Singaporean literature

Life in Singapore

The literature of Singapore comprises a collection of literary works by Singaporeans in any of the country's four main languages: English, Malay, Standard Mandarin, and Tamil.

While Singaporean literary works may be considered as also belonging to the literature of their specific languages, the literature of Singapore is viewed as a distinct body of literature portraying various aspects of Singapore society and forms a significant part of the culture of Singapore. Literature in all four official languages has been translated and showcased in publications such as the literary journal Singa, that was published in the 1980s and 1990s with editors including Edwin Thumboo and Koh Buck Song, as well as in multilingual anthologies such as Rhythms: A Singaporean Millennial Anthology Of Poetry (2000), in which the poems were all translated three times each into the three languages. A number of Singaporean writers such as Tan Swie Hian and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed work in more than one language. However, such cross-linguistic fertilisation is becoming increasingly rare and it is now increasingly thought that Singapore has four sub-literatures instead of one.

Literature in English


Singaporean literature in English started with the Straits-born Chinese community in the colonial era; it is unclear which was the first work of literature in English published in Singapore, but there is evidence of Singapore literature published as early as the 1830s. The first notable Singaporean work of poetry in English is possibly F.M.S.R., a pastiche of T. S. Eliot by Francis P. Ng, published in London in 1935. This was followed by Wang Gungwu's Pulse in 1950.

With the independence of Singapore in 1965, a new wave of Singapore writing emerged, led by Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Robert Yeo, Goh Poh Seng, Lee Tzu Pheng, Chandran Nair and Kirpal Singh. It is telling that many critical essays on Singapore literature name Thumboo's generation, rightly or wrongly, as the first generation of Singapore writers. Poetry is the predominant mode of expression; it has a small but respectable following since independence, and most published works of Singapore writing in English have been in poetry.

There were varying levels of activity in succeeding decades, with poets in the late 1980s and early 1990s including Simon Tay, Leong Liew Geok, Koh Buck Song, Angeline Yap, Heng Siok Tian and Ho Poh Fun. In the late 1990s, poetry in English in Singapore found a new momentum with a whole new generation of poets born around or after 1965 now actively writing and publishing, not only in Singapore but also internationally. Since the late-1990s, local small presses such as firstfruits, Ethos Books and Math Paper Press have been actively promoting the works of this new wave of poets. Some of the more notable include Boey Kim Cheng, Yong Shu Hoong, Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong, Toh Hsien Min, Grace Chia and Alfian bin Sa'at (also a playwright). The poetry of this younger generation is often politically aware, transnational and cosmopolitan, yet frequently presents their intensely focused, self-questioning and highly individualised perspectives of Singaporean life, society and culture. Some poets have been labeled confessional for their personalised writing, often dealing with intimate issues such as sexuality.

Verse anthologies have collected and captured various aspects of life in Singapore, from the 1970s onwards, including a few anthologies under the ASEAN series for the literature of Southeast Asia. For example, the coffeetable book Singapore: Places, Poems, Paintings (1993, edited by Koh Buck Song) featured poems, paintings and reminiscences about 30 significant places ranging from Chinatown to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and had an exhibition at the National Museum along with paintings from the book. From Boys To Men: A Literary Anthology Of National Service In Singapore (2002, edited by Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia) examined the meaning of military duty. Reflecting On The Merlion (2009, edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai) brought together about 40 poems about the national tourism symbol. The most authoritative anthology to date is, arguably, Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology Of Singapore Literature (2009) edited by Angelia Poon, Philip Holden and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and published by NUS Press.


Children's literature in Singapore has gained momentum in recent years due to increased interest in the genre generated by the First Time Writers and Illustrators Initiative which discovered acclaimed writers such as Adeline Foo (The Diary of Amos Lee), Jin Pyn (The Elephant and the Tree), Don Bosco (Thor the Greatest), and Emily Lim (Prince Bear and Pauper Bear). Jessie Wee, one of the pioneers of children's literature, rereleased her popular Mooty Mouse series with Marshall Cavendish in 2009. According to the National Library Board, other prominent and prolific children's authors include Patricia Maria Tan, Chia Hearn Chek, Ho MinFong and Bessie Chua.


Drama in English found expression in Goh Poh Seng, who was also a notable poet and novelist, in Robert Yeo, author of six plays, and in Kuo Pao Kun, who also wrote in Chinese, sometimes translating his works into English. The late Kuo was a vital force in the local theatre renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. He was the artistic director of The Substation for many years. Some of his plays, like The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole (1984) and Lao Jiu (1990), have been now considered classics. Stella Kon gained international fame with her now-famous play Emily of Emerald Hill. About an ageing Peranakan matriarch, it has been produced in Scotland, Malaysia and Australia. The sole character has been played by men as well as women. More recent plays have tended to revolve mostly around social issues, especially causes such as gay rights. A few plays by writers such as Tan Tarn How have ventured successfully into the realm of political satire, but their audiences and critical reception remain limited.


Fiction writing in English did not start in earnest until after independence. Short stories flourished as a literary form, the novel arrived much later. Goh Poh Seng remains a pioneer in writing novels well before many of the later generation, with titles like If We Dream Too Long (1972) – widely recognised as the first true Singaporean novel – and A Dance of Moths (1995).

Beginning as a short story writer, Penang-born Catherine Lim has been Singapore's most widely read author, thanks partly to her first two books of short stories, Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore (1978) and Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories (1980). These two books were incorporated as texts for the GCE 'O' Levels. Lim's themes of Asian male chauvinistic gender-dominance mark her as a distant cousin to Asian-American writers such as Amy Tan. She has also been writing novels, such as The Bondmaid (1998) and Following the Wrong God Home (2001), and publishing them to an international audience since the late 1990s.

Han May is the pseudonym of Joan Hon who is better known for her non-fiction books. Her science-fiction romance Star Sapphire (1985) won a High Commendation Award from the Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986, the same year when she was also awarded a Commendation prize for her better-known book Relatively Speaking on her family and childhood memories.

Rex Shelley hails from an earlier colonial generation, although he began publishing only in the early 1990s. A Eurasian, his first novel The Shrimp People (1991) examines the regional Eurasian community and their experience in Singapore. The book won a National Book Prize. His three other novels, People of the Pear Tree (1993), Island in the Centre (1995) and River of Roses (1998) all examine similar themes of the Eurasian community in the Southeast Asia region. He has won the S.E.A. Write Award in 2007.

Haresh Sharma is a playwright who has written more than fifty plays that have been staged all over the world, including Singapore, Melbourne, Glasgow, Birmingham, Cairo and London.[1] In May 2010, his highly acclaimed play Those Who Can't, Teach was published in book form by the independent publisher Epigram Books.

Su-Chen Christine Lim's works consider varied themes surrounding issues of gender, immigration and orthodoxy. In 1993, her novel, Fistful of Colours, was awarded the first Singapore Literature Prize. Her other novels take up the relationship between the Malays and Chinese immigrants in colonial Malaya, and the issue of land (A Bit of Earth).

Gopal Baratham, a neurosurgeon, started as a short story writer and later wrote politically charged works like A Candle or the Sun (1991) and Sayang (1991), which courted some controversy when they were first published.

Jean Tay is an economist-turned-playwright. Her play Everything but the Brain won the Best Original Script at The Straits Times' Life! Theatre Awards in 2006. Two of her plays, Everything but the Brain and Boom, were published in book form by the Singapore-based independent publisher Epigram Books.

Augustine Goh Sin Tub who began his writing career writing in Malay, burst on the literary scene after his retirement with more than a dozen books of short stories, most of which were founded on his own personal history, thus making them part fiction and part non-fiction. Works like One Singapore and its two sequels One Singapore 2 and One Singapore 3 have found fans among the different strata of Singapore society and well acclaimed by all.

Around this time, younger writers emerged. Claire Tham and Ovidia Yu wrote short stories, while playwright Stella Kon put forth her lesser-known science-fiction novel, Eston (1995). Of the younger generation, Philip Jeyaretnam has shown promise but has not published a new novel since Abraham's Promise (1995). His first two books, First Loves (1987) and Raffles Place Ragtime (1988), were bestsellers in Singapore.

Kelvin Tan, a musician and playwright, has been sporadically in sight, publishing the works All Broken Up and Dancing (1992) and the Nethe(r);R (2001). Colin Cheong can perhaps lay claim to being one of Singapore's most prolific contemporary authors, releasing three novels, one novella, two short story collections, and dozens of non-fictional works thus far. He won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1996 for his travel diary-like novel Tangerine. Daren Shiau's Heartland (1999) traces an eighteen-year-old's rites of passage from junior college through to enlistment and thereafter. The novel has been selected to be a set text at secondary school level.

Hwee Hwee Tan graduated with a First Class Honours from the University of East Anglia, and a Masters from Oxford University. She grew up in Singapore and in the Netherlands, and her cosmopolitan experience can be readily seen in her novels. Her snazzy, humorous prose can be read in Foreign Bodies (1997) and Mammon Inc. (2001), both published by Penguin Books. Simon Tay, currently the chairperson of Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a former nominated Member of Parliament, has a short story collection and a novel under his belt. These are Stand Alone (1991) and City of Small Blessings (2009).

List of Singaporean writers

Selected works


Selected anthologies




See also


  1. Klein, Ronald D. (2001). Interlogue - Studies in Singapore Literature, Volume 4: Interviews. Singapore: Ethos Books. pp. 334–357, 384.

Additional sources

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