A literature defines its people, a literature defines a nation.”1 For this reason and more, poet, writer, cultural critic and academic Associate Professor Kirpal Singh remains one of Singapore literature’s foremost proponents.
Kirpal has published four books of poetry, two collections of stories and several scholarly books. He has more than 200 articles, academic papers and a miscellany of essays and reviews. His research focuses on post-colonial literature, Singapore and Southeast Asia, literature and technology, and creative thinking. He is currently an Associate Professor of English Literature and Director of the Wee Kim Wee Centre at Singapore Management University (SMU). Around the world, he is well-known as a creativity guru and a futurist.
Kirpal is the child of a Punjabi father and a Scottish-Jewish mother. His cross-cultural background, rare at the time of his birth, has made him keenly aware of how ethnicity and religion are powerful drivers in human beings. The impact of this on his work is evident, with multiculturalism and diversity being recurring themes he grapples with. Kirpal is convinced that deep-seated biases need to be discussed and actively engaged with if we are to live in harmony and peace in a world that is increasingly becoming conflict-ridden.
Kirpal’s paternal grandfather was a burly policeman, brought to Singapore (along with his pregnant wife) by the British in the late 19th century to help deal with Chinese gangsters. His father, born in 1921 as one of 18 children in the family, became well-known throughout Malaya as an athlete, a marathoner and, later, a champion boxer in the bantamweight category. His parents met ringside while his 16-year-old mother, fresh out of high school in Glasgow, was on a trip to Singapore to visit her property agent brothers, who were fans of his boxer father.
The couple legitimised their marriage shortly after at the gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Queen Street. Kirpal was born a year later in 1949.
Following his mother’s return to Scotland, Kirpal was sent to live with his grandmother from the age of six months to six years in Batu Gajah and Ipoh. He acknowledges that the absence of his mother has been significant in his life. Still, Kirpal recalls the cow-herding and river-wading Malay village part of his childhood with fondness and many of his poems about Malaya express warmth and nostalgia for that period.
During his childhood, an Orwellian incident in which his friends and him were made to dress up and greet a young British district officer on a village inspection made an indelible impression on him. The officer stopped at Kirpal and used his cane to tickle his nose and tease him while all the other villagers stood quietly by and watched. The resentment at that unquestioned power relationship, in part due to a language barrier, made an impact on his decision to pursue the English language and post-colonial psyche. It is Kirpal’s long-standing conviction that colonialism has to be analysed and understood fully if we are to liberate ourselves from its long-term tyranny. In this respect, mastering the colonial language, English, plays a crucial role.
Kirpal was brought back to Singapore by his uncle once his schooling years began. He attended the experimental Jalan Daud School in Eunos, then Tanjong Katong Technical Secondary School (now Tanjong Katong Secondary School) and Raffles Institution. He received his Bachelor of Arts (Honours) and Master of Arts (English) from the University of Singapore. In 1976, he was awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship to complete his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Kirpal could have gone to Cambridge (United Kingdom) or to Cornell (United States of America) for his PhD but chose Adelaide because he wanted to be close to his sick uncle. Looking back, he muses that perhaps if he had gone to Cambridge, his life’s journey might have been very different but he has no regrets.
Kirpal was the first Asian to receive a PhD in English from the University of Adelaide. While in Adelaide, he took the opportunity to immerse himself in the city’s rich literary and cultural life while writing his thesis on Aldous Huxley, an intellectual who remains one of his greatest inspirations today. Kirpal was also conferred the Distinguished Alumni Award by the University of Adelaide – an honour given to only a handful from around the world.
“Kirpal always has an eye for capturing the vagaries of life beautifully in the written word. His respect for literature is evident in his repertoire of writings which have contributed signi cantly to the diversity and ourishing of the Singapore literature scene. Alongside his literary peers, his dedication to the craft has inspired many aspiring writers to scale greater heights and bring Singapore literature to the forefront of our society. As an academic, his wisdom and sharp insights on Singapore’s culture and the arts has been in uential in nurturing generations of Singaporean literary and critical thinkers.
I have known Kirpal for many years. What comes out clearly in all my interactions with him is his ability to convey the subtleties and nuances of everyday life in the most comprehensible manner for all to enjoy.
Associate Professor Yaacob Ibrahim,
Minister for Communications and Information Singapore
LIFE AFTER ADELAIDE
Upon graduation, Kirpal was faced with a choice of entering the administrative, foreign or academic services. He heeded the advice of much-admired Professor Maurice Baker and chose academia because of his enormous love of books and his passion for writing. After lecturing at National University of Singapore (NUS) from 1978 to 1991, he moved to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) as founder of its Literature and Drama department, which he then headed for seven years. In 1999, he was asked by the founding team of SMU to join it in creating a different, bold, new university. In 2000, he left NTU to become Associate Professor of Communication Skills and Creative Thinking at SMU, where he still teaches.2
Many of Singapore’s/Malaysia’s early writers, such as Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng, Ee Tiang Hong, Wong Phui Nam and K S Maniam, have been influential in Kirpal’s literary growth. Professor Thumboo, in particular, played a significant role as a mentor in shaping his development as a writer, and he readily acknowledges this despite them having grown distant and divergent in their views over the years. Likewise, on his own time, Kirpal has influenced many of the younger writers in Singapore and continues to act both as a mentor and an inspiration.
Although Kirpal explained that he was approached twice to see if he would be keen to enter politics, once when he was 25 or 26 years old and again after his return from Adelaide when he was asked to be the first Sikh Member of Parliament, he declined both offers, stating that he values his privacy and feels he may be better able to serve Singapore, even in political matters, from outside the political realm. This has, indeed, been true as Kirpal’s views have been regularly sought by policy makers on a diverse range of issues but more commonly on Singapore’s arts, cultural and literary priorities. He has also been featured in the world’s major media such as CNN, CNBC, ESPN, BBC, Times, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, among others.
Kirpal is an internationally acclaimed academic. He was a founding member of the Centre for Research in New Literatures, Flinders University, in 1977, the first Asian Director for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993 and 1994, and Chairman of the Singapore Writers Festival in the 1990s. He attended the prestigious University of Iowa International Writing Programme in 1997.
In 2004, he became the first Asian and non-American to be made Director on the Board of the American Creativity Association (ACA), of which he is now Vice President. He is also Chairperson of ACA International. Kirpal has conducted seminars, workshops and classes at a host of universities, including leading institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, Columbia, New York University, Oxford and Cambridge. His works are taught in various university courses, nationally and internationally. He has been invited to perform and speak at some of the world’s most highly-valued arts and literary festivals such as the Edinburgh, Adelaide, York and Toronto.
POWER DYNAMICS, LITERATURE
As an educator, Kirpal believes the hallmark of the strength of his teaching is when a student outshines him in his achievements. He is cognisant of the power dynamics between him and his students, staff, colleagues and administrators, and power is another very present theme in his literary work. Kirpal believes that, by and large, if a society functions on fear as the basis for respect, it can only be pushed to a certain extent before the human spirit becomes resistant and rebels against it.
Kirpal states: “Literature gives human beings the capacity to think in alternate ways. In Singapore, we tend to be overemphatic about the hard sciences and our post-colonial condition has caused us to respect the literature of other countries more.”3
However, he firmly believes that literature makes and defines its people. He is concerned that ever since it was dropped as a compulsory subject in schools, the level of English language ability in Singapore has been deteriorating. He has advocated for the mandatory teaching of Singapore literature and believes that we should study it first because it will give us a stronger sense of identity.
Literature talks about joy and sorrow, it makes you laugh and makes you cry. Writers often venture into domains that are between the knowing and the unaccepting. Kirpal is one Singapore’s writers who has, indeed, ventured in virtually all domains in his lifetime – in Singapore and around the world. He remains true to the undaunted spirit of his forefathers – voyaging beyond the known, in both reality and imagination.
1 Interview with Associate Professor Kirpal Singh, August 3, 2105.
2 SMU website, http://www.smu.edu.sg/faculty/profile/56571.
3 Interview with Associate Professor Kirpal Singh, op cit.
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