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Literary Arts

M. Balakrishnan (Ma Ilangkannan)

A well-respected author of Tamil-language fiction in Singapore


Published: 23 Nov 2021

Time taken : >15mins

M. Balakrishnan, also known by his pen name Ma Ilangkannan, is a well-respected author of Tamil-language fiction in Singapore. He has published several novels and short story collections that have depicted the lives of the Tamil migrant working class in Singapore through the decades. His works have been included in Tamil-language and multilingual anthologies published in Singapore, Malaysia and India, broadcast on national radio and television, and included in Singapore’s national school curriculum. Among the awards he has received are the S.E.A. Write Award (1982), the Thamizhavel Award (Gold) (1999), and the Singapore Literature Prize (2004). In 2005, Balakrishnan received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature in Singapore.

Born in 1938 in Singapore, Mayandiambalam Balakrishnan was an avid reader and a budding writer during his school days. He took part in short story and essay writing competitions and won several book prizes, fuelling his passion for Tamil-language literature. Since then, he has become a well-respected and acclaimed writer of fiction in the Tamil literary scene in Singapore who has for five decades—under the pen names Ma Ilangkannan and Cinkai Ma Ilangkannan—written short stories and novels depicting the experience of Tamil migrants in Malaysia and Singapore.

Balakrishnan published his first short story Thi Vali (Pain of Fire) in 1966, and became a full-time writer the following year. Thi Vali was followed over the decades by numerous volumes of short stories and several novels that have received popular and critical acclaim in Singapore, Malaysia and India.

His fictional stories about the lives of Singapore Tamils from all walks of life have always found their origins in real life. Balakrishnan’s stories are set in specific periods of Singapore history, ranging from British colonial times through the days of the Japanese Occupation and up to the present day. With protagonists who are accompanied by characters familiar to the Singapore Tamil community, his works have struck a chord with readers for their simple yet vivid depictions of the experiences and issues faced by the Tamil migrant community in a rapidly changing multicultural Southeast Asian landscape.

Balakrishnan’s short stories have also been published in newspapers such as Singapore daily Tamil Murasu, Tamil Malar, Indian publications Ananda Vegadan and Manjari, Malaysian daily Tamil Nesan, and journals such as SINGA. They have also been translated into English and Malay and included in Tamil-language as well as multilingual short story anthologies published in Singapore, Malaysia and India. His works have also been broadcast on Radio Singapore and dramatised for the television show Ilahitchiyankalin Oonankall.

A few of his novels have also been included in the Ministry of Education school curriculum in Singapore for students of Higher Tamil. His short stories have also won awards in numerous short story competitions in Singapore and abroad, such as the first prize in the Tamil category of the 1985 Short Story Competition organised by Ministry of Community Development together with the newspapers in Singapore.

His work has been recognised by both peers and awards. His five-decade writing career has seen him receive the Thamizhavel Award (Gold) from the Association of Singapore Tamil Writers and the Singapore Literature Prize, and become the first Tamil recipient of the S.E.A. Write Award. In 2005, Balakrishnan received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to literature in Singapore.

Balakrishnan continues to write as well as conduct talks on writing and the literary arts, such as at the Singapore Writers Festival 2012.


18 Sep 1938

Born in Singapore.


Moved with family to Tamil Nadu, India.


Returned to Singapore.

1953 to 1956

Attended Kalaimagal Tamil School.

1957 to 1967

Storeman, British military, Singapore.


Editor, Thondan (Follower) magazine.


Published short story, Thi Vali (Pain of Fire).

1967 to 1997

Typist, Translation department, Ministry of Culture.


Short story வழி பிறந்தது (Vazhi Piranthathu) Path Discovered won short story competition by Tamil-language magazine Ananta Vikatan.


Published வழி பிறந்தது (Vazhi Piranthathu) Path Discovered.


Published அலைகள் (Alaigal) Waves.


Short story Ennangal Nilaiyaanavai Alla Thoughts are Never Stable won the Best Short Story by Ilakkiya Kalam (Literary Critics’ Circle), Singapore.

Published குங்குமக்கன்னத்தில் (Kungumak Kannatthil) On Saffron Cheeks.

Published அலைகள் (சுருக்கம்) (Alaigal [Surukkam]) Waves (Summary) in Manjari (Magazine of India).


Published கோடுகள் ஓவியங்கள் ஆகின்றன (Kodugal Oviyangal Aagindrana) Lines Become Paintings.


Received S.E.A. Write Award.


Received first prize in short story competition by Ministry of Culture, Singapore.

Published உறவுகள் ஊஞ்சல் ஆடுகின்றன (Uravugal Oonjal Aadukindrana) Relationships are Swinging.


Received first prize in short story competition by Ministry of Culture, Singapore.


Published எண்ணங்கள் நிலையானவை அல்ல (Ennangal Nilaiyanavai Alla) Thoughts are Never Stable.


Published வைகறைப் பூக்கள் (Vaikarai Pookal) Flowers of Dawn.


Participating writer, Singapore Writers Festival.


Published உணர்வின் முடிச்சுகள் (Unarvin Mudichugal) The Knots of Feeling.


Received Book Award (Commended), National Book Development Council Singapore, for நினைவுகளின் கோலங்கள் (Ninaivugalin Kolangal) Patterns of Reflections.


Received Thamizhavel Award (Gold), Association of Singapore Tamil Writers.

Published நினைவுகளின் கோலங்கள் (Ninaivugalin Kolangal) Patterns of Reflections.


Published தூண்டில் மீன் (Thoondil Meen) Fish on Hook.

Published சுற்றிப் பார்க்க வந்தவர் (Sutripparka Vanthavar) [in கண்ணில் தெரியுதுவானம் (Kannil Theriyuththu Vaanam) Sky in the Eye: Anthology of International Tamil Writing, Tamil Welfare Association, Vithya Publications, London , UK, 2001.

Short story இலட்சியங்களின் ஊனங்கள் (Ilatchiyangalin Oonangkal) Wounded Aims published in People on the Bridge: An Anthology of ASEAN Short Stories. Translated into Malay as Harapan Sapuna.


Received Singapore Literature Prize for short story collection தூண்டில் மீன் (Thoondil Meen) Fish on Hook.

Published சுற்றிப் பார்க்க வந்தவர் (Sutripparka Vanthavar) in அயலகத் தமிழ் இலக்கியம் (Uyalakath Thamil Ilakkiyam).


Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to literature in Singapore.


Participating writer, Singapore Writers Festival.

Received Bharati Bharathidasan award.


Published குருவிக் கோட்டம் (Kuruvik Kottum) Bird Sunctum.

Received கரிகாலன் விருது - Karikalan Viruth (Karikalan Award) –Tamil University at Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu (Mustafa Trust of Singapore) for குருவிக் கோட்டம் (Kuruvik Kottum) Bird Sunctum.


Participating writer, Singapore Writers’ Festival.

வைகறைப் பூக்கள் (Vaikarai Pookal) Flowers of Dawn translated and published in English as Flowers at Dawn, Epigram Books.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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