as the top literary award in Singapore. When asked what this award has done for the literary scene in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim, regarded as a doyen of Singapore Literature, reflected, ‘The Singapore Literature Prize has brought some of Singapore’s best literary works to the attention of readers in Singapore and overseas.’ She added that it has also ‘helped to draw the public’s attention to new writers and new works like Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency.’ Suchen Christine Lim’s award winning book, Fistful of Colours was unpublished when she was given the first Singapore Literary Prize in 1992. Now both traditionally published and self-published books by Singaporeans and permanent residents are eligible for the award.
The evening was a paean to the literary efforts from diverse cultures. It ended with an interesting joint performance by the Malay drummers and the classical trio… a fitting end to a celebration of the evolving potpourri of Singapore literature.
(Photo credits: Mitali Chakravarty)