WE’VE BUILT
SINGAPORE
WITH OUR
WORDS

A celebrated writer’s life in words,
in service of the people and reflecting
their hopes and dreams.

A celebrated writer’s life in words, in service of the people and reflecting their hopes and dreams.

Born in 1938, Mr Mayandiambalam Balakrishnan remembers the years after the Second World War with clarity. “Singapore was poor then; I’d never seen such poverty,” he recalls. “There was a lot of crime and we all had to find different ways of coping.”

Mr Bala first worked for the British military forces stationed in Singapore as a storeman. After Singapore gained its Independence in 1965, he worked as a typist in the translation department of the Ministry of Culture. The work brought him back to his first love – words.

In his career as a typist, Mr Bala typed many speeches, writings and notices. He recalls the great changes since Independence and his work at City Hall typing the speeches of Singapore’s pioneering leaders. “I’m privileged to have witnessed the country’s most exciting historical milestones,” he says, “from the time Mr Lee Kuan Yew declared ‘Merdeka!’ for self-rule, to our separation from Malaysia, and now, our golden jubilee.”

What he remembers most vividly is the sense of urgency in Mr Lee’s speeches during the late 1960s – the years after Separation. “He was very strict,” says Mr Bala. “The speeches we typed were about how our country had little resources of our own. The only thing we had – for certain – was our freedom. But we had to buy all the basic necessities of life: rice, sugar and milk. Those were tough times. There was only one way out for us: we had to work very hard to survive as a people.”

Mr Bala learnt about industry from the Prime Minister himself. “Mr Lee used to give the National Day speech, which would be translated into Chinese, Malay and Tamil,” says Mr Bala. “We’d craft the translation, type them into stencils and send the copy to Mr Lee.

“Along the way, he’d make changes directly to the Chinese and Malay copies. But since he didn’t know Tamil, we thought there weren’t going to be changes on our side.

“But then, changes to the Tamil copy came in at the eleventh hour, before his speech. We were all very surprised. How did Mr Lee know where to make the Tamil amendments? “Well, he’d compared the other languages’ stencils with the Tamil ones. Mr Lee also counted the paragraphs in the Tamil copy and found that there was supposed to be an additional paragraph in the Tamil copy, after all his changes from the Chinese and Malay versions had been taken in, but that this paragraph was missing.

“Mr Lee sent the Tamil copy back to us and I retyped the stencils. Even though he didn’t know Tamil, he was never careless, but was even more vigilant. What can I say? Mr Lee wasn’t only an intelligent man, but also an extremely industrious leader.”

Mr Bala first began writing stories for Tamil newspapers and radio stations in the late 1960s using the pen-name Singai Ma Elangkannan. He quickly gained a following for his compassionate tales that spoke for the disenfranchised. “Singapore has always been made up of different cultures, races and religions,” he says. “This is a very ripe environment for stories. I’m curious about the ways people live in such a diverse setting, especially those who struggle with poverty or discrimination.”

Having published five collections of short stories, three novels and three novellas, Mr Bala received Singapore’s highest artistic recognition, the Cultural Medallion, in 2005. His works have also been translated into English and Malay, broadcast over radio and performed on television.

“Words sustain me," he says. "They taught me to pay attention to people – to love them, and so, to love life. We’ve built Singapore with our words.”