Sim Teow Li
In a country where the arts scene is still being nurtured, the phrase ‘Singaporean writer’ might seem like an irony to many. For Sim Teow Li, that is but who she is.
One Sunday morning, I had a chat with her at Café Au Jardin by Les Amis against the beautiful backdrop of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where she revealed to me that the low point of her financial status was having to decide whether to pay her public utilities bill or her phone bill. It was a lengthy discussion we had about her life before she became an established writer in Singapore.
Her earliest memories of dabbling in the arts came from her primary school days. Every time the students were told to craft a performance of some sort, Teow Li’s classmates were glad to let her take the reins creatively. They were much happier to be with their books. The Raffles Girls’ School graduate however, never foresaw becoming a fully-fledged writer when she graduated with a Degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of New South Wales.
Teow Li worked briefly in Singapore Airlines (SIA) where she had the chance to travel far and wide. She went to Paris, where upon revealing, had no clue who Salvador Dalí was but found herself attending a thorough lecture on him. Her discovery of art would lead to a life-long fascination with the subject and she would go on to find pleasure in it for years to come.
Upon leaving SIA, Teow Li earned her bread and butter by giving tuition. The chemical engineering graduate taught everything from science to literature. This point of time would also see her writing her first short play for a writing competition.
“I think I can write,” she said. Those were her thoughts when she found out that she’d won a prize in that competition. Her belief in her writing grew stronger when she wrote another piece, Curios, a family drama that went on to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 1993. Curios also went on to become a published book.
It was a scriptwriting course she attended, which began her career in the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS). She was one of the creators of the local drama series Growing Up, which ran for a total of six seasons from 1996 to 2001. Teow Li then moved on to become a freelance writer. She also researched and wrote heavily for textbooks. Upon a request from the Singapore Science Centre, she did a project called ‘Yakity Yak’ in conjunction with the Singapore team’s inaugural conquest of Mount Everest.
Something that Teow Li feels strongly about is the youth of Singapore today being put into positions of power before they’re ready. She details the hardships of being a writer in the local media industry and constantly having to change her writing, sometimes repeatedly, in order to cater to the whims of other writers. Those were nothing new to her.
“Choose the battle to fight,” she says, stating that there are sharks in the industry and such moments cause a writer to put down her pen.
In one instance, Teow Li worked with another writer for a documentary about dance in Singapore. They spent months doing the research and going on to provide much of the content that they’d been asked for, only to be told that they would not be credited as writers. The producer of the documentary wanted to be credited as the writer instead and therefore told Teow Li and her co-writer that they would only be known as the researchers.
A legal battle soon occur; one that Teow Li wanted to be no part of because she knew she would not have the money to pay if she lost. Her co-writer however, went on to sue the producer of the documentary and won. He was paid a large sum to cover legal costs and for the work he had already done for the documentary. Teow Li was only given one-tenth of the money that she was supposed to be paid in the first place.
When asked about the key to success as a writer in Singapore, Teow Li is adamant about the writing competitions she’d joined at the beginning of her career, which opened doors for her. She believes strongly in the power of putting one’s work out there to the world. When asked for a piece of advice she would give to young writers, she urged them to let their voices be heard.
She went on to tell us that as a writer, one should have confidence in what they write and always be engaged in their work.
It’s her simple life, she states, that enables her to carry on with her lifestyle. One cannot expect too much from a job like this, where work and pay is uncertain. Now, she makes a tidy living in Tiong Bahru, where she’s unmarried with no children.
“Writers make very bad marriage partners,” she says, referring to the need to be alone and free of distractions when she writes. When asked if whether her writing has taken her away from the joys of companionship, she says that it’s been quite the opposite and has brought her many friends. Having no obligations, she is also free to do with her life and spend her time as she pleases.
For those who wonder whether Teow Li paid her public utilites or phone bills so many years ago, she paid her public utilities bill. She then went on to spend a month without having a phone.
Passionate about her work, Teow Li is currently working on a novel; a historical piece that is set in early Singapore. It’s a time era that she finds fascinating.
“Hard work and sacrifice,” she tells me .
Wise words from the woman who made the term ‘Singaporean writer’ far from being an irony.
Text & Images by: Nishanthini Ganesan
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