Nationalism and Interiority: Reflections on Singaporean Poetry from 1980s to 1990s by Cyril Wong

In an interview given in 1999, Lee Tzu Pheng referred to a popular type of poetry published during the 1980s as “poetry in the doldrums” or “poetry of externals”:

I think the poetry of the 80s was maybe in a sense too keen or too eager to try and create that sense of identity of the nation…you don’t create a Singapore poetry just by mentioning Bugis Street or void decks, that kind of thing. That’s what I mean by a poetry of externals—you name places, you try and bring in the racial element and all that, but it just doesn’t happen. (Chan 57-58)

This essay will reveal that the “doldrums” did not only happen in the 1980s but spilled into the 90s as well. Lee was referring to the publications of other poets that appeared in the wake of the success of Edwin Thumboo’s, Arthur Yap’s, and her own poetry. It has frequently been said that Thumboo, Yap, and Lee created a tradition where none had existed before, spanning the 1950s all the way to the 1990s when Singapore faced new uncertainties after it had just been separated from Malaysia to become an independent state in 1965. As Chua Beng Huat tells us, “Singapore as an independent nation-state was first and foremost a political reality foisted on a population under conditions beyond their control” (101). These prominent poets reacted seriously to such uncertainties through their collections. For example, Singapore as a political reality coming into its own was one for which Thumboo expressed enthusiasm in his earlier poems. It was from this moment in the country’s short literary history that governmental institutions and prominent publishers, supported by the media, decided contingently to promote the notion that a successful and viable poetry was one that actively engaged with the socio-political realities of its time.

The truth about the works by such influential poets as Lee is far more complex. The three influential poets were more “self-referential” (Kwan-Terry 136) than one might have imagined. With regard to Lee, Anne Brewster has pointed out that much of her poetry “creates an inner world in which the effects and ramifications of emotional travail” (69). Lee has created a poetry that could be positioned as being both private as well as public at the same time. Lee herself has insisted that her much-quoted “My Country and My People” was really “a very personal poem” and made it known that she had been alarmed by how “it was sort of touted around as a ‘national’ poem”, even by those who had never read the poem (Chan 53). Lee writes in a personalised voice that also engages with the socio-political realities that surrounded her. As a result, popular perception of Lee’s poetry leaned towards an interpretation of her oeuvre as principally supporting a macroscopic, nation-building enterprise. Poets writing after the likes of Thumboo and Lee have had either to accept or to reject the elevated role of the poet as necessarily public and socially conscious. Although Lee was politically aware in a few seminal poems, she was also, throughout her work, critical and revealing about her own persona as projected through the poem. In the title poem from her last collection Lambada By Galilee (1997), for example, the religious poet is put off by revellers doing the sensual dance in a part of the world that was supposed to instil a spiritual quiet for which she had arrived there. Instead, the poet recognises her own self-repression and moral bigotry and suggests to both herself and the reader that she might the one that God would deem “pharisaical” for judging those daring to lead uninhibited lives of passion (47). In revealing the limitations of her own self-perception, the poet’s voice becomes one that readers can trust or empathise with. Trust is especially crucial when the poet is making statements about other people or foreign cultural contexts.

Lee published a poetry that could satisfy all corners of the reading gallery, one that was intensely self-aware and personal but also social and political in scope. The poets that I will be discussing in this chapter—Simon Tay, Angeline Yap, Leong Liew Geok, Koh Buck Song, David Leo, Heng Siok Tian, and Paul Tan Kim Liang—have tried to make their mark while publishing within the long shadows cast by literary predecessors like Lee. These seven poets published their volumes from the 80s to the 90s, and only Tan and Heng went on to launch new collections in our present century. Unfortunately, what Lee meant by “a poetry of external” could be applied largely to the works of these poets, with the exception for Leong, Yap, and Tan, whose writing styles developed in later collections to evince a greater sense of interiority and critical self-awareness. The other poets hovered between the pressure to mediate the formation of a national identity to a reading audience and the abdication of this demand in favour of a more personal and introspective poetry. Unlike Lee, most of these poets either avoided or were incapable of doing both. They created a poetry which offered little socio-cultural insight into the places and the social concerns that such places implied, beyond the literary gestures and allusions that they utilised to capture their chosen subjects. Dennis Haskell has generously suggested that this could be due to a possible “refusal of the tone of authoritativeness” associated with parliamentary edicts, and that such poets were deliberately crafting “a poetry of description and evocation” to set themselves apart from the language of authority and pragmatism employed by government institutions (32). Haskell even hints that such a poetry was a positive progression from the declamatory forms of nationalistic poetry that had come before. However, if this was the case, a sense of descriptiveness and evocativeness could mean that these poets became overtly preoccupied with language play when depicting localised sites with shorthand metonymic associations to a nationalised landscape. It is also possible that at the point of writing, these poets were conscious of the way their works would serve not only as objects of literary contemplation but also of cultural production—they would be helping to shape a uniquely Singaporean canon. The country’s literary tradition was still growing and writers might have instinctively focused on signposting a recognisable sense of place and locality through their poems in the belief that this would be needed for local literature. This essay will later show how many of these poems tended to become more aesthetically affective than revealing about the Singapore they evoked or about the poet’s own subjective consciousness.

Writers like Koh Buck Song and Heng Siok Tian were not just poetic observers of landmark sites in their homeland since they also responded artistically to foreign locations, which resulted in many travel poems that sat side by side in their collections with poems about Singapore. Many of the poets I have named wrote a substantial amount of travel poems from the 1980s all the way to the 1990s. In Singapore 21 (1999), written by the Singapore 21 Committee that was initiated by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in August 1997 to strengthen the “heartware” (the intangibles of society–social cohesion, political stability, and the values of a people) of twenty-first century Singapore, the ideal Singaporean is described as a cosmopolite, “one who is familiar with global trends and lifestyles and feels comfortable working and living in Singapore as well as overseas” (Tan and Yeoh 150). The Singapore 21 report was followed by the Renaissance City Report (2000), launched by the Ministry for Information and the Arts, in which the same aspirations were more or less repeated but with further elaboration; the dream for Singapore was still for it to become a global hub comparative to London and New York (38-39, 5). To be cosmopolitan was one way of helping the island-state gain international exposure through the activities of its citizens, who would help to plug Singapore into a global network of developed countries. In referencing these foreign places, the Singaporean poet could have been buying into this national desire to belong to an international network. There might even be a link between what the poets do for a living and their congenial willingness to complement their government’s agenda through their own writings. Heng, for example, has been working as a teacher at a junior college during the course of her poetic career while Koh was a journalist for The Straits Times and he also worked at the Economic Development Board in strategic planning and marketing and corporate communications. Shirley Lim Geok-lin has suggested many Singapore poets could be writing as part of an “English-educated elite, whose interests are inextricably bound up with governmental, bureaucratic aims and whose independence of action and thought consequently is constrained” (24). Practically all the poets discussed here have been working for government-controlled institutions as teachers or civil servants. Constrained or not, in writing abstractly about foreign countries in some poems and then turning the literary eye back to Singapore in others, many of these poets seemed to support a utilitarian raison d’être for their craft in subscribing to an imagined ideal for a national literature: a cosmopolitan literature that appears global in scope but has not lost crucial sight of the locality it is born out of.

The need for approval or official endorsement could have been a factor for why these poets have worked hard to heighten their Singaporean context in their volumes. It was an unspoken fact around the time of writing these poems that, as Paul Tan points out, “[w]inning a prize here, for better or worse, [was] usually seen as an endorsement of the establishment—it must mean that your work is approved of, or at least, tolerable within the country’s socio-political matrix” (Singh, “Forging Ahead” 185). Tan’s observation suggests that the temptation to be accepted by official agencies of authority on culture and nation-building, as well as publishers and the media, might have proved too great for writers to resist at the time. The situation that Tan describes was still happening in the mid-nineties when Roger Vaughan Jenkins’s verse collection, From the Belly of the Carp (1996), consisting of dramatic sketches of real and imagined personages, in whose lives the Singapore River had played a central role, won the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize, beating even Boey Kim Cheng’s Days of No Name (1996) because Jenkins’s book was no doubt considered “more nationalistic” (Yap, “Poets in Motion”).

In their later collections, however, poets like Tan, Leong Liew Geok, and Angeline Yap have managed to forge a deeper sense of interiority with a more layered and illuminating relationship between the poetic self and the environment, local or otherwise, it engages with. Just like Thumboo, Yap, and Lee before them, Leong, Yap, and Tan have begun “to betray a greater concern with language as a means of seeing the world differently to what the commonplace tells us it is” (Kwan-Terry 136), the commonplace as presented by their earlier poems which had served mainly to disseminate a generalised representation of Singapore as post-colonial, grappling with its own rapid urbanity, or steeped in its own cultural flavour such as foods, Singlish, and multicultural cross-pollinations. Since their debut collections, the poets have become more willing to shine a critical light on their own persona within the poems, which might not necessarily be the same as the poet’s private or “confessional” self, and to self-reflexively expose or question the speaker’s attitudes and assumptions. David Baker in his essay, “I’m Nobody: Lyric Poetry and the Problem of People”, which addressed the problem of whether the lyric can ever be a public art, and the possible chasm between the radical interiority of the lyric and readers trying to relate to the poem, has written that the more the self, or the speaker, is identified in the poem, lyric or otherwise, “the more connective and sympathetic is its relationship to others” (203). For Baker, the lyric’s sense of “(i)nteriority is—the ultimate paradox—one of our most conjoining gestures” (203) between the poetic voice and the reader. In presenting events or revelations through a self-aware speaker with an implied inner life, Baker’s point is that the poet is then better able to persuade readers into entering a more intimate and subjective relationship with the voice of the poem.

The first published book by poets I am discussing, Simon Tay’s slim first collection Prism (1980), was the work of what Edwin Thumboo, Tay’s own mentor, describes in its foreword as a “young poet”, one who has yet to extend the range of his subjects and had much to improve in his poetic style (5). In this collection of abstracted impressions of nature, people, and places, the poem “Tanjong Rhu” stands out for its sense of melodrama:

Here is the wall
the still-moist wind
Stirs round and cries.
Where once were her dark tresses, the sea,
is a wall…

Turn away, the dust is in your eyes.
Now come to the house the sea
has left behind…
The sea has left her scars,
Wounds of throbbing, passion. (12)

The poem does not clarify who the “you” refers to and what the speaker’s relation is to her or him. The poem also does not explain why the reader should sympathise with either the speaker or the figure he is addressing, even if figure and reader might overlap analogously via the poet’s address. Other than a protracted exercise in pathetic fallacy in conveying a sense of loss, the poem has nothing much to tell us about Tanjong Rhu, or why we should commiserate with the sea’s departure from a spacious shoreline that will eventually be transformed into a bustling shipyard. The “you” in the poem becomes rather a possible signifier for the loss of a deeper connection between the reader and the poem, a failure to connect which reflects also on the poet and his relationship to the site he has picked to mourn time’s passing. If the poet is not able to allude to a more concrete, individual attachment to his chosen locality, the reader would be even less motivated to relate to this scene in the poem as well. In another poem from the same volume, “On the Changi Airport Construction”, the poet laments that technological advances have forced us to forget the past:

Tractors shovel earth over my laughing memories
Of sand and sand castles.
They build as I had,
But they for jumbo planes, oiled machines;
I, for morning dreams. (26)

A problem with this and the previous poem is that both fail to elicit enough sympathy for the passing of anything, be it an individual childhood or a familiarly local landscape, when the latter is portrayed fleetingly as something in the abstract. Although the titles of these two poems refer to specific Singaporean locations, it could be argued that the point of being ambiguous is so that the poems might transcend locality to produce an affect of universality; these feelings of loss could be experienced anywhere where time and urbanisation have altered the landscape, and not just at Tanjong Rhu or at the Changi Airport. In any case, it is likely that the poems do not offer readers a moving or memorable account of the changes Singapore has had to endure to succeed as a modern nation, due to the fact that their strategies are arguably too figurative and painterly, the speaker in the poems too anonymous.

In a similar way, Koh Buck Song’s poems possess a lack of a tangible, subjective connection between speaker and setting. Take “Stained Glass, Marina Bay” from A Brief History of Toa Payoh (1992) as an example:

urban nightfall
skyscrapers in still silence…
a bottle dances on the water…
amidst an amorphous blight
on sleek stainless steel sheen

mirror on stained glass:
traces of a fresh morass? (66)

The poem itself is a morass of imprecise or unnecessarily abstract descriptions, while words like “amorphous blight” sound archaic or quasi-poetic at best. As with Tay’s pieces, Koh’s poem here seems focused on its own play of language, constructed from poetic manoeuvres that block any further connection the poet might have had with a physical setting which was supposed to provoke legitimate feelings of loss and melancholy. If the poet means to defamiliarise Marina Bay for aesthetic reasons, there is no clue that the poem, aside from its title, has to be about Marina Bay at all, and no justification for referring to the Bay in the first place. If the reference was to establish a recognisably localised context, the poem offers no significant insight into this context; the poem’s language folds back onto its own literary gestures. It is ironic that, in these poems about the past going to waste as a result of technological advancements and the processes of urbanisation in the present, the failure of society to salvage or recall its past is unwittingly and symptomatically reflected in the poet’s own incapacity to capture an uniquely individual or subjective attachment to localities charged with notions of loss and transience, which readers could have also related to in a potentially rewarding way.

The problem of an absent sense of connection can be seen again in a travel poem from the same book, “Going By Giza”, in which Koh comments on what he sees and thinks about while moving through Cairo:

going by Giza now…
one can see
bonds of brokenness
that history cannot hide
nor sands subside
even as the Sphinx stares
out for an answer
to man’s enigma of being,
the riddle of order remains:
why some are lifted high
while down below others lie. (31-32)

For the poet, a trip through Giza inspires sweeping revelations about how history is not a straight line, how man’s sense of being will always remain an enigma, and about the unfairness of life which grants the power of dominance to some and not to others. This poem is, in fact, juxtaposed with “A Brief History of Toa Payoh”, the piece that starts the whole section of travel poems in Koh’s book, a poem whose aphoristic conclusion about the cultural and physical changes in Singapore is another uninspired generalisation: “in our History’s eye,/ growth is so swift” (27). It could be argued that the poet is more interested in highlighting his cosmopolitan disposition by placing a poem about Toa Payoh alongside other poems about travel than in exploding preconceived assumptions and elaborating upon the possible differences that arise when comparing cultural contexts and the questions about one’s identity that a closer look at such differences might open up.

David Leo is a poet who has similarly written a whole section of travel poems, entitled “A Traveller’s Palette” in his second poetry collection One Journey, Many Rivers (1997). In “Bites of the Big Apple” Leo exhibits the same propensity as Koh to write a poetry that is out of touch with the variety of cultural contexts that it sets out to engage with:

From the train
into the bursts of summer rain,
New York intimidates
by the station mates,
its noise, suspicious gazes
and other people
completely unrelated—
the predatory trap. (48)

Taking a train through the city that never sleeps turns out to be a trap for a cloistered Singaporean too accustomed to living in the crime-free hologram of his local environment. Unintentionally, the reader learns more about the speaker than about the Big Apple in this poem, in which his irrational fears have turned foreigners into potential predators with “suspicious gazes”. Another poem in the same book by Leo that unfortunately resorts to generalisations to summarise an experience of an unfamiliar context is “Nepali Journey”:

In Nepal you journey
with your mind,
and your eyes wander
far and high,
hardly turning
to look around. (69)

The poet ends his poem here and readers are not given any clue as to what should be envisioned when we “journey with (our) mind(s)”. The poem also provides no hint of what we could possibly see in Nepal that might be so captivating that we would need never to “look around” if we were to imagine ourselves in the speaker’s shoes. Like Koh, Leo’s poems behave like distracting verbal screens through which the places or situations that these poems are supposed to reveal are actually invisible.

In contrast with Tay, Koh, and Leo, Heng Siok Tian is focused on celebrating the contemporary in her poems when incorporating recognisable signifiers of her country’s evolving modernity or overseas locations she has encountered. Her poetry could even be described as postcolonial. Jahan Ramazani has described the postcolonial poem as “mediat[ing] between Western and non-Western forms of perception, experience, and language to reveal not only their integration but ultimately the chasm that divides them” (18). Ramazani’s implication here is also the postcolonial poem is capable of taking to task the colonial, literary heritage that it draws from. But in a poem like “Sonnet to an Arrival: Changi Airtropolis 1992” from her debut volume Crossing the Chopsticks (1993), Heng has no desire to deconstruct or undermine any established literary tradition and is satisfied with juxtaposing Western mythology and Romantic poetry gestures with localised names of places and technological realities in the present day:

Airy aeons ago, t’was ancient dreamer
Icarus gave flight to aero-history.
Could he have surmised dual terminals
or today’s Changi techno-sophistry?

From mind’s cockpit, I pilot air-pages:
Kallang, Paya Lebar, Changi reclaimed.
Modest means, stuttering startings air-chase
Concordes, Airbus, Supersonic air-fame. (66)

Word play, neologisms, embedded rhymes, and imaginative connections made between disparate ideas, are the common literary tricks that Heng utilises to animate her poems. In the sonnet, the poet celebrates the integration of Western technology as it merges with everyday life. In “Naming of Parts of a CBD, Shenton Way 1992”, another poem from the same collection, Heng takes pleasure again in aesthetic descriptions of urbanity and aspects of Singapore’s city culture:

Today,
textbook urban geography
derides
urban crisis, dislocations, rank, dynamics,
segregation,
income re-distribution
become
shell-shock casualties of possessive politics… (65)

This issue of “urban crisis” is referred to but not elaborated upon. The actual consequences of change are not Heng’s main priorities here. Her poems are more linguistic explorations than social commentaries. This is evident also in a travel poem like “Watch Winds, Chicago, 2000” from her most recent collection Contouring (2004):

I am island lass,
watch
winds of change—
your cities weathermen
dissect difference
of electoral and popular votes.

Tall towers sear through me,
someone pointed out the spot
where Jack Kerouac hit his road
onto highway 66… (23)

The poet has embarked on an impressionistic engagement with the country she is, evoking well-known artistic figures, hinting lightly at its political structures. Later in the poem, Heng wishes whimsically that she was framed like a “luscious leaf” by Georgia O’Keefe. Chicago has made a superficial impact on the poet’s imagination. As such, readers are left with a less than memorable and moving impression too. From Tay and Koh to now Heng, these poets have chosen consciously or otherwise to stop short of self-conscious critical evaluation and to work solely at the surface of literarily minded description and evocation in their poems. But applying markers of influence in their poetry by a Western literary tradition—using the myth of Icarus, for example, in the case of Heng’s poem, or archaic language in Koh’s poem about Marina Bay—can discourage local readers from potentially entering a relationship of familiarity or affiliation with the Singaporean places depicted in the poems.

In writing a poetry that avoided stepping outside of aesthetic generalisations and which precluded a sense of critical self-questioning, these poets had ended up publishing some of the most forgettable poetry collections in the short history of our literature. These poets also wrote as if they had been pressured to invoke their own Singaporeanness at every turn. The general failure of these poets to make the same impact on the local literary scene as an exception like Lee Tzu Pheng could serve as an analogy for a general failure in Singapore society through attempts initiated by governmental agencies to develop a sense of cultural depth in the short time that Singapore has had to be a new country. In an interview with The Straits Times in 2001, Taiwanese writer and cultural critic Lung Ying-Tai had this to say on Singapore’s short-sighted attempts to inspire an authentic sense of cultural depth: “If you try to encourage creativity through camps, workshops and courses, you will get only technicians because that is how you train technicians, not thinkers” (Cheong, “Cultivating Culture”). Just as Singapore is accused by critics like Lung for producing a nation of technicians and for being a country with no soul, the poets discussed so far could similarly be accused for writing a poetry without depth, and for being verbal technicians, particularly in instances when they seemed more concerned with gesturing opportunely to a localised context, while flexing their linguistic muscles, than with offering a personally-engaged perspective or an authentic, subjective response to the places which inspired them to pen their poems in the first place.

Writing Out of the Doldrums

A poetry that goes beyond obsessing about its observable relevance to the advancement of a national literature, and which begins to reveal the poetic self as recognisably flawed and self-critical and, as a result, more authentic and believable can be noticed thankfully in Leong Liew Geok’s and Paul Tan’s later collections. Angeline Yap too has begun to write a poetry that is not only recognisably Singaporean in context but also full of heart, a lively individuality, and an intelligent awareness of the self.

Although Tan’s poetry is not weighed down by the literariness that was a predominant feature in many of Koh’s and Heng’s poems, Tan’s earlier work was problematic for being too generalised in their depictions of scenes and places. “Changing Bus Routes” from Curious Roads (1994), his debut publication, takes the reader into a deserted bus interchange and quietly laments the processes of urbanisation that have neglected an old, dilapidated Singaporean neighbourhood:

This is an old estate.
Look at the algae-ridden bricks—
best to be forgotten, they said.

Someone pulled out
demographic charts
as they struck out the routes.

Out, out—

There are no buses here,
only feasting spirits
on these unswept avenues. (53)

A sense of nostalgia is overstated and a reference to “feasting spirits” too quickly evokes Tan’s own cultural heritage, one that presupposes a shared belief in the supernatural, so that the local context of the poem may come into focus. From changes in a physical landscape, Tan then moves on to changes in his linguistic makeup in a later poem of the same collection, “我 是 (i am)”. Here the poet laments about the clash of language cultures within his own self-definition:

chinese too
skin as yellow as loess
shining like good gold
my eyes surely black
dark mirror black well
limitless unlike
my tun-tun-tu-tu vocabulary

english speaking
cursing dreaming moaning in it…
a whole thesaurus
stuck in my throat… (8)

But readers would be left wondering why the poet should suffer this much from having to live in two language worlds at once, particularly when he seems perfectly at ease with writing a whole collection of poems in English. At best, the poem serves mainly to reference the poet’s own ethnicity, situating him within a particular, socio-historical context; a time in Singapore’s history during which Singaporeans were becoming more educated and globalised through their increasingly proficient use of English as the accepted administrative language of the country. If there were any serious issues by Singaporeans at that time with adjusting from one’s mother-tongue to English, they are not disclosed or analysed in this poem.

Tan’s second collection Driving Into Rain (1998) regularly stops short of divulging enough about the poet’s persona for readers to enter a more rewarding and connective relationship with the poetry. However, the poem “Watching Frank” stands out oddly for its sudden yet short-lived declarations of solitude and unrequited desires:

The things solitude drives one to do—

What unsavoury excursions—
What undignified propositions—

Tonight I’ve become a
voyeur in this downtown bookstore,
marvelling at your
latest youthful acquisition…

It’s a kinda dirty fascination
but I stop short…
of trailing you
down the escalator—

At home,
I scrub hard in the shower,
listen to the spray of water
draining away. (54)

Nowhere else in the book does Tan write like this again and we are given no more hint of what kind of “unsavoury excursions” the speaker has embarked upon in the past, or why he finds his own desires “dirty” enough to want to take a shower. The paucity of explanations or clues to the actual psychology of the speaker does the poem no favours. However, it manages to hint at a potentially hidden, or repressed, map of desire that runs under the sanitised surface of a bustling, urban Singapore; a bookstore is no longer a place for buying books but a site for voyeurs with unspeakable longings. This reader is suddenly presented with a city different from its preconceptions, one that is not picture-perfect. It is not, for example, the same city that a poet like Koh tried to aestheticise and failed to connect with at a more personalised level in his poetry, or the glossy landscape of “dual terminals” and “techno-sophistry” that Heng celebrates in hers. Tan has cut an opening in the fabric of conventional assumptions about Singapore through his poetry, such that readers can peek through and encounter a surprising reality about a country not officially endorsed by its tourism brochures.

In his most recent collection First Meeting of Hands (2006), Tan arrives at a poem where he is able to achieve a perfect balance between social critique and the characterisation of a distinct and authentic—even if disillusioned and resentful—Singaporean voice. In “Appraisal” the poet questions the reasons given for being fired:

Mr Tan, you have written here that I’m not
task-oriented or adequately equipped
for the high-performance organisation…
I am not aligned to your corporate values,
unable to see the helicopter vision,
myopically clinging on
some stubborn sense of self…

It’s all true. That’s why
I lost—again—that train seat in
the standing-room-only carriage today,
sidling aside like a languorous sloth,
as more focused, purposeful
commuters elbowed their way,
eyes trained, like caged predators,
on those few elusive seats.
At least I gave them a standing ovation. (24)

The poem is a strong indictment of the value-system within corporatised Singapore and its unrealistic expectations which might leave some Singaporeans out in the cold. The private revelation about how the speaker has been trying to stay true to his “stubborn sense of self”—unlike the others who have presumably sold their souls to corporate culture—and that cinematic detail of the persona “losing” his seat, then standing in order to give an ironic ovation, help give a convincing and idiosyncratic portrayal of the speaker’s internal world.

In her first collection, Leong Liew Geok was less concerned with portraying an authentic inner life than with celebrating the everyday life of Singaporeans. Unlike poets like Koh and Heng for whom the country’s urban landscape is the central subject, Leong manages to capture the flavour and idiosyncratic actualities of a localised culture, which are mostly lost under the dense, aesthetic surfaces of the work by these other poets. She is an unpretentious writer who revels enthusiastically and persuasively in the daily minutiae of living in modern and ever-evolving Singapore. In “Coffee Shop, Clementi” taken from Love Is Not Enough (1991), the poet goes to great lengths to list the name of every local food she can remember:

Fish porridge and beefball noodles scald
Tongues out for quick thrills; where chicken rice
Bubbles, as pure kueh tutu steams,
It’s not only fast food on the cheap
I come for. Plundering appetites, voices
Riding high, eyes which eat, while waiting. (23)

There is no literary posturing here, only a series of lively descriptions that sum up the speaker’s observations at a local coffee shop. Elsewhere in her first collection, Leong often speaks as daughter, wife, and working mother, dramatising the day-to-day frustrations of dealing with family, all the time locating her writings quite naturally within a recognisably contemporary, Singaporean setting. A poem like “Dramatic Monologue” from the same collection, however, does not work as well. In the monologue, an anonymous persona crudely articulates a series of typically Singaporean complaints:

I don’t believe this
just a leetle drizzle on Friday
night and traffic clogs four, five lanes
up Orchard Road going to the dogs…

Why is this car so
SLOW? Worse than a grandmother
snail and I have to be behind
it trust my luck. Ahaa!
Female Drriverr what can you expect? (20)

The attempts to make words and their rhythms sound Singlish on the page are arguably effective, but once the poem reaches its conclusion, it has conveyed nothing much else beyond the impression that these are the things that locals like to grumble about; this is also what they sound like when they complain out loud. Yet, it is this sense of anonymity that distances the reader from the poem; the writing might make reader smile in recognition or amusement, but it does not deal seriously enough with why Singaporeans complain and whether such complaints might point to a deeper socio-cultural malaise. Perhaps this poet is being modest in her aims in offering just an entertaining glimpse into a conventional Singaporean’s psyche.

In the later pages of her second collection Women Without Men (2000), Leong features a sustained monologue in verse, lasting over several poems, that succeeds in conveying not only a plausible inner life but also a layered reflection on the societal environment that the persona struggles to find happiness and purpose in. For my purposes here, I have decided to call these poems The Gardener series; I am also assuming that this gardener is a man. In “The Gardener Walks to the Bus Stop”, the gardener spends a large part of the poem lamenting that nobody in Singapore seems to care about gardening anymore. He looks at a concrete slab of land and exclaims that the city has stolen nature’s ability to bloom, “What robbery: open space bald with slate,/Without an inch of grass to show for love” (117). Then in “The Gardener Talks to Plants” the same testy but likeable persona affectionately scolds the flora he has planted:

You could all make less work for me
But you don’t. Here’s some bone-meal
For nice fat amaryllis bulb—I’d been waiting
For your leaves to die so that I can dig
You up for wintering in the fridge
So you’ll bloom again, for free…

Be grateful, Hibiscus, you haven’t been disowned;
And listen to a final warning: behave—and bloom! (123)

The idea of blooming “for free” brings to mind a local joke about how the acronym for Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party could also stand for “pay and pay”. The joke was a social response to top-down policies which included the growing inflation of prices every year, the ever-rising cost of living and public transport, and the hefty Certificate of Entitlement that came with the buying of every car; it was popularly recognised that to live in Singapore was to accept the colloquial dictum that in this country, “nothing is for free”. But nature blooms for free, the gardener reminds himself, taking a dig, perhaps at the society that has forgotten him, being just a worker who contributes nothing to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The notion of being “disowned” also suggests that the gardener was a geriatric who had been rejected by his own family, as well as by a society that is beginning to realise it does not know how to take care of its growing aging population (Gan, “Poverty”).

In one of the last poems in The Gardener series, “The Gardener’s Had Enough”, the speaker talks to himself now about what he has achieved as a gardener, a reflection that segues into a touching meditation on his own dwindling mortality and the world he will leave behind:

Cease giving chances,
You’ve nothing to lose—
Throw the unblooming out,
They simply must choose.

That gardening’s a business
Is matter of fact;
No plant’s irreplaceable,
There’s nothing to regret.

There’s no meeting point
Between the living and dying:
Either you, or your plants expire,
Though you don’t feel like watering. (126)

“Blooming” or “unblooming” can refer not just to plants but also analogically to the productivity of corporate workers and civil servants in Singapore. The speaker bravely admits that even gardening is like a business too in which one must be merciless with plants that do not flourish accordingly. In broaching the topic of death and expiry, the gardener is suddenly resigned, even a little embittered, and no longer feels like watering. By the end of the monologue, the poet realises that life would be “deadly, dire” (127) if there were nothing to “recreate” (127), nothing to plant and watch grow all over again. Leong has created a persona that is not only believable—a persona that could very well be a projection of her own personal anxieties about growing old in Singapore—but it can also be a symbolic figure for Singaporeans who have been, or will be, left behind by a social system that cares more about its young than its old, a system which constantly demands productivity from its citizens all the way until their official retirement age of sixty-two (Retirement Age Act 2000).

As Tan and Leong write more and more poems evincing both an affecting sense of interiority as well as an implicit commentary on the society in which their poems are situated, Angeline Yap has also chosen a more private and self-referential style in the poems published in the last few years. In her first collection Collected Poems (1985), however, Yap had yet to connect fully with her cultural landscape and the familiarly destabilising changes that Singaporeans confronted while adjusting to modern life on their new island state. In “Song of a Singaporean”, she addresses an imagined figure of the Singapore in the earlier part of Singapore’s urban and nationalistic evolution:

and you, Singaporean,
what song have you to sing…
born in a small town of sleepy streets
with people still “kampong”?
your world has grown at once too large,
too small, too harsh, about you…
what song have you, nobody’s child,
not China’s, Britain’s, India’s;
not Malaysia’s.
Raggedy Anne bumps behind you forlorn.
would you sing your way home?
and with what song? (11-12)

The use of “song” here to mean one’s identity as it is forced to change and adapt to its new political milieu is elegant. The poem’s final questions might sound poignant but not for very long as the writing is still too thick with watery generalisations to give a concrete and believable picture of either an individual’s struggle or a nation’s collective memory as it faced the social reconfigurations of its present. Yap’s poem here illuminates close to naught about why exactly it is at all tragic or difficult to stumble from an idealised “kampong” life into a brand new modern city.

In Yap’s recently anthologised poem “September”, a long piece about a poet celebrating the joys of her craft and the ways in which her writing may bring her and consequently, the reader closer to the people and places that have helped shape her identity and her life:

I am writing, remembering gardens that I love… writing with the scent of jasmine suddenly renewed, I am writing out the memory of evening skies and fireworks, the faces of friends, red-and-white flags, and National Day parades; the smell of bananas freshly fried and roasting chestnuts nesting in coffee beans, and the sounds of the city waking and sleeping, sleeping and waking. (“September” 300)

Although the poem references to Singapore in obvious ways, it is also about how a poet digests and is invigorated by the quotidian of her everyday Singaporean life into the subjective consciousness of her poetic imagination. The Whitmanesque flow of the poem’s language and the tenderly-described, idiosyncratic details—”smell of bananas” and “chestnuts nesting in coffee beans”, for example—add up to a rich inner world of the poet that readers can not only connect with, but they are also impelled to envision their own private paeans to the country that they had been brought up in.

Thumboo wrote in 1976 about how the evolution of poetry in the non-Anglo-Saxon countries would undergo a series of stages, from an imitative phase to a nationalistic and socially reactive one and then to a last stage where poets are finally equipped and secure enough to be “discovering poems both in their surroundings and in themselves” (The Second Tongue xi). Boey Kim Cheng, who had never wavered from writing a poetry which forged a passionately symbiotic connection between internal and external worlds, the self and its social environment, has described the process of creating poems as one that should happen “as if your life depended on it, that you would be consumed with the words if you didn’t deliver them” (“Calling the Poems Home” 67). If these recent poems of Leong, Tan, and Yap are anything to go by, then these poets have already begun to feel compelled to write themselves out of the doldrums, as they enter Thumboo’s definition of a concluding phase in the development of poets in this country; these writers are producing a far more urgent and vital poetry that draws equally and indispensably from both the poet’s surroundings as well as from an individual subjectivity.

Works Cited

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Heng Siok Tian. Contouring. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2004.

_________. Crossing the Chopsticks and Other Poems. Singapore: Landmark Books. 1993.

Jenkins, Roger Vaughan. From the Belly of the Carp. Singapore: EPB, 1996.

Koh Buck Song. A Brief History of Toa Payoh and Other Poems. Singapore: Imperial Publishing House, 1992.

Kwan-Terry, John. “Ulysses Circling the Merlion: The Invention of Identity in Singapore Poetry in English and Chinese.” Perceiving Other Worlds. Ed. Edwin Thumboo. Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1991. 115-139.

Lee Tzu Pheng. Lambada By Galilee. Singapore: Times Edition, 1997.

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_________. Women Without Men. Singapore: Times Books International, 2000.

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Singh, Kirpal. “‘Forging Ahead’: An Interview with Paul Tan.” Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature. Volume 2: Poetry. Ed. Kirpal Singh. Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999. 183-189.

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________. Driving Into Rain. Singapore: Raffles Editions, 1998.

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________. “September.” Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia. Ed. Alvin Pang and John Kinsella. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2008. 298-300.

Yap, Stephanie. “Poets in Motion.” The Straits Times 19 November 2006.

Publication

“Nationalism and Interiority: Reflections on Singaporean Poetry from 1980s to 1990s”
Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II
Edited by Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: National Library Board 2009, pp. 216-235)

sharingborders

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