Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Constance Singam
By Yeow Kai Chai
There are many qualities to admire about Constance Singam, but one trait stands out – her gentle persuasion.
Known fondly as the mother of civil society activism in Singapore, she rarely loses her cool, not even when the Arts House launch of her reissued memoir, Where I Was: A Memoir About Forgetting and Remembering, was mysteriously pulled in March 2022.
Indeed, who's afraid of Constance Singam? Let others lose their ball bearings over the kerfuffle – Constance has on record a lifetime of accomplishments in the face of seemingly unsurmountable odds, and no one can take that away from her.
The publicity blurb for the book sums it up best: "In a land of many cultures, many races, many religions; in a state where politics and public policies impinge, sometimes callously, on the daily lives of its denizens, Constance Singam is an individual marginalised many times over by her status as a woman, an Indian, a widow and a civil society activist."
While many merely virtual-signalled, she did the hard work. Inducted into the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, Constance has led women's organisations, co-founded civil society groups, wrote columns in national publications, and co-edited several books.
Instead of resting on her laurels, she reinvented herself. After having been president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) for the second time, she went back to the university in the late 1990s to get a Master's degree, immersing herself in Feminism and Cultural Studies. In her memoir, she says it gave her "the theoretical knowledge about the practical work I had been engaged in the last 10 years."
Her continual commitment to better herself, and by extension, the society, is steeped in her wisdom: "Advocacy is the vanguard of change. One party or one organisation is not always right. Views have to be challenged."
As a writer, she has penned non-fiction works such as Re-Presenting Singapore Women (2004) and The Art of Advocacy in Singapore (2017); two memoirs, including Never Leave Home Without Your Chilli Sauce (2016); and three children's books, including Porter the Adventurous Otter (2021).
These days, she is happy to "step back from the frontline of an active life to be an observer" and devote her time to the other loves of her life – "reading, writing, cooking for friends and enjoying their company, and tending my plants."
1. What are you reading right now?
The use and control of space is of particular interest to me because so much of our space in Singapore is managed or controlled by the State and people living in HDB estates are subjected to many rules. One can either abandon oneself to the controls or find a way around it. Bachelard writes about finding beauty even in the humblest of homes. The house, he suggests, is a "nest for dreaming, a shelter for imagining."
"For our house," he writes, "is our corner of the world…it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the world. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty."
Each time I go back to The Poetics of Space, and I do this often I am inspired by the ideas therein and understand a little more about intimate spaces as well as community spaces that have the potential for making a difference to people's lives. These spaces are not just inert spaces but what we can make of them.
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
There might be feminists who would have had unhappy experiences under patriarchal systems and institutions but in addressing patriarchy as an oppressive system we, and I know I, address the injustice visited upon all men as well as women who are trapped in a culture/ideology which does not recognise nor respect the full humanity of all human beings, men, women and children.
Feminists have to look at the underlying causes of abuse, domestic violence, poverty among women, their lower status, and why they earn less wages than men for similar work they do. The research informs them and their work which reveals that the dominance of patriarchal culture and ideology is dehumanising. Men are not ready to give up the privileges that patriarchy accords them. And so feminists are demonised.
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
For similar reasons I admire Arundhati Roy. She is a fierce and passionate writer, fearless in the way she addresses injustices, politicians and politics.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
I read Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things when it first came out, which is many years ago. I still remember the special quality of her writing – the ability to evoke powerful images in a phrase, a sentence with a minimum of words.
She is a political activist and the more absorbing readings are her essays. In her collection The Algebra of Infinite Justice, she addresses the role of writers. In the essay 'The Ladies have Feelings, So…', she writes about activism: "One is not involved by virtue of being a writer or activist. One is involved because one is a human being. Writing about it just happens to be the most effective thing a writer can do…it is time to snatch our futures back from the 'experts'. Time to ask, in ordinary language, the public question and to demand in ordinary language, the public answer."
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers? Dishonesty and hypocrisy.
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
Or one of my favourites, from T .S. Eliot's The Waste Land: "April is the cruellest month…mixing memory and desire."
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I…
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite: the word "imagination". It conjures up, evokes an ability to suspend reality.
12. Write a short-short story that includes the following three items: gardener, chilli, bulbuls.
Father Bulbul caught sight of the attractive red chilli that the gardener had planted and decided that the chilli would be a nice feed for the chick that is always hungry, always demanding. Maybe if I give a bit of the chilli it will stop being so demanding about being fed, thought Father Bulbul. And so Father Bulbul pecked off a tiny bit of the chilli and fed it to his chick. The chick was not pleased at all. It decided then and there that he will have to venture out of the comfort of the nest, stop his dependency on his parents for food, and fly out to find his own food.
This is the reason all bird chicks give up the comfort of their nests, fly away and discover the world beyond the nest! Bulbul chicks didn't want to eat chilli.
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
16. In a blog-post titled 'The past is never far away', you wrote: "In this place of so many homogenised spaces, so many unremarkable, low-ceilinged little units, I have found my home: 'a nest for dreaming, a shelter for imagining'; my corner of the world to daydream and escape into solitude." As someone who has lived a very rich, fulfilling life as a "journalist, teacher, housewife, columnist in several national publications, and a civil society activist," what dream(s) do you still have for this country, and for the younger generation who are inheriting it?
I hope that the younger generation would discover and experience as I have, that the state does not have the monopoly of power but people working together for a common cause have power as well.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?