Chasing Literary Awards Won’t Promote Singlit

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Epigram Books, a Singaporean publisher, is aiming for the Man Booker Prize. As part of its goal, it has opened an imprint in the United Kingdom, so that its offerings will be eligible for the Prize. Founder Edmund Wee believes that the publicity generated from such an achievement “would be a turning point for people to see that Singaporean books aren’t that bad at all”.

I wish him the best of luck, but my experience suggests that it’s a long shot. I am Singapore’s first, and so far only, writer nominated for the Hugo and Dragon Awards. I can tell you that chasing awards means nothing.

Epigram Books is the creator of the Epigram Fiction Prize, Singapore’s richest literature award. Each winner receive $25,000 and a publication offer. Per the article:

Out of the 72 entries received in the first year, four were shortlisted and published. All four sold out their initial run of 1,000 copies within two or three months, a milestone that normally takes bestsellers a year to reach in Singapore, according to Wee.

Colour me impressed, but I should note that my own novel, which was not selected for an Epigram Fiction prize, did far better in the same time frame. I’m not sure if I can publicly disclose the actual sales figures, but I can say that neither my publisher nor I had to sink in $25,000 to bring it to the market. We both enjoyed healthy profits from that one book in three months.

And I won’t comment on Epigram’s UK imprint selling only 100 copies per title in its catalogue.

The key to understanding the TradPub mindset is that they don’t sell stories. They sell paper. It’s the traditional way of delivering stories to customers. But technology has significantly altered the publishing industry in the past decade.

Print on Demand technology has rendered storing mountains of paper books in bookstores and warehouses obsolete; if you want a paper book, just go on Amazon, and it will print and deliver the book to you. Ebooks are far cheaper than paper books, and far more convenient and accessible in an age of smartphones and tablets. Ereaders and ebook stores have opened the floodgates to new markets and new writers, and search engine algorithms and social media have made discovering and following writers easier than before. Self-publishing platforms allow anybody to write and publish stories from anywhere in the world without having to go through publishers.

Books themselves are facing stiff competition from elsewhere. YouTube, Crunchyroll, Steam, GOG, NetFlix, and other media are all competing with books for the readers’ entertainment dollar and time. If a customer has to choose between dropping $18 on a paperback that can be read in 8 hours, or $15 on an indie game that lasts for 50 hours, you can bet that he will choose the latter. Likewise, $18 on a single paperback versus $11.95 on a monthly Crunchyroll premium membership with complete access to all anime and drama in its catalogue is a no-brainer too.

We live in the sunset of traditional publishing. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing down, and Big Publishing is declining. Writers and publishers must adapt to changing times or be forgotten.

Encouraging Singaporeans to read Singaporeans may be an admirable goal, but publishers need to remain profitable to continue publishing stories. If they can’t make a profit, publishers will be force to close down. Becoming profitable is simple:

Give readers what they want.

Technology may have changed, but readers’ tastes have not. Romance readers want love and drama. Thriller readers want excitement and derring-do. SFF readers want awe and wonder. Produce books that meet their expectations, using technology to minimise costs and penetrate markets, and you’ll make money.

Publishers need to take a long, hard look at the industry and themselves, and see how they can best serve their readers’ needs. Wee’s words are instructive of his attitude:

“For many years, it has been in Singaporeans’ minds that foreign books are better and local books not so good,” he says. “I blame everybody. I blame the schools because literature is not compulsory. I blame the bookshops. I blame the press because they still want to interview famous international authors instead of local authors.”

Blaming everybody is not the solution. Courting people with awards will not work. If you don’t publish writers whose works people love, people aren’t going to love them back. It’s as simple as that. Of all the Singaporean-authored books and stories I’ve read over the years, none of them have left a lingering impression on me. None of them met my tastes — or my standards of craft.

Chasing a Man Booker Award is a snipe hunt. Writers who can win such an award are incredibly rare. Gambling everything on the hope that that such a talented writer signs on with you is the literary equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket. After all, what are the odds that a writer capable of winning the Man Booker Award sign on with a small publishing house from tiny country?

Even if Epigram manages such a feat, it’s not likely to have a knock-on effect on all other Singaporean books. As I have seen first-hand with the Hugos and Dragons, should an author win an award, readers will flock to the award-winning book, then the rest of his backlist, and only then other authors of similar standards in the same field. Sharing the same nationality as a Man Booker Award-winning writer isn’t compelling enough to capture a reader’s heart. These other writers must be in the same league as the award winner to stand a chance.

Mickey Spillane once said that people eat more salted peanuts than caviar. Other writers mocked him for his writing style, but through hard work and appealing to the masses, he left his mark on the American crime thriller genre. I have a similar philosophy.

I don’t write stories to chase awards. I write stories to entertain my readers. Awards are pleasant, but profits are king. If you want to encourage readers to read more books, you have to sustain the ability to publish more books, and to publish books you need to be profitable. If I were a Singaporean publisher, this is what I would do:

  1. Focus on genre fiction. There is a dearth of genre fiction in Singapore; other than Young Adult and the odd romance and horror story there is a stunning lack of Singaporean genre fiction. Grab the first mover advantage in this field. Don’t limit yourself to submissions from Singaporeans, but do try to sign on as many Singaporean genre fiction writers as possible.
  2. Publish stories that meet and exceed genre conventions. Stories must be entertaining. Build a brand focused on quality entertainment and powerful story-telling. In a world where anyone can publish anything, publishers can differentiate themselves by creating a reputation for quality.
  3. Break into ebooks and Print on Demand technology, and target a global audience. The wider your potential market, the more money you make. Minimise cost, maximise distribution.
  4. If your goal is to promote ‘literary’ works, create another imprint dedicated to literary fiction. Channel profits from genre fiction into this imprint to keep it running. Follow steps 2 and 3, building a reputation for publishing quality work and delivering it to the world. You might not make much money out of the literary imprint, it might even be a loss leader, but hey, you’re promoting Singlit and your own brand.

I am leery of ‘literary’ stories. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two kinds of books: books worth reading, and books not worth reading. To stay competitive, publishers must do the former and avoid the latter. Qualities like ‘literariness’ or subversiveness or other avant-garde properties take a back seat to market demand. To remain in the publishing game, publishers have to turn a profit. Ignore the market at your peril.

At the end of the day, trad publishers would do well to study the history of publishing. The literati may elevate the heavy, ponderous tomes of great literature — but it was the cheap pulp magazines, filled with energy and excitement, that instilled the joy of reading in the common people.

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To get a taste of my writing, check out my Steemit serial NIGHT DEMONS and my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Night Demons Part 6 of 6

Knife

Dozens, hundreds, thousands of minor parasites swarm all over me. They are gnats and centipedes and biting worms, landing all over my aura. They crawl and wriggle and bite and chew and tear. My skin begins to itch, and my eyes flutter involuntarily.

Easiest option is to run them through with cold steel. But there’s too many people around. If they saw me do that, they’d call the cops on me. That’s how demons fought, by turning people against each other.

Instead, I step aside, whip out my phone and pretend to stare at the map. I want to call down the Light, to burn off the things crawling over me. But that is an inefficient use of limited energy.

And there are better ways to do this.

In my mind, I reach up to the heavens.

‘Archangel Michael, please open the gate to the Light.’

A pair of gates appears in my mind’s eye. They swing open into pure dazzling light.

Addressing the entities feasting on me, I say, ‘Why are you here?’

A chorus of tinny voices reply immediately.

‘Food!’

‘Because we were forced to!’

‘Reshazak says so!’

Voices are a good sign. It meant I didn’t have to slaughter them all.

‘Do you want plenty of food?’ I ask.

‘YES!’

‘Do want to keep working for Reshazak?’

‘NO!’ a voice says.

Other voices drown it out.

‘We have to!’

‘No choice! He hurts us if he does!’

‘He sounds like a bad guy,’ I say. ‘But listen, you don’t have to work for him any more. There’s a place where you can free of him, and where you can find plenty of food.’

‘Where?’ they chime.

‘Do you see the White Light before me?’

‘Yes…’

‘Just step through.’

‘But we’re not of the Light! It burns! It hates us!’

‘That’s not true,’ I say. ‘Look inside yourselves. Do you see a light?’

The chewing stops. Finally. This time, they chatter among themselves.

‘I see it!’

‘Look, look, so bright!’

‘Is that light? Why is there light?’

‘You carry the Divine Spark,’ I say. ‘You will always be welcome in the Light. You just have to step through.’

‘But it’s scary!’

‘The Archangel Michael will help you. There is nothing to be afraid of.’

Michael steps through the portal in his full regalia He extends one arm to the gates, and another at the entities.

‘Everything will be all right,’ he says. ‘Just come to me and we’ll take care of the rest.’

A brave soul jumps off me, flying to the Light. Another, a third, then a thick scream of them. Michael whispers reassurances, gathering up a few recalcitrants in his hands, and guides the rest through the gates. As they fade into the light, I hear cries of joy.

‘Well done,’ Michael says. ‘That takes care of the lesser spirits. Now Reshazak will have to contend with you himself.’

‘Where is he?’

He points down the road at a tall structure, a quartet of obelisks reaching for the sky. The Civilian War Memorial.

‘Thanks,’ I reply.

‘Be wary. He is deploying servitors. Prepare your steel.’

Servitors were mindless beings created to serve the will of its master. In this case, they must be designed for combat.

‘Understood.’

The world darkens as I approach the War Memorial Park. Strange whispers fill the air. The streetlights illuminate crooked trees and stone benches. Black things dance in the shadows between the pools of amber light. There’s an underpass leading to the Esplanade MRT station in front of me, and I’ve no doubt there’s a camera nearby.

I didn’t have to like this. I just have to do this. At least there are no civilians nearby.

I cross the road.

The shadowy things coalesce, growing into snakes and eels. I run to the Memorial, but they slither across the ground and pounce on me. A bitter brown taste floods my mouth. Cold venom punches into my shields.

A fresh wave of energy hits me. Eleanor’s energy. I drink deep and flush my aura with pure White Light. The servitors dissolve. I pop my knife open, hold it in a reverse grip and dash for the monument.

The four columns of the Memorial looms solemnly over me. A shallow pool of water marks every corner. The benches are all occupied.

By dark humanoid spirits.

They get up and charge at me. The closest swings a right hook. I cover with my left elbow and peck at its arm. The blade passes clean through it, but dark energy stings my face. I stab at its throat, go for its thigh, and it dissipates.

A second one leaps at me. Sidestepping left, I slash down, catching its arm. I stab it in the neck, arc around and stitch down its body and it dissolves.

A pair of servitors rush me. Air whooshes past my ear, and suddenly a lion and a wolf leap over my head, pounce on the beings and tear out their throats.

‘We’ve got your back,’ Lupin says.

‘Thanks.’

My spirit guides break off, hunting down individual targets. Anther servitor runs towards me. I lunge in, thrusting the knife into its crown and power-stroking through. It bursts apart, and another jumps on my left arm. I cycle my Griptilian, shearing and tearing, until it disintegrates.

Three servitors surround Leonhard and Lupin. The spirit guides take one each. I lunge for the last and split it in half.

The air darkens. My throat dries. A huge black column blasts down from the sky, down the center of the Memorial. As I dash over, a tall dark figure descends the stairs.

‘Reshazak,’ I say.

‘Michael Chang,’ the demon says. His words are knives scraping against my soul. ‘I will enjoy destroying you.’

My breath comes and goes in ragged spurts. Sweat soaks my clothes. My muscles burn. No time for a protracted engagement. Have to end this fast.

‘We don’t have to do this,’ I say. ‘All you have to do is go into the Light.’

‘No.’

He dissolves into a thick dark cloud.

‘Watch out!’ Leonhard urges.

The cloud whooshes towards me. I ready myself, gauge the distance, sneak my foot forward, lunge, thrust down—

Reshazak splits in half, avoiding the blade.

Pure darkness engulfs me. Inky choking burning acid burns into my skin, my bones, my soul. Harsh guttural cries and high-pitched screams tear through my ears. I cycle my blade back and forth, but it’s like slicing air, it’s no use nothing works—

‘The light!’ Lupin yells.

‘The water!’ Leonhard shouts.

I call on the Light. The blackness parts just a little, revealing a bright yellow spot. I stagger towards it, flailing the knife about. My legs feel like they are moving through molten concrete, but it’s an illusion, I just need to go smoothly and carefully and—

My shoe drops.

Cold water splashes against my pants leg.

I take a few steps forward. More light surrounds me, burning through the dark. The water works its magic, disrupting the demon and his magic. Fires ignite across my skin, but it’s too late. A crack appears in the thing’s presence. Pure energy floods in. Again, Eleanor’s. I drink it in, compose myself, and reach for the Light.

“MICHAEL!”

White Light blasts down from the heavens, burning through Reshazak. It screams, thrashes, writhes, but between the water, the light and the White Light it doesn’t stand a chance. The murk dissolves.

What’s left of Reshazak resembles a naked, shriveled elderly man. He drags himself out of the water and onto dry concrete. I approach it, knife at the ready. This thing has harmed enough people. He damn near tried to kill me. I ought to—

‘No,’ Leonhard says.

‘It’s not worth it,’ Lupin adds.

Reshazak turns around, sitting on the ground and staring at me. He unleashes a long string of obscenities, concluding with, ‘Finish it already, damn you!’

I’m tempted to. But he’s… small. Weak. He can’t harm anyone any more, not in this state.

White lights dance before me. A warm hand touches my shoulder.

‘What do you plan to do?’ Michael asks.

I draw in a deep breath. The threat is defeated. The Law, mortal and divine, would not justify future violence. And if there is one thing I must always do, it is to stay true to the will of the Cosmos.

‘Archangel Michael, please surround this being in a bubble of Light. Carry him away, that he may be transformed.’

A great white sphere engulfs the demon. He pounds and scratches, but it’s no use. The ball floats into the sky, disappearing through a portal of White Light.

‘Well done,’ Michael says.

There are no more threats around, but I think I see a few people staring at me from across the park. I fold my knife, clip it to my pants, and wipe the sweat from my face.

‘Thanks for the assist everyone,’ I say.

The hand squeezes my shoulder. It doesn’t hurt.

‘Be well.’

The warmth vanishes. Leonhard and Lupin look expectantly at me.

‘Let’s go home,’ I say.


I walk aimlessly for the next ten minutes. When I’m sure I’m not being followed, I cab home.

I indulge in a long, cold shower, with plenty of sea salt. There’s a number of black marks on my face and arms and legs, but with Reshazak gone they rub off easily, and the salt and water takes care of the remaining negativity.

I stumble out of the shower, yawning. I’m exhausted. Drained. I had to rest, recharge, get as much sleep as I could. Only way to heal a battered soul. And it’s well past one in the morning. Well past bedtime.

But first…

I message Eleanor. Thanks for the help. Everything’s fine now.

Thank God, she says. What happened just now?

I check the time. Glance at my bed. Pat my still-wet hair. Think about Eleanor Wang, my best friend, the woman who’d quite likely carried the day for me. She’s still on the line, still waiting for a reply.

Sleep can wait a little longer.

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Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

For a fresh take on gods and demons, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Night Demons Part 4 of 6

Knife

When fighting the forces of darkness, it pays to have bright powers on your side.

 

At dawn, I dress in bright, clean and comfortable clothing. I ring my singing bowl and clear out the remaining negativity. Light three sticks of incense and place them in a brazier on my work table.

 

Lower my head and clasp my hands.

 

“Gods and buddhas and angels and friendly spirits, I am under attack by an evil spirit. Grant me the strength to protect myself, my friends, and my clients. Please enjoy this offering of incense, and come to my aid when I call on you.”

 

I was raised a Buddhist, was exposed to Christianity in school, and studied world religions throughout my childhood. My faith is more eclectic and universal than most people, but I received no complaints so far. None from the only ones who matter.

 

I spend an hour training. Empty hand, knife, flashlight. Footwork and strikes and cuts and kicks and grappling, taken from Pekiti Tirsia Kali. I maneuver around my bed and furniture, adapting my moves to take advantage of the surfaces around me. I finish with breathwork and wash up with cold water and salt.

 

For breakfast I boil four eggs. As I wait, I repair my wards and pile on my shields. This time, I throw on a cloak of shadowy energy over my shield, rendering me effectively invisible to hostile entities. Then I fire up Google Earth and zoom to Clarke Quay. Astral tracking was a two-way street. The creature might have found me by following my energies, but I could do the same to it.

 

I think of the demonic assault, replaying it in my head. I skip through the opening sequence and pause at the moment the creature unmasked itself. I study its aura. Deep brown shot through with filthy blacks, red sparks dancing through it. I knew what it truly looked like. I could find it.

 

With my second sight, I scan the area, using the digital map as an anchor for my psychic senses. In my mind’s eye, I see streams of energy rushing down roads, solid blocks that indicated long-established buildings, pillars where high-energy events occurred, blank spaces where no one lived or worked. They come in a rush of colours and textures: smooth royal purples, deep wet blues, springy reds, prickly browns.

 

Brown. Similar to the demon’s energy. I redouble my efforts, slowing down and zooming in. A huge brown cloud blooms over a building. Brown with black, with sparks of red. The demon.

 

I look up the address. A nightclub called Blackout. Figures. Pubs and bars and clubs were the feasting grounds of negs. Lots of easy prey, plenty of opportunities to jump on to a fresh target. Small wonder the demon had chosen it as a base of operations.

 

After breakfast I tend to more mundane affairs. Life won’t wait just because you have a feud with an unclean spirit. I finish up my freelance work—an article about the benefits of enterprise planning software—and send it off. I hit the crypto markets, sell some Litecoin, place a couple of limit orders on Bitcoin, and buy a bit of Dash. I plan my next blog post on Steemit. I arrange a couple of appointments—in-person tarot readings, easy yet rewarding—and answer some queries.

 

With work done, I can get back to my real job. On Blackout’s website, I study the photos, note the dress code, and prepare my clothing. Long-sleeved white shirt, smart pants, thick-soled shoes. I clean my earplugs, slip them into my breast pocket, and prep the rest of my gear. Finally, I message Eleanor and tell her what I plan to do.

 

Good luck, she says.

 

She wasn’t a fighter. Never would be one. But at least she had my back.

 

Dinner is light. Chicken and assorted vegetables wrapped in lettuce. Nutritious, but not so rich that it would slow me down. I spend an hour meditating, waiting for the night life to really get underway. Then, I hit the street.

 

Taking the train to Clarke Quay, I emerge at Hong Lim Park. This is the site of Singapore’s famous Speakers’ Corner, which is probably why there is a police post nearby and the Attorney-General’s Chambers are right across the street.

 

I head in the opposite direction, towards the Singapore River. Here, at South Bridge Road, I see the surviving fragments of Singapore’s past. Shophouses and low-rise office buildings flank the road, rebuilt with modern materials while retaining their old-time designs. The daytime businesses are closed, and the night-time companies are coming to life. Hostesses in skimpy clothing and high heels linger outside lounges and discos and bars, smoking and chatting with patrons and passers-by. Every time a door opens I hear frenetic music blast forth. A tiny 7-Eleven stands near the bus stop, the sole bridge between the day and night worlds.

 

My kit digs uncomfortably into my flesh. My tongue registers hard bitter curves. Annoying, but I’ll have to live with it. Can’t go empty-handed against a demon.

 

Down the street, I cut into Circular Road. Now the night world hits me with full force. Old-school rock and roll, slow and melodic, plays from a nearby eatery. It is packed with young adults, chatting loudly to be heard over the background noise. I seek temporary relief at the building across the road, closed for the night, but it lasts only until I reach the Indian-themed pub next door. Past that was a cake decoration store, painted an incongruous pink, utterly out of place here.

 

Sticking to the narrow sidewalk, I keep walking. I pass by the Quarters Hostel and sidestep around a couple of tourists emerging from the front door. Then I weave my way around the patrons and staff of more pubs.

 

The further I go down the road, the narrower the street becomes. Furniture spills out into the sidewalk, forcing me to squeeze past narrow walkways to chance walking the road. The denizens of the night form static knots and slow-moving clumps. A river of cars roll down the one-way street, narrowly avoiding the vehicles parked alongside the road. Lights flash and music blares, but I only have eyes and ears for traffic and warning signs. There was so much motion, so much sound, so much everything I have to shut down and focus.

 

Once, a Thai hostess makes the mistake of tugging at my sleeve. My hand flies to hers and peels it off. She gasps, withdrawing. I wag my finger and her and slide through the night.

 

Finally—finally—I reach my destination. A small shophouse with ‘BLACKOUT’ in thin bold white words plastered across an all-black signboard. There is a small queue outside, with a heavyset bouncer at the door. Donning my earplugs, I join the queue.

 

When it’s my turn, the bouncer says, “Show me your IC please.”

 

Great thing about Flare Audio’s earplugs, they cut out unwanted sound while leaving you the ability to hear conversations around you. All the same, I read his lips to verify what I hear.

 

I show the bouncer my identity card. He nods and pats me down. I endure the feel of foreign flesh against me, flaring my shield so his energies slide off.

 

His hands stop at my waist.

 

“What’s this?” he demands.

 

“My flashlight.”

 

“Show me.”

 

Slowly and carefully, I withdraw it from my waistband. It’s a Nitecore MT2A. In the low light it’s hard to tell it’s a mil-grade light.

 

He nods and carries down. He moves down my legs and ankles, and stands up.

 

“Okay, boss. You can come in,” he says.

 

I stow the flashlight and pay the cover charge. Fifteen dollars. He hands me a ticket and I enter the club.

 

Light and sound assault me. Iridescent lasers slash across my eyes. Ever-changing spotlights slide across the walls and floors, barely illuminating the dark. A synthesized techno beat screams through the crowded room, so loud my earplugs barely reduce it to tolerable levels. People dance all around me, flinging their arms and shaking their bodies to the beat. I keep my hands close to my chest, ready to ward off dancers who get too close.

 

Underneath the mad, frenetic energy, something lurks in a lower realm. Something brown and dark and predatory.

 

The target.

 

The ticket entitles me to a free drink at the bar. Browsing the menu, I select a cranberry juice. I’m not here to party. I’m here to work. The fruit juice is ice cold when it arrives, and goes down as a shock of white. Good. I need to clear my head.

 

I lumber to the upper floor, staying well clear of the dancers. Keeping to the walls, I scan the crowds, looking for something, anything out of place. Someone lingering too long in a corner and watching the crowd, someone moving aggressively on a vulnerable person and sucking in energy, someone slipping drugs into an unattended drink, male or female, doesn’t matter.

 

No signs of predators here. Nobody takes any interest in me either. With drink in hand, stuffy clothes and a guardedly neutral expression, nobody will.

 

I finish my drink and head down the ground floor toilet. In the cubicle, I do my business, then pop off my left shoe and pull out my knife. I’d been walking on my Benchmade Griptilian for the whole evening, and it dug uncomfortably into my sole with every step.

 

At least that unpleasantness was over now. Sitting on the toilet bowl, I slowly and silently open the blade and close my eyes.

 

In my second sight, I assess the dark mass I’d seen. Reshazak, or a significant fraction of it. Long, thick ropes of negative energy anchor it to the world. Through these anchors, it feeds off the energy of everyone here and assesses patrons as prey. Unfortunately for it, my cloak is still intact.

 

I reach out with my mind. Gather the ropes into a thick, squirming bundle before me.

 

Cut.

 

Energy rushes through the air. Something howls in my head, cutting through the deafening music. Malevolence radiates from the dark mass, and now I feel the full weight of its attention.

 

‘This place is MINE!’

 

Not any more,’ I reply.

 

I imagine the creature floating before me, a writhing, seething mass of naked evil. I cut the image, and through the image I transmit the space-ripping force of cold steel.

 

How dare you!’ it screams. ‘You will pay for this! I will eat your soul! I will feed on everyone you—’

 

I cut again.

 

‘Shut up.’

 

I cut and cut and cut, dividing it into ever-smaller pieces. It grows tentacles and lashes out at me, but most of them slide off my shield. I cut off those that don’t and continue slashing away at the being. It continues screaming, promising to exact vengeance over a thousand lifetimes, eternal torture in its domain, utter annihilation.

 

I’d heard it all before. I didn’t care. Make war on me and pay the price.

 

One last thrust. Light flashes through the world. For a moment, there’s a brief sense of dislocation. Then Reshazak is gone.

 

I close the blade, put it away and leave. Once outside the nightclub, I stow my earbuds and yawn. It’s been a long, long night. I have no idea how normies can stand so much noise and touching, and really, I don’t care. They can keep to their world, and I’ll stay in mine. Just like it’s always been.

 

Heading down the street, I dodge a few more passers-by, scanning the world like I always do. I breathe through my fatigue, forcing myself to stay alert. The night isn’t over yet. Not until I’m home.

 

Belatedly I realize I’m going the wrong way. Doesn’t matter, I can always turn around, and anyway the Raffles Place MRT station is nearby. I keep going anyway, keeping an eye for—

 

‘Look left,’ Lupin urges.

 

I do. Out the corner of my eye, a gangly Chinese man rounds a bend. By the amber street light I see long, thick, unkempt hair and a rounded back. A huge black cloud of negative energy looms over him. Reshazak’s energy.

 

His eyes lock on my face.

 

Threat.

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Previous parts: 1, 2, 3

For a different take on gods and demons, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Night Demons Part 2 of 6

 

I glance around the room. The miasma redoubles in strength. The Lums’ spirit guides are fleeing to different realms for cover. But there is no overt sign of the evil spirit.

 

I’d have to flush it out.

 

“Vanessa, please let me see your hand,” I say.

 

She holds out her arm. Examining the streaks, I peer beyond the material realm. Every black line is a deep cut in her aura, filled with dark festering energy, consuming her life energy.

 

“Do the marks feel odd? Are they warm, cold, numb…?”

 

“A bit cold, actually.”

 

The curse was devouring her life force to fuel itself.

 

“Have you washed the marks?”

 

“Yes. With soap and water. I keep scrubbing them, but no matter what, they don’t go away.”

 

The boy snorts. I ignore him, listening instead to Leonhard and Lupin. The spirit guides whisper into my mind’s ear, and I repeat them.

 

“This is a powerful curse,” I say. “It is eating away at your life energy and your luck. I think there is a negative spirit possessing the man you described, and you were unfortunate enough to run into it. But don’t worry: I can handle this.”

 

“What do you need to do?”

 

“Are you ready to be healed?” I ask formally.

 

No healing, magic or other working can be performed without a patient’s consent. It was an ironclad rule in this business, one to be broken at your peril.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Excellent. Please wait here a moment. I’m going to cleanse your home.”

 

“‘Cleanse’?” the boy asks.

 

“Yes,” I reply. “I will cleanse the home of negative energies and create a sacred space. It is the first step of the working.”

 

The black ball of negativity whirls round and round his head. “It’s really going to work meh?”

 

This is how negs work their will in the real world, through pawns and useful idiots. John’s trying to provoke me into an outburst, or to convince the family to throw me out. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he doesn’t exist.

 

“I won’t guarantee results,” I say slowly, “only that I will do my best.”

 

“So you can’t do anything lah!

 

“John!” the mother snaps. “Don’t talk to Mr Chang like that!”

 

Aiyah, what can he do?” he says. “He’s not a doctor, he’s not some sort of priest or what, he’s just a quack lah. Why you even listen to him?”

 

Leonhard chuckles and whispers a single sentence into my mind.

 

“How is your ankle?” I ask.

 

“My what?”

 

I point. “Your left ankle. It’s an old injury. Does it still hurt?”

 

There is a throbbing brown ball in his ankle. Electric streaks of red pain radiate through his foot and leg. He’s leaning against the wall because his injured foot can’t take his weight. The neg orbiting his head is probably interfering with the healing process too.

 

He blinks. “How did you… Someone must have told you, right? Who?”

 

“I never told him anything about you,” Vanessa insisted.

 

“Then? How did you know?” John demanded.

 

I smile.

 

“John, as I said, I will do my best. You may observe, but do not interrupt.”

 

Lupin growls at the neg dancing about John’s face. It shrinks away and melts into the miasma.

 

“Can you help him?” Vanessa asks.

 

I turn to John. “Do you want to be healed?”

 

He crosses his arms. “We’ll see how first.”

 

I unzip my bag and lay it flat on the floor, revealing several smaller ziploc bags. I retrieve the one containing a bundle of white sage smudge sticks and grab a lighter.

 

Igniting a smudge stick, I hold it high and let the purifying smoke rise into the ceiling.

 

“The smell is pretty powerful,” I say. “If you have breathing difficulties, please stay clear.”

 

With even, measured steps, I walk throughout the house, filling it with smoke. The scent is thick and herbal, like burning tobacco but brighter and cleaner. The miasma retreats before it, pouring out of the doors and windows.

 

Smudging is a Native American practice, but most Singaporeans are familiar with burning incense or other offerings. They are conceptually similar enough that people don’t ask me questions about it. I swirl the smoke in the corners of every room, letting it clear out the miasma.

 

There is a tiny altar mounted in the kitchen near the ceiling. It is the only overt sign of religiosity in the household. John’s bedroom is humming with tense, conflicted energies. The energies of a teenager undergoing puberty. The parents’ room is flat and empty, mostly devoid of life.

 

Vanessa’s room swam with a toxic brew. Most of the energy here was hers, but there was much stagnant foreign energy too, no doubt the traces of strange men. The miasma was thickest here, and I spent extra time clearing it out.

 

The Lums weren’t particularly religious, much less spiritual. They would have been easy targets for a malevolent entity.

 

Returning to the kitchen, I extinguish the stick and settle in my chair. Half-closing my eyes, I take a series of deep, full breaths. On the inhale, I direct a glittering golden stream of life energy into my second chakra, two fingers below the navel. On the exhale, I discharge a cloud of waste energy into the universe to be renewed.

 

Opening my eyes, I see.

 

A swarm of beings crawl all over her. Some are as tiny as gnats, others are the size of my fist. Some are parasites, others are lost souls swept up in their wake. Underneath the mass of creatures, I see something larger swimming through her aura, like a shark among a school of lesser fish.

 

The chief of the negs.

 

“Archangel Michael, please come to us in our hour of need. Bless this space and open a gate to the Light.”

 

Above our heads, an astral gate opens. White light, pure and holy, floods the dining room, burning off the last of the miasma. The world brightens immediately. Framed in the portal, I see a man in sky-blue armour with a blazing sword in his right hand, spreading brilliant white wings from his back. My namesake.

 

Swooping down, he lands next to me. My spirit guides bow to him, and he bows also. I nod, and continue the ritual.

 

“We are now in the presence of the Light. Beings who wish to pass on, you are free to leave. Michael, please watch over them.”

 

A rainbow stream of souls unwind from her, ascending into the Light. As they depart, they flash through human forms—an elderly man, a little girl, a young woman—and vanish from sight.

 

“Do you see sparkling?” Mr Lum asks.

 

“Where?” John asks.

 

I ignore them.

 

“Beings who wish to harm Vanessa, know that your time here is done. You are free to pass into the Light. You are also free to leave. But you cannot stay.”

 

A gentle warmth radiates from the burning blade. Smaller entities leap off her and join the souls heading up. The horde thins out immediately, and in that gap something dark and ugly surfaces in her aura. It glares at me. I stare back.

 

‘This one is tough,’ Lupin says. ‘You gotta burn out its attachments.’

 

“Here we go,” I say.

 

I take her arm. It is smooth and cool and springy. A strange feeling passes through my kin, like the sensation of rubbing milk with your fingers crossed with clutching a lightning bolt. Cream white flashes across my eyes.

 

Breathing through the sensory intrusion, I touch the fingers of my right hand to the black thumb-sized streak and channel energy from the Universe. A river of hot, clean energy surges through me, down my crown, through my arm and fingers, and into her wound.

 

“Tell me if you feel anything,” I say.

 

The cosmic energy floods into the auric wound, transmuting into White Light, burning away the festering energy, leaving a gap behind. The energy turns into a golden liquid, filling up the hole and sealing it off. The being growls.

 

“It’s getting hot,” she whispers.

 

“It’s working,” I say.

 

More energy. More power. More heat. I step out of the way and allow the Universe work through me. First comes a stream of Light, burning away the last of the curse. Then a stream of life energy, filling out and sewing up the wound.

 

The creature shrieks.

 

“I think… I hear a voice,” Vanessa says.

 

The neg is now perched over her face, resembling an overlay of an ugly old man scowling at me.

 

“I want you to take a deep breath.”

 

She does.

 

“That is the being who cursed you,” I say.

 

“What? Really? I—”

 

“Shh. Breathe.”

 

She does. The deep breaths keep her from panicking.

 

“Can you hear what the being is saying?” I ask.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’m going to talk to him now, but I want you to tell me what he says. Can you do that?”

 

By listening and speaking, she will regain control of her sovereign body.

 

“I… I don’t know…”

 

Smiling, Michael steps behind her and lays his hand on her shoulder. Her expression relaxes immediately.

 

“There is nothing to be afraid of,” I say reassuringly. “We are in the presence of the divine. It cannot hurt you.”

 

She nods. “I’ll try.”

 

“Okay. What is your name?”

 

“I don’t have a name.”

 

I shake my head. “All sentient beings have a name. What is yours?”

 

“I won’t tell you.”

 

“I ask you for your name, that I may address you with respect.”

 

“I’m not going to tell you.”

 

Michael looks at me. ‘His name is Reshazak.’

 

The archangel’s voice is a deep, commanding blue, rounded off with a melodic gentleness.

 

‘Thanks,’ I reply. Out loud, I say, “I hear your name is Reshazak. It shall be so. Reshazak, your time here is done. You are free to go—”

 

“No! The girl is mine!” Vanessa blinks and shivers. “I didn’t mean to—”

 

“It’s okay,” I say, feeding her more energy. “We know who said it. We’ll carry on. Reshazak, you may leave with our respect and gratitude.”

 

“No! She will always be a part of me!”

 

Michael rests his sword on her crowd. An agonised shriek fills my mind.

 

“Reshazak, it hurts, doesn’t it?” I say.

 

“Huh?”

 

“You are in the presence of Michael the archangel. You stand now exposed to the Light. You are suffering, aren’t you?”

 

“So?”

 

“Reshazak, if you stay and continue to harm Vanessa, you will suffer even more. But you can end it. All you have to do is leave.”

 

Her voice grows harsh. “You leave! You are a fake! You cannot do this—”

 

“No. I am staying. So is Archangel Michael. Your time in Vanessa’s body is done. If you continue to stay, you will suffer even more and receive even greater punishment.”

 

“Fuck off you piece of shit!”

 

The Lums recoil. Vanessa quickly shakes her head. “No, I didn’t mean to—”

 

“It’s fine. You’re just the messenger,” I say soothingly.

 

Ethereal flame leaps off the sword, pouring through her aura.

 

“He’s screaming,” she says. “He’s screaming and telling you to… well, you know.”

 

I nod. “Reshazak, you can stop the pain. All you have to do is leave.”

 

Vanessa tilts her head back and opens her mouth. An unearthly sigh fills the world. A male sigh.

 

And Reshazak is gone.

 

She slumps over. Releasing Vanessa, I take a deep breath and recharge myself. The portal closes. The miasma is gone. Michael steps aside, grins, and gives me a thumbs-up.

 

“Did you hear that?” John asks.

 

“That was the being departing,” I reply. “It won’t harm anyone again.”

 

Vanessa looks up at me. Her aura is free of negs. “Thank you.”

 

I dispense my usual post-exorcism advice. For the next seven days, shower with salt, preferably sea salt. Scatter more salt on the corners and at the windows and door. If the being comes back, if something else happens, let me know.

 

Vanessa shakes my hand. “Thank you so much.”

 

Her touch lingers longer than expected, her warmth burning and corrosive. Her eyes widen, a pair of black holes threatening to swallow me whole. It was the same behaviour that got her into this mess.

 

I slide my hand away as politely as I can. “You’re welcome.”

 

Her aura is still a mess, still polluted with the remains of who knew how many men. I honestly don’t know if I can clear them out, but I’m not going to compound the problem.

 

‘You did what you could,’ Leonhard says.

 

‘Now she must save herself,’ Michael adds.

 

You can’t win them all, I suppose.

 

Mrs Lum presents me with a red packet. I don’t charge a fee for higher-end magical services, but I do request a donation. I slide it into my breast pocket and pick up my backpack.

 

“Um, can you help me with my injury?” John asks.

 

“I could, but I have a policy of treating one client at a time,” I say. “Drop me an email and we can arrange for another appointment.”

 

“Okay,” he says.

 

At my feet, Lupin and the rabbit converse earnestly, no doubt plotting how to nudge John to contact me later.

 

I leave the flat. At the lift, I open the red packet and find two fifty-dollar notes. Not too bad for an hour’s work. I’d been paid much more before, but I’ve also received much less. Looking up, I see the archangel staring intensely at me.

 

‘Michael, this job isn’t over,’ he says.

 

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

 

‘You’ve only dealt with a small portion of Reshazak. It was not taken into the Light; it fled to reintegrate itself with the whole. He knows now what you are capable of. He is a being of immense malevolence, and beings like that are not the forgiving type. You are his next target.’

 

Stand against the dwellers of the dark long enough and they will start hunting you. It’s the nature of the game.

 

Still, I grin.

 

‘I’ll be his last.’

Part 1 can be found here.

For more fiction by yours truly, check out the Dragon Award nominated novel No Gods, Only Daimons.

No One is Obliged to Read You

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I approach writing as a craftsman. I produce stories for sale on the market. I measure my success in book reviews, social media engagements and royalties. My goal is to entertain my readers, and if I can communicate deeper ideas in my stories, all the better. For professional writers, it doesn’t matter if a story touches on rarefied subjects, if it espouses some transcendent matter of politics or philosophy, or if it attempts to understand the human condition: if it isn’t entertaining enough to excite a reader’s passions, it is a poor story.

This interview of prominent Singaporean literary figure Gwee Li Sui is a telling reminder of the vast gulf that exists between the craftsmen and everybody else. Observe this snippet:

Bharati: How do you think we can practically achieve this?

Gwee: For starters, it would be good if an MP could cite a Singaporean writer. Then we change the dialogue where writers stop becoming just people in a corner in a library activity, talking to people who are interested. They become part of a larger conversation. I think as a writer in Singapore, I feel we are not allowed to enter the sphere of a larger conversation.

Bharati: Why do you feel that way?

Gwee: Because we don’t have an audience. We speak through our books, we speak through our poems, people read our stuff but it’s still the same group of people. We hope to find new voices to engage the issues but again, that’s slow.

It’s tied to how the press covers us, how society perceives what we are doing. If you’re seen as just doing subversive things, that’s not very helpful. Because the point of literature or at least for writers is that we want to explore possibilities. We want to ask questions. We are not against any techniques per se, or any way of seeing the world per se. But we are never happy with any way of seeing. Let’s just put it like that. No technique is going to be satisfying. That’s our job. Our job is to be free, to be able to look at things from various angles.

Gwee: I don’t think writers not being to reach their audience is the writer’s fault. We don’t have the instruments, the levels in place where the writer’s work can reach out to a certain audience.

At one stage of course there’s the censorship, there’s also the level of values. We have a work culture that makes it irrelevant to read. We also have a level of propaganda which is that writing has to reach a certain economic advantage or political advantage in order to be celebrated. Or it has to talk about nation, or talk about certain places in Singapore in order to be of value. We have so many layers that makes writing misunderstood.

Bharati: I understand that you have several things working against you. But while this is a complex issue, involving a lot of different players and societal factors, shouldn’t you bear some responsibility?

Gwee: That’s a lot of things you want a writer to do. Our first responsibility is the art.

Bharati: But what is the point of the art if it doesn’t make an impact?

Gwee: It will make an impact when you read the work. It cannot make an impact until the work is engaged.

Bharati: So if you don’t want to take responsibility for that, who do you think should?

Gwee: Okay, on one level, the different agencies do engage us and bring us in so that people can listen to us talk. In that sense, the library is taking up the responsibility. When you say it’s the writer’s responsibility I keep wanting to stop going in that direction because at some stage it’s all going to collapse back on us and the writers will have to do everything. We’ve already for a time been doing everything. Sometimes we are also self-publishing. Sometimes we are being our own editors. Poets anthologising poets. Writers publishing writers. That’s sad. We have to go beyond saying the writers do everything.

Running throughout the interview is the undercurrent that Singapore literature deserves to be read. The writers have already done their part; the onus is on everybody else to make Singlit part of the cultural conversation.

This is a mistake. If you don’t produce works worth reading, much less remembering or discussing, then no one is going to care.

If you’re a writer, no one is obliged to read you. It is your duty to produce the best works possible and promote them to the best of your ability. You’re not going to get very far by demanding that others talk about the wonders of Singlit. Better to pull them to you, let them see for themselves the wonders you have made, and allow them to advocate your works for you.

Previously, I’ve made my thoughts on Singlit quite clear: I don’t believe Singapore literature has a body of work compelling enough to capture the popular imagination and become part of the cultural backdrop. Singapore has no shortage of writers, but this isn’t enough. If a story can’t connect with the intended audience, the audience isn’t going to read it. If the stories that make up the Singapore literary canon can’t command the attention of Singaporeans, they aren’t going to engage with them.

The West has the great pulp writers and the grandmasters of science fiction and fantasy. From their works came Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and other such masterpieces. These stories have inspired the Superversive and the PulpRev movements, which aim to take the art of storytelling to new heights. Japan’s horizontal integration of light novels, manga, anime and gaming ensures rapid dissemination of fiction to domestic and international audiences. These industries have a ruthless approach to fiction: series that fail to sell well will be axed, leaving only the best and most popular on the shelves. Such well-loved stories sustain the otaku subculture, which do their party in preserving and disseminating Japanese culture to the world.

Without the body of work, without memorable writers creating compelling content, there won’t be fans and influencers willing to go to bat for you. All responsibility is on the writer to make memorable stories and leave an impact on the reader.

Here’s another snippet from the interview:

Gwee: …Our responsibility first is to write.

Bharati: True, but also why do you write? You write so that you can also engage society, make an impact, right?

Gwee: No, I think we write because we have certain existential issues that we grapple with as a person living in society.

Bharati: That sounds self-indulgent.

Gwee: It’s not self-indulgent, because writers feel that in seeing our issues and then to go with a conscience, we are finding something that someone else may actually understand as well. We don’t think we need to step out in order to understand. We feel that we step in to be able to become universal. And that’s a difference.

On the contrary, it is self-indulgent if you’re writing primarily to grapple with ‘certain existential issues’. Writing is communication. It is well and good if you write just so you can thresh ideas in your head, but if you want people to read what you write, then you must write for them.

The audience comes first. If you write to expound on some weighty philosophical matter, you’re better off writing non-fiction in the form of blogs, essays and articles. People inclined to read such material would already be predisposed to such content. People who want to read fiction want something else: to be entertained. If the primary purpose of your story is to shove an idea down the readers’ throats, they will choke on it, hack it up, then close your book and walk away forever.

If you write fiction, literary or genre, you must entertain your audience. If you can awe them with wondrous feats of plot and prose, and capture their hearts with memorable characters, your audience will remember you. They will speak of you. They will make your stories part of their everyday lives.

And, as a bonus, they’ll pay you to write more stories.

The industry has changed. Online distributors and self-publishing platforms have made gatekeepers and censors irrelevant. No longer do you have to pray that your story meets a publisher’s desires — which, in Singapore, is inevitably a book about Singaporeans set in Singapore about Singaporean culture. Just write your story, edit and format it, and publish when ready. If the censors take issue with it, they can find out if Singapore law applies to overseas publishers.

Likewise, social media have made it possible for writers to reach wider audiences and access deep pools of literary resources. A fast-paced world demands fast-paced production, and a world full of distractions demands novelty. It is no longer enough for a writer to simply write books and let publishers take care of the rest. To reap the benefits of modern technology, writers must step up to the plate.

To remain relevant, a writer needs to push out at least one book a year. To make a living from writing, however, a writer must be prepared to write multiple novels a year. The pulp greats were famous for their prodigious outputs as much as their skill, and today the highest-paid independent writers are also the most prolific ones.

In addition, a writer must build his brand and pull in readers with his force of personality. My blogging is part of my content marketing activities. I engage other readers and writers online whenever I can. I talk about my stories whenever I can, and promote those of my fellow writers when the opportunity arises. All this is part of my efforts at branding. It isn’t enough to write great books; people must also be aware of your existence, and that means you need to go the extra mile and promote yourself at every opportunity.

Readers aren’t obliged to read you. You must give them something to be excited about. Write stories that make their souls sing. Make your presence felt everywhere you go. Build a canon and your fans will come.

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As for myself, my latest novel No Gods, Only Daimons is one of the most well-received Singaporean novels on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars from 31 reviews. You can find it on the Amazon Kindle store or the Castalia House ebook store.

A Deeper Look at LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

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Is there discrimination against LGBT persons in Singapore? Activists and bloggers insist there is. Janelle Faye, a transgender Singaporean, arguesthere isn’t.

I think the truth is somewhere down the middle. In recent history, the authorities have not launched sweeps targeting LGBT people. There are no laws punishing people for the crime of being non-heteronormative. Sex change operations are freely available here, and LGBT-friendly bars, saunas and non-government organisations operate openly. Discriminatory attitudes and practices against LGBT people occurs at the level of individuals, families and organisations; not at the level of society. There are no formalised mechanisms of oppression aimed at LGBT people in the same fashion as, say, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or the Islamic State.

At the same time, there still exists laws and policies that, for better or ill, sweep up LGBT people in their wake.

Section 377A and its Consequences

Section 377A of the Penal Code states:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with >imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

Singapore inherited its laws from the British, and the Penal Code is based off India’s. Since Independence, other legislation that criminalises “unnatural sex”, such as non-vaginal sex or lesbian sexual intercourse, have been struck down. Section 377A still remains on the books, but the government insists that it will not prosecute gays under the law.

In practice, this is mostly true. As far as I know, in the past two decades Section 377A has only been trotted out to handle cases of public nuisance, rape and statutory rape. It has never been used to prosecute men who have consensual sex with men in private.

Singapore’s government needs to balance the needs of multiple groups in society, including religious conservatives. Keeping Section 377A can be seen as a peace offering to keep them happy while the government does away with less controversial legislation on other kinds of sex. Unfortunately, retaining Section 377A has knock-on effects.

In the military, gay soldiers are assigned a special deployment status, kept away from sensitive information, and confined to day duties for the rest of their careers. This essentially means that openly gay soldiers will never be placed in career-enhancing positions within the military. I don’t think this is institutional discrimination, rather an operational security measure. If a spy learns that a gay soldier has access to classified information, the spy can deploy a honey trap and take compromising photographs of the soldier, blackmailing him to reveal this information on pain of being arrested and charged under Section 377A.

The criminalisation of homosexual male acts also has wide-ranging impacts on civilian life: marriage, housing, insurance, legal aid, medical services. Since same-sex relationships are not officially recognised by the government, such couples are not eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual couples, and homoseuals cannot make legal decisions for their partners. This situation will likely remain so until and unless there are no longer any laws on the books criminalising consensual sex acts between adults. Perhaps longer.

While Section 377A has not led to institutionalised discrimination, this is only due to the policy of the current government. With the People’s Action Party enjoying a supermajority in Parliament (82 out of 84 seats), if the government decides at a future date that it will benefit from cracking down on gay men, there is nothing to stop it. Likewise, if a future government decrees that it shall henceforth prosecute all gay men in Singapore, Section 377A empowers it to do so.

Section 377A hangs like a sword of Damocles over the gay community. Its existence automatically criminalises men who have sex with men, even if they have done nothing to harm others. No citizen can count on the eternal benevolence of the state. Section 377A must be abolished. In its place, Parliament must revise existing law to cover cases of public nuisance, rape, statutory rape and other crimes that were previously prosecuted under Section 377A, with an eye towards deterring and punishing harm as opposed to consensual acts.

LGBT People in the Media

There are no laws forbidding the portrayal of LGBT people in the mass media. Instead, the Media Development Authority — which develops the media by censoring it — issued guidelines forbidding the “promotion or glamorization of the homosexual lifestyle”.

This policy has claimed a long list of victims of censorship. Barack Obama’s pro-LGBT comments. A same-sex kiss from a theatrical production of Les MiserablesMass Effect, for its femShep/Liara relationship, for a while. A number of local films and plays. A full list of censored media can be found here.

This isn’t to say that the MDA demanded the media to hide LGBT characters. Indeed, there is no bar against having such characters, so long as they aren’t portrayed positively. A local Mandarin-language police procedural featured a male-to-female transsexual as a killer. Another drama had an episode where the cast convinced a transvestite to give up his cross-dressing ways.

This is discrimination by regulatory fiat. The MDA does not answer to Parliament or the people. If the government believes more restrictions should be placed on the media, the MDA can do it without having to go through the formalities of a Parliamentary debate or try to convince the people through the press.

But this should also be seen in context. The government has long held the position that Singapore’s media should be a ‘nation-building media’. The media takes its cues from the government, delivering the messages and creating the narratives that the government wants it to deliver. When controversies erupted over en bloc sales of real estate in Singapore, MediaCorp suddenly produced a drama about a family caught up in an en bloc sale. Press coverage of national events tend to be slanted to favour the government, emphasising Singapore’s ‘traditional values’, including religious harmony, efficient government, and de-politicisation of racial and religious matters. This is part of the government’s overall strategy of justifying its rule through ‘Asian values’, which is really a hodgepodge of Confucian and Victorian moral norms. It creates a narrative of ‘Asian values’ through the media, then uses it to claim the moral high ground.

The problem here isn’t just discrimination per se. It’s that the government uses the media as its mouthpiece to spread its version of public ethics, politics and news, and LGBT issues is just one of them. Singaporeans cannot count on the mainstream media to explore alternative stories and narratives that contradict the party line, and there is little profit in petitioning the MDA to change its policies if the government won’t. A more realistic approach would be to engage the government itself on portrayals of LGBT people, and why LGBT people should be given fair portrayal in the media.

But I won’t hold my breath. Creators who want to have LGBT characters in their works would find better luck in spaces the MDA can’t touch. In the age of the Internet, creators can upload works on YouTube, use Patreon or Kickstarter for funding, write and narrate digital stories, and more. Instead of butting heads with the MDA on legacy media platforms, seek places where the MDA cannot reach and build your audience there. This will pull receptive audiences to your platforms, allow you to render any and all discriminatory media portrayals in Singapore irrelevant.

Marriage and Housing

In Singapore, it is usually joked that the most common way to propose marriage is to ask your would-be spouse to buy a flat with you. That’s because public housing in Singapore is strictly limited, favouring family units (including newly-weds). LGBT couples must either purchase flats on the private/resale markets or wait until they are 35 years old and purchase a flat under the joint singles scheme. Is this discrimination?

Singapore, it must be remembered, is a tiny, land-scarce country. Land use must be carefully planned, and a flat may be retained in the same family for two or even three generations out of necessity. The government must prioritise the needs of families with children and newlyweds who will produce children, for they will ensure the continued survival of the nation and the people. Lesbians, gays and transsexuals who will not or cannot produce children will not contribute to the next generation or the generation after, so their needs must be placed last.

Unfortunately, since bureaucracies must operate with a broad brush, there will be unintended victims. This year, a couple lost their marriage to the mechanisms of state. They registered their marriage as a heterosexual couple, but the male declared that he intended to transition to female. The marriage was nonetheless allowed to continue, and was registered as a heterosexual marriage. After the former husband transitioned, the marriage became a same-sex marriage — which is illegal here. After months of hemming and hawing, the state forcibly dissolved the marriage and the couple had to move to a smaller home.

I understand where the government is coming from and recognise the necessity of prioritizing heterosexual couples (and, by extension, the long-term survival of the country), but this is most unfortunate for the couple mentioned above, and other edge cases that the bureaucracy isn’t equipped to resolve. On the other hand, I don’t think Western-style civil unions can resolve the matter either. If non-heterosexual couples in civil unions are accorded the same rights as heterosexual couples in recognised weddings, it could have a significant impact on the availability of public housing in Singapore. It is not fair for a tiny non-fertile percent of the population to have such an outsized impact on the rest of the population that will ensure the nation’s continued existence.

Should we build more public housing? Singapore is the very definition of a concrete jungle: where can more land be found? What about letting LGBT people rent flats? Rent prices are sky-high in Singapore: rental flats cater to PMETs with astronomical salaries or groups of people, leaving rented rooms the only viable option for most people.

I don’t have any easy answers. What I do know is that this issue isn’t discussed in public at all. LGBT people are left to fend for themselves while the government will not accommodate them. Instead of harping on such abstract matters as the ‘freedom to love’, LGBT activists should focus on everyday matters that affect the lives of people, and the government should in turn engage these activists to hopefully reach a win-win solution.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

Having attended the original Pink Dot, I can confirm Faye’s remarks on its essential vacuity. Yes, it celebrates the freedom of love. Yes, it trots out speakers affirming non-heteronormative relationships and the virtues of tolerance and diversity. Yes, there is music and live performances and balloons. For one day a year it makes people feel good. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

I don’t care about feeling good. I care about doing good.

There isn’t widespread systemic discrimination against LGBT people in Singapore on the scale of the Middle East or elsewhere. However, Section 377A allows potential tyrants to oppress the LGBT community. Media portrayals of LGBT people in Singapore are a facet of the government’s control over the media. Housing for LGBT people remain a thorny but underdiscussed issue.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. LGBT people face a number of unique challenges that aren’t aired openly. Half of lesbian relationships involve domestic violence. Last year, there were 408 new reported cases of HIV transmission, and 52% of them originated from homosexual transmission. Advertisements about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention targeting the LGBT community cannot be aired here.

It’s easy to jump on bandwagons, chant slogans and repeat the tired rhetoric of power, privilege and discrimination. It makes people feel good, but it doesn’t do anything to resolve these issues. If you’re truly interested in helping LGBT people, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Marital Rape Laws Expose Men to Abuse

 

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Two days ago, the Straits Times reported an impending review of Singapore’s law on marital rape to “ensure that married women have the same protection against violence as unmarried women”. Singapore’s legal code is built on English Common Law, which includes immunity from prosecution for men who have sex with their wives.

Removal of this immunity would expose the other half of humanity to legal jeopardy and manipulation.

Marriage is the recognition and legitimisation of a relationship between two parties. Marriage is a public, binding and lasting declaration of consent to sexual intercourse. Rape within marriage cannot exist.

The Other Half of the Sky

This review of marital rape is framed as ‘women’s rights’. In other words, it codifies the myth that men are the sole perpetrators of rape and women the sole victims—a myth that Singapore continues to perpetuate by defining rape as a crime committed only by men on women. It sweeps aside men who were coerced to penetrate someone else with their body parts. It exposes married men to false rape accusations and place undue legal burden on them.

The report says:

The Government may be wary that abolishing immunity may lead to false allegations of rape, or open up criminal proceedings that are overly intrusive to families.
But these are issues that can be worked out through consulting various stakeholders.

I am not convinced. Abolishing immunity will lead to false allegations. If a woman feels her husband offended her and wants to spite him, all she has to do is to have sex with him one night and accuse him of marital rape in the morning.

Since the ‘evidence’ states there was sexual contact, the onus is now on the husband to prove that he didn’t rape her or threaten to use violence unless she has sex with him. This is compounded by the fact that Singapore does not have Miranda rights. Suspects only have access to lawyers after the initial interview—and if the police and the public prosecutor decide to press charges, an innocent man is out of luck. It will be tempting for irresponsible police officers to pressure the husband into confessing for a crime he didn’t commit to speedily clear cases and to ‘protect women’. Regardless of what happens, the man will be dragged through the mud.

And if the woman were the manipulative sort, the criminal investigation is all the evidence she needs to file for divorce and a rich alimony.

If a system makes it easy for unscrupulous women to cry rape, it will happen. In America, between 6 to 8% of rape accusations are false. In India, it is 53%. Even if an allegation is proven false, the investigation would have caused great deal of emotional, financial and psychological harm to the accused.

‘Consulting various stakeholders’ is meaningless. The government did not consult stakeholders when formulating the White Paper on Population, its policies on new media, or, indeed, anything it have already made up their mind to achieve. The government may claim it will solicit feedback, but whether it will listen is something else. With the People’s Action Party retaining absolute dominance in Parliament, if the PAP believes something should be law, it will be law, regardless of stakeholders think—and nothing will stop them.

The Question No One Asks

Why do you want to be married to someone you don’t want to have sex with?

This is the question no one is asking about marital rape. Marriage is a partnership involving sexual rights and responsibilities, and holds both parties to uphold their duties of fulfilling the other’s sexual needs and desires. If either party consistently demonstrates an unwillingness to accommodate the other, the partnership is broken. In such a state, there are three legitimate responses: acceptance and adaptation, therapy and reconciliation, or divorce.

If you want the benefits of marriage, you must also fulfil the duties of marriage. If you do not want to fulfil the duties of marriage, then the marriage is over.

Marriage is a lasting declaration of consent. Defining marital rape as a crime opens the possibility of the wife unilaterally deciding to withdraw consent at any time without necessarily informing the husband and exposing him to criminal investigation. This isn’t just irresponsible and unfair; it opens the possibility for abuse.

If a woman no longer consents to have sex with her husband, she should revoke consent through divorce. If a woman believes that her husband is so violent that he will use force to coerce her into sex, then she should either divorce him and seek help, or better yet, not marry him at all. If a woman’s husband insists on having sex with her when she doesn’t feel up to it and she feels it is not right, she should either discuss it with him to resolve the issue, or file for divorce. Instead of abdicating all responsibility to the state, she should exercise it for herself.

Law is Not the Answer

The law is not a first resort. It is the last. Before entering a marriage, the parties involved must be certain that they are both willing to fulfil the other’s sexual needs. If either partner is not, rushing into marriage is a set-up for disaster. If either or both parties no longer wish to meet these obligations within a marriage, and do not wish to compromise or work around it, the responsible thing to do is to file for divorce.

A law that places undue burden on men is a law that will be abused. The law is not a hammer with which to beat the other party into psychological submission, nor to extract benefits from a former husband, nor to spite him. It is reserved for punishing and deterring actual criminals, not to take sides in a domestic dispute.

The answer to the problem of a person coercing his spouse into sex is not more law. It is teaching men and women the responsibilities of marriage and imparting life and relationship skills. It is educating people to recognise abusers and dissuading them from marrying such people. It is reaching out to abuse victims and getting them to leave abusers as quickly as possible.

In other words, it is teaching men and women to be responsible adults.

Amos Yee and the Freedom to Offend

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Yesterday 18-year-old Singaporean Amos Yee was granted asylum in the United States, throwing a spotlight on freedom of speech in Singapore. Judge Samuel Cole called him a “young political dissident”, and the ruling claimed that Yee has a “suffered past persecution” and has a “well-founded fear of future persecution”. Yee has been jailed twice, once in July 2015 and again in September 2016.

A victory for freedom of speech?

Maybe, but it’s a hollow victory indeed.

Yee has spoken no hard truths, fomented no revolutions and started no grassroots movements. He has created no groundbreaking works of art or philosophy or politics, nor has he revealed any government or corporate malfeasance. He has run for no political party and has contributed not one iota to the development of Singapore’s civil society.

Yee is merely a shock jock.

In 2015, Yee released an expletive-filled video praising the death of Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, calling him a ‘totalitarian’ and comparing him unfavourably to Jesus and Mao Zedong.

The government opened investigations into Yee and detained him for 53 days. A family and youth counsellor, Vincent Law, bailed Yee. On May 13 Yee demonstrated his gratitude by falsely accusing Law of molest on Facebook. Yee then claimed he would be present at Bukit Panjang MRT station to speak to the media. The media swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, and Yee didn’t show up. The following day, he posted another expletive-laden Facebook post laughing at the media, boasting about how he had trolled them.

In 2016, Yee produced and uploaded a picture and two profanity-filled videos insulting Muslims and Christians. Once again, he was arrested, this time for ‘wounding religious feelings’. He was further fined $2000 for failing to show up at a police station twice to give his statement.

Amos Yee is no hero. He has not furthered the cause of democracy and freedom, nor has he contributed meaningfully to society. He is no free thinker or dissident, only an attention-seeking teenager whose only talent lies in offensive speech.

But freedom of speech means the freedom to offend. Wounding ‘feelings’ is no reason to arrest and jail people; down that path lies ritualised self-criticism, the gulags and the killing fields. People like Yee are canaries in the coal mine: when the government squashes the canary it’s a sign that freedom of speech is under fire. If people approve of shock jocks being arrested for spurious reasons, the government will be encouraged to crack down on people with legitimate arguments and different points of view. Free speech must be for everyone, or it applies to no one.

With that said, I don’t see Yee making the most of his second chance.

Yee claims he is now an ‘anarchist communist’ who believes in feminism. He has a known history of turning on people who want to help him, displaying callous disregard for anyone whom he hurts, employing vulgarities in place of cogent argument, and generating content that rely on offensiveness instead of rational thought. When the going gets tough and he’s in trouble, he has no qualms about compromising his principles to save his skin. Anarchist communism calls for abolition of private property, capitalism and the state; but he relied on a state organ to grant him safety, and when he was held in America, he asked for people to give him money to cover his costs instead of doing stuff for him like a proper anarcho-communist. He also claims that he supports free speech but like all good social justice warriors he has no problem with media platforms taking down ‘anti-feminist’ speech.

Yee is an arch-SJW who has doubled down and continues to double down. If Yee won’t change his ways — and I don’t see that happening anytime soon — he’s not going to amount to much.

What about the impact on Singapore?

Singaporean politician Kenneth Jeyaratnam claims that the ruling “may create waves in Singapore. It may show Singaporeans that there’s nothing to be afraid about. The Singapore government is a paper tiger. We don’t have to swallow the brainwashing that is constantly put out.”

Jeyaratnam sure is optimistic. The government has not softened its stance on Yee or hate speech. The police has not signaled any shift in policy, overtly or otherwise. Opposition politicians have not argued for liberalisation of Singapore’s laws on hate speech nor proposed new free speech laws in Parliament. Political bloggers are still free to say what they want, within the blurry boundaries of the law. Citizens still won’t know what are the limits of the law until someone like Yee tests it and is slapped down. Nothing has changed.

Save for one thing.

Amos Yee is America’s problem now.

Image from Yee’s Facebook page

Why Singapore Literature Turns Me Off

Once again, the arts community is promoting Singapore literature through social media and the mainstream media. The latest initiative is #BuySingLit, billed as “an industry-led movement to celebrate stories from Singapore”.

Once again, the news turns me off SingLit.

A History of Disappointment

As a child I was a voracious reader. I read every book I got my hands on, no matter the subject. I inhaled encyclopedias, fairy tales, the Norse epics, Greek and Roman mythology, world folklore, comics, and so many more stories. In the mornings I would read about hobgoblins and dragons, in the afternoons I studied atomic theory and photography, in the evenings I followed the exploits of supersoldiers and scientists.

At the age of 12 I grew conscious of Singapore literature and the classics, and began to seek them out. Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Goh Poh Seng, Russell Lee, Wena Poon, Joanne Hon and other less-famous writers. Always I compared them to the other stories I’ve read, and found them wanting.

My synesthesia won’t allow me to read books. Instead, I experience them.

Ernest Hemingway’s prose is lean and taut and muscular, demanding a hundred percent of your attention. Michael Connelly’s stories are as black as a murderer’s heart and as slick as ice. Tom Clancy alternates ponderous white slabs with blazing crimson streaks. J. K. Rowling began as smooth caramel, but her later works transformed into dark coffee shot through with green and gold. J. R. R. Tolkien seminal work, The Lord of the Rings, stretches out into lush green vistas and soaring grey mountains. John C. Wright ignites fireworks with his words, blending them together into gold and bronze and violet and emerald on every page.

Compared to all that, every Singaporean writer produces thin mist of pale shades. Some are white, some are yellow, some are brown. Occasionally the mist parts to reveal black-on-white shapes as shallow as the ink that produce them. Other writers make the mist so thick and sticky and dry it feels like wading through a hail of glue drops frozen in the air. These stories are plain, staid, prosaic, illogical, shallow, boring, unreadable — and nearly interchangeable.

Singaporean genre fiction consistently ranks the lowest among the books I have read. Star Sapphire by Joan Hon is a romance story thinly veiled as science fiction, and not a particularly memorable one at that. The Singapore Noir anthology is bleakly bland while Best of Singapore Erotica fails to titillate. Douglas Chua and Barry Chen claim to write thrillers, but I have found their stories more useful as reusable sleeping aids. Only two writers caught my eye: Johann S. Lee, whose writing is competent but unremarkable (and I don’t swing towards gay male romance stories), and Neil Humphreys (who was born in England), specifically his thrillers.

The majority of Singapore’s prose output is high-brow literature, and even that fails the test. Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun promises a spy story focusing on a radical Christian sect, but all that stands out is that the protagonist seemed very concerned over whether he (and his manager) was gay — and that the secret police seemed pointlessly sadistic and otherwise inefficient. Lions in Winter by Wena Poon has multiple scenes that possessed neither a story arc nor relatable characters, yet claimed to be stories. Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore by Catherine Lim is little more than dry sepia. Held against the starkness of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the hidden depths of Road Dahl or the dark absurdity of Jean-Paul Sartre, these stories were limp and colourless.

Even so, I tried to participate in Singapore’s literary circles. I joined writers’ groups — and left soon after. I paid to attend workshops and classes — and learned nothing. I joined writers’ events and seminars — and all I found was navel-gazing, bloviating and boredom.

Everything But Writing

The chief problem as I see it is that the Singapore writing scene is about everything but writing.

Every writers’ group I have joined were for hobbyists. They brought together like-minded people to talk about their own writing, encourage them to write and participate in writing activities. This isn’t wrong per se, but I am not a hobbyist. I aim to be a professional. Professionals delve deep into craft and examine the state of the industry. These groups did not.

Programmes at writers’ events do not build up writers. #BuySingLit‘s events have art displays, treasure hunts and book tours. Only a handful of workshops are geared towards writing — and even those workshops are foundation-level courses. The same holds true for Singapore’s premier writing event, the Singapore Writers Festival. SWF has film screenings, music, history, panel discussions — anything and everything about the writers’ craft, or, indeed, writing. Contrast this to events like Dragoncon or Thrillfest, which teach more about the art, craft and business of writing in three days than SWF does in a month. The instructors at Dragoncon and Thrillfest go into the kind of detail that is sorely lacking in Singapore. I don’t have anything against the non-writing oriented events in local writing events, but one would think that the events, being about writing, would at least focus on the core audience and try to do more than teach beginner-level writing craft.

Singaporean publishers are only interested in a specific type of literature: stories about Singapore culture set in Singapore aimed at a Singaporean audience and foreigners who enjoy reading about Singapore. Writers who do not fit the mold will not find much support from the industry. While publishers are free to pursue whatever business model they like, people like me, a Hugo Award nominated science fiction and fantasy writer who will not limit his stories to Singapore, will have to look elsewhere. Likewise, Singapore’s mainstream media tends to focus on Singaporean writers who have either published through the usual publishing houses, or who are too big and controversial to ignore.

Add them all up, and what you have is a culture that encourages newbies to write and people to feel good. Not a culture that encourages people to sustain their writing or to further hone their craft. The only goal is producing a novel, anthology, poetry collection or whatever, not about living journey about pursuing a career at writing or the art of the written word. When someone publishes a work, the usual cry of “Support local talent!” echoes in the usual circles, without anyone paying heed to the actual quality of the content. Indeed, a couple of the stories and writers I mentioned above were award winners — and the award-winners of today aren’t better.

No Country for Writers?

Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety percent of anything is crud. In Singapore’s case, there aren’t enough writers to have a statistically significant ten percent of non-crud stories.

I intend to change that.

I’ve been writing fiction since I was 12 years old. My published fiction writing career spans 4 years. Later this year, I will publish at least one novel through Castalia House and one short story through Silver Empire’s [Lyonesse] (http://lyonesse.silverempire.org/) programme. I am already working on a bunch of other stories, which will be revealed in due course. If Singapore is no country for writers like me, then I will find other avenues to publish my works.

I will also be passing on the tricks of the trade. It’s been a long time coming, and now I feel ready to give back to the wider community of writers. Expect more posts zooming in on the way of the pen.

Fundamentally, I don’t care whether stories, especially mine, can be labelled SingLit or not. I care about good writing, wherever they may come from. Since my country continues to disappoint me, I will reach out to a wider audience.

Get Up and Ruck

Life is not lived sitting down behind a screen. Life is lived outside at the edge of your comfort zone, at the borders of your day-to-day experience. When everyday life grinds down your soul, when you weary of staying indoors and experiencing the same routine over and over again, there is a simple solution.

Get up and ruck.

Rucking is simple. Carry weight on your back and go out for a walk. Go solo or go with friends. Go as far and as fast as you can. The important thing is to get moving and keep moving.

To go rucking, you just need two things: a ruck and a destination. When preparing for a ruck, you need to manage your weight and bulk. Pack everything you will need first, followed by everything you may have to use in an emergency, and lastly things that are nice to have but not necessary. In the above photograph, my ruck was packed with the following:

  1. 40 oz / 1.18 litre Hydroflask
  2. Necessities pouch containing flashlight, spare batteries, medicine, stationery, packets of tissue and band-aids
  3. Umbrella
  4. 2 granola bars
  5. Coin pouch
  6. Kindle

These were packed in order of importance. Water is critical, followed by medicine and hygiene. Should an emergency strike, you need to be able to deal with it there and then with the tools you have on hand. While illumination, shelter and food are also important, in urban environments they can be found nearly everywhere. The coin pouch and the Kindle are the nice-to-haves, so light and small they go with me wherever I go.

There’s so little packed in the ruck that it makes the bag look floppy. That’s deliberate. Pack light, go fast. The less you carry, the more agile and mobile you are, and the more things you can do when you get to wherever you are going.

The point of rucking isn’t just to go from point A to point B. It’s to experience life. Keep your head up, your phone down and your legs moving. If you see something interesting, go explore. See someone interesting, go talk. Going light lets you do all this without losing your breath or acting awkward around strangers. And if you find yourself picking up or buying stuff, you have plenty of empty space inside your ruck to keep them, leaving your hands free.

This is not to say you shouldn’t carry heavy stuff. If I have to get work done on my computer, I bring it with me. If you want to challenge yourself by carrying more weight, go right ahead. But everything you carry in your ruck should serve a purpose. The heavier something is, the more the weight has to be justified. If that weight is not used somehow, it has to go.

Once you have your ruck, you need somewhere to go. Both a starting point and an endpoint. There are many areas of attraction everywhere in the world. The trick is to find them.

Many locals consider Singapore to be the most boring place in the world. In a sense, that is true. Everywhere you go you see the same thing: high-rise flats (apartment blocks to Americans) clustered next to private estates, a shopping centre at every major train station, offices and industrial buildings at designated business zones.

But life is lived outside day-to-day experience.

Rucking in the big city is simple. Pick a neighbourhood, preferably someplace you haven’t been before. Study a map of the area. Plot your route if you want, or not at all if you prefer to go rambling. Call up friends if they’re interested, or go solo.

That’s it. Head up, phone down, go ruck.

Here are some photos from my latest ruck:

Shophouses from the colonial era.

This side of the Singapore River, you’ll find fancy restaurants, pubs and massage parlours.

It’s quiet now, but come nightfall, this place will be packed.

Skyscrapers by the water. The building in the distance is the Fullerton Hotel.

The most important bar in Singapore’s modern history. Here, sociopolitical activists, bloggers, lawyers and politicians used to meet, discuss their latest plans, and carry out events.

Hotel Park Royal at Upper Pickering Street.

Lime restaurant inside the Hotel Park Royal.

The signature red truck of the Police Special Operations Command.

East and West: Green tea chiffon cake, paired with warm kaya dip.

Rucking is simple, yet challenging. It’s an opportunity for exploration and adventure. It’s a chance to go see what is in your patch of Earth. Immerse yourself in what you find, and share them with the world.

The next time you feel that you need to do something new, the prescription is simple.

Get up and ruck.