Call to overhaul Singapore Lit Prize

The biennial Singapore Literature Prize is the biggest for local fiction and also the most controversial.

At a four-member panel discussion on Sunday during the Singapore Writers Festival, three winners and a former judge agreed that the award no longer encouraged new writing, nor did it attract new readers.

Panellist Chia Hwee Pheng, 56, who writes short stories under the pen-name Xi Ni Er, said: "No writer I know says: 'I want to write to win this prize.'" A collection of his works in 2008 won the Singapore Literature Prize for writing in Chinese.

Malay-language writer Peter Augustine Goh, 60, said it was the same for Malay. His short story collection, Kerana Setitik Madu (A Drop Of Honey), won a commendation prize last year.

"This is a change," said poet Roger Jenkins, also 60.

"When I wrote in 1995, the fact that the prize was there was an incentive." He won for his poetry collection From The Belly Of The Carp.

Moderator Koh Tai Ann, a well-known literary critic and former member of the prize's judging panel, explained to the 30-strong audience that this was because the prize had changed over the years.

From 1992 to 1999, the Singapore Literature Prize was given annually by local publisher SNP Editions to an unpublished work in English and Jenkins, like other new writers, wrote because the prize came with the promise of publication.

In 2000, the prize was relaunched for a year by Australian bookseller Dymocks as a cashless prize for published books.

In 2004, after a four-year hiatus, the prize returned in its current form, where four awards of $10,000 each are given out every two years for published writing in English, Chinese Malay and Tamil.

The Singapore Literature Prize is the biggest local award for writing in the four official languages. Entries must be either poetry or fiction, though from next year, there will be an additional prize for non-fiction titles, also in the four languages and with the same cash award.

"Under the old kind of structure, it was an incentive to get people to write," said Jenkins, adding though that this did not translate to more readers. There was at least a six-month wait before the winning book was published, which meant the hype died down and sales suffered. His book sold barely 500 copies.

"It's now only a recognition for published works, so you're restricted to what is commercially viable," he added.

Panellists said that this might be why established authors were winning the prize consistently - three-time winners include Yeng Pway Ngon for Chinese (2004, 2008, 2011) and Mohamed Latiff Mohamed for Malay (2004, 2006, 2008).

They called for more prizes to encourage new writers and for the Singapore Literature Prize to establish separate categories for poetry and fiction. "You cannot compare apples with oranges," said Chia.

The National Book Development Council, which administers the Singapore Literature Prize with the support of the National Arts Council and National Library Board, needs to rethink its focus, said panellists.

Jenkins said the council has been spending more resources recently on children's book festivals, such as the annual Asian Festival Of Children's Content, held since 2010.

"Really, I think the book council needs to get its act together and decide where its focus is and where it wants to go because it is not really developing anyone," he said.

Mr Kenneth Quek, assistant director for the council said: "The Singapore Literature Prize, in its current form, sets the bar for achievement in published local writing and while writers may not write with the explicit goal of winning the prize, we hope that when they do win, it serves as due recognition of their inestimable abilities. Also the substantial cash award for each language category is both reward and stimulus for further writing."

He said the council organises other prizes to develop new writing, such as the biennial Golden Point Award for short stories and Scholastic Asian Book Award for children's fiction.

"Expanding the readership for local writing at all levels is a slow and gradual process. Part of the work of the council includes developing and promoting local children's books to expose children to local authors from an early age."

akshitan@sph.com.sg

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