Man at His Best

Cyril Wong: What I've Learned

The poet. The writer. Seriously now, Wong

BY LAURA EVA WONG | Nov 1, 2015 | Arts

Photograph by Ronald Leong

The local arts scene is like an aquarium. The glass wall just gets moved about; it expands a bit every now and then, but it never chang-es. It’s still conservative and oppressive, and the Government and society at large either don’t care or they’re encouraging this sense of conservatism.

Singapore is so efficient, but what are we losing along the way? To a degree, we’re building a country of digits rather than human beings.

I had very high hopes and I think that’s the problem, because those hopes got dashed over time. But being so idealistic, however, kept me going for a very nice, long time. It paid to be naïve for a while.

Where do I begin? My list of pet peeves mainly consists of other people—basically, the majority of the world is a great source of hor-ror for me.

Everywhere I go in Singapore, I am confronted with an unreasonable religiosity, homophobia and racism. Everywhere. For example, when my partner and I were recently looking for an apartment, estate agents would say to us, “Eh? You two aren’t married?” No, we’re not. “Huh? Then, two of you only ah, in the apartment?” That’s why I like to keep to myself a lot more.

I’m able to get away from people, just by being at home, by being taken care of by my partner. But at the same time, we’re planning to buy property somewhere cheap that has good healthcare. Malacca is up there right now. Mahkota Medical Centre is run by Singaporeans. You can use your CPF and it’s run by my friend who is a lesbian. Perfect.

My father stopped talking to me. I’ve not spoken to him for about 30 years, I think. When I came out of the closet, we had one fight. He said, “If I ever see you with other gay people again, I will never talk to you.” And I was like... okay. My mum has been this martyr figure—poor me, I pray every day that my husband and my son will reconcile someday. Oh, for goodness’ sake. You have to do more than just pray.

I always say that people with OCD—yeah, I’m sure it is part cranial—want to escape from problems they cannot or refuse to deal with. So they end up being very particular, making sure everything else is perfect because inside, they are a mess. My father is like that. He fell in love with housework, which is one of the ways in which he grew apart from my mum.

For me, Singapore isn’t so much a national identity as it is a collection of individual memories that are shared by a lot of people. Like growing up in the east for me, wandering into the Marine Parade library, with its red bricks and air con that was never quite working, going to coffee shops and just hanging out with my friends, stuff like that. There’s something very Singaporean about all that.

It sounds weird for me to say this, but I’ve always felt very Singaporean. Being a Singaporean actually means something to me.

I write to give clarity to my thoughts. I’ve always said that I might have killed myself when I was growing up had I not been allowed to write, because I couldn’t contain what was in my head without language. Writing is like my psychiatrist. Therapy is the best word for it. Writing drew out a lot of things that I thought I had dealt with, that I thought I was in control of, but really, I wasn’t. It made me deal with a lot of issues that I hadn’t dealt with before.

Last year, I was invited to sit on a panel at a Ministry of Education forum and the context was what kind of Singapore literature we should be encouraging in schools. I went there and said, “Well, we don’t even have to talk about Singapore literature. There are other books in the world as opposed to always going back to Lord of the Flies. We can talk about [the books of ] Jeanette Winterson—there’s lesbianism in it, and people need to [read it].” Later, someone came up to me and said, “I can’t believe you said the word ‘lesbianism’ in public.” I’m like, What? It exists! They were the literature teachers of all the schools in Singapore, and no one was open to talking about it. There was only one teacher who came up to me and thanked me for saying what I said.

I met [actress and TV host] Tan Kheng Hua at The Substation once. I knew what she was thinking without her even saying a thing, but I wasn’t going to say it and neither was she. She was very amused, shaking my hand with a smile on her face. Everyone says I look like Lim Yu Beng [Kheng Hua’s husband]. Even my partner—who knows nothing about the arts—has said, “It’s so weird. He looks exactly like you!”

I’ve never met [Yu Beng], oddly enough. I’ve seen him around, but never actually spoken to him. It’ll be so weird. He’s like the straight, macho version of me. And what does it say about me if I find him hot?

Everyone thinks that [the pulping of the three children’s books deemed not pro-family by the National Library Board (NLB)] was the main catalyst for [why I quit writing], but really, it was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’ve been angry for a very long time and I guess the NLB thing was what broke me down finally. For one week, I sat at home and it felt like me versus the world, that kind of self-pitying bullshit. But I realised that I was in a battle that I never had a chance of winning.

I’ll always write. But in terms of publishing a full volume of work? No. Especially not here. My work will appear elsewhere.

First published in Esquire Singapore's November 2015 issue.