Uniting Singapore through Literature

As Executive Director of the Singapore Book Council, literature is William Phuan’s (CS‘97) medium of choice in strengthening intercultural and multilingual ties in Singapore.

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Passionate about media, William Phuan (CS’97) enrolled at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information—then called the School of Communication Studies—as part of its first cohort in 1993.

“English works are vibrant and prolific in Singapore but the Malay, Chinese and Tamil (works) face greater challenges, in part due to demand and readership. There are also not enough writers for these languages.”

WILLIAM PHUAN (CS'97)

It was a leap of faith for the former science stream student, who went on to become one of the first students writing for campus paper The Nanyang Chronicle and its Chinese edition.

Now, the 49-year-old leads the Singapore Book Council as its Executive Director. He charts the Council’s path, ensures its sustainability and heads the team behind one of the oldest arts-related non-profit organisations in Singapore. 

Phuan’s personal beliefs align with SBC's mission of promoting multicultural and multilingual literature. He says achieving this mission will cultivate a sense of intercultural awareness in Singaporean society. 

“Language and books can build or bridge communities,” he said, adding that literature can promote harmony in Singapore’s diverse social fabric.

Working towards the shared goal, Phuan said that SBC holds a variety of ongoing activities. From organising writer-sharing sessions for school students to holding workshop classes for aspiring and established writers, Phuan believes that the SBC is playing its part in developing and promoting Singaporean literature, especially for Malay, Tamil and Chinese writers. 

“English works are vibrant and prolific in Singapore but the Malay, Chinese and Tamil (works) face greater challenges, in part due to demand and readership. There are also not enough writers for these languages,” he said. 

To strengthen the mother tongue literary scene, the organisation first had to show greater public support for such works and recognise the writers’ achievements. 

That was exactly Phuan’s plan when he joined the organisation in 2018. 

 

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A Prize for Writers and Readers 

Recognising the merits in Singapore literature has always been the goal for the bi-annual Singapore Literature Prize, the most established award for local writers given by the SBC. In each edition since 1992, a judging panel would select winning books across the 4 official languages and 3 genres—poetry, fiction and nonfiction. However, the ceremonies were always closed-door affairs where only writers and industrial professionals were invited. 

In the first year at the helm, Phuan successfully pushed for SBC to hold a public award ceremony to convey the message that the celebration of Singaporean literature should be shared by all. 

“I think it was important for people to see their writers, participate in our activities and find out more about other writers,” Phuan said. “The Singapore Literature Prize recognises excellence but it’s also about visibility and profiling (for writers).” 

He shared how a comment from an attendee delighted him. “She said that it was her first time she had ever heard of the Singapore Literature Prize and got to know of all these writers and that it was a wonderful experience and she was going to get their books,” he said, describing the moment as immensely gratifying. 

 

Forging Ahead During the Pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about challenges for hosting events, and Phuan led the effort to pivot the SLP ceremony online in 2020, where it was live streamed on YouTube and Facebook for the first time. 

More than 7,000 across both platforms viewed the livestreams, which Phuan believed reinforced his desire to expand access to local literary events. “There were all these gratifying Facebook comments and congratulations … real time sentiments on how they wish this Tamil book could be translated or more … and it just reinforced the SBC’s intention and purpose of going public,” he said. 

Additionally, Phuan’s vision for the SBC to further support non-English literary works led to the organisation hosting Singapore’s first ever Translation Symposium this year. The virtual event convened local and international translators and writers to discuss and explore opportunities for collaboration and knowledge-sharing. 

Apart from the event being a strategic decision of relevance for SBC, Phuan felt it strongly reflected his belief that translation can be a vessel to strengthen intercultural understanding. 

“Singapore is multilingual and multicultural but we are monolingual when we talk to one another or in our literature … all these gaps in understanding should not be missing or lacking in our collective consciousness,” he said. 

“Singapore is multilingual and multicultural but we are monolingual when we talk to one another or in our literature … all these gaps in understanding should not be missing or lacking in our collective consciousness.”

WILLIAM PHUAN (CS'97)

A Winding Road to the Present

Despite having to strategise long-term goals and plans for the SBC, Phuan said that he had never possessed a master plan for his working life. 

Following his first job as a journalist at The Straits Times, Phuan discovered that journalism was not his calling and decided to pursue a Masters in Cinema Studies at New York University in 2001. He navigated the arts scene in the Big Apple and worked as the Program Director at the Asian American International Film Festival and curated a film series at the Museum of Modern Art for more than five years. 

When he returned to Singapore in 2008, Phuan’s journey saw him hold a multitude of jobs in leadership. He worked briefly in the government-sector before becoming the Director of The Arts House at the Old Parliament, then left to start a non-profit organisation, The Select Centre, in 2015. The non-profit was founded to promote literary translation in Singapore but shuttered after a few years. 

Phuan felt that going with the flow, even in unexpected situations, was best for his personal development. 

“One thing just leads to (another) and it brought me to where I am now,” he said with conviction.

 

Moulding the Next Generation

Phuan turns 50 next year. He sees this a milestone both in a personal and professional capacity, having spent more than two decades in the arts sector, both locally and abroad.
 
“I think (turning 50) would put me in a more reflective space, about my work and role in the Arts industry, how much more I can give and in what capacity,” he said. 

Phuan shared that he sees himself taking on the role of a mentor in the coming years, working with younger writers or professionals who want to have a career in the arts. He urges them to keep an open mind and not limit themselves to a single career, as exploring different opportunities may lead to pleasurable outcomes.

“Stay curious about the world, the books you read, all the adventures you can go … and remember that the world is way more exciting and way richer than you can imagine,” Phuan said.

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