we are known globally as a nation of multi-cultures but we are united as one people. not an easy goal to realise knowing how differences divide and make unity problematic. -- Reaching Out... Kirpal Singh, 2021
Kirpal Singh is a poet and a literary critic from Singapore. An internationally recognised scholar whose core research areas include post-colonial literature, Singapore and Southeast Asian, literature and technology, and creativity thinking, Singh has won research awards and grants from local and foreign universities. He was one of the founding members of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, Australia in 1977; the first Asian director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and chairman of the Singapore Writers’ Festival in the 1990s. In 2004, he became the first Asian and non-American to be made a director on the American Creativity Association’s board. He retired dean of Singapore Management University.
Singh was born as a part of Malaya in 1949 to a father of Sikh descent and a Jewish-Scottish mother. He lived through three regimes in this part of the world: colonial, Malayan and Singaporean. His poetry is perhaps what best tells us about his faith in the little island state that came to its own in 1965. In this interview, he shares his life story with us, the last being a huge donation of books that he is making to the National Library of Singapore – a donation of 3,000 books collected over decades.
You are an academic, critic and writer who stretches out across SE Asia. When did your ancestors move to Singapore from India and why?
My paternal grandparents moved to Singapore from Punjab in 1901. They came to the then Federation of Malaya in search of a better life.
You have never lived in India but shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia. Probably at that time it was all part of Malaya. Can you recall Singapore/Malaya during your childhood?
Yes, though born in Singapore in March 1949, I was taken back to be with my dadiji (paternal grandma) in Malaya when I was two months old. However, I was brought back to Singapore when I was seven to begin school. My grandparents thought Singapore was a better place to receive an English education.
Your mother was Scottish and father, an Indian. What languages did you grow up speaking? What language is most comfortable for you to write in?
I grew up speaking bits of Punjabi, Malay and, of course, English. In my teenage years I also picked up some Chinese dialects. Though I did study Mandarin in school, I am not too good at it. I can only speak a smattering of it. I am most comfortable writing in English.
You have seen Singapore move from infancy to its current state. Can you tell us what this journey has been like?
It has been an astonishing journey. When I was young-preschool age — Singapore was a British colony. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaya to become part of a new entity then known as Malaysia. However due to basic differences, Singapore pulled out of Malaysia and became an independent, sovereign nation in August 1965.
You are an academic who retired dean of Singapore’s major management institute. And yet, you write poetry. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
At the then newly established Singapore Management University which I was invited to join as Founding Faculty in 1999, I was told to introduce Creative Thinking as a new mandatory module for all undergraduates. I helmed this exciting and new programme for ten years. SMU was the first University in the world to make Creative Thinking a compulsory course for all undergraduates. Sadly in 2010 this was made optional.
You have a huge collection of books —25,000. How long has it taken you to collect these books?
It has taken me more than 50 years.
Tell us a bit about your book collection. What are your favourite books?
My collection is eclectic. Most of my books, however, belong to the humanities, and within this, most belong to the literary genre. I loved reading from a very young age (being alone at home, reading brought me solace and also knowledge). Among my favourite books, the tragedies of Shakespeare and Sophocles feature prominently. Some 20th century books (those of D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley in particular), I value tremendously. I should also add that I have been very blessed to have met many of the more well-known/established writers of the 20th century and blessed to have been given signed copies by these wonderful authors: among them Doris Lessing, William Golding, Brian Aldiss, and numerous others.
Did your reading impact your writing?
Quite naturally, yes. I think it’s hard not to be affected by what one reads when it comes to one’s own writing. Even with writers who consciously try to ensure that no clear influences obtain, critics have frequently found far too many disguised references not to infer which authors influenced those writers.
Recently, you made an announcement that you will donate 3,000 books to promote love of reading in Singapore. Do you think donating these books will be enough to make book lovers of non-readers?
I doubt if the mere act of donating will create readers. However, I feel that having a few thousand additional books in a library will, hopefully, draw at least the attention of a few readers and maybe among these will be new readers.
Most people read bestsellers. What do you think will attract more to appreciate literature like EM Foster, DH Lawrence, and Coleridge?
Yes, in the age of commercialisation, classic writers may not obtain immediate readership– hence schools and colleges/universities play a vital (and necessary) role to ensure that our graduates are educated– at least minimally– in the works of writers who helped change and shape new sensibilities.
Thank you for your time.
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