(Note: This is a longer version of a profile first published in May on Mekong Review. I have italicised the extra passages.)
Epigram Books owes its existence partly to Lee Kuan Yew’s secret police.
In 1981, as news broke that the Workers’ Party’s J.B. Jeyaretnam had won a by-election, thus breaking the ruling People’s Action Party’s stranglehold over Singapore’s parliament, plain-clothes officers from the Internal Security Department watched in horror as a young reporter from the Straits Times jumped up and down at the counting centre.
In Singapore, it’s considered career suicide for journalists from the government-controlled media outfits to show appreciation for the opposition. Edmund Wee’s fate was sealed. Having already gone years without promotion, Wee says he was then sent to ‘Siberia’, the paper’s supplemental features department, which publishes sponsored promotional stories. Overnight he had gone from intrepid reporter to public relations hack.
Yet rather than pen his own Gulag Archipelago, Wee used the time to learn about graphic design and marketing. In 1991 he left the paper to start up a design agency. Over time, it won a slew of awards, including two consecutive Red Dot Grand Prix awards in 2006 and 2007 and a President’s Design Award in 2008.
After a friend who had climbed Everest couldn’t find a publisher for his tale, Wee sensed an opportunity to shake up a moribund publishing industry, which he believed was mired in drab design and an overabundance of poetry anthologies. ‘You have [Singaporeans] who have gone to study how to write, they want to write, and they’re not being served by publishers.’
Epigram Books was launched in 2011 and quickly became known for its edgy marketing and arresting sleeve design. It diversified rapidly across genres—printing hard copies of old plays, new novels, even online commentaries—and became prolific, churning out fifty titles a year in a city-state where other publishers get by with a handful.
Quantity over quality, style over substance, some might have cried. Nevertheless, budding Singaporean authors finally had a dependable home, one that was fast becoming synonymous with ‘SingLit’.
Wee considers 2015 a turning point for the fledgling publishing house. First, Epigram Books launched its eponymous book prize, whose lucrative S$25,000 first-place prize led to a ‘proliferation’ of fiction writing in Singapore, according to Wee.
The year also brought the publication of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a genre-bending graphic novel by Sonny Liew that has sold more than 30,000 copies globally, won numerous awards and been translated into eight languages. “You can talk about SingLit on the world stage with ‘Charlie Chan’.”
Yet it proved a double-edged sword for Wee. Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), an organisation that dictates much artistic production through its generous budgets, decided that the book potentially “undermines the authority or legitimacy” of the government—typical Singaporean hyperbole for any critique of a ruling party desperate to project a lily white image.
The NAC withdrew its funding of the book and drastically cut its annual grants to Epigram Books. (A separate satire of the Lee family may also have irritated the NAC’s career-minded bureaucrats).
By 2019 Wee had put the business on a stable footing. A key plank of his strategy was the opening that year of the Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, a partnership with a coffee chain that provided Wee with a low-rental space down town. Popular among office workers and tourists, it is Singapore’s only bookshop dedicated to local works. It grew rapidly to account for some 20 per cent of Epigram Books’s revenues that year. Sales through other bookshops accounted for 50 per cent, pop-ups 20 and online 10.
After subsidising Epigram Books for a decade, Wee says 2019 was the first year in which it broke even. Then the pandemic struck. Revenues from the bookstores and pop-ups vanished, offset only marginally by a doubling in online sales. Credit dried up as many banks, not for the first time, told sixty-eight-year-old Wee that he was too old to qualify for a loan. Banks and money brokers, he claims, are offering extortionate rates during the pandemic, ‘in order to squeeze people like me lah!’
Government pandemic support schemes helped a bit, although to further slash costs Wee shrank the pipeline by delaying projects, and halved his own salary while cutting everybody else’s by up to a quarter.
Some left, while others joined, keeping the overall headcount about the same, at twenty-seven today. When I visit, there are a handful of employees in the open-plan office, chatting and poring over projects amid half-lit rows of empty chairs facing unused iMacs, like a cohesive platoon hunkering down in the face of a storm it knows will pass.
In 1822, three years after Stamford Raffles ushered in British colonialism, Singapore’s first printing press arrived from Malacca with Claudius Henry Thomsen of the London Missionary Society (LMS). Thomsen and two workmen did type cutting, bookbinding and other publishing work in English and Malay. Capabilities for Arabic, Chinese and Siamese soon followed.
In 1823 LMS missionaries established Singapore’s first ever publisher, the Mission Press, which over the next two decades served God, the government and the people, publishing among other things the Singapore Chronicle, the island’s first newspaper, and more than 2 million pages of tracts and scriptures in Chinese, Malay and Buginese.
The 1830s-1870s were arguably the golden era of Malay publishing, thanks partly to two men: Munshi Abdullah, a Melaka-born scribe, teacher and translator of mixed Tamil-Yemeni descent, who is best known as Raffles’s muse and author of Hikayat Abdullah (Abdullah’s Story); and Benjamin Keasberry, an India-born British missionary who made it his life’s work to teach—not just proselytise—the Malays, partly by publishing numerous academic and popular books in Malay. (‘Missionary to the Malays’ says his epitaph.)
After Keasberry passed in 1875, the Mission Press was sold to John Fraser and David Chalmers Neave (of F&N bottled drinks fame), who switched focus to English-language directories, guides and company reports. The press was later renamed the Singapore and Straits Printing Office.
F&N’s decision betrayed an innate tension that has plagued the industry since. Opt for the romance of local vernaculars and stories? Or commercial salvation via the coloniser’s language?
Following independence in 1965, Lee Kuan Yew accelerated Singapore along the global-city trajectory the British had put it on. Vital to this was a further embrace of foreign capital, which in turn necessitated a linguistic uniformity that catered to multinationals. English replaced Malay as the lingua franca for Singapore’s diverse population; while for the majority Chinese, Mandarin replaced dialects.
‘Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,’ Lee famously quipped, confirming that in his Singapore, language is primarily a market tool. In the 1990s Lee’s successor dissuaded the use of Singlish, our delightful Creole, petrified that it might displace the Queen’s English and turn off the globe-trotting elite.
The Singaporean is often seen as a bridge between the English-speaking world and Asia, though the flip side of this fluidity is a vacuous sense of self, a persistent cultural dissonance between global, regional, and local identities.
The comparison is sometimes made with Jamaica, another former colony without Singapore’s socio-political stability and economic success, but where the arts have blossomed in a way unimaginable in Lee’s pragmatic “paradise”. Jamaican Booker-prize-winner Marlon James’s liberal use of Creole, for instance, reflects a cultural authenticity and self-confidence that many Singaporean writers lack.
Epigram Books should therefore be seen as part of a broader movement—which includes several efforts overseas, such as the New-York-based Singapore Unbound—to help Singaporean writers find our voice. Wee believes independent Singapore’s literary journey can be divided into three phases: new world discovery, amid the hope of independence; then deprivation, as top-down, government-mandated identity formation took precedence; and finally resurgence, the ongoing bottom-up quest for meaning.
Sorry, we are just finishing our photo session,’ Wee says, as he emerges from the deep caverns of his office to open the glass door.
Epigram Books is located on the third floor of a ‘flatted factory’: a multistorey building traditionally designated for light manufacturing but which today, amid the tech boom, has also become a low-cost home for start-ups. In the cargo lift one is as likely to see Asian workers pushing box-laden trolleys as Western expats carrying kopi-gao, literally thick coffee, the most potent legal stimulant.
The office’s foyer-cum-shop is a cornucopia of colours, with glossy book covers beaming from shelves on three walls. On a central island stacks at waist height draw visitors in. Wee, eager to offer some contrast, is dressed in a black T-shirt, black trousers and black Converse sneakers, with his trademark black-framed, circular spectacles and gentle yet irreverent demeanour.
He scurries off for his portrait while I leaf through How to Cook Everything Singaporean, a tome whose audacious title, riffing off Mark Bittman’s series, reflects its publisher’s ambition. Nearby is some young adult fiction and the works of S. Rajaratnam, journalist turned Singapore’s first foreign minister under Lee.
One could easily get lost in the children’s section, where the eight-part Diary of Amos Lee, one of Epigram Books’s crown jewels with more than 200,000 copies sold, resides. ‘If I wanted to be very, very profitable, I would just close everything else and publish “middle-grade”,’ Wee says.
Wee claims Epigram Books is the only publisher of children’s English-language books ‘with Asian faces’, something that has endeared it to distributors regionally. ‘What you get from the West is all white-haired princesses and castles.’
There is a children’s series on Lee’s life—but of course—to inspire those would-be strong-armed rulers. Next to it is “The Runaway Who Became President”, about SR Nathan, Lee’s sidekick, to inspire those who might want to run away first.
“Nathan saw the Harry series [about Lee]. Then he called me up and asked if his life story could also be written for kids.”
It is always easy in Singapore to fall prey to the Great man theory of history. Countering this, at one point Wee excitedly waves in my face his latest baby, “Awesome women of Singapore”.
Wee has been on a crusade to get Singaporeans to read local stories about local people. “Why aren’t schoolchildren reading ‘Sugarbread’ instead of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?” he says, referencing the first book by Balli Kaur Jaswal, one of Singapore’s best-known novelists. “It’s a wonderful story about racism in Singapore.”
Wee’s evangelical fervour for SingLit appears undiminished. He has managed to scrape together enough money that in 2021 Epigram is again planning to launch fifty-odd books, including those delayed by the pandemic. Yet with loan repayments coming thick and fast, Wee claims that he’s ‘not excited by anything; everything I’m doing now is with great worry’.
Nevertheless, he now also professes a larger regional mission: to publish English translations of local works from around Southeast Asia. Wee believes that, since English is the second language for many in the region, these translations will foster greater understanding between the peoples of Southeast Asia. ‘What do Singaporeans know about Thais? Except eat their food and go for “tiger” shows. Neither do we know anything about the Malaysians or Indonesians. Really, we should be reading these books. And they should also be reading about us. The only way is in English.’
Wee’s newfound regional focus follows a failed attempt to break into the London market, which he saw as a means to jumpstart the Booker Prize nomination process. (Only UK-published works are eligible for consideration.)
“I published there for four years and we lost money every year,” he says, admitting that he underestimated the barriers to entry facing “a Chinaman from the former colony” and the publicity challenges with his authors being so far away.
“I decided forget about the bloody old boys club in London. Why should I have the Booker? Why can’t I sell books in ASEAN countries? ASEAN is six hundred and fifty million people, you know?”
A global audience might also beckon. Industry watchers are hopeful that, just like Japanese writers became popular in the West in the late twentieth century, and Chinese in the early twenty-first, so South-east Asia’s turn might be next.
Like other discontents who dance on the edges of mainstream society, Wee trades in the vocabulary of the oppressed. He is a self-professed “outsider” and “maverick”, somebody who finds affinity with “people on the fringes”.
These include the drug addicts and Hell’s Angels he hung out with in the 1970s at a commune in Hamilton, New Zealand, while completing a bachelor’s and master’s in psychology at the University of Waikato; as well as the Singaporean delinquents he wrote about in the 1980s for the Straits Times: the “McDonald’s kids” and “Far East [shopping centre] kids”, seemingly aimless uniformed teenagers spending their afternoons not rote learning but—horrors!—conversing with others.
Wee over the years has cultivated the image of an insurgent battling against ossified hierarchies. Fiction is his weapon, the ‘last refuge’ in a world crippled by censorship, in which ‘people in power will abuse it’, he muses. It is a seductive narrative that resonates with many Singaporean artists, though I wonder if we sometimes overdo it.
Almost three decades after his shenanigans at the Workers’ Party victory in 1981, Wee’s editor at the paper questioned him about it in preparation for his own memoirs. It turned out that 163 cm tall Wee was jumping, not in celebration, but because he wanted to see over the head of the 183 cm correspondent from Monitor, a competing paper. The ISD’s officers had misinterpreted the jump.
In the months ahead, whatever the pandemic’s next chapter, it seems likely that Edmund Wee will keep bouncing up and down on the perimeter of the publishing industry, eager to see far, willing to experiment and continuing to confound the competitors, officers and algorithms trained on him.
Additional research by Jonathan Chan
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