“Go out and climb your mountains,/Or else build them here./We cannot
stop you./We could never have stopped you./O my four million
strong,/You are beautiful, you are endless.”
- Ng Yi-Sheng, Official Letter
Ng Yi-Sheng first rose to prominence in 2006 with the publication of his non-fiction book, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, a collection of the coming-out stories of Singaporean queers. This was soon followed by his debut poetry collection Last Boy, which bagged him the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008, making him the youngest recipient of the prize to date. He is also an accomplished playwright. As a teenager, Yi-Sheng won the SPH-Theatreworks 24hour Playwriting Competition two years in a row, and has since remained actively involved in theatre – both as a playwright and a performer. Aside from writing and performing, he is also the co-organiser of the monthly interdisciplinary art event, SPORE Art Salon.
For a man known for his passionate, almost flamboyant theatre and poetry performances, Yi-Sheng is surprisingly subdued at first meeting. Even the pink of his shirt is a pale, muted shade, unassuming and unpretentious. As the interview begins there is a certain self-conscious and slightly embarrassed quality to his voice, but he is nonetheless frank, speaking matter-of-factly about Singapore, his work, and his journey as a Singaporean creative.
So…why did you choose writing as a career?
One of my friends recently said this about himself and I think it’s true about me as well. It’s not that I love writing; I love having written. Writing is one of the few things that people always told me I was good at. I think that we do still need writers… I don’t know if we need poets so much, but I think that unfortunately that’s the truth.
The reason why I ended up being a writer as a career… it’s a little odd. People would ask me if I wanted to be a full time writer when I was younger, because I won a few competitions when I was a teenager, and I said no. I need to pay the bills. But my parents were quite supportive; my first job out of university was working in the National Arts Council, in the Visual Arts department. It was a temp job, but I saw how many full time visual artists there were. I also met some people who do full time copywriting, and I realized that if these artists and copywriters can do it, why can’t I?
I understand you attended Columbia University in New York. Why did you choose to come back, especially from a place like New York, where the literary scene is so developed?
Three reasons, really. First, I was involved in the theatre-writing scene in Singapore before I left, and people were telling me that I had to come back and write. I felt like I already had an investment here. When I went to New York, I found that I didn’t have that same sort of connection with any specific company or place, partly because I think I was doing too many things in university. I should’ve spent less time studying and more time just doing. But in general I think it was harder for me to find a niche and get a sense of the fact that if I stayed I would matter.
But I think the more important reason is that in New York I was depressed a lot of the time. I was very surprised when I came back to Singapore, it stopped. Maybe it was more to do with the fact that I was finally finishing my studies, but… it’s not that I did badly in my studies, actually it was the contrary. There was just a lot of pressure to do well whereas my personal life was really… I was trying to date and it was going really badly. In Singapore, when you’re of the majority race, it’s a lot easier. For a gay man, anyway.
That’s actually really surprising.
I know Singaporeans who have made it in New York, like the directors Wang Meiyin and Alec Tok. I think I’m very tied to the sense of… you can call it family, but it’s not just about immediate family members. It’s about there being a whole community of people you know that you feel part of.
People have made the comment that Singapore is a structured and rigid society, and this has compromised on the creativity of Singaporeans. As a creative in Singapore, have you felt limited by your environment in any way?
I think for writers, the big problem isn’t one of rigidity. In Soviet times, in Eastern Europe, you had writers who were under much more pressure to conform. But that pressure actually fed into their creativity. It gave them more to write about. The problem for writers in Singapore is that there is not a very developed sense of readership, not a huge audience for Singapore writing. A lot of bookstores are also not as supportive as they could have been. That being said, a number of small bookstores like BooksActually and small publishers like Firstfruits have been very supportive, and over time a community of people interested in Singapore writing has developed. Not just in Singapore – in Filipino universities they study our books as examples of Southeast Asian writing in English.
But in terms of rigidity, I think perhaps what was more of a problem in the past was the social view that being an artist was not socially worthwhile. And you’ve still got some of that around, but the government has actually been surprisingly progressive when it comes to things like funding. Especially when talking to people from other parts of Southeast Asia… we are getting a lot more arts funding than they expect.
So we’re on our way?
Hopefully. In many ways this is a top-down approach, and yet you’re not sure if it will lead us to a brighter future in the longer term. What we do know is that in terms of other art forms, it has had some success stories. The audience for visual arts has grown with the museums being improved. One easy example is when the Esplanade started the da:ns festival, including contemporary dance, they really didn’t know they’d be able to get audience members, but now things sell out – you put the food out, and people come.
That’s great. Going back to the previous thing about readership… why do you think there is always such a negative connotation when people use the word “local”? Why do Singaporeans feel so bad about our own writing when we’re actually quite good?
Partly it’s because there is so much good stuff coming out from the rest of the world. But the other reason is that we have never been confident of our own culture because our culture has been hard to define. You want to talk about cultural roots, you’ll have to end up talking about our cultural ancestors in Indonesia, China and India. So these are more Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian rather than Singaporean. Our culture, the Singapore we live in now, has undergone a rupture since then.
We’re an English-speaking shopping mall culture. And that’s okay! This is who we are. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about it. But because it ends up being our real culture in many ways it feels very generic and very bland. It is harder to be proud of it. We end up being proud of imperfections like Singlish.
It’s hard to figure out how to represent Singapore without self-exoticizing, and I feel like the theatre world actually does it pretty well. Look at Haresh Sharma’s plays, produced by The Necessary Stage. They focus on the conflicts that appear when people from different cultures encounter each other, which is what does happen in Singapore. That’s a really interesting thing to explore.
We don’t have the sort of culture that binds us maybe?
You can blame the PAP aplenty, but it’s partly because of the shortness of our history, the small space… Even Chinese Malaysians feel much more bound to their countries than us. A lot of it has got to do with the sense that our culture got disrupted.
I think the turning point was the 70s. In the 60s and early 70s there was this idea of a happening, slightly lawless Singapore…but in the late 70s we had the Speak Mandarin campaign, which made it impossible for our generation to communicate with our grandparents, who spoke mostly dialect. We underwent a lot of changes, we became different people. By the 80s, Singapore was developed and we were proud of being developed. There was not much nostalgia in the 80s.
The contemporary artists who came up before and in the 80s are still seen as the leaders in contemporary Singapore art but they are of a very different flavour from our generation of artists. A lot of them are very concerned with this idea of missing Singapore’s history, protesting the change that has come upon us. Whereas our generation, we are products of this change. We are also interested in Singapore’s past, but when you see representations of our past, it’s an imaginary place. We’ve never experienced it. The only way we can talk about it is ironically.
We still don’t really know who we are as a culture because even in National Day in the second decade of the 21st century, the Singapore government shows people growing up in kampongs. That’s really becoming less realistic now. A lot of Singapore wants to hold on to that identity of coming from Third World to First World, but our culture now is First World culture and we don’t know how to talk about that.
You’ve often been described as a queer writer, and one of your first works, SQ21, was a compilation of the coming-out stories of Singaporean gays and bisexuals. Are you afraid of being pigeonholed?
No. They talk about brand identity sometimes, and it helped. I have very rarely had to suffer in the arts because of my queer identity. What’s really strange is that I write for a children’s newspaper called What’s Up, and I’ve asked my editor whether at some point I will have to use a pseudonym because I’m so associated with the gay and activist world. He said well, no actually, whenever the teachers have mentioned my name it’s because they like my articles. Eventually someone might write a letter of complaint but so far I’ve been really lucky. If anything it drew more people to my work, partly because of the decade that I started publishing in.
I think being gay helped me have a certain kind of community. Not all writers want community, but I’m the sort who does enjoy community. I curate this event called ContraDiction every year, and it’s an evening of queer writers, and you get lots of weird interesting stuff, because just because you’re queer doesn’t mean you write the same. We’ve also had heterosexual guest stars, and it’s not just poetry – we’ve had songwriters, bloggers, play excerpts. It’s a mishmash of things. It’s seen as a gathering time for queer people. Once I decided to invite the Director of the National Arts Council Literary Department, and he came, and he was quite impressed, actually, because there were so many people. It’s actually a little silly how much we ourselves and outsiders portray us as a homophobic community because well, we are, but almost every society is. And the law makes us look a lot more homophobic than we actually are.
Do you think you’re successful and how would you define success?
I used to suffer from clinical depression in America, so a lot of my success now involves not wanting to die all the time. I mean if I think about how my life has improved so far, yeaaaah that’s a pretty big improvement. (laughs) People sometimes tell me that I haven’t been publishing recently, and looking at my CV, I won the Singapore Lit Prize in 2008, and I haven’t won a lot of prizes since then. But I’m still doing stuff, and I’m still involved in a number of things in the arts community. I’m exploring certain avenues of writing, I’m not –
Well some people may say I’m stagnating, and sometimes I do worry that I’m stagnating. It’s dangerous to think that success is as long as you’re happy but it’s also dangerous to think that your self-worth depends on what you can put on a CV. This is the dilemma of the Singaporean artist. You are very Singaporean in that you are pragmatic and you want deliverable results and progress, but as an artist you also want to see things the rest of Singapore doesn’t. So one part of me says I’m not yet successful because I haven’t had an internationally best-selling work, but another part of me says I’m successful because I’m pretty happy. I’m also making enough that even though I stay with my parents I don’t have to ask for pocket money. I can pay for them when we go to watch shows, and I’ve got lots of friends.
I must say, you’re very different from the typical stereotype of the angry Singaporean artist raging against the system.
Sometimes I’m angry, and anger is a very productive emotion. But not all the time, and I do think a broader perspective of Singaporean culture is necessary. We are not going to turn the clock back and become the 60s again. These are interesting times. We are only boring if you don’t look hard enough.
– Profiled by Natalee Ho
Special Thanks to Seah Ee Wei