Laughter amid grim dystopian tales

Laughter amid grim dystopian tales
Gwee Li Sui talked about the theme Community, Identity, Stability in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, while Adrian Tan related Singapore’s socio-political history to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Two grim novels, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945), were at the heart of the Singapore Writers Festival lecture Brave New Animal Farm last Sunday, but the mood was decidedly jovial.

The jocular and provocative Singapore writers Adrian Tan and Gwee Li Sui took to the lectern with their witty insights on how the works of famous fiction relate to Singapore and drew frequent laughter from an ardent audience.

Tan, 47, an esteemed litigation lawyer and author of the well-loved Singapore novel The Teenage Textbook (1998), opened with his rollicking lecture, The Seduction Of Change.

In it, the charismatic orator revisited turning points in Singapore's socio-political past to present, including the last General Election in 2011, and linked them to themes and characters in Orwell's Animal Farm.

Tan's textbook version of Singapore history retold the island's challenging past using phrases and puns that allude to Singaporeans' current dissatisfaction with the status quo.

He spoke, for example, of how early seafaring settlers would whine, as they knit fishing nets - for which he dubbed them "net-izens", drawing guffaws from the crowd - about the new settlers crowding the river and causing them to take "all morning to get to work", a potshot aimed at Singapore's over-burdened public transport system due to rapid population increase. Such adroit references linking past and present emphasised the vicious circle of Singapore's constant progress.

Tan also delved into enduring characters in Singapore society, drawing parallels with key characters in the book. For example, he compared Benjamin the donkey in the novel to Singapore's intelligentsia and likened this group to the book-loving audience, before cautioning that Benjamin allowed his cynicism to hold him back from using his smarts to bring about common good.

Poet and literary critic Gwee, 43, took to the lectern after what he joked was Tan's "rejected National Day Rally speech".

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