By Audrey Chan Li Yi
Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media
Andrew Koh’s contributions to Singapore’s arts scene make for impressive reading. He is a founding member of The Necessary Stage theatre company and his 1994 novella, Glass Cathedral, won the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award. It’s the first gay-themed novella to be given official recognition in the country.
Andrew recalls being “very happy” to receive the award considering homosexuality was on the margins of society at that time and was viewed as shameful.
“Definitely, a taboo was brought within social structures …and at the very least we need to rethink this,” he says. “If we don’t question our assumptions of what’s good and what’s bad, we are going to be in deep trouble, because it’s then so easy to move into extremes.”
Although he broke new ground with his literary work in his younger days, 53-year-old Andrew’s creative writing is on the backburner for now. He is a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine in Australia and a PhD candidate.
“My mental space at the moment is very much on academic writing,” he said. He does express a desire though to get back to literary writing.
Andrew has also lived away from Singapore since Glass Cathedral was published nearly a quarter of a century ago. He laments the rapid pace of modernisation in Singapore and the physical changes he encounters whenever he returns to visit family. His old school is now a museum, he says, and the field that the school band used to march on is gone. He says “a deep sense of history” is missing and his take is that this is one of the key reasons why many Singaporeans don’t feel rooted here.
Andrew acknowledges that there needs to be change in order to make progress. “But if we do that at breakneck speed and not have some sense of retaining the markers of our history,” he cautions, “We will end up not knowing who we are.”
Tackling Uncomfortable Subjects
As he has been away from Singapore for so long, Andrew is reluctant to make any decisive comments on the changes in the local arts scene from the days when he was active here. But he notes that literary works do not just passively reflect what society is, they must also educate and lead. To that end, he asks if the country is confident and secure and open enough to allow people to write about things that may cause discomfort.
“There are limits, I agree,” he says. “But can you widen those limits rather than narrow them? If we are constantly clamping down because we are uncomfortable with some of the things that are written, we will never progress culturally.”