Singapore Writers Festival puts Hamed Ismail in the spotlight
SWF puts the spotlight on Hamed Ismail, a leading figure in Malay popular writing and literature over several decades. (Photo: SWF/Hamed Ismail)

Singapore Writers Festival puts Hamed Ismail in the spotlight

Singapore Writers Festival this year honours Hamed Ismail – one of Singapore’s most successful and prolific writers who, over a career spanning four decades, has penned hit TV series, plays, short stories, poems and novels.

A well-known literary figure in Singapore and recipient of the 2020/21 Tun Seri Lanang Literary Award, Hamed’s TV scripts have been drawing big audiences since the early ’80s. If you watched Gerimis di Hati on Suria growing up in the early 2000s, you will be familiar with his skilful storytelling. SWF celebrates his journey in a special spotlight on his life and work.

Hamed is a former Senior Supervisor with Eaglevision TV Scripts at Mediacorp, and continues to serve as a TV Drama Script Advisor. He has written scripts for radio plays, theatre, numerous TV drama series as well as poetry, short stories and essays.

His accolades include multiple Malay Literary Awards and Golden Point Awards. His novel Bunga Tanjong won the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize, Merit Prize for Malay Fiction, and last April he was named recipient of the Tun Seri Lanang prize at the Anugerah Persuratan Malay Literary Awards in recognition of a lifetime of achievement.

The A List asked Hamed about his working methods, how his style has evolved over time, and the current state of Malay literature.

You have worked as screenwriter of popular TV shows like Gerimis di Hati, a novelist, a playwright, a short story writer, and a poet. What is your favourite form of writing now, and how has that changed over the years?

Hamed Ismail: I only let my ideas flow first. Suddenly I might come across something with illuminating characters, good dialogues, interesting premises and plots. All these integrating elements will find a form or genre to be written effectively.

Certain issues I find are best for poems. Argumentative dialogues are best in a play. Sometimes I fancy stories based on socio-cultural facts that trigger me to write a longer story, or maybe a novel.

Reading stories by other successful writers encourages me to experiment in my own writing. In my short stories I sometimes show glimpses of magical realism, as I used to love reading García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Yasunari Kawabata, A. Samad Said and Milan Kundera. But it does not mean I will forget the conventional style in toto.

The number of books published here in Malay has been shrinking in recent years. Is this because aspiring Malay writers are turning to English as the way to reach a bigger audience?

Hamed: Surprisingly, during this pandemic season, our writers are becoming quite productive, with substantial new books by Hartinah Ahmad, Jamal Ismail, Johar Buang, Dr. Subari Sukaini, Fathul Rahman, Maarof Salleh, Mohd Khair Mohd Yasin, Azman Shariff, Muhammad Kahrool Haque, Hamdan Muz and Anie Din. Works by Suratman Markasan, Mohd Latiff Mohammad and Isa Kamari have been translated into English.

What are your thoughts on the popularity of speculative fiction (spec-fic) among young Malay writers? What style of writing do you prefer to read?

Hamed: Spec-fic is a newly accepted genre. Writers get excited because they are free to write stories with elements of thriller, futuristic dystopia, and science fiction rolled into one. I think this form of writing will remain longer in the market. If you use the yardstick of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, new styles of writing get special attention from the judges. In this regard I believe our new generation writers are catching up.

Your prize-winning 2016 novel Bunga Tanjong takes the reader back in time to Singapore in the 1950s and 60s. Do you think a historical perspective can be as effective as a futuristic, spec-fic/sci-fi perspective as a vehicle for commentary on how life is lived in Singapore today?

Hamed: Yes. Fiction mixed with facts adds substance and meaning to our setting and identity today. Bunga Tanjong is based on a real social setting. My stage play, Anjing Untuk Diplomat, is based on historical facts. History records the important milestones; fiction writers look for a space in between and highlight facts neglected by historians.

What place do you see for Malay literature in an increasingly globalised culture? 

Fortunately, Malay writers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapura are being recognised by Majlis Sastera Asia Tenggara, also known as Mastera, a regional language organisation formed to nurture and monitor the development of Malay/Indonesian language and literature. Recently, Mastera is encouraging the translation of Malay works into English. This is a promising step towards globalisation.

Replies were edited and condensed for clarity.

SWF’s Writer’s Spotlight: Hamed Ismail takes place at theMalay Heritage Centre auditorium on 7 Nov.

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