Thursday 21 January 2016

Lion City Lit: Tom Benner

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. Lion City Lit explores what’s going on in the City-State, lit-wise. Here journalist Tom Benner explains why it’s a wonderful source of stories…

 My wife had the same job at the same university in Boston, Massachusetts, for a very long time, and decided she wanted to work in Asia, where so much in the education world is unfolding.

I was up for the adventure, and as a writer and editor, my skills are pretty transportable.

We wound up in Singapore. She’s a college dean, and I’m a freelance journalist.

It’s not always easy to be a freelancer. You eat what you kill, have no job security, and your income can vary wildly from month to month.

That said, there are many positives. You get to explore your interests, discover new places and things, accept jobs that interest you, and turn down those that don’t.

I’ve been lucky enough to get published by some great news outlets, like Al Jazeera English, Nikkei Asian Review, the Christian Science Monitor and the Atlantic, and local publications including the Straits Times and Today.

Singapore is a surprisingly newsy place.

If you’re a business journalist, you get to cover a global financial center that is at or near the top of most lists for the wealthiest places, most expensive places, most millionaires, ease of doing business, and on and on.

If you’re a policy wonk, Singapore’s got that down. The first place in the world to introduce road congestion pricing is a smart city like no other, a wired, digitally savvy place.

If you’re into regional issues, Singapore is at the center of unfolding economic stories like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations creating a single market and production base, at the crossroads between China and India.

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue always draws the world’s attention to Singapore each spring. It’s a high-level gathering of defense heads from around the world; this past year’s big story was China’s ambitious land-grab in the South China Sea and the geopolitical ramifications.

From tiny Singapore, a rich variety of places and cultures are just a short trip away. Over the recent holiday break we took a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to spend a week visiting ancient temples and learning about a history that goes back centuries. Once we were back in Singapore, we drove with friends to Malacca for a weekend away.

Since setting up shop in Singapore, I’ve been twice now to Timor-Leste, the first new country of the 21st century, along with fellow members of the Singapore Press Club, to put on media training workshops. While there I wrote stories for Al Jazeera English on some of the challenges facing the young country, including corruption among inexperienced government leaders, and ill-intentioned efforts to muzzle the media.

Thanks also to the Singapore Press Club, I learned of and applied for a journalism fellowship program called Dateline Tokyo, which was operated out of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, in fall 2014. Six journalists from English-speaking countries around the world were invited to Tokyo to cover the city as it gears up for hosting the 2020 summer Olympics.

There are fun stories to be written in Tokyo. Such as how the game of baseball speaks to differences in Japanese and American culture. And what sumo wrestlers eat to get so big. And how hosting the Olympics can transform a city – as it did for Tokyo in 1964, as post-World War II Japan reemerged onto the international stage.

I wear other hats. I write a monthly column about life in Singapore for a Japanese newspaper, and help a local college with its website and blog posts.

I’ve also been a contributing writer and editor on several book projects.

At some point I’d like to put together an annotated list that would be called something like “A Singapore Reader”, listing many of the books that someone interested in learning about this region might want to read.

Some fine writing has come out of Southeast Asia. I had read George Orwell on his time spent in Burma long before I arrived here, as well as W. Somerset Maugham on his Southeast Asian travels. But I didn’t know writers like Mochtar Lubis, whose critical views on Indonesian politics landed him in jail, and Han Suyin, whose “And The Rain My Drink” captured efforts by British security forces to maintain the slippery colonial grip on Malaya.

Newer voices I’ve come to admire include the fiction writer Catherine Lim; the poet and cultural critic Kirpal Singh; playwrights Alfian Sa'at and Huzir Sulaiman; and journalist turned author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, whose wonderful “A Tiger in the Kitchen” served as my introductory text on Singapore.

Those are just a few of the great writers I’ve encountered in print. Ethos Books and Monsoon Books are among the local presses adding to the regional bookshelf, and the interest is far from provincial. As Asia’s dominance rises in the 21st Century, the eyes of the world will be on Singapore and Southeast Asia.

Tom Benner’s work can be found here