Looking at Chulia Street off Raffles Place and Boat Quay now, no one would know what it was like before. Chulia Kampong, unlike Kampong Glam, has vanished from the map of Singapore. So I was intrigued by the description given by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh in his novel, River of Smoke. The book, set in the 1830s, is about the opium trade between India and China which used to pass through Singapore.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Singapore’s Straits Times and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post are the only English language newspapers I know that do not allow their stories to be read online for free.
Even the Financial Times allows some of its stories to be read for free.
Not the Straits Times. All you can read for free on its website are wire stories, letters to the editor, readers’ comments — and, yes, its blogs. Just don’t expect to see the newspaper’s regular columnists there. You can read Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman for free, but you have to pay to read Andy Ho and Sumiko Tan.
It just goes to show the amazing strength of the Straits Times that, while virtually everyone else is giving away original content for free, it can still charge for what it has to offer.
Newspapers can allow free online access because the digital medium is so cheap, says Chris Anderson in his book, Free. It’s fascinating reading. The Wired magazine editor says why readers must pay to read his magazine but enjoy free access to the website:
“In print, I operate by the rules of scarcity, since each page is expensive and I have a limited number of them… Not only are our pages expensive, they are also unchangeable. Once the presses run, our mistakes and errors of judgment are preserved for posterity (or at least until they are recycled)…
“Online, however, pages are infinite and indefinitely changeable. It’s an abundance economy and invites a totally different management approach. On our Web site we have dozens of bloggers, many of them amateurs, who write what they want, without editing…
“Standards such as accuracy and fairness apply across the board, but in print we have to get everything right before publication, at great expense, while online we can correct as we go.”
The website costs only a fraction of the magazine business:
“We pay dollars to print, bind and mail a magazine to you… but just microcents to show it to you on our Web site. That’s why we can treat it as free, because on a user-by-user basis, it is, in fact, too cheap to meter.
“Overall, our server and bandwidth bill amounts to several thousand dollars a month. But that’s to reach millions of readers.”
Newspaper publishers are beginning to ask what’s the point of reaching millions of readers when advertisers are willing to pay for only a certain target audience.
But money alone no longer makes the world go round, as even businesses acknowledge. Why else do they make such a fuss about brand recognition?
Welcome to the attention economy. Another reason to read Free, especially if you are a blogger or interested in the media.
Anderson explains the new economy in terms any blogger or user of Facebook, Twitter or MySpace will understand:
Malaysia celebrated its 52nd independence anniversary recently. So how much has it changed since Anthony Burgess wrote about it in The Malayan Trilogy?
The book is based on his experiences as an education officer in Malaysia in the 1950s.
In his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, he writes: “The Malays resented Chinese wealth and were determined to keep the Chinese out of politics.”
On the other side, says Burgess, were the “Chinese communist terrorists” who fought a guerrilla war throughout the 1950s. “These were young men and women, possessed of weapons left over from the war (World War II) and animated by political ideals taken from Peking, who were determined to prevent Malaya’s emergence to parliamentary democracy and wished to see a communist state ruled by Chinese,” he says.
Here is his introduction to The Malayan Trilogy, which is worth reading in full.
The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell
Anyone who loves Singapore should read The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell. He won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur about the 1857 War of Indian Independence. The Singapore Grip is also a historical novel, describing Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. The book was first published in Britain in 1978 and Farrell died a year later.
The author vividly describes the fighting in what was then Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the burning and the looting, the humiliation of the British, who were outgeneralled and outfought by superior Japanese forces, and the manner in which civilians and soldiers alike tried to escape from the island as the Japanese approached Singapore. The narrative captures the whole spectrum of human behaviour from cowardice and selfishness to selfless courage. There are some stoic heroic figures and a very attractive Eurasian woman who gain your empathy.
But best of all are the descriptions of Singapore before it was devastated by the war – the colonial bungalows at Tanglin, the carnival atmosphere of the Great World, the taxi dancers and the prostitutes, a dying house where the Chinese went or were left by their relatives to die to prevent misfortune at home, the world of the rich colonial businessmen and the relationship between the races. Especially memorable is the description of a plane landing in Singapore. The author gives an aerial view of Singapore as the plane begins its descent – it’s marvellous.
I have been reading the book again because I am already beginning to miss Singapore.
I will be away from Singapore for more than a month, returning towards the end of June. This will probably be the last post till then.
So I will end with this – a vivid description of the city I love as it was long ago. These are the opening lines of The Singapore Grip:
The city of Singapore was not built up gradually, the way most cities are, by a natural deposit of commerce on the banks of some river or at a traditional
Image via Wikipedia
confluence of trade routes. It was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map. “Here,” he said to himself, “is where we must have a city, half-way between India and China. This will be the great halting-place on the trade route to the Far East. Mind you, the Dutch will dislike it and Penang won’t be pleased, not to mention Malacca.” This man’s name was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: before the war his bronze statue used to stand in Empress Place in a stone alcove like a scallop shell ( he has been moved along now and, turned to stone, occupies a shady spot by the river). He was by no means the lantern-jawed individual you might have expected: indeed he was a rather vague-looking man in a frock coat.
The Singapore River isn’t the Hudson
But it has a homely charm of its own,
The Botanic Gardens no Central Park
But a tranquil, sylvan landmark
Well worth a visit or two.
Life in Singapore is nothing to rue
Unless you make much ado
About the Straits Times
Being no New York Times.
Then you’re in the wrong time zone.
Yes, there’s a 12-hour difference between Singapore time and Eastern Standard Time. Midnight in Singapore is midday in New York.
But you don’t have to be in New York to appreciate the poems of Billy Collins. Though this one is called Eastern Standard Time, and specifically addressed to people in his time zone, you appreciate the humour and homely details even if, like me, you are on Singapore time.
Eastern Standard Time
By Billy Collins
Poetry speaks to all people, it is said,
but here I would like to address
only those in my own time zone,
this proper slice of longitude
that runs from pole to snowy pole,
down the globe from Montreal to Bogota
Oh, fellow inhabitants of this singular band,
sitting up in your many beds this morning —
the sun falling through the windows
and casting a shadow on the sundial —
consider those in other timezones who cannot hear these words,
They are not slipping into a bathrobe as we are,
or following the smell of coffee in a timely fashion.
Rather, they are at work already,
leaning on copy machines,
hammering nails into a house-frame.
They are not swallowing a vitamin like us,
rather they are smoking a cigarette under a half-moon,
even jumping around on a dance floor,
or just now sliding under the covers,
pulling down the little chains on their bed lamps.
Ghost Train To The Eastern Star by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux has written an immensely readable sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, repeating that railway journey from Europe to Asia and back which earned him fame and fortune more than 30 years ago. It is bursting with people and places, rich in indelible portraits. I can’t forget the Korean monk Theroux meets in Myanmar who carries all his possessions in a little cloth bag and the English-speaking urchins in Amritsar, India, who can’t read or write.
There is drama too. A government agent sneaks into a talk by Theroux at the US embassy in Turkmenistan and photographs a dissident before an American official seizes the film and turns the agent out of the building. But the agent files a report and Theroux has to leave the country in a hurry as a suspected troublemaker.
Not everyone will be pleased with Theroux’s accounts of the countries he revisits. He describes Bangalore, India’s IT capital, as a high-tech sweatshop. Singapore, in his account, is rigid with rules and taboos, a virtual one-party state with licensed brothels. Myanmar is ruled by fear, Sri Lanka drained by insurgency, Cambodia yet to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, China dispatched in a couple of paragraphs as ugly beyond words, the Central Asian republics — formerly part of the Soviet Union – are primitive, polar opposites of Western democracies.
Only Vietnam gets a glowing treatment. Even its prostitutes are more colourful –- biker chicks in Hanoi screech to a halt in the writer’s path and ask: “You want boom boom?” And there is Japan –- kinky, high-tech, like no other country in the world but rich, peaceful, stable –- where, Theroux claims, the police actually prefer organised crime to the unorganised variety because it is organised. Japan certainly seems like paradise compared with Siberia, where Theroux travels next, taking the dirty, unkempt Trans-Siberian Express with Russians who spend days and nights making the long journey in a drunken haze.
A writer’s journey
But Ghost Train is not just a travelogue. It’s also a writer’s journey –- Theroux is revisiting old places to connect with his past and see how he himself has changed.
“Memory is a ghost train too”, he writes and explains why he made the journey:
“Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes –- but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps… would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.”
He reflects on the price of his literary success. The Great Railway Bazaar brought him success -– at the expense of his first marriage. He returned to London at the end of that long journey in the 1970s to find his wife was having an affair. He recalls his emotional torment as he wrote that book.