Is Singapore a dead poetry society? 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. Small
but innovative literary publishers like Ethos Books and Landmark
continue to publish collections of poetry amidst Singapore’s
economic woes. Ethos Books has recently produced impressive poetry
anthologies like No Other City: the Ethos Anthology of Urban
Poetry, which showcases a wide range of talent, and has reached
beyond our shores with the Singapore-Philippines collaborative anthology
of love poetry, Love Gathers 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.
Everytime someone mentions culture, reach
for your mobile-phone
After its sudden separation from the Federation
of Malaysia, the Republic of Singapore had to fend for itself in
a 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. The leadership developed a pragmatic and utilitarian
ethic. They encouraged thought and its expression in plain and functional
terms. In 1969, Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew
declared that poetry was “a luxury we cannot afford.”
Poetry - the last futility
Writers in Singapore who thought and cared
deeply about poetry felt that the form was therefore best harnessed
to serve nation-building. Heading the pack was a talented National
University lecturer named Edwin Thumboo. He envisioned a brand of
poetry written in the “bridge language”(1)
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 society.
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(2).
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 works of the lyrical poet 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
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 was “a summative affirmation
of the primary role he envisions for himself as chief bard of the
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 sometimes stretched to fit
his critical framework. Two examples are worth highlighting.
In a preface to the saturnine poetry of Goh Poh
Seng, he described the poet’s melancholy voice as merely a
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”(6)
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
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
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:
Careful tending 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.”(8)
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
It’s the economy, stupid
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.
Nevertheless, Thumboo’s 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
…a balance 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 larger truth.
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.
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
It is not poetry’s role to perform the socially-useful
or “nation-building” function of spurring creativity.
Thumboo’s own project demonstrated that such an instrumental
use of poetry would not work. 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 no imagination.
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 has asked a key
question on the relationship between poetry and the new forces of
… 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”:
…poetry’s 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.
Such suspensions may serve as the heart’s
respite, as we catch our breath in bewildering times.
The Great Singapore poem
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 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
--February 2002, New York
About the Author
Umej Singh-Bhatia is a foreign service officer in the Singapore
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is currently serving as a representative
for Singapore to the United Nations Security Council in New York.
His poetry and short stories have appeared in several anthologies.
He has won a writing prize for his poetry and short stories in Cambridge,
UK, where he took his degree. His creative writing reflects his
Thumboo, Edwin “The Search for Style and Theme: A Personal Account”
in The Writer’s Sense of the Contemporary: Papers in Southeast
Asian and Australian Literature, ed. by Bruce Bennet et al, (The
Center for Studies in Australian Literature: University of Western
(2) Thumboo, Edwin “Literature
and Liberation – History, Language, Paradigms, Lacunae”
in Literature and Liberation, Five Essays from Southeast Asia,
ed. by Edwin Thumboo, (Philippines: Solidaridad Publishing House,
(3) Thumboo, Edwin, ed.
The Second Tongue, An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore
(Singapore: Heinemann 1976).
(4) Ee, Tiang Hong, Responsibility
and Commitment, The Poetry of Edwin
(5) Thumboo (Singapore: Singapore
University Press 1997).
Thumboo, Edwin, Preface to Eyewitness by Goh Poh Seng (Singapore:
(7) Ee, Responsibility
(8) Singh Kirpal, ed. The
Writer’s Sense of the Past: Essays on Southeast Asia and the
Australian Literature (Singapore: Singapore University Press,