Laughter amid grim dystopian tales

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".

He tackled Huxley's Brave New World and compared the non-utopian novel to Disney's 1992 animated movie Aladdin, riffing on the film's popular song, A Whole New World, and even singing its opening line.

As with Tan, Gwee peppered his talk with sly innuendoes about Singapore's leaders and social- political history, but stuck closer to the text, drawing his theme directly from the motto of the utopian state in the book - Community, Identity, Stability.

He spoke of how the flawed utopian state attempted to control society through scientific means including hypnopaedia, or sleep teaching - jokes were made about it being the method used to teach Chinese in the largely English-speaking Anglo-Chinese Secondary School, which Gwee attended - and how the arts and culture were perceived in the fictitious realm as a threat to social stability. He pointed out, however, that this was a prejudiced opinion based on "one man's view of the world", and those who did not fit in the vision of such a brave, new world would have to exist outside of it.

In the vigorous question-and-answer segment moderated by actress-director Selena Tan, much of the dialogue focused on the need for change in Singapore, including a turn away from a clinical, materialistic society into one with heart and soul, as well as whether this change could be achieved, and if the government, or the people, is responsible for realising this transformation.

Secondary 1 student Rammdarshan Ramesh, 13, who accompanied his mother to the lecture, said: "I was a bit sad coming here at first. I thought I would be wasting my day. But the talk changed my life. I was amazed at how the speakers put themselves and Singapore into the book and it made me realise I need to be more critical in the way I think."

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