24 August 2015

Living with Myths X: Singaporean words and images

Being a review of the final in a long, year-long series of seminars

Singapore's Literary Myths

Is a national literature a reflection of national ideology?
Is the development of a national literature a reflection of competing national ideologies?
Who gets a say?
Which question did Gwee Li Sui ask, and answer?

Gwee Li Sui subjects the idea of Singapore literature to the same approach he employed on English period literature when he was in academia. While he describes his approach in materialist culture terms, the approach he employs is closer to the production of culture approach.

The approach involves
1. teasing out the relation between works of literature and the historical, political, and institutional structures of society (both in general and literary);
2. investigating how and why specific historical, political, and institutional structures define the boundaries of literature, set up a canon and exclude other works;
3. identifying and questioning the mythology (in a Barthesian sense) of such a "literature" or "literary canon" created by these processes.

Gwee's actual presentation focuses on the mythology of Singapore literature as body of works selected to be taught in the national curriculum and recognised by national art-consecrating authorities and feted by the national newspapers; that they tend to be apolitical, or reaffirm institutional biases on how Singapore literature should serve national history and national identity.

As such, "Singapore literature" in the presentation should be understood as a Bourdieuan field that consists of writers producing works at the core for the MOE, NAC, and the university, and at the periphery for the international literary community and the mass market. It is a field of writers who are invested in and invested by the pursuit of producing "literature" that is consecrated within the field.

Inasmuch as Gwee identifies the myths of Singapore literature, it should be understood that Gwee is identifying the myths of the canon-making of Singapore literature, as opposed to the myths and narratives created by Singapore literature. This can be illustrated by reading Gwee's dogmatic assertions that Singapore literature is written in English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, against Gwee's openminded assertions that the boundaries of Singapore literature chould be both socially and geographically wider than officially acknowledged.


Sonny Liew presented on how to read a comic strip, what a comic strip can do, and how The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a pastiche of various periods and styles of comic art that were popular during the 1940s to 1970s. In a series of slides, he also presented a selection of politically incisive comic panels he drew from his student days to the present.

Liew did not speak of myths and narratives of the Singapore story, or how and whether comic strips and cartoons in Singapore have reaffirmed or critiqued these myths and narratives.

We note that Liew admitted he did not research on any existing comic artists or comic strips from the 1940s to 1970s for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Liew also admits that his book is only possible because there hasn't been any great comic book artists in Singapore, not that he can think of, and then again he didn't actually do historical research on this. Be that as it may, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye creates its own mythology about comic artists in Singapore.

We pass no judgement, except to note that Nanyang, The Musical, which tells the story of a few fictional painters who migrated to Singapore and led its art scene, was based on plenty of research on real-life, really existing painters...

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