Results of the Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition 2015 – Drama

We are very pleased to announce the results of the Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Competition 2015 – Drama. Congratulations to the prize winners!

2nd Prize ($6,000):  Isaac Lim Jue Hao for “Whither Are We Going?

Joint 3rd Prizes ($4,000):  Pooja Pandey for “Under The Mango Tree” and Barney Gopalakrishnen for “Cycle of Morality”

Special Commendation:  Eugene Koh Wen Jun for “Baofa”

The judges decided not to award a first prize this year, as most of the entries feel unfinished or at best, works-in-progress. None of this year’s entries stands out as a piece of work quite worthy of a first prize.

Many of the entries are strong in terms of their writing but the judges were a little disappointed by the limited range of issues the writers chose to engage. A majority of the entries deal with the personal and the domestic, which in themselves are worthy subjects, but many entries focus on these at the expense of the larger and wider implications for humanity and its politics.

Having said this, the second prize winner, Whither Are We Going, is strong. The judges were impressed by its use of language and its dramatic and theatrical flair. The entry is overly didactic in parts, but is worth further development and the judges strongly recommend that the writer continues to work on it. The first of the joint third prize winners, Under The Mango Tree, has good strong characterization and a sound plotline but is over-written, and notwithstanding that feels unfinished. The second joint third prize winner, Cycle of Morality, innovatively uses devices from allegory and symbolist drama but needs to go further than its appropriating of literary and theatrical forms. The judges also felt strongly about Baofa. Although this entry does not quite make the grade, they felt that its story-telling and its conviction are worthy of a special commendation.

The judges congratulate all four writers on their work and look forward to their future contributions to play-writing in Singapore.

The biennial Goh Sin Tub Creative Writing Prize was established by Dr Sylvia Goh with an endowed gift to the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore in memory and recognition of her late husband, Goh Sin Tub, who was one of Singapore’s best-known local writers.

Goh Sin Tub and Dr Sylvia Goh are both alumni of the University of Malaya (UM), one of NUS’ predecessor institutions. The Prize commemorates Goh Sin Tub’s life, achievements and support for education.

The genre for this Competition is drama. Subsequent competitions will feature other literary genres. The competition is open to all members of the NUS community at the time of submission of entry.

The closing date for the competition was 30 August 2015. Twenty-three qualifying entries were received.

Judging Panels

The judges for the first round of adjudication were Assoc Prof Ismail Talib and Dr Robin Loon from the Department of English Language and Literature, NUS; and Mr Lu Zhengwen, currently a Masters by Research student in English Literature at NUS.

The judges for the second round of adjudication were Assoc Prof Ismail Talib and Dr Robin Loon from the Department of English Language and Literature, NUS.

Workshops by the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards

The Theatre Studies programme has just hosted the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards.

Grotowski was a major twentieth-century theatre practitioner and theorist. Although he directed written plays when he was young, he quickly moved into what he called “bricolage” of text and physical actions. His approach (he rejected the word “method”) is far from being a way of producing imitative sounds and actions. Rather, it challenges participants to confront themselves, and to discover new ways of perceiving and of articulating perception.

The Workcenter has continued and developed Grotowski’s practice since his death in 1999. Thomas Richards, the Center’s Director, took an audience through his own connection with Grotowski and the Center’s work in a public lecture on 8 November. The lecture featured clips of the Center’s work in which performers explore songs and movement with remarkable, concentrated discipline. They work on each piece for years, searching through repetition and analysis for the resonance of each song for each performer.

Before the lecture, Richards had led Theatre Studies students in a two-day workshop. The Workcenter described the encounter as striving “to unearth the creative potential of each participant through two lines of exploration.” The students worked on a song and an “acting proposition” – a short performance of about three minutes.

One of the participants, Lara Tay, described the workshop as “an eyeopening experience, to say the very least.”

“Not only did we learn how ‘alive’ songs from the past can be,” she went on, “but we also learnt a lot about ourselves. One by one, we performed our acting propositions. And one by one, we learnt more about our past-selves, present-selves, and future-selves. We confronted issues that we either neglected or never even knew about –all of which we learnt can be used in our art.

“We’ve learnt to be inspired by our very own stories. We’ve all walked away from this experience with a greater understanding of ourselves, as well as the kind of art we may create in the future. It’s truly made me fall in love with theatre all over again. Our only wish is that we could have more time with the genius that is Thomas Richards.”

The Workcenter held the workshop as part of a larger Singapore schedule, jointly organised by Theatre Studies and the National Arts Council, facilitated and administered by Cheekeng Lee, who is currently working with the Theatre Studies program. John Phillips, the Deputy Head for Theatre Studies, explained that it was one of a series of workshops the program has organised over the past year.

“The workshops contribute to the program’s desire to further integrate performance practice into its teaching and research profiles,” he said. “Earlier this year we’ve had visits from a British academic and performance theorist, Simon Jones, on practice-as-research, and from the intercultural TASAT theatre group (popularly known as The Nanyang Sisters), on aspects of migrant theatre making. On this occasion, Thomas Richards ran three two-day workshops, two for professional practitioners and one for our students, introducing them to, or reacquainting them with, the current practice of Grotowski’s revolutionary theatre techniques. The programme intends to develop a longer-term relationship with the Workcenter, once we have overcome some practical difficulties. We would very much like to have them back in future to work with our students in a more sustained way than was possible on this visit.” (Contributed by Cheekeng Lee.)

2015 Writer-in-Residence: Ong Szu Yoong

The Singapore literary scene has certainly blossomed in the recent few decades, growing from a small but robust group to a diverse, multi-genre collection of writers. Prominent figures in the literary scene include established writers like our very own Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo, even as the literary landscape is expanding to include newer writers.

This has also resulted in the development of many programmes for writers to develop and hone their skills as well as to nurture a new generation of writers. The Singapore Creative Writing Residency is one such programme. Jointly organised by the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) University Scholars’ Programme (USP) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), and The Arts House (TAH), the programme offers time and space for writers to complete their work as well as provide opportunities for student writers to learn from the writers-in-residence.

In 2015, USP and FASS welcomed its new writer-in-residence, Ong Szu Yoong. In an interview with him, he discussed his thoughts on writing poetry, his thoughts on his favourite poets and poems, and imparted some advice for new writers.

Q: What prompted you to start writing poetry?
A: Reading Kafka as a 13-year-old.

Q: What do you think is the hardest part of writing?
A: Everything else.

Q: How important do you think is accessibility of meaning? (How important is it that the reader has to work hard to understand the poem?)
A: A poem has no meaning that it hides or hides behind. To quote Barthes: There is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armoury of meaning.

Q: What do you think makes a poem “good”?
A: A good poem is what it is. That is to say, it refuses to be anything else.

Q: Who are some of your favourite poets, and what are some of your favourite poems? What is it about these poems that draw you to them?
A: Off the top of my head: Anne Carson, Arthur Yap, Rae Armantrout, Elizabeth Bishop. I like complex and pathetic poems whose complexity and pathos are inextricable. My favourite Carson, Yap, and Armantrout poems are like that. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, which I’ve just finished re-reading, is like that as well. Bishop belongs to another category – I admire her for her discipline, and her attention to objects as they are.

Q: Which of your poems do you think is your favourite, and why?
A: The one I’m working on.

Q: What advice would you give young poets and budding writers?
A: Read as much as possible. Write as much as is necessary. Sometimes it is necessary not to write. Most of all, don’t take just anyone’s advice. Nothing works for everyone.

Ong Szu Yoong will be staying at USP’s Cinnamon College and working as a writer-in-residence until the end of January next year. He is currently conducting creative writing seminars with interested students, hoping for the participants to “come out of it with a better idea of how they want to write and what poetry is for them–a better sense of their own poetics.” These sessions will be held weekly, and participating students can look forward to presenting their work at the conclusion of the series of seminars. (Contributed by undergraduate Deanna Lim)

Alumnus Joel Tan Launches Play Collection

Lucas Ho, Joel Tan, Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman
Lucas Ho, Joel Tan, Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman
On Friday 14 August, our department alumnus, Joel Tan, launched his first volume of plays at the National Library. The volume features seven plays, the earliest of which were written when Joel was a student with us. In the speech he gave at the end of the launch he explained that he had come to playwriting through the two classes taught here by local playwright, Huzir Sulaiman.

Huzir is the Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, where Joel is an Associate Artist. Two of the four other Associate Artists, Faith Ng and Lucas Ho, are also former members of Huzir’s class, as well as alumni of our department. Lucas edited the collection, his third volume with Checkpoint.

The launch featured readings from the plays in the volume, and demonstrated the range of Joel’s writing. Some excerpts were very funny, containing acerbic insights into modern urban life in Singapore, while others were gentler and more touching. The extract from The Way We Go, for instance, with which the readings ended, featured an ageing couple struggling against their own habits and ingrained characters to communicate and be close. It was movingly read by Huzir and his fellow Artistic Director, Claire Wong.

Joel Tan speaking at the end of the launch.
Joel Tan speaking at the end of the launch.
In his speech at the end, Joel reflected on the role of the playwright, and on the etymology of that peculiar word. A playwright is a maker, he explained, and makes plays in collaboration with a host of other people. All the plays in the volume had benefitted enormously from the people involved in them.

Huzir is no longer teaching in the department, but his classes are now being taught by Faith, who is fast establishing herself as one of Singapore’s best young playwrights alongside Joel. Her work like his brings a sharp dramatic intelligence to bear on life in modern Singapore. Joel ends the interview that accompanies the plays in the volume by talking about the “brief glimmer of truth” that a play performance can provide. Certainly, the readings at the launch provided many such glimmers. (Photos courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo credit: Ken Cheong.)

2015 Applied Theatre Workshop

A Home on the Island: Bodies, Objects and Narratives

On 26 June 2015, an eight-hour applied theatre workshop was held from 9am to 5pm at the Theatre Studies Performance Studio, National University of Singapore. The workshop was facilitated by Ms Lee Yueh-lan, Artistic Director of Nanyang Sisters Theatre, and Ms Chen Shu-hui, a long-term member of Assignment Theatre, Even Nearer Playback Theatre and Cross Border Cultural Foundation. The workshop was attended by twelve members of Nanyang Sisters Theatre, seven NUS students, two NUS Theatre Studies alumni and three external participants. Altogether twenty-five participants were present at the workshop.

Founded in 2009 and based in Taipei, Nanyang Sisters Theatre is a theatre company with membership consisting of marriage migrants from various ASEAN countries. The theatre company is part of the NGO group called TransAsia Sisters Association, Taiwan (TASAT), which first began as a literacy program for foreign spouses in 1995. Since the founding of the company, it has created and extensively toured performances based on the life experience of its members, as well as those TASAT has assisted. Through performances, workshops and forums, the mission of the company is to offer support and consultancy to ASEAN marriage migrants, and to enhance public awareness and understanding of marriage migration.

As part of the workshop preparation, each participant was requested to bring an object which represented their understanding and concept of home. Through theatre games and exercises, group discussion, improvisation and scene creation, participants discussed, excavated and reflected upon issues regarding the flow of people, cultures and ideas across borders in an increasingly “flattened” world. Home, migration and globalization were the three central themes addressed in the workshop. The session concluded with Nanyang Sisters presenting the company’s latest performance production Happiness- No U-turn!?. The play gave a glimpse of the lives of those who had chosen marriage as a migratory route in a globalized world. (Contributed by Liang Peilin.)

Commencement 2015 — An English Language Senior Pens Her Thoughts on Her Graduation

July is the month of commencement ceremonies and the department has its share of seniors graduating from the English Language, English Literature and Theatre Studies programs.

Below, Gladys Sim, a senior graduating from the English Language program pens her thoughts on her graduation. In her honors thesis, Gladys studied advertisements for men’s skincare products and their role in constructing a new masculine identity. commencement

No Place I’d Rather Be . . .
“The quirks of being an English Language major are two-fold. One, that I probably spent half my time in NUS explaining to others that English Language is neither about English comprehension practices nor English cloze passages. Two, that English Language should not be confused with English Literature, and that not all English Language majors will be working as teachers when they graduate.

Contrary to popular belief, English Language is not about poring through English texts and being grammar Nazis, expanding our vocabulary knowledge, or writing great stories. English Language is way more sophisticated; it looks at the underlying concepts that explain and grapple with the ways language is used and maintained. It comprises many different research fields – Sociolinguistics that looks at issues like power, media, policies and gender; Psycholinguistics that analyses the very ability of the human brain that allows us to speak; Lexicology that is concerned with the signification and application of words; Phonology that studies sounds that form the bedrock of language; and Syntax that examines how grammar works.

Looking back on my four years as an undergraduate, I have amassed a trove of readings and lecture slides, and accumulated thousands and thousands of words in my entire storage of reports. I also remember many long nights of re-discussing, re-writing and re-editing concepts and arguments for both essays and presentations. It was not easy, and many times I had to make mistakes in order to learn what was better. The greatest takeaway for me was from writing my own Honours Thesis that was worth 15 MCs. I could not have done it without the intensive intellectual rigour that being an English Language major had put me through, my dedicated Professor who challenged my thoughts with her insights, and the fun-loving bunch of friends who shared the same passion for the English Language.

Now that I have graduated, it is partly a relief not to have to meet the incessant deadlines and the avalanche of assignments. Having said that, a part of my heart aches too knowing that the camaraderie with my fellow comrades forged in my undergraduate years will now take a different turn. It is a bittersweet feeling to stand between the academic sphere which I have to depart from, and the corporate world which I now need to learn to embrace. I had expected to experience this intangible bit of wistfulness, and I told myself early on to seize every moment in my undergraduate years. I am glad I did, and that I learnt to discard the rat-race mentality to look beyond simply achieving good grades, because in the end I received a lot more blessings than I had asked for.”

Unfinished Business: Conference on Krishen Jit’s Performance Practice and Contemporary Malaysian Theatre


9 students from the Theatre Studies programme attended a conference on Malaysian theatre practitioner and theorist Krishen Jit held on 9-11 January 2015 in Kuala Lumpur. Below is a write-up on the conference:

. . . . . . The ellipsis is a marker of an unfinished sentence that communicates unfinished thoughts and points towards hesitance. It could equally indicate a need to take a deliberate pause and, in some contexts, conjures a sense of longing. In many ways, Unfinished Business: Conference on Krishen Jit’s Performance Practice and Contemporary Malaysian Theatre can be seen as elliptical in its attempt, after ten years since his passing, to take a deliberate pause and incite conversation about Krishen Jit’s legacy and his impact on contemporary Malaysian theatre. It was organized by Five Arts Centre, which Krishen Jit had a hand in founding, and held at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre. The conference provided a rare opportunity for theatre practitioners, academics, students and long-time friends from both local and overseas communities to gather in order to commemorate and contemplate the current moment in relation to the legacy he left behind.

As elliptical as Krishen Jit, the conference in a similar vein resuscitated and provoked many conversations – all of which were left unfinished – in line with theme of the conference. A privileged group of 9 students from the Theatre Studies programme were given this unique opportunity of entering into this unfinished conversation about a theatre maker who had greatly influenced contemporary theatre making in Malaysia and Singapore.

The conference was well-balanced with keynote speeches, panel presentations, theatrical performances, story dialogues and workshops, which crystallized Krishen Jit’s work, not only as a theatre-maker but also as an academic. He possessed an insatiable hunger for the rigorous development of both theatre practice and theory in the region, where his voracious appetite extended far beyond the art towards the dining table. The conference reiterated Krishen Jit’s delicate obsession with food, which was fondly remembered by friends and colleagues alike. As such, the conference started off with an impressive performance by the Singapore-based Malaysian artists Huzir Sulaiman and Claire Wong titled Carrot/Pantun/Dance: The Show of a Post-Show Dialogue recounting how Krishen Jit taught them to “cook” caramelized carrots, of course, amongst many other important things in life.


Foregrounded by this hilarious yet thought-provoking start, the second day of the conference saw various speakers interrogating contemporary performance in the region – art historian T. K. Sabapathy spoke about “Krishen Jit and the Contemporary in Southeast Asia”; a group of artists including Ong Keng Sen, Leow Puay Tin and Ray Langenbach presented papers along the theme of “Contemporary Business: Construction, Reconstruction, Deconstruction”; members of Five Arts Centre Marion D’Cruz and Chee Sek Thim shared about “Practicing… De/Re/Constructions”; theatre veterans Joe Hasham, Faridah Merican, Kee Thuan Chye and Chin San Sooi spoke about “Collaborating with Krishen.” As the conference unfolded, it became very apparent that Krishen Jit had left much unfinished discussion, work and relationships behind. The speakers spoke fondly of their intimate collaborations with him and related how this had impacted contemporary theatre practice in Singapore and Malaysia. They spoke of his unfinished experimentation with form and content in the 80s and 90s that had laid the foundations for the deeper questioning of tradition, culture and history. Tying in the complex postmodern and postcolonial experience that is coupled with our current epoch of intensifying globalisation and cosmopolitanism, the subject of negotiating cultures and relationships in theatre practice and the development of the Arts in East and Southeast Asia was broached with much academic rigour and purpose. The day ended with performances by Jo Kukathas and Ivan Heng, which were both based on the productions they had created with Krishen Jit. Embodying the notions of deconstruction and reconstruction of identity, Ivan Heng treated the audience to a sterling restaging of Emily on Emerald Hill, dressed in a suit as opposed to his 1999 debut, which was directed by Jit.

The third and final day opened up conversations about traditional-contemporary discourse as well as the process of experimentation and intercultural collaboration. The speakers included Japanese theatre director and Jit’s long time collaborator Makoto Sato who spoke about “Traditionalising the Contemporary and Contemporarizing the Traditional Arts”. Mohd Anis Md Nor, Soon Choon Mee, Tan Sooi Beng likewise gave presentations that were related to the theme, “Experimental Business: Interdisciplinary, Intercultural, Interconnection.” Following which, Janet Pillai and Mark Teh of Five Arts Centre dealt with “Practicing Intersections” whilst Malaysian artists Jillian Ooi, Anne James, Nam Ron and Zahim Albakri covered “Experimenting with Krishen . . . .” These discussions and dialogues surfaced the intricacies and complexities of collaboration across different fields, cultures and art forms. In many ways, Krishen Jit was very much ahead of his time in using theatre to experiment. In essence, his body of work traversed new frontiers and pushed boundaries. Yet, with any pioneer, delving into unchartered territories brings its fair share of success and failure and we, as younger students and practitioners, are left with Krishen Jit’s unfinished art. His bold attempts to engage in interracial casting and cross-disciplinary performances in Family: A Visual Performance Event (1998) and Monkey Bussiness (2005) were but the heralds of deeper explorations of hybridity and interactions that are the conditions of our postmodern ere. Krishen Jit’s work remains unfinished simply because we can only continue to unroot, unravel and understand it and hence when the conference drew to a close, the important question of “what is next?” was raised. Issues ranging from democratizing the rehearsal space, to censorship in the arts, to development of the younger generation were articulated with passion and gusto, but without resolution or conclusion. This inconclusive ending of the dialogue was a stark reminder of the amount of unfinished business that Krishen Jit left behind. It was also a call to introspection for the theatre practitioner, academic and younger generation to take up the issues and business that have been left unfinished. (Contributed by Ken Takiguchi.)

Dr Susan Ang wins the Outstanding Educator Award (OEA)

Dr Susan Ang, who teaches literature, was conferred the Outstanding Educator Award (OEA) at this year’s University Awards. The OEA is the University’s highest teaching award and is given out annually to a faculty member who has been truly exemplary in his or her role as an educator. Among other subjects, Dr Ang has taught modules on Romantic literature, tragedy, science fiction and modern poetry. She shares a part of her teaching philosophy below where, for a while, she envisions herself as a “tiger mom”:

News 1 Dr Susan Ang


On Tiger Moms and Cubs

A few months ago I was a little taken aback (not to mention mildly dismayed) when one of the graduating class said cheerfully to me, “Student X said that as a lecturer, you were a Tiger Mom.” It wasn’t meant insultingly and, indeed, was even meant as a backhanded compliment of a sort.  But the phrase connotes a certain aggressiveness, ruthlessness and pushiness, all of which I think of as alien to the way I do things, and it was only when another student said, “Tiger Moms train up competent cubs who are properly equipped to survive,” that I began to appreciate the comment a bit more.

When one teaches, one teaches to the whole, or integrated, person, not just the part of the student engaged in learning the skills on one’s modules. If the objective of teaching is the training up of competence, I would like to train the students–or cubs–to be “competent,” not only in our shared discipline, but in larger, more general, ways that will affect not just their “survival” in the university but also in the wider world after they graduate.

A specific example of something that I do try to “teach” that has ramifications both for competence in the discipline, and also in a more extended sense, is dealing with difficulty.  I would like to show students how to manage difficulty rather than avoid it, gravitating towards the former practice partly in memory of my own experience as an A-level student when I wanted to drop Maths, which my parents permitted (albeit unhappily).  Finding that I could not manage Economics either (I thought that being unable to differentiate the x-axis from the y-axis was good evidence for this), I asked to drop Economics as well and substitute Music, but my father, despite the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, refused to allow this: “If I say yes, you’ll get the idea that the way to deal with things you find tough or boring is to drop them.  There will be plenty of things in life that you find tough and/or boring.  You can’t drop them all.  So learn to cope with it.”  So both the principles of “stickability” (“stick with it”) and “learning to cope with difficulty” became something both to be internalized as part of my own teaching philosophy, and to be passed on, in turn, to my students.  This represents a significant part of the “competence” I seek to inculcate and is less praxis than a whole attitude of mind.

The point, however, is not to throw “difficulty” at students and leave it at that. The point is to teach them how to manage it, the intention being that there should be mastery of higher-order material as well as the pedagogical acquisition of methods for dealing with the complex/difficult but also, equally importantly, that they should learn to be courageous about facing things that are intransigent and hard.  That is an attitude of mind that will equip them to survive in the wider world beyond the university.