An Ominous Map
Half a century of poems points to a decreasing diversity
By Grace Chua
Fifty on 50
In Singapore, the past is a foreign country. A mere half-century ago, the nation-state's entire geography and skyline were miles (literally or figuratively) from where they are today, and its government was just coming into being. That sense of an innate otherness puts Singapore on shaky ground today when it grapples with its identity, as it asks: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Fifty on 50, a collection which commemorates 50 years of self-government, struggles with some of those questions.
The book is published by the National Arts Council and edited by Edwin Thumboo, making it something of an official document. It contains writing in the four official languages: Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil, and represents several generations of poets arranged approximately by age. This results in a dichotomy: the older writers in the anthology's first half cast their poetic gaze backwards while the younger ones look to the future, unburdened by a personal relationship with Singapore's early history and having neither a connection nor a beef with the past.
As expected, many poems in this volume are elegies for a departed country or a way of life. For instance, Zhou Can's 'Street' laments the passing of "the street where knife-sharpeners sang/with stone and bench" and "the street where wonton-mee sellers sang / with bamboo sticks". The narrator's sorrow is personal, veering from "vague sorrows / have all been left behind" to "my own foot prints/have all been left behind". Other works, by Suratman Markasan ('My Story For Them') and K.T.M. Iqbal ('The Children of Robinson Road') carry on in the same vein. It may be cold comfort, but the poets can seek solace in the fact that their very poems are cultural artefacts, surviving, in the words of Auden, as "a way of happening, a mouth".
Others have technical skill. Ng Yi-Sheng's rambunctious 'The Metrosexual' is an extended riff ("He fell in love with public transport") whose arc mirrors the subject's rise and fall ("Now he fidgets with keys, listens to oldies, keeps lunch in the glove compartment"), though one could ask to be more emotionally transported.
As with all occasional poems, a few are somewhat dated, such as Murugathasan's 'Journey of Thoughts', which toes precisely the party line of the narrative that official Singapore has created for itself: "SARS and bird flu choked us all / financial crisis almost made us fall / law and order remained intact / religious tolerance was a compact... harmony was our only way / to keep us together every day...". (One suspects something was lost in the translation.)
Similarly topical and stereotypical is Paul Tan's "Miss Ding from Chengdu Explains", which reveals more about local anxieties than about the current wave of China-born immigrants. The poem clunks as it declares: "I will become a new person / on this island of plenty, / learn from the locals, / (immigrants too beneath it all) / and earn a mound of money." Its pat punchline ("dispensing thoughtful gifts / to distant relatives, / the ultimate proof of arrival") leaves little to the imagination.
Some of the poems succeed both in technique and as incisive comment. In some of the anthology's best work, Madeleine Lee unsentimentally turns the orchid, a national symbol of Singapore, into an ambivalent one. In 'tiger', the "twelve sixteen more / bursts onto bystander" puts one in mind of a National Day Parade feu de joie, but the metaphoric vehicle is "fighting 21st century extinction". (The poems are also scientifically accurate: the tiger orchid, a tropical native, is slow to bloom and critically endangered.) Likewise, the orchid 'miss j' is "spineless and vain like a kept / woman attached to her support", and "for all the hybrid science the absence of art... miss s uniquely wears miss j to face the world". Lee's work is just part of a broad thread of biodiversity running through Fifty on 50 (and throughout the urban island), from Amiroudine's 'Urban Riches' to Mathangi's encounter with a sunbird ('The Sunbird I Lost').
In the Chinese poem 'Dear City S', Tan Chee Lay crafts a plaintive love letter to a nation in danger of drowning out its own citizens: "Dear smallest city, why do you need to proclaim the loudest / slogans?" He asks: "Do you not see? So small that it's missed by your spotlights and neon lights... like every star twinkling deep love: / every small / me" (note that I have taken the liberty of retranslating the final stanza slightly).
Ultimately, the poems in this anthology make up a mixed bag, and are more significant as a map of Singapore's past and future than a canon of any great work. As a guide to the past, where things were certainly done differently, it constitutes a valuable record of history. But as a guide to the future, particularly the future of Singapore's poetry, it is ominous. The range of languages, experiences and voices in the latter half of the anthology has shrunk, even as the poets' technical skill and diversity of geography has grown.
Where are the young writers fluent in Tamil, Malay and Chinese? On one hand, this arguably reflects a shift to English-language dominance. But on the other, it suggests that Singapore poetry – along with Singapore as a nation – risks becoming monolithic in its convictions, and herd-like in its concerns.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 4 Oct 2010