Fifty Years of Singapore Tamil Literature

TamilAt the time of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, owing to the colonial past, a cultural gulf existed between English-educated Tamils and predominantly Tamil-using Tamils. Tamil literature was left to the latter to be fostered as part of their Tamil language efforts. Becoming and being a literati has been the ideal among them. This ideal was rooted in the late colonial period and fully developed in the post-colonial years in Tamil Nadu, Malaya and Singapore. Most writers were low income earners associated with working class Tamils. Most of them were unschooled and worked as daily rated labourers, hair-dressers, road laying coolies, port workers, Tamil school teachers and some were even unemployed. Their asset was their high aspiration to be reckoned as a writer. This passion drove them to self-educate themselves in the art of writing grammatically structured poetry, short-stories, and novels and become eloquent public speakers. Amongst the Tamil writers of that era, those who worked at the radio stations and newspapers or at the Indian Movie News Magazine were considered as being privileged as they were paid to write what they wrote. Often, they remained as a class apart from the rest of the writers.

Post-colonial Singapore, being a new nation in the making, created many new institutions as part of its’ state-building project. Arising from the state led projects, the Chinese community was restructured with censorship, multi-racialism and many other projects. Tamil language, other than for its recognised status as an official language, was benignly neglected in the making of Singapore. Organizations within the Tamil community too did not adapt rapidly to face the new challenges including the field of Tamil literary writings. While the government took the lead in defining Chinese culture and Mandarin as the language of Chinese Singaporeans, Tamil literature as well as Tamil language was left to the community’s efforts to define themselves. Just as in the case of Chinese, hitherto dominant ethnic Tamil social mobilization became defunct, marginalised and unable to adapt to the changing political landscape. This would be reflected in much of the Tamil writings in the post-independent years where the Tamil writers went on to write mundane matters that were non-political, non-racial, and non-of-anything that the state did not desire. All writings for radio and newspapers were devoid of social issues per-se unless the editors viewed it as non-controversial.

Much of the recent critiques of the history of Singapore’s Tamil literature easily lend themselves to listing names of writers and their contributions (See for example Thinnappan et al., 2011). Their reflections and analyses hardly examine the institutional architectures that promoted Tamil literature in Singapore. In pre-independent, organisational structures such as the Tamil Murasu, Tamil Nesan (all daily Tamil newspapers), Indian Movie News (monthly publication), radio stations in Malaya and Singapore, and occasional publications by organisations promoted the publications (in the form publishing and broadcasting writer’s works) of poetry, short-stories and dramas. There were also two contending community festivals such as the Thamizhar Thirunaal and Pongal Thirunaal that promoted competitive writings of poetry, short-stories and dramas. Both were festivals organised by organisations and power groups within the Tamil community. At the time of Singapore’s independence, the Tamil Malar daily newspaper and the Singapore radio station were the sole publishers of Tamil writings as the Tamil Murasu under community leader G Sarangapany had closed down owing to worker’s strike and subsequently Thamizhar Thirunaal annual festival had declined as it was also under the same leader. Pongal Thirunaal also declined with the forced name change of its major proponent Singapoor Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in 1967 (See Mani, 2014). Very few writers published their written works as individual volumes owing to their meagre incomes as well as the transitional challenges faced in Singapore becoming a country and aspiring to become a nation. It was also extremely difficult to have new organisations formed along linguistic and ethnic dimensions to promote the Tamil language and literature as government policy was for national integration and distancing people from their ethnic origins. As the former social organisations declined there were none to replace them. The community too lacked critical thinkers to provide an intellectual framework to respond to the changing socio-political landscape.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, some tangible directions were observable in the community. From 1975, the newly formed University of Singapore Tamil Language Society set about promoting projects that were to take the community out of its doldrums. The establishment of the society under the guidance of this author (also known as A. Veeramani), its first conference seminar on Tamil language and Tamil literature in Singapore in 1977 (See Veeramani, 1977), as well launching an annual academic bilingual research journal – Tamil Peravai – gave new impetus to gather and examine the direction that Tamil language and literature were taking in Singapore. The biannual 1977, 1979 and 1981 conferences attracted Tamil writers to examine their writing and publication of their works in order to merit attention of readers and critics. Mere writing or broadcasting was replaced with the need for published evidence to be considered for critical appreciation by others. The conference-seminar series were to make a deep impact in crystallizing concrete ideas by community leaders to get involved in the community. The next few years witnessed the establishment of the Singapore Association of Tamil Writers in 1977, the establishment of the Tamil Language and Cultural Society under the patronage of C V Devan Nair (1979), a prominent trade unionist and Member of Parliament for Anson constituency. Together with the revival of the Tamils Representative Council (TRC) under another prominent trade unionist, G Kandasamy, the 1980s appeared to promise hope for the writing and propagation of a Singaporean Tamil literature. Even though the term ‘Singapore Tamil Literature’ came into vogue, publications of Tamil writings were few and far apart. The number of writers almost remained the same and the rate of induction of younger and newer writers were few. One short-story writer who tried to buck the trend was Naa Govindasamy, who as a Tamil teacher attempted the setting up Ilakkia Kalam (Literary Forum) for adult and student writers and being an impromptu gathering it survived a few years. The TRC Youth Wing under this author’s guidance published a number of collections by Singapore educated Tamil youths but that too ended in 1987. Most writers did not have the economic sustainability to organise themselves into groups that could induct youths and non-writers to take up serious writing. Tamil literary publications continued with the tireless work like A. P. Shanmugam, who encouraged many writers to publish their writings into books under his Thai Noolagam (Thai Publications). In 1989, a gift of S$21,500 raised from fans, friends and readers to a Singapore Tamil poet for his heart operation attracted the attention of Tamil writers in Singapore (Straits Times, 15 February 1989, page 14).

The next break for massive institutional promotion of Tamil literature came in 1990 when Singapore celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary of political independence. Under the auspices of a month long Indian Cultural Month sponsored by the government, this author again spearheaded a committee backed by the then dynamic youth movement, the Singapore Tamil Youths Club, to publish 25 books in Tamil and launch them at a single ceremony in April 1990. Twenty-five books were published and launched at a single event, with twenty-three of the books being devoted to Tamil literary writings by young and established writers, both women and males and consisting of poetry, novels, short-stories and dramas. The 1990s witnessed the revival of the Singapore Tamil Writers Association under the leadership of Na. Aandiyappan who not only promoted events to honour Tamil writers and community stalwarts as well as organise promotional events for Tamil writers books and organise an International Conference of Tamil Writers in 2011.

Tamil literature underwent rapid change from the mid-1990s as the new diaspora of Tamil professionals and their spouses in Singapore began to establish their identity in Singapore by involving themselves in literary groups as well as in publishing Tamil literary collections owing to their closer links to publishers in Tamil Nadu. Government organisations like the National Library and the National Book Development Council began active involvement in the promotion of Tamil literary publications. The exhibitions by the National Library in promoting Tamil literature and the provision of grants for Tamil book publications gave new impetus among the continuing writers and the new diaspora to publish more books in Tamil. It became possible to view all the Tamil publications at one place owing to the efforts of the National Library. In the last ten years, the new diaspora Tamil writers are honoured both in Singapore as well as in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. The international Tamil diaspora meetings concerning Tamil language also patronised these writers’ works.

The contemporary literary scene in Singapore has become highly vibrant with many groups contending for eminence by the publication of their members’ books and promotion of literary events. These include the Singapoor Thamizh Ilakia Kalam (Singapore Tamil Literary Forum), the monthly ‘story forum’( Kathai Kalam) by the Singapore Tamil Writers association, Thangameen Vasagar Vattam (Thangameen Readers Circle), the Singapore Readers Circle (Singapoor Vasagar Vattam), Mathavi Ilakkia Mandram (Mathavi Literary Society) and Kavi Maalai (Poetic Forum). . There are leading writers, businessmen and professionals behind these movements besides the many events conducted by individual writers with the patronage of the National Library and the National Book Development Council. These groups coordinate the bestowment of awards by Literary Trusts established in Tamil Nadu by the new diaspora Tamils. Among the many literary awards is the Karikalan Award (named after an ancient Tamil king) given annually at the Thanjavur Tamil University by Musthafa Foundation. Mohamed Musthafa is a prominent Tamil businessman in Singapore’s Little India. Many long-term Tamil writers in Singapore have been honoured by the Cultural Medallion Award by the National Arts Council, the S.E.A Write Award (Southeast Asian Writers Awards) from Thailand and the Montblanc – NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award, Thamizhavel Award from the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers; Singapore Literature Prize and the Kala Ratna from the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (see for example Arun Mahizhnan, 2014).

The total production of Tamil literature related writings in Singapore since 1965 has been estimated as 143 Tamil poetry books; 266 books related to literature for the young; 105 short-story books / collections; 48 long and short novels; and, 176 books based on conference proceedings, essays, critiques, biographies and other Tamil writings (Seethalakshmi, 2014). More publications have been added since then. Despite the fewer number of Tamil writers and readers, Tamil literature in Singapore has not only survived but has become vibrant in the fifty years of Singapore’s independence. There is indeed an intense passion among a number of Tamils to becoming and being a Tamil literati in Singapore.

The impressive production of Tamil literary writings is to be capped in 2015 by the digitalisation effort of all Tamil literary writings in the years since 1965 and presented to the Government of Singapore. The digitalisation project and the multi-talented committee is being led by Arun Mahizhnan (Thamizhmani, August 2014: 12 -13; Straits Times, 12 October 2013). Local Tamil heritage groups are partnering with the National Library Board (NLB) in an ambitious plan to digitally record 50 years of Singaporean Tamil creative writing. The two-year project, begun in 2013, aims to preserve Tamil literary works for future generations.

Written by
Professor A Veeramani ( A Mani )
Singapore / Japan

Select References
Arun Mahizhnan, 2014. ‘KTM Iqbal: The Man and His Word’, Cultural Medallion 2014, pp. 18 – 21.
https://nac.gov.sg/docs/awards-recognition-files/ktm-iqbal.pdf.
Accessed on 6 February 2015.

Mani, A., 2014. ‘A Tale of Two Streets: Urban Renewal, Transnationalization and Reconstructed Memories’ in A. Mani (Editor) Enchanting Asian Social landscapes. Singapore: Swarnadvipa Publishing House. 2014: pages 1 – 36.

Seethalakshmi, 2014. ‘Singapoor Thamizh Ilakkiyam – Oor Arimugam’ (Singapore Tamil Literature – An Introduction). Paper presented at the Conference on Thayagam Kadantha Thamizh (Tamil beyond its homeland),
Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu January 20- 22.

Thamizhmani, Quarterly magazine of the Tamil Language and Cultural Society, Singapore. August 2014.
Thinappan, SP., Na Aandiyappan, and Suba Arunasalam (editors), 2011. Singapoor Thamizh Ilakia Varalaru – Oor Arimugam (History of Singapore Tamil Literature – An Introduction). Singapore: Singapore Tamil Writers Association.
Veeramani, A., 1977. Singapooril Thamizhum Thamizhilakkiyamum (Tamil Language and Tamil Literature in Singapore). Singapore: University of Singapore Tamil Language Society.
http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/iswaran-calls-more-volunteers-support-plan-digitise-tamil-literature-2#sthash.rxZVn4Gk.dpuf. Accessed on 3 February 2015.
Straits Times Newspaper Article – Poet receives funds for heart surgery.html.
http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/newpaper19890213-1.2.6.7.aspx
Accessed on 6 February 2015.

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