Poems Singapore

Singapore, seen from a plane about to land at Changi airport

I saw this book and loved it at first sight. How could I not with its poems about Singapore?

It is called Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond and edited by Edwin Thumboo.

As luck would have it, the very first page I opened had a poem by him about the transformation of Singapore. The poem, Island, begins like a fairy tale:

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Raffles and his East Indiamen

What a coincidence that India celebrates its independence on August 15 while Singapore’s National Day is August 9. Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, arrived on the island in on 29 January 1819 from Calcutta (now Kolkata) in India. Even the ship he sailed on was named Indiana. I couldn’t find details of the ship but here are pictures of other East Indiamen, as they were called, built in India.

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Indians in Singapore

The proportion of Indians in Singapore has increased to pre-independence levels. The 353,000-strong community makes up 9.2 per cent of the population, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics.

We are referring to the 3.73 million resident population, comprising Singaporeans and permanent residents, and not the 4.99 million total population, which includes foreigners.Indians made up 9 per cent of the population in 1957 but declined after independence in 1965. They dwindled to 6.4 per cent in 1980 before beginning a slow recovery. They made up just 7.9 per cent of the population in 2000. Then came the big jump, to 8.5 per cent in 2005, and they have kept on growing.

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Back in Singapore

As the plane broke through the cloud cover, the pilot announced we were approaching Singapore. A lush green land stretched below us — and then came the sea. We had been flying over Malaysia.

The view was glorious. The sea, wide and deep, dotted with little islands, offshore platforms, ships cutting a wake through the waters. Lower and lower we dropped until the first Singapore building came into view — a low, red-roofed building almost hugging the edge of the island. There was little traffic on the road as the plane came down on the runway at Changi. There was a reassuring thud as the landing wheels touched the ground of my beloved Singapore.

It felt good to be back — and the satisfaction lasted all the way through the smooth immigration clearance, the speedy baggage arrival and the taxi ride home. The taxi, needless to say, had been waiting at the stand and the driver kindly helped me with the luggage.

Familiar sights and sounds now surround me. I love Singapore.

Indira Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is compared to Indira Gandhi by the Indian journalist, Sunanda Datta-Ray, who once worked for The Straits Times.

In his book, Looking East to Look West, exploring India-Singapore relations, based on his interviews with MM Lee, he writes:

Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future. Both dominated the scene around them. So much so that though lacking the alliterative resonance of the loyalist chant during the Emergency, ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’, it might be more accurate to recite ‘Kuan Yew is Singapore, Singapore is Kuan Yew’. He is probably the world’s only democratically elected leader who can boast, as France’s Louis XIV is believed to have done, ‘L’etat c’est moi’ (I am the state). That, too, has an Indian parallel. It was only half in jest that British newspapers bestowed on Indira Gandhi the ‘Empress of India’ title invented for Queen Victoria.

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Kipling, race and religion

Kipling
Kipling

The uproar in Singapore against Pastor Rony Tan, who was questioned by the authorities and had to apologize for mocking the religious beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists, reminds me of the controversy surrounding a famous writer.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Mumbai, in the JJ School of Art, where his father was the dean. The bungalow is being restored and will be turned into a museum, but it will feature paintings by local artists instead of showcasing Kipling memorabilia. Local officials frowned on plans to include a Kipling room because he is seen as an imperialist, reported the Telegraph. Young Indian students interviewed by the BBC World Service, however, said they were proud he was born there.

I heard it on the BBC arts programme Strand on the day the Straits Times reported the pastor had been questioned by the authorities. You can still hear it here.

Kipling also glorified Christianity at the expense of other religions. He wrote the poem, The White Man’s Burden, and about “lesser breeds without the law”. Racism is blatant in that line from his poem, Recessional.

And yet it is a surprisingly poignant poem. Written in 1897, during Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it reflects on the decline and fall of empires and is a prayer to God to spare the British and forgive any sins of vainglory:

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Two poems about Singapore

One poem leads to another. Reading Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai, and co-edited by Enoch Ng, Isa Kamari, and Seetha Lakshmi at the public library, I wanted to read more poems about Singapore.

And, as luck would have it, I came across another anthology, this one co-edited by Alvin Pang, whose poem, Merlign, I particularly liked among all the poems about the Merlion. This anthology is called Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, edited by Alvin Pang and John Kinsella. I immediately liked two of the poems: Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River by Miriam Wei Wei Lo and They Say by Kirpal Singh.

Why are poems so hard to find on the Net? There should be a few by every poet so we may want to read more of their works.

Here’s more about Kirpal Singh and Miriam Wei Wei Lo (here and here).

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A book of poems about the Merlion

At the pubic library, I came across a book of poems entirely about the Merlion, the lion-headed, fish-tailed icon of Singapore. The book is called Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems. It’s edited by Edwin Thumboo and Yeow Kai Chai, and co-edited by Enoch Ng, Isa Kamari, and Seetha Lakshmi. It was published by Singapore’s National Arts Council this year.

The poem I liked best was Merlign, by Alvin Pang. I have no idea why it’s called Merlign nor did I understand all the references. But I loved the first two verses and the last five or six. The whole poem can be read here. I will just take the liberty to quote the opening and the ending.

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Men In White: More

Officials fallen out of favour were said to be airbrushed out of pictures in the Soviet era. Something similar happens in Men In White, the history of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party.

Devan Nair vanishes from the pages of this book after he gives up his seat in parliament to become president in 1981. His subsequent fallout with the then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and resignation as president remain unexplored.

The book tells how Ong Teng Cheong became Singapore’s first elected president in 1993, but there is hardly anything about his subsequent differences with the government.

One may argue those differences involved matters of state while this is the history of a political party. But both were PAP men and Singapore has been so long under PAP rule – for more than 50 years – that their histories are inextricably interlinked. The book touches on almost every government policy from housing to education. So there should have been more on them.

This is a history, not a novel. You cannot drop a character halfway through. Especially key figures like these.

Devan Nair was a PAP founder member. We are told so much about him in the early chapters – his leftist leanings, his differences with Lee Kuan Yew, his subsequent disillusionment with communism; we are even told about his wife’s “fabled cooking” — and then he suddenly drops out of the story. It happens so abruptly:

“In 1981, Goh Chok Tong and Lim Chee Onn were once again put in charge of a by-election campaign — this time in Anson, whose MP Devan Nair was going to be made the state president and had to give up his post.” (Page 409.)

And that’s it. He is gone. The by-election, won by JB Jeyaretnam, who became the first opposition MP, is described in detail. But what about Devan Nair?

This is like a history of post-war Britain without the miners’ strike. It’s incomplete.

I enjoyed reading the early chapters of the book covering the 1950s and 1960s. As I mentioned in my previous post, Sonny Yap is masterly in his evocation of people and places. He takes you back to old Singapore, vividly portraying the PAP founder members and their antagonists and the ordinary people, the poverty and unrest and the uncertainty that marked that era.

The book gets blander, however, from the 1980s onwards.

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Men In White

Stop press! Men In White, the history of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, has been flying off the shelves of local bookstores and a third printing of 10,000 copies has been ordered, reports the Straits Times.

Er, wouldn’t it be better to correct a few spelling mistakes and grammatical errors first?

There are mistakes even in the foreword written by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. For a gifted writer like him, it is uncharacteristic to slip up like this:

“The SPH team interviewed many of the surviving players and read their oral histories, including of those who had passed away.”

Surely, he meant:

“The SPH team interviewed many of the surviving players and read their oral histories – as well as of those who had passed away.”

And this must be a typo. The Minister Mentor writes:

“The writers have given a comprehensive picture of the events since the 1950s when a group of returning students from Britain conceived the idea of a new socialist-styled political party.”

Surely, he meant “a new socialist-style party”.

Who read the proofs?

The Straits Times publisher, Singapore Press Holdings, which published this book written by three of its  journalists, will do well to order a thorough revision before printing any more copies.

Careless mistakes may be excused in a potboiler. But this is history written for posterity. The bar has to be higher.

There seems to be a mistake even  on the first page of the first chapter of this book. Sonny Yap writes:

“But get to know Chan Sun Wing better and banter with him in his native Cantonese and he will tell you in a heart-wrenching manner that home was not Bang Lang or Hatyai but Singapore.”

There is no such word as “heart-wrenching” in my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English. But it offers a substitute: “heart-rending”.

I did not pause to note down every howler but was amused by the spelling mistake made by Richard Lim while describing his former boss, Lim Kim San.

“In 2003, in his office in Singapore Press Holdings’ News Centre in Toa Payoh, the still spritely 87-year-old said: ‘We’ve got to make room for new blood and fresh ideas to succeed us if Singapore is to succeed.’…” (page 360)

A man may remain “sprightly” in his old age, but he is highly unlikely to turn into a “sprite” – an elf or a fairy.

The mistakes look like simple carelessness by gifted writers, for this is an ambitious, well-written book.

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