Oniatta Effendi, left, and Chow Teck Seng at a cafe in the National Gallery Singapore. Photo: Thana Boonlert
What were you doing at 25? The quarterly Singapore Writers Festival gave artists the opportunity to reflect on their creative lives. When the question popped up in our conversation, two of them laughed (I’m still 25!). At that time, Oniatta Effendi taught drama, while Chow Teck Seng taught Chinese literature. They only recently stopped.
“I left [in 2019] because I have other things to enrich my life. If you don’t seize the moment, you risk losing it. I don’t want to live a life of regrets. When you’re trapped in a system that has certain expectations that you know are hard to meet, you fall behind, your wings clip, and you’re afraid to get out because you’re comfortable with the essentials of life, like salary,” Effendi said.
After 21 years working in education, she became a cultural entrepreneur reinventing the tradition of batik. She founded Galeri Tokokita, a boutique that sells her own clothing line or Baju. However, she continues to teach drama to students from vulnerable communities, including young people in rehabilitation programs and social homes.
Teck Seng too. “Similarly, there are a lot of things like working with galleries and writing and publishing books. There comes a time when you think you’ve done enough for that phase of life and you need to move on. It will be easy if you do the same thing because you are used to it and you know the trick. A few months ago I decided to go out,” he said.
The poets of the festival read their works in the program called “A Night Of Poetry At Tea Chapter”. Photos courtesy of The Arts House Limited
He is a Chinese-language writer who has received numerous accolades, including the Singapore Literature Prize and the Singapore Golden Point Award. Some of his poems have been translated into different languages and adapted into microcinemas, songs and paintings. His recent publication is a collection of his poems titled The fading daylight makes the night fall into silence.
Both give lectures at the multilingual literary festival. Effendi took part in several programs, including a hilarious opening debate on whether the remake is better than the original and the panel on the legacy of Singaporean theater pioneer Kuo Pao Kun. Meanwhile, Teck Seng read his poems at a tea house and will participate in a panel discussion on the school of Kural, the classic book of Tamil wisdom poetry.
But it’s not easy to be an artist. While chasing their dreams, many are also finding ways to make ends meet. But Effendi said the literary festival can provide a space for creative practitioners and members of the public to engage. It is becoming a mainstream event where young audiences come and consider the possibility of an artistic career.
“My 16-year-old daughter has decided that she will take literature and linguistics classes next year. It comforts me because [she attended] debate that night. I feel there is an impact on them,” she said.
Furthermore, the literary festival can open up new possibilities. Teck Seng said writers of different languages in Singapore hope to expand their audience beyond the country and region.
Additionally, he envisioned a future where literature could merge with other new media, such as virtual reality and games. In fact, he writes with an artificial intelligence.
The Maison des Arts at the Old Parliament. (Photo: The Arts House Limited)
“Most of my poet friends don’t believe robots can replace humans. But at certain phases, I guess they can work together,” he said.
But Effendi remains cautious. She said the human spirit is irreplaceable because artistic expression comes from a place that robots don’t have – the soul. If there are soulless artists, art must remain as it is. If someone wants to succeed, he must find his soul. This is why there are different forms of art. However, social media takes away the human spirit.
“What have we become if we can’t engage with what is real? I think writing is a real experience. Human relationships are real. Machines can help facilitate movement because we no longer have need to use pen and paper, but you can’t take the real creative work and leave it to machines. So what’s your role? she says.
The advent of technology has raised concerns about the future of human artists. In September, an AI-generated image won an award in the Emerging Digital Artists competition. This has sparked fierce debate over the end of human art, the ethics of AI-generated art, and other issues, though controversy over the technology dates back to the past.
Teck Seng said writing was once an intimidating technology. When it started in different civilizations, the new form of expression raised fears that it would replace the oral tradition. But over time, they merged. Whether this will happen to humans and robots remains to be seen.
“I don’t know how literary art will evolve with new media, but I don’t think subjectivity will die,” he said.