Poetry in Singapore has
little history, a shallow presence and an uncertain future. Factors
of history, culture and politics and the forces of technology have
sidelined it. Yet walk into a bookstore in Singapore, head for the
local or Asian collection section and you will find a hardcore still
clinging to the form.
Singapore has produced
two generations of committed and talented English-language poets.
The luminaries include Lee Tzu Peng, Edwin Thumboo, Kirpal Singh,
Goh Poh Seng and Arthur Yap, followed by Leong Liew Geok, Boey Kim
Cheng and Desmond Sim and even more recently Alfian Saat, Alvin
Pang and Alfie Lee. Innovative small publishers like Ethos and Landmark
continue to publish collections of poetry amidst Singapore's economic
woes. Ethos has also produced impressive poetry anthologies like
"No Other City", which showcases a wide range of talent,
and has reached beyond our shores with the Singapore-Philippines
collaborative anthology of love poetry, "Love conquers all."
But does Singapore poetry
matter? Can it make anything happen? Is it a luxury, a need or a
longing? Does the future of Singapore poetry lie beyond the form
of the poem? Can it be the hub for a new global poetry? These are
big questions, and perhaps the best way to begin answering them
is to recount the brief history of Singapore poetry in English.
Any time someone mentions
culture, reach for your cell-phone
Thrown into the lion's den after its sudden separation from the
Federation of Malaysia, the Republic of Singapore had to fend for
itself in a dangerous and volatile neighbourhood. The little city-state
faced a set of nation-building challenges that had unraveled much
bigger countries. With no natural resources except for its tiny
population, Singapore had small margin for error. Consequently,
the leadership developed a pragmatic and utilitarian ethic. They
encouraged thought and its expression in plain and functional terms;
a legacy that still persists.
Singaporeans may still
appreciate verbal complexities or ornamental verse. But the solidity
of the abacus bead conditions the hard asset aesthetic of the majority.
Singapore's most shiny poetry has always been money.
The trauma of Singapore's
separation from Malaysia had convinced some writers who thought
and cared deeply about poetry that the form could be harnessed to
serve nation-building. Leading the charge was a talented National
University lecturer named Edwin Thumboo. He envisioned a brand of
poetry written in the "bridge language" or common medium
of English. In his view, such poetry could produce galvanising myths
in service of nation-building. The new poetry would foster a sense
of national identity. It could help to build a multi-racial, multi-cultural
Thumboo placed his faith
in the power of articulate energy. He believed it could help Singaporeans
define themselves and furnish a sense of historical continuity.
It would do so by connecting the citizens of a fully independent
nation to their immigrant past as colonial subjects.
In his criticism, he
promoted works that contained an element of wider significance.
Dismissive of inward-looking literature, he shunned private poetry
that focussed exclusively on the inner life. For example, judging
the poems of Wong May overly subjective in theme and tone, Thumboo
declared that he only trusted poems with a more normal focus and
a larger share of ordinary reality.
Leading by example,
he championed and crafted a civic poetry that appealed to reasoned
public sentiment. As Ee Tiang Hong observes in his aptly titled
study of Thumboo's poetry, "Responsibility and Commitment",
by his third collection of poems, "Ulysses by the Merlion",
Thumboo had "achieved a creative resolution of the critical
ideas he had formulated." The title-poem, according to Ee "is
a summative affirmation of the primary role he envisions for himself
as chief bard of the tribe."
Thumboo was a lucid
and penetrating critic. But the programmatic aversion he had developed
towards private and subjective poetry led him inevitably to some
ambiguity-riddled interpretations. Readings of non-conforming verse
were stretched to fit his critical framework. Two examples are worth
In a preface to the
saturnine poetry of Goh Poh Seng, he described the poet's melancholy
voice as merely a "creative stance" . Skimming over the
sulking inwardness, pessimism and disenchantment with Singapore's
material success evident in many of Goh's poems, Thumboo claimed
that the brooding poet was "simultaneously immersed in and
yet detached" from his highly personal poems. Beneath Thumboo's
strategy of assimilation lay a simpler truth - Goh's haunted voice
represented a different viewpoint. The project of nation-building
did have some detractors who chose to present their disquiet in
verse, which could not be redeemed within Thumboo's critical framework.
And in his reading of
Lee Tzu Peng's My Country, My People, he praised the poem for "straddling
two worlds, by subsuming the public to the private (to) acquire
both a wider frame of reference and intimacy that would otherwise
be lacking." But Thumboo's understandable concern with the
public-private dichotomy had tied his dualistic interpretation into
a dead-knot. Reading My Country, My People, you will discern instead
the repressed voice of an intelligent observer lamenting the irony
of a young nation that makes the tourist feel more 'at home' than
its citizens. Lee astringently captures the contradictions of the
nation-building project and questions the poet's ability to make
a difference. Her poem refuses to strike a public posture but responds
honestly to the spirit of the times where:
of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom;
and perhaps, fence-sitting neighbour,
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind."
Lee's attempt to reach
out and touch a wider public was more a gesture of futility than
of hope. As the poet-critic Kirpal Singh wrote in an insightful
preface to essays on the poetry of the region, the issue was "whether
we are prepared to grant the writer a vision which transcends his
private world and becomes meaningful to all ." Ultimately,
the vision transcended the private world, but eluded the public
as well. The project of public poetry was doomed to not succeed.
It rested on a fatal assumption - that poetry in English could have
a popular resonance. However, economic circumstances made sure that
poems would only ever remain the preserve of a small, privileged
class of citizens. The smooth, seamless surface of public opinion
expressed in Queen's English could never hope to capture the undercurrents
of popular sentiment and the ragged anguish of the heartlander.
Judged by its ambitions,
Thumboo's project of public poetry had missed its mark. A brutal
gang of facts and statistics muscled out the beautiful theories
of poetry. The use and value of poetry for a nation struggling to
survive in a hostile environment had been over-estimated. Faced
with some harsh economic decisions and a restless population, Singapore
needed number-crunchers and simple slogans. In short, reason and
not rhyme. In the words of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, poetry
is "a luxury we cannot afford."
efforts should not be dismissed outright. The astute professor and
award-winning poet harboured few illusions about the inherent ambivalence
of his project. As he put it in his poem, Gods Can Die, it was a
question of finding:
in the dark
To know the private from the public monument
To find our way between the private and public argument."
Thumboo must be recognized
if only for his relentless drive to build a genuine literary tradition
where none existed before. He created parameters and developed the
broad outline for a socially responsible poetry to develop. The
fact that his brand of poetry tried, but failed, demonstrates a
United States of Television?
The decline of Singapore
poetry in English is part of a wider phenomenon. A tiny island-city,
Singapore is affected by broader currents. The engine of today's
global economy hums to the tune of advertising jingles and the hook
of pop songs.
In most free societies,
poetry has become a medium of diversion. It attracts dilettantes
and dreamers competing with the lush dreamscapes of video-gaming
and computer-simulated realities. In repressed societies, poetry
may have a more consequential role serving as a medium of subversion
that raises deep questions and whispers suppressed national longings.
The oblique poetry of Chinese dissident Bei Dao is a case in point.
A unique society, Singapore
is a net importer of talent and human capital. Can we afford the
diversion of articulate energy to economically 'unproductive' activities
like poetry? Do we need (let alone read) packages of carefully sequenced,
semantically charged words arranged on numbered pages awaiting information-overloaded
Singapore faces many
serious challengers in a remorselessly competitive world propelled
by hubs of talent. Singaporean society persists in thinking and
acting "inside the box" when only innovation and creativity
can guarantee future economic success. Good governance and strong
leadership alone do not give nations the decisive edge in the global
But surely it is not
for poems to perform the socially-useful or a "nation-building"
function of spurring creativity. Thumboo's own project was a lesson
in how not to use poems. Engineering a poetry of public relevance
is neither realistic nor plausible. In her 1998 collection of essays,
"Living in Hope and History", the South African writer
and Nobel-Prize winner for literature Nadine Gordimer makes this
distinction very clearly, almost poetically:
"The State has
The State has no imagination because the State sees imagination
as something that can be put into service.
The Writer is put into service by his imagination; he or she writes
at its dictate."
Nor should we make the
mistake of assuming that creativity is undifferentiated and all
of a breed. Risk-taking innovation and profiteering creativity is
of a different order from the handicraft skills used to compose
sonnets, free verse, rhyming couplets or pantuns. Some may maintain
that one can never really be too sure. Granted, the wellsprings
of inventiveness are notoriously difficult to fathom. But it is
merely common-sense to recognise the limits of the poem as an art-form
and look beyond it.
In the same collection,
Gordimer asks a key question on the relationship between poetry
and the new forces of communication:
in cultural exchange of a kind, in the contradictory isolation,
alone with a screen, through texts and graphics conjured up on the
Internet. There is even a lyricism of international Internet jargon
- its basic procedure is known by the poetic verbal imagery 'surfing
the Net'. Is this a globalisation of poetry on a scale previously
unimaginable, or a sign of the global subsumption of arts in the
unquestionable, already achieved globalisation of electronics?'
Gordimer senses the
co-opting of poetry by technology. But she neglects to distinguish
between poetry's likeness and its essence. The indisputable fact
is that we live in a pulsating, electronic age where change is the
only constant. Do we not need a form of expression that breathes
apart from the hyperventilating hubbub and the helter-skelter? A
string of unhurried questions and tentative answers, poetry will
not offer us permanent shelter. As the contemporary American poet
Mark Strand observed in "The Weather of Words":
flirtation with erasure, contingency, even nonsense, are tough to
take. And what may still be tougher to take is that poetry, in its
figurativeness, its rhythms, endorses a state of verbal suspension."
However, such suspensions
may serve as the heart's respite, as we catch our breath in bewildering
The Great Singapore
In Peter Weir's 1989
film "Dead Poet's Society," the movie's maverick star
Professor Keating instructs his students to rip out the pages of
an introductory essay to their poetry textbook. He ridicules its
thesis that the greatness of a poem can be scientifically measured
according to a mathematical formula plotted on a graph. Keating
did not go so far as to tell the boys to tear out the pages of their
mathematics and science textbooks. But he was wrong to emphasize
only the poetry of literature.
The future of Singapore
poetry lies beyond the form of the poem. An expanded definition
of poetry would encompass a range of creative activities from movie-making
images to a simple, coruscating phrase in a political speech. As
a hub-city positioned on the cross-roads of trade and the "cross-cables"
of information, Singapore may someday produce a globalised poetry
that transships the touchstones of humanity in our new century.
To paraphrase the great American poet Wallace Stevens, the Great
Singapore poem may spring from the fact that we live in a place
that is not our own, and much more, not ourselves, and hard it is
in spite of blazoned days.
- February 2002, New
Umej Singh Batia
completed his studies at King's College, Cambridge University in
1995 where he obtained double first class honours in English Literature.
At Cambridge, he won the Rylands Prize for my poems and short stories.
A Singapore Foreign Service Officer, he is currently serving in
New York as an Alternate Representative to the United Nations Security