"The absurdity of the local landscape really reflects hope" | SWF x Ethos Books : Absurdity in the Singaporean mundane

From the left to right: Akshita Nanda (moderator), Anittha Thanabalan, Johnny Jon Jon & Yeoh Jo-Ann. 


Absurdity in the Singaporean Mundane took place in-person at The Arts House Chamber on 12 November 2022. You can access the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity. 


About Absurdity in the Singaporean Mundane: 

The endless array of cookie-cutter apartment buildings, tidy expressways, and bureaucratic pencil-pushers—Singapore has a bad rep for being mundane, mechanical, and over-methodical. If we turn our heads sideways, might we find that there is more than meets the eye? We talk about the strange, absurd, and amusingly Singaporean things that are revealed through fiction written with irony and a tongue placed firmly in cheek.

This programme is co-presented by Singapore Writers Festival and Ethos Books. Singapore Writers Festival is organised by the Arts House Limited and commissioned by the National Arts Council.


You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!

Akshita:  Hello everyone, and a warm welcome to Singapore Writers Festival, organised by the Arts House Limited and co-commissioned by the National Arts Council.

Thank you very much for taking this afternoon to come and spend time with us and discuss absurdity in the Singapore mundane. Singapore, a place where we build lego bricks building for houses, a place where a panelist queued up with everybody else because he didn’t think he could walk in early for his own panel.

So, let's start with this idea of what does it mean to be mundane in Singapore and why does Singapore have this reputation of being mundane and boring? Annitha? 

AnitthaI think Singapore has a reputation of being mundane and boring because of the way society is structured. You go to school, you go to work, there’s this idea I think especially among Singaporean youths, where this country is very boring.

Especially over the weekends, besides going to school, there’s nothing much you can do. You could go to the theatre or hang out at your friend’s house. So I think that the repetitiveness makes it seem very boring.

And Johnny Jon Jon?

Jon Jon: I totally agree with Anittha. And I really think that it’s the way how things are really manicured and laid out and kind of easy for us. So everything is just there, you kind of know what to expect and you don't really expect any kind of bumps or any interruptions. So that kind of puts you in that mundane or repetitive cycle state of mind.

Akshita: I mean you saw the queue today, and joined the queue rather than walking in as a speaker.

Jon Jon: I thought that was the right thing to do!

Akshita: I think it would be really nice if our creatives could start off by sharing how they explore Singapore’s mundanity and absurdity in their writings. So, Anittha, could you start us off?

Anittha: This is an excerpt from a collection of a story I did with Ethos (How we live now). For some context, it’s about two teenagers talking to their parents on a Sunday at a wet market: 

"I hope we don’t see anyone from school,” Gita grumbled. Mechanically, she counted marigolds out of a large wicker basket into bunches of ten and wrapped them in plastic. The flowers looked like little suns, shining merrily against the metal countertops.

In the grey-tiled mutton stall that belonged to her parents, the yellow blooms looked foreign, as alien as a sheep swimming in the sea.

“Why?” Ramani asked. She was carefully pulling out a turmeric-yellow cloth from its plastic case. “What why? Imagine what they would think if they saw us here.” “That we’re hardworking and not lazing about playing video games?” Gita snorted, sounding like a cartoon pig in a children’s picture book. “Video games are what normal teenagers do on Sundays.” “We are normal.”

Ramani spread the yellow cloth on the cash register. She smoothed it down so there were no unsightly wrinkles. “Please. We are fifteen. Selling marigolds and mutton. In a wet market. With our parents. At seven a.m. on a Sunday.” 

Akshita: So that’s really quite amazing, marigolds, mutton, on a Sunday morning, instead of playing video games or sleeping after using social media all night. So tell me why you chose this extract.

Anittha: When I was growing up, my mum used to drag me to the wet market every Sunday. It was a very unpleasant experience for me primarily because it’s early and I’m very tired. So she would just park me in a corner and run all over the market to grab some of the food. And I would just stand there.

So that was my job every Sunday, and I really didn't like the experience. But, I realised now that it is important. And that wet markets is such a huge characteristic of Singapore in such an important way, because everyone goes to the supermarket in general. So that’s something I wanted to point out.

Akshita: Lovely, so what we find absurd and mundane depends very much on our context. So now Jon is going to share us a small excerpt from a play.

Jon Jon: I’m going to show you guys a short snippet. It’s from my play, Potong. It’s the second scene where two characters meet. Adam, who is the main character, meets up with his uncle whom he has never met before. And he has to meet him to find a place to stay while he is in Singapore.

So yeah, I guess the whole mundane bit is really about family coming together and meeting at the void deck and it’s something we gloss over, when we go home each day or when we go out each day. Yeah so, take a look!

[video plays]

Jon Jon: That was pre-covid when it was okay to cough in the theatre.

Akshita: I do love Potong, do you want to talk a bit more about what that play symbolises?

Jon Jon: The play was really my attempt to tackle issues of identity as well as memory. So, Adam here was born in Australia when his mum kind of ran off, with her then husband. 

When he is back in Singapore, because he has to serve National Service (NS), the mum, being truly Singaporean, says “Since you’re back in Singapore for NS, might as well go back there for your circumcision”. And so, he has to meet the uncle and afterwards, meet a circumcision doctor, and go through the entire rite of passage together.

Akshita: Thank you so much Johnny.  And welcome Jo-Ann, lovely to have you here with us.

Jo-Ann: Thank you for still having me.

Akshita: We were just talking about what it means to live in Singapore and what is absurd and mundane about it.  And I thought a great way to start off is for everyone to share something from their writing. Would you like to do a reading? And tell us a bit about your writing and how it captures Singapore’s absurdity.


image of Jo-Ann speaking


Jo-Ann: This is from my only novel (Impractical Uses of Cake), it’s the starting of the first chapter, just a part of it: 

The dawn sky is full of pinkish clouds, but Sukhin goes out anyway. None of the other early-morning runners are about, not even the nutter from the condo down the road. He feels a little smug. Hah. Afraid of a little water. The smugness makes the next couple of kilometres much more bearable than usual, and a little while later he is halfway through—finally. As the air around him thickens with the smell of a thunderstorm brewing, he strains to run a little faster, willing himself to take longer, quicker steps.

Sukhin hates running. It bores him. It makes him feel stupid, all this ridiculous gasping and heaving, this inelegant, unimaginative pavement-pounding that he practises every morning to get from his flat to…his flat. Zero displacement—how ridiculous. But he is sticking to it. It’s cheap, it’s convenient, and he needs the exercise.

“Unfit people just aren’t productive,” he heard Ken tell the new coordinator a few months ago. “They tire easily—there’s just no stamina. It’s not even a question of being willing or unwilling to work.” They were in the staff room pantry and Ken was looking right at him—clearly, he meant that Sukhin was unproductive, tired easily and had no stamina, and, just as clearly, he wanted him to know this.

There was a time when Sukhin would have said something cutting, when he would have refused to exercise on some prideful principle, not wanting to prove Ken had any sort of point. But denial took more energy now than it did when he was younger, and he found himself looking closely at his growing paunch in the mirror, checking his energy levels throughout the day, comparing his stride to Ken’s and Tat Meng’s and Dennis’s, and, after exactly a week, coming to the decision that exercise would have to be dealt with.

This morning, as the rain courses down in streams, drenching him all the way to his insoles, he wonders if he should have joined a gym instead.
The trouble with gyms, though: the people who go to them.

Years ago, Sukhin went to a gym. The people maddened him. Men in front of wall-to-wall mirrors, trying to isolate obscure back muscles. Women in perky ponytails, checking themselves out in the same mirror, gushing about how much their thighs hurt after class. And bright Lycra, everywhere he looked. Why did would anyone get dressed up in bright Lycra to engage in repetitive actions with other bright-Lycra-clad people, usually while being falsely cheered on by a gym-appointed bright-Lycra-clad chieftain, whose employment depends solely on people being unable to motivate themselves without being shouted at while dressed in bright Lycra? 

This was all lost on Dennis, who had dragged him there, who only rolled his eyes, saying: “Sweetie, relax. You sound crazy. Worse—you sound angry. With Lycra.” And off he bounded to spin class, whatever that was. Sukhin went home.

So no. No gyms. No bright Lycra.

Sodden, Sukhin reaches his apartment building. He can hardly see—his glasses are misted up, the rain is in his eyes—and it takes him five tries to punch in the correct code at the gate. He feels like shouting but doesn’t. Instead, he takes comfort in stomping across the lobby and jabbing repeatedly at the Up button at the lobby, even after the lift doors open.
“Zero displacement,” he growls, once the doors close and the motor starts to whir. “Zero displacement.” There’s a metaphor in this somewhere, he feels—he just hasn’t pieced it together.

 “See? #04-03 talks to himself,” The night guard gestures at the CCTV monitor marked Lift A. The morning guard has just clocked in.
“Mr Dhillon? Teacher lah.” The morning man is older and used to be on duty in the CBD, where he’d seen all sorts of crazy types and stored them as anecdotes for friends and family. “Lawyers, teachers, all the same. All talk a lot, all crazy. Have I told you about the one who took off all his clothes and threw them into the traffic?”

The digital wall clock in the security booth beeps twice. It is six o’clock.
Akshita: Thank you for that Jo-Ann, and I think there is something in there, just about the repetitive motion of being in the exercise just seems so futile. But tell me more, why did you choose this extract to illustrate the absurdity and mundanity in Singapore?

Jo-Ann: Generally I feel that this novel is about, obviously, a teacher, the protagonist. But throughout the novel what I laughed about most of all, was the fact that he always laughed at how other people were nuts and absurd in their mundanity. But he never understood how odd he was. And I think that’s what it really is for all of us. We are all living a mundane life and pointing out how mundane other people’s lives are. But, in essence we are all just as mundane as each other and just as absurd.
Akshita: So what’s the most absurd thing you’ve seen in Singapore?

Jo-Ann: The ‘chope’ thing with the tissue paper packets. That’s the biggest one, because I’m Malaysian, so when I first came here we didn't have that custom back home. If you tried to pull this stunt in Penang or Kuala Lumpur, you’d be very disappointed, someone would just take your tissue and that’s done.

So, when I first came here and first went to the Central Business District, I think I went to Maxwell and saw these tissue paper packets. I thought, “Is that free tissue?” This country is so cool. And then of course I was eating noodles and halfway through someone comes up and says "that’s my table" and I didn’t get it at all. And I think that still is one of the most absurd things I’ve encountered in Singapore.

Akshita: Anittha, how do you feel about that? Or is there something else absurd that you’ve encountered?

AnitthaI grew up here so the ‘choping’ thing is very natural for me. But I think the weirdest thing I’ve seen people chope with is laptops, iPhones. Just the degree of safety you can only find in Singapore, or like just blind to us. Literally I saw a woman put her iPhone down and just walked off. And I was like, ‘Wow okay.’ So that’s always pretty strange. 

I also think about the food thing. The casual questioning of people around you, especially the drink stall auntie, will ask your entire life, as you just stand there waiting for your eggs or your coffee or something. That’s something that was always very weird.

Jo-Ann: The kopi guy once asked me, “Eh, have children already?" or "married or not?” In that order!

Akshita: So in Johnny’s clip just now, this was my fault, I forgot to ask questions. So apart from crying, what were some of the most absurd things you witnessed in Singapore?

Jon Jon: Wah, quite a few things I guess. I think one that I still encounter to this day, is when people tell me, “Hey, you’re my first Malay friend.” I'm like “Really? Through your entire education, NS, never met a guy like me?” So I think that’s quite interesting and yeah that’s one. It’s very hard for me when people ask, “what are the absurd things in Singapore?”

The entire experience is absurd, and I totally relate to Jo-Ann’s story that maybe it’s not so absurd, maybe I'm the absurd one.

Akshita: But you also spent a lot of your life as a police officer. 

Jon Jon: I’ve spent a good part of my life as a police officer. I think I shared this earlier. One of the most absurd experiences I had, was when Ethos first gathered for the launch of the 2022 publishing calendar.

They had me sit right between Kirsten Han and Constance Singam, and it was so awkward for me to introduce myself because back then I just left the force about a month ago, and to say I'm a former police officer and these two are civil society idols. So that was a bit awkward. And I was like: “I was one of the many officers that didn’t arrest the two of you." 

Akshita: The thing about these absurdities in Singapore, is that they make for really good copy, right? I think all of our creative work is inspired by them and it just makes it fascinating when it comes to certain tropes, like cookie cutter HDB or the “just follow the  law” aspect. What of these absurdities fascinates you? Jo Ann, anything in particular?

Jo-Ann: The “just follow the law” thing has always been interesting to me because I'm Malaysian. When I first came here, I always had people telling me stuff, like “Don't litter”, “don't eat gum”, “don’t cross the road when you feel like it.” It seems to me like a very strange place that looked kind of like home but in a very uncanny way. So that was very, very much  unlike home where we cross the road whenever we like, so I think that strange legal mindedness of people. Maybe?

But I’ve gotten used to it, in the same way. And we all end up being what we surround ourselves with. So these days I don’t cross the road whenever I feel like it. I have actually had that weird Harold and Kumar moment right, where I’m standing and I’ve pressed the pedestrian button thing- the traffic light. And it’s 1 am and there's no traffic and I'm standing there waiting to cross to the 24-hour Giant near my place.

And I’m thinking, “why did I do that?” This is after about a minute away, right, there’s no traffic. But I’m waiting for that light to tell me that I can cross the road and buy myself a pack of cigarettes.

Jon Jon: The funny thing is that it happened to me and my brother. We waited for the traffic light and when we crossed the road, a car came and knocked him down.

And the story is very funny. Maybe it’s not that funny. The first thing that I did when I saw him get hit was to ask him, “Hey dude are you okay, what about your feet?” 

The thing is, it kind of protects us in a sense, when we are stuck in this mental model, but it lulls you into a certain compliance as well. And you don’t have to look out for things. Because when you are crossing, you won’t look out for the road and this Romanian diplomat just comes and ploughs through us. So sorry, it just randomly came to my mind. 

Akshita: So first of all I have to agree that, why is it that when someone has already pressed that button, someone else would press it again?

Jon Jon: To double check yourself (by pressing the button again). 

Akshita: Tell us some fascinating mundane things.

Jon Jon: One thing I found fascinating related to our creative works is that, when you sign up for a creative writing programme, there’s actually a schema for you to win awards. And that to me is crazy. It goes with the whole “follow the law” thing, but I get that it’s a NUTS issue in Singapore, which is the No U-Turn Syndrome whereby you can’t do anything unless you are told how to do it.

And so, even when it comes to creative writing there’s a schema, that you are told if you follow it, you are creative. But if you don’t, there’s something wrong with you and you shouldn’t continue in this programme. I think that's a bit of an absurdity that I find amazing in the creative space in Singapore.

Akshita: But on the plus side that’s something about Singapore’s first AI playwright or AI monopolises right? Just follow the schema. 

Jon Jon: Yeah that’s correct, just follow the schema.

Anittha: I agree with the creative writing thing. I didn’t think of it until you mentioned it. Cause Jo and I have done a creative class for kids before. 

Jo-Ann: We were forced to come up with our schema, two weeks beforehand. And we were like, “Oh my god, what are we going to do?” We were planning to wing it and then we found out that they weren’t going to let us wing it.

Anittha: Came up with a whole system and they had to follow it.

Jo-Ann: And they made us mark the scripts.

Anittha: I also think that general romance in Singapore is really weird. You have the apps and everything, but let’s not get into the apps. In general when you think about how teenagers think, or even people my age think, and you have the very famous proposal question, ‘do you wanna BTO?’ (Build-to-order).

It really says a lot about us as a country and romance here is very odd. When you see public displays of affection, and there are still people around me when people kiss, there’s always this reaction like [cringe]. And it’s very strange because the government wants us to have more babies at the same time, but we can’t be there without…

Jo-Ann: In private Anittha, in private.

Anittha: And so all the reaction towards romance is ‘hmm’. But honestly, it’s very interesting to see.

Akshita: Romance with Asian values.

Jo-Ann: Keep in your homes guys, keep it in your home…

Akshita: Johnny’s actually written a beautiful play which is about a long time relationship about power and being in power. Was romance like that difficult to write?

Jon Jon: Sometimes I like to joke and say that sometimes I feel like a lesbian stuck in a guy’s body. But the love… 

I can’t really express the same tones with regards to love as them, because I definitely do not embody that experience. And so I took it on as a challenge, as a greater sense of empathy and to kind of process it through a lens that everyone else has empathy for. Or to understand them.

Akshita: But it’s actually lovely. Because one of the things I was thinking about, is there is that tendency to label Singaporean work as stuff that occurs around HDB void decks or in Singapore. But could we have a body of Singapore work that looks beyond it?

I think one of the questions this panel does focus on is, being so focused in Singapore, living in Singapore, does it constrain our thinking? Does it limit our creativity? What do you think?

Anittha: I don't think it does at all. Because it actually makes the differences, the comparisons, the contrasts, the delivery. It’s actually a lot. So when you meet someone who is a little bit different from what you expect or when you read a book, a character is just a little bit different from you. That’s what makes it interesting. You can explore how someone who came from this cookie cutter environment is brought up so differently. That’s always interesting.

Akshita: In fact, we talked a bit about The Lights That Find Us, because you did use a very famous work as a source of inspiration right?

Anittha: I used Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. That was very fun for me to write because Deepavali was always a huge part of my childhood and of my life in general. So it was very fun to explore that within Singapore’s context and how different it is. How this teenager navigates her family moments of her life.

Akshita: Thank you. Jo-Ann, how about you? You’re from Malaysia. Being in Singapore, how does that affect your creativity?

Jo-Ann: I feel like sometimes I go round saying things that like this country does things so strangely, right? At the same time, I don’t think it has limited my creativity. I don’t think it works that way, I feel that there’s a lot to observe in Singapore. I still love that I’ve been here for 25 years now, but I'm still very entertained by this country. And I like that every time I travel abroad and I've been telling people this.

I was in Greece and it was somewhere in Santorini or one of those small botanic islands.  And then I heard this voice “eh take picture take picture.” And I knew this person was from Singapore. And I turned to my friend, whom I was travelling with, and said in Malay, because I didn’t want them to know.
I said in Malay, “Eh, your countryman.”

And my friend said, “Oh my god, let’s run.”

And I think that's the funny thing to Singaporeans abroad. We either really want to stick with your fellow man, with other Singaporeans, or you really don't want to have anything to do with them at all. I find this true of Singaporeans in any other country.

Anittha: When you know you are Singaporean, you just shout out “lah lah lah” And you’re like “oh my god, please stop.” That’s actually happened to me a lot.

Jon Jon: When I travel, I do miss Singapore in a sense, Singaporeans for that matter; there’s a sense of familiarity that gives you some comfort. I remember when I was in Canada, I thought I was strong until suddenly I heard ‘Home’, you know, by Kit Chan, playing in my ears and I was about to cry.

When I came back I had tear streaks down my cheeks. My Singaporean housemates were like, “Guess you miss home, huh.” I guess that familiarity sometimes brings you comfort as well, especially when you are in the world.

Akshita: So what marks Singaporeans abroad is, “lah lah lah”, Kit Chan’s ‘Home’ and what else?

Jon Jon: Photo taking.

Jo-Ann: They want to take selfies everywhere.

Akshita: What about taking selfies around our HDB market and areas? You don’t see much of that.

Jon Jon: I used to do that. I used to take photos of dustbins because I thought it was cool to take photos of things that people didn’t want to see… Obviously it didn't catch on.

Akshita: You really are a very mundane person inside. There was something else you were talking about, right? Light fixtures?

Jon Jon: Something else that has caught my eye recently was light fixtures. I was teaching a creative writing class at Yale-NUS recently about creative confidence; being confident about the fluff that you write. And one of my students said that she wanted to write a story using ceiling lights as the main character. And she asked how she could do that.

Everybody was like, “Woah, awkward man, why would you want a ceiling light as a main character?”

I was like "that’s crazy, man". That’s how we should be writing stuff, because I work in tech, I understand the whole smart light energy. These smart lights are potentially smarter than the average joe, you know. And potentially, it could be a character of its own.

I’m not sure if you guys know this, but Amazon has the Alexa microwave, so now it knows what you eat, when you eat and I think that it is worth writing a fictional story about. These kinds of things make me feel really trippy and I want to write about all these stories.

Akshita: That's perfectly on-key here about what we are talking about, absurdity in the Singaporean mundane. All these dustbins and lightbulbs sound a bit funny, like funny ‘ha ha’. Anittha, talk to me about the humour in your writing, how do you bring that in? Do you think Singapore’s ordinariness has something to do with it?

Anittha: It’s not so much the things that make the people. For me, it’s because the people here have just become... Questions here are asked very directly, if you have kids or are married, or whatever, sometimes the same thing. So I try to work with it, sometimes it isn’t very successful with the way it goes.

But I do think that writing characters who are very unsure about what they want but are still very confident in questioning everything and everybody around them, means a lot.

Akshita: What about you Jo-Ann? 

Jo-Ann: My characters don't tend to fit in the space that they are in. So that's a lot of where the funny bits come from. This situation comes, they don’t understand what they do, and then they find themselves in situations where this occurs and they still continue on. So I feel that's where my humour comes from, I know, it’s cliché, but it works for me.

Akshita: There’s also the act of observing strangers. Through the stories you write, describing Singapore and its mundanities and absurdities, do you think if we change the stories we write, it would change Singapore and the way we view our things? Perhaps that’s something you’ve already tried in your writing.

Jon Jon: I totally agree with that. Obviously it's what art or literature is for us, to subconsciously change our thinking in that sense. Maybe that is why some governments are not really into the arts.

That's what I try to do in my writing. 
So if you ask about humour within my work, I don't intentionally make the characters funny, but I try to make the situation funny or awkward for the audience.

I want the audience to kind of laugh and ask themselves why they are laughing. And when they are in that comfortable laughing space and yet questioning, I think that's where things can change because you've created a space for them to have internal discussions. 

Jo-Ann: I remember a piece I read about 10 -15 years ago. It was about a film - a human film, and there was a line about how when a child laughs for the first time, that’s when it has lost its innocence.

Because when you can laugh at something, it’s because you know that it doesn't belong there. It doesn’t fit in. And so you’ve already developed the idea of what should be and what’s correct and what’s not.

So for me, a lot of humour is like that, the idea of what should be and what is right and when something is a little off kilter, you laugh because it strikes you that something is not quite right. I think that’s a lot of where our humour comes from, where a lot of things are not quite right either.


Akshita: Let’s take some of the more prominent questions (from the audience). One of which is:

What do you think about the local propensity to single out specific instances of absurdity, rather than recognising mundanity and life itself as being absurd?

It’s kind of similar to what Jo-Ann’s character does, like everybody else is crazy and ridiculous, but not the character itself. So why don’t we do that? Why don’t we generally get that life is a big joke?

Jon Jon: I think because we take things too seriously and it puts us in a very weird place to laugh at ourselves. I’m forced to laugh at myself because my kids have been laughing at me non-stop.

Just today, I was telling my wife that I get to be on this panel for the first time ever, and I can do it without a mask and lots of people are gonna be here without masks because things have changed right?

And she was like, “Dear, you have to wear your mask.” And I was like, “Why? Is it because you’re worried I will catch Covid?” She was like, “No. Things have changed but your face hasn’t. So you need to wear a mask. Don’t scare people, Halloween is over.”

I don’t take myself seriously. But that's romance for me, being able to make fun of myself. I don’t make fun of her though…

Akshita: This brings us to the third question and it’s directed at Anittha: What is the difference between Singaporean romance vs Hollywood romance?

Anittha: So for Hollywood romance, it’s what you want romance to be - sappy, cute, but Singaporean romance is a little bit more realistic. Singaporean romance is more realistic, serious and very rarely fun and flirty. There’s usually an end goal in mind. The person that asked this question might know better than me.

Akshita: Jo-Ann, what about you?

Jo-Ann: This novel (Impractical Uses of Cake)the only one I’ve writtenwas classified as a romance and I was very angry about it. Because I worked so hard at not writing a romance novel right, and then it gets classified as a romance novel. I find that absurd and unjust.

To me they’re quite similar because we are always playing to this fantasy of happy endings, being understood, knowing everything about each other, all of these lovely things. What I think is, to me, they are very similar.

The fun stuff is the European romance - the French novels, where everyone sleeps with everyone and no one ends up with anyone and the movie just ends. And you are left wondering ‘what happened, what did I spend two and a half hours doing? I still don't know!’ That to me is a larger difference, but I think the Singaporean romance is very practical. It checks off certain things. 

And there’s the Hollywood romance right - a hot chick, a buff guy. Over the years it’s changed a bit, but there’s still a checklist. Like how feel-good it is and everything like that and these days it has to be a little bit more politically correct. It is - woke, is that the word now? But yeah, I think it’s pretty much the same. 

Akshita: There’s a lot of questions that we will come to in a bit, but there was one that really stood out to me: What is a uniquely Singaporean story or uniquely Singaporean fable, something that distinguishes Singapore?

Something like Aesop’s Fables, The Fox and Grapes. Other fable stories that you know is clearly a Singaporean fable.

Jon Jon: I can’t say it's unique after watching my Korean dramas, but I guess the whole ‘National Service sure break up’ fable, that I think is a Singaporean thing.

Singaporeans, because we are so used to being so close with each other, we cannot bear the break in space or time. But when you look at couples in the United States or those in Australia, they are so used to long distance relationships.

Here, our romance is based on timelines and how soon you get from one place to another. When I was dating a long time ago, I made sure my partner, who lived in the west, could rest. Because to me, that was the most important thing, being able to get home on time.

Anittha: I know of people who broke up because one lives in Pasir Ris and one lives in Jurong.

Akshita: There is this question about: How does Singaporean absurdity compare to the everyday absurdity of other societies? What, if anything, sets us apart?

What sets us apart, I think practicality seems to be it.

Jon Jon: I think our absurdity lies in the mundane. But in other countries where there’s an effort to maintain the old, the absurdity comes from the magic of the past. Because in Singapore we are usually all about the mundane life. If you talk about Europe, it’s about that magical connection to your past self or past consciousness. Less so in Singapore actually, that’s one key difference I can observe.

Akshita: Jo-Ann or Anittha, would you like to add to that?

Jo-Ann: It’s the practicality, like parents being a little crazier than they are in other countries, yeah. The whole PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examinations) thing. I'm not saying that people shouldn’t give a rat’s ass about children’s exams, that’s not what I’m saying. But when you take two months off in order to drill your children, it’s bizarre.

Anittha: I think the idea of what is successful is really really absurd because there is no leeway, you can only do this. The idea where only boys can be lawyers, doctors or engineers, that’s still a thing. If you are anything else you fail, so it's always very interesting to see that.

Jo-Ann: And it’s also money. Anything else besides doctor, lawyer, engineer, you better be making big bucks otherwise, you are not successful.

Anittha: I think that sets us apart, because it really determines  how you do things on a day-to-day basis.

Akshita: Always trying to get somewhere right.

So the top question is: Does the absurdity of the local landscape fill you with creative hope or despair, despondency? I am often caught between both.

Jo-Ann: I think the struggle makes it great because sometimes, there will be days where you’re like ‘why am I still here’, or sometimes it’s like ‘okay this is kind of fun.’ So I think being caught between both at varying degrees, leaning towards one or the other, at different hours of the day, the struggle or whatever you may want to call it. I think that’s the fun part of Singapore.

Anittha: I personally really like what I call generational tensions. You have the Gen Z, the millennials, the older generation, I love the back and forth. Especially now that everyone has social media now and you get to see people talk shit and that’s always really fun, because you get to see where everyone’s heads are at.

And I like that, because it’s very easy to draw inspiration from where people are, where they think Singapore should go. Everyone has a different idea and the social landscape is always very interesting, intricate and creative.

Jon Jon: If this was parliament, I would vote for Megan cause she asked all the pertinent questions.

For me, the absurdity of the local landscape really reflects hope and I would really emphasise on the word hope. Because for me, creativity has to come from a space of empathy and trying to be in other people's shoes and so on.

And so when I seefor me, wanting to go out, meet people, hear their stories and try to find that magic in their stories, it gives me great hope. And I believe that as long as our generation of writers or creative practitioners practise that level of empathy, we will go to a good place.

Akshita: Which brings us to our final question, from Megan, thank you:

"What (if any) are the boundaries of political/social correctness that you find difficult to navigate when dealing creatively with the absurd?"

Bear in mind that this question is being asked at somebody who pokes fun at the teaching system and ethnic realities. Have you ever sat back and thought, ‘can I make fun of this or not?’

Jon Jon: I honestly have not, but my parents have. When I wrote Hawa right, I got a lot of hate mail, not just from Muslims but also members from the LGBTQIA community. Because for Muslims, obviously you shouldn’t talk about lesbians or lesbians who are Muslims.

But that's not the reality. And for members of the LGBTQIA community, they were like ‘who are you to write a story about us, you are putting us as a target.’

I had to go forward with the story because I wanted there to be a conversation, a discussion, and so I pushed for it and it was really funny how it finally got staged. We actually went through layers of bureaucracy because the different parts of the powers that be, also had to grapple with the issues that they were trying to bring to the table.

I just want to say that I know lots of people that like to say that it's very hard to be creative in Singapore because of the strategic rules and so on. I just want to tell you guys that that's the whole idea - it’s all about skirting, going around, undermining the censors, because that’s where things get fun.

I would really love it when Singaporeans can engage with the shades of grey, not just as a book but as a way of life. You know, just go out and have fun.

Anittha: I do agree with the LGBTQIA community thing. The book that I wrote has an Indian gay male character and there were a lot of nice responses on social media, direct messages and stuff. When it began talking among my family members, especially relatives, they were very displeased with the idea of a male, gay Indian character.

It was such a strange thing because it was so different, but I also agree that it’s important to talk about it. I remember I was doing an interview and when they found out the book had a gay male character, they took it off because it had a gay character. It just tells you how important it is to keep talking about stuff like that. Just because there is a boundary, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t step on it or juggle or dance on it.

Jon Jon: I had that issue as well.

Jo-Ann: I’ve never received any hate mail; this displeases me. I horrified my mother by saying that I wanted to one day be banned in a country. I feel if one day one of my books gets banned I would be very pleased. It hasn't happened yet, but I will keep writing until it happens. Can’t stop me now.

When it comes to boundaries, I completely agree. For every single one of us, I feel that the boundary is different depending on what you are used to, how you grew up, who taught you whatever.

I come from a family where the whole LGBTQIA thing isn’t actually taboo at all. My uncle is openly gay, but the thing is this, to talk about other things like divorce is a very very big deal.

So it’s very different for all of us, the boundary shifts depending on who you talk to and who you are talking to. So I feel that, as far as I'm concerned, you can ignore them. Other people are free to hate you. But at the same time, you are free to ignore it and do whatever you want. And that’s the beauty of it.

Jon Jon: Unless they are your…

Jo-Ann: Family. 

Jon Jon: No, unless they are your funders and they are funding your piece. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been approached and they said ‘hey, can you cut out certain parts and they would be okay with the funding’ and it’s been quite tricky because I can't be a struggling artist unless I get funded.

Akshita: Thank you very much for that, those two final absurdities. One being that there are things that are so mundane that we never talk about them and that’s absurd, so we should test the boundaries and bring out the grey areas, and the other is that there is also capitalism.

Thank you so much, Jo-Ann, Jon Jon and Anittha. It was an amazing discussion, about what is uniquely absurd and mundane about Singapore. More importantly, the amazing range of creative works from these authors, all of which are available at bookstores. So please do go and check them out. Thank you all for being with us here today, a round of applause here again for Jo-Ann, Jon Jon and Anittha.

image of the panelist from left to right: Akshita Nanda (moderator), Anittha Thanabalan, Johnny Jon Jon & Yeoh Jo-Ann



About the Speakers:

Anittha Thanabalan whose debut novel, The Lights That Find Us was a finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize Award in 2018. Some of her short stories can be found in Mahogany Journal and Best New Singaporean Short Stories, Volume Five. She spends almost all her free time walking Dino, her poodle. And she’s also working on something new and exciting which I hope she can talk about later, Romancing the Singapore Context. As we know Singaporeans are so romantic right.

Since his first full-length play in 2006, Johnny Jon Jon’s works have evolved from being thought pieces on socio-political constructs to ruminative explorations of the human condition set within the characteristics of a minor literature. Besides the critically acclaimed Hawa (2015) and Potong (2018), his works include National Memory Project (2012), Family Dinner (2017) and Punggah (2020). When not writing plays, Jon Jon writes short stories and facilitates design thinking workshops. He currently lives with his better half as they try to get their startups (children) to become unicorns.

Yeoh Jo-Ann grew up in Malaysia and lives in Singapore. Her first novel, Impractical Uses of Cake, won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2018, and her short stories have been included in anthologies such as Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Three. In 2020, her short story Dog Tiger Horse won the Boston Review’s annual Aura Estrada Short Story Contest. Jo-Ann is currently working on her second novel and a collection of short stories exploring the themes of modernity, food, and family in Southeast Asia.


About the Moderator:

Akshita Nanda is a journalist, analyst and author of the novels Beauty Queens of Bishan (Penguin Random House SEA) and Nimita's Place (Epigram Books). Nimita's Place was adapted for the stage in 2019 by arts group T:>Works and in 2020 co-won the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction.