This Image of Themselves
Merlion poetry and the search for identity
By Thow Xin Wei
Reflecting on the Merlion: An Anthology of Poems
Edwin Thumboo's Ulysses makes the curious observation that the Merlion is, to Singaporeans, an "image of [ourselves]", something made after "having dealt in things/ surfeited on [us]". This would be nice if it were true: it makes the Merlion sound like something made by people our side of the great affective divide, something that we're happy to have and proud to own up to. But really, the Merlion is an artificial icon "thought up in 1964 by a certain Mr Fraser Brunner" of the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board's "souvenir committee", as Yeow Kai Chai helpfully informs us in the introduction. It evokes, as Alvin Pang suggests:
So, while the blurb at the back of this anthology suggests that, after reading this book, readers will be able to discover what the Merlion "ultimately says about Singapore and Singaporeans", perhaps a better question would be if the Merlion says anything about us at all. After all, it's one of those icons of Singapore we love to hate, just like Ris Low and Phua Chu Kang.
Mostly, it's a matter of appearances. Thumboo's Ulysses may have called the Merlion "powerful" and "wondrous of tail", but these come across as stock epithets mentioned in passing. What we really remember—especially since this adjective gets a whole indented line to itself—is how it "puzzles". Following from this is a seeming tradition of describing the Merlion as monstrous at worst, and fragmented at best, which reaches an apotheosis in Alfian Sa'at's characteristically forceful image of it as a "post-Chernobyl nightmare". Other descriptions include "an absurd combination of parts" and "misfit offspring" (Liang Yue, trans. Yeo Wei Wei), a "poor exposed thing" (Paul Tan), a "mute mongrel" (Toh Hsien Min), a "mutant myth" (Grace Chua), a "lovechild of a strange coupling" (Marc Daniel Nair), a "mutant, mid-metamorphosis" (Geoffrey Lim), a "monstrous/ mating of scales and teeth" (Nicholas Chiang), and a "bastard statue" (Leon Yuchin Lau).
With such an unlovable façade, no wonder the two poems that most successfully employ the Merlion in writing about a Singaporean identity suggest one filled with either self-doubt or self-delusion. Alfian Sa'at articulates our discomfort with the Merlion's "grotesque" appearance, suggests that it is a creature caught in transition between sea and land, and then deftly links this to the sense of inadequacy and insecurity in our own identity as Singaporeans. Thus the open "jaws/ clamp[ed] open in self doubt" are shared by both the Merlion who spits water and the 'you' with "blond highlights" and "blue lenses" who spits the tirade. Considering the constant construction that the Merlion has been overlooking the past few years, I'd say Alfian's poem still has relevance, more than a decade after it was written. Meanwhile, Lee Tzu Pheng transforms the Merlion into an arrogant spokesperson for a "wealthy race" of "moneyed people" who we can still recognise as Singaporeans of a certain class and generation, although their emphasis on the material and monetary is subverted by irony: Ulysses is less "amazed" and "properly impressed" than "puzzled".
The other reaction to the Merlion as "an image of ourselves" is outright rejection. Kylie Goh Jin Ying attempts this, but in a barrage of statements with too little development to seem like more than strident rhetoric. A related idea is that the Merlion once had some kind of meaning for us, but this was lost in the nation's turn towards—usually—capitalism and material progress. Zhou Yi Shu's "The Merlion" captures this sentiment most forcefully, asserting that "far too much poetry" has been written about it, since it has always been "rarely relevant, hardly real" ever since
Zhou's bitter Merlion ends up "a cheap gimmick, a tourist trap". Theophile Kwek, in his "Elegy to the Merlion", suggests that his generation no longer bothers about the Merlion since it is a generation that
Meanwhile, Isa Kamari's Merlion stands a petrified and helpless creature in an age
And Daren Shiau's Merlion is "tired" and frustrated at having lost its "relevance", being overtaken by icons of progress and consumerism: the "colossal Esplanade Bridge" and the tourist-trap version on Sentosa.
Shiau's Merlion desires to "stand for something", but we're never quite sure what that might be. This brings us to the more common response to the challenge of establishing what the Merlion could mean as an image of Singaporean identity: the poem inhabits a wistful middle ground by establishing that the Merlion is empty of meaning (or has been given somehow inadequate ones), asserts that meaning is possible, but stops short of breaking new ground and suggesting a meaning of its own. I think this differs from what we find in Alfian's poem, where indeterminacy and reinvention seem somehow inherent to a Singaporean identity. In this case, there is often a happy Ithaca where Merlion and Singaporean, symbol and identity, coincide is placed at the end of a journey projected but not undertaken in the poem. For example, Alvin Pang's "Merlign", after nodding to his poetic forebears, who have attempted to make the rock bear the weight of their metaphors, ends with the lines:
These are beautiful, melodious and poignant lines, but they give no hint of what actually "matters" and "counts".
Similarly, Lau's Merlioness offers her "animal heart that/ once bled in lightning" to be peeled of its "salty walls" in order to find "nothing but the myths of you and me", without saying what they might entail. Toh's "Thetis by the Merlion" employs a classical story to suggest that because of its very 'improbability', the Merlion contains a certain power in that it remains free from a past that binds — literally in the poem. But we are not privy to what Thetis wants to become with that freedom. Chua's persona in "Musing on the Merlion" 'wishes' to find meaning in the Merlion, yet also suggests that this is impossible for her: it is something she can only hope will be available to her "daughter's daughters/ a century from hence", something that can take place only "in time". And in Liang Yue's poem — which is a much more elegant and moving restating of Thumboo's themes—the persona, after an impassioned tirade against the absurdity of this "misfit offspring of fish and lion", concedes that
Giving us the trailer, but not the full movie. These poems, in emphasising their pursuit of future fulfilment, come across as at once more optimistic than Alfian's or Lee's, yet at the same time less daring and powerful.
Of course, one could then say that this is precisely the point: that Singaporean identity is still in contest and flux, and that these poems are merely reflective of the anxiety and self-doubt that comes with a relatively new nation still in constant change, amplified by having to work with a less than poetic national symbol. While conceding this point, it does seem noteworthy that for a volume that brings together "nearly 40 poets", established and new, very few of them commit to an original or reworked idea of Singaporean identity set out within the poem itself, making the collection on the whole feel somewhat tepid. One exception, albeit blistering with National Day Parade optimism, is Murugadhasan's "Merlion", a Tamil poem which really could have been better translated:
Another is Muhammad Jailani Abu Talib's "Merlion's Gift":
Furthermore, while several of the poems are fine, lyrical works individually, put together in an anthology, one can't help but notice the marked repetition of themes, images, and poetic devices used in response to the Merlion. On the whole, I'd hazard the suggestion that the editors have deliberately chosen poems with an aim to establishing some notion of national identity. This is suggested by the predictable inclusion of poems in all four official languages, that ubiquitous device for suggesting that a work reflects all Singaporeans as a nation (one recalls those primary-school textbooks with some variation of Ahmad, Bala, Sumei and John.) It is also hinted at by the presence of poems that deal with national identity but reference the Merlion only tangentially: Latha's "The Singapore River" (Tamil), Heng Siok Tian's "City Girl's Tribute" and Chia Hwee Pheng's "The Pagoda's Fate" (Chinese).
Then again, they might have been included because there wasn't enough written, a notion I get since the book appears padded with several poems that are noticeably less mature in their craft than the others: they tend to establish a hazy kind of 'poetic aura', while saying nothing in particular that's really interesting or moving. This is a harsh and admittedly subjective judgement to make, so I feel compelled to provide an example of what I mean:
The opening of this poem really does nothing more than establish the kind of mood which some associate with poetry: night, stars (come to think of it, has it ever been starry in Singapore?) and soft lighting. The "I" in the second part is actually unclear: is it the Merlion who speaks or a human persona? If we take "plastercine" as a variation of "Plasticine" chosen to pun on 'plaster', the "I" would probably refer to a human persona; but then this conflicts with the third , where the "I" has "metal veins", possibly a reference to the plumbing that grants the Merlion its famous gift of regurgitation.
If we then take the "I" as the Merlion, why does it assert that it will disintegrate, furthermore before us creatures of flesh and blood? "Plastercine minds" is an acceptable conceit, but I don't think it contributes much to the overall design of the poem. The gesture of watching over our "every second", "every breath" and counting "the stars and moons with you" is, to me, a cliché of juvenile love poetry (and, even then, of the rather creepy, stalker-ish variety) although I do get the faint allusion to nation in "stars and moon". On the whole, I'd say the poem is more platitude than perception, and it seems slightly puzzling that this poem—and a couple of others—was chosen to stand alongside much stronger works.
All in all, with the publication of this anthology we can perhaps mark the formal establishment of the Merlion poem as a certain 'genre' of Singaporean poetry. This could be a good thing: a poet now has some idea of where to start, what paths have been travelled and where to go; meanwhile, the reader and critic have a pre-existing corpus which enriches the reading of future works. At present, however, the conventions—for example, a predilection for describing the Merlion as a "mutant" of some variety, an insistence on working lightning into the poem, and the tendency to include Classical references, ranging from the integral to the gratuitous ("zeus astraphaois" for 'lightning', "titan" to describe the Sentosa Merlion)—seem more shortcuts than starting points. I have reservations about this last convention in particular, because in employing it, the poet assumes some kind of interest in the Pantheons of either the Greeks or the Singaporean poets; art need not necessarily be populist, of course, but when used indiscriminately, it can seem merely pretentiously obscure rather than densely communicative.
More seriously, there is a constant sensation that the enterprise of Merlion poetry is paddling around in circles due to the references to earlier Merlion poems that poets make, either intentionally or not. In a sense, all Classical references hark back to Thumboo's original poem, but only in Lee's poem does this reference seem particularly vital: it is by recalling Ulysses' attitude in the former poem that we establish the irony in the latter. In some poems, the poets choose to explicitly name or reference their forebears, a move which can distract from their poem to a greater or lesser degree. Thus, in Pang's "Merlign", I feel that his vignettes of his predecessors are well done but somehow not really integral to the poem as a whole, while in Shiau's poem, which opens with a fierce castigation of "Thumboo, Lee and young Sa'at" as "ponderous", the lack of any clear new direction after the storm makes the poem unsatisfying for me.
Occasionally, a poem bears too strong a resemblance to its predecessors, a problem which the availability of this anthology may help to assuage in future endeavours. Gui Wei Hsin's "Telemachus by the Merlion", for instance, feels like a paraphrasing of Alvin Pang's "Merlign": Gui's Telemachus belittles the Merlion and its "senseless spray filling the sea with affluence" (referencing a pantheon of predecessors along the way), before being "bound for another ocean", a journey into a vague and new territory that would have been more interesting than the buildup to it. A poem may have merits when read on its own, but pale in comparison with a similar work by a more established poet. For example, Nicholas Chiang's "Merlion" flows with conversational ease, yet his final statement that the Merlion:
although lyrical, comes across as a watered-down version of that found in Alfian's poem of almost the same name. The same can be said of a question Lim's persona poses to the Merlion:
which seems a pale echo of Alfian's
All this being said, there are a few poems in the collection that retain the Merlion as a central element while breaking out of the rigid boundaries of the Merlion genre. Had the editors of this anthology been in a whimsical mood, they might have placed Ng Yi-Sheng's "Anthology" as the opening poem:
It's a wry comment on the repetitiveness and predictability of most Merlion poetry, and is itself is more various and lively in its diverse and international crew than the poems represented in this anthology. But this is a serious project, and begins sensibly with Thumboo's classic mounted between the editor's introductions and "Section One".
Also catchy and unconventional is Gwee Li Sui's "Propitiations", where the Merlion and "Wild Titan Factories of Jurong" spit and smoke for the ordinary Singaporean who, governed by laws, cannot. The Merlion here is shown as part of a state apparatus which assuages the sacrifices and suffering of its citizens with notions of prosperity and progress.
Lastly, my favourite (if we're still allowed to talk about texts we like in this age of critical theory) is the poem that closes the anthology, Aaron Lee's "A Mythic Tail". Unlike many of the other poems, it contains a genuine sense of calm reflection: the persona does not angst over his inability to find meaning in the Merlion, nor fervently resist an identity the Merlion foists on him. Neither is there the banal praise found in a couple of poems; this is replaced by a kind of affection for the Merlion, which has been a companion as they move resignedly through time, the changing of an age and the inexorable construction of progress. The persona is "curiously comforted" by their interaction, perhaps through his proximity to something constant and recognizable in the midst of all this irresistible change. Conversation instead of rhetoric; affection instead of patriotism; a dogged contentment in the inconsequential moment gone in the "flick of a tail": if Alfian's poem reveals the spirit of a nation in frenzied reinvention, Lee's captures the sensation of life within it, with its mix of nostalgia and resignation.
These poems by Ng, Gwee and Lee remind us that there is always more to be said about a symbol that appears at once tired and overused. Ultimately, Reflecting on the Merlion is perhaps the most useful for collecting the previously scattered poems on the Merlion in a single volume, thus serving as a guide to what has gone before, revealing which sentiments and expressions have become conventional and clichéd, and encouraging future poets to think more deeply and originally about issues of identity and how the Merlion—problematic, yet emblematic—can participate in such considerations.
Or, to borrow one last time from the Greeks: don't just be Penelope picking at a shroud. Be Telemachus: make your sacrifices, pour your libations to the everlasting gods, and set forth on deeper waters to establish who you are.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 1 Jan 2010