Arthur Yap: Uniquely Singaporean
By Thow Xin Wei
In "Voice and Authority in English Poetry from Singapore", Prof. Rajeev Patke suggests that the "authority exercised by colonial models mutates into the authoritarianism experienced as the weight of the nation". Singapore may be an independent nation, but the current relationship between citizens and authority retains in some ways a colonial flavour, with an administration made up of a certain privileged class that maintains strict control over its ward. Both intervene in their citizen's lives: for example, by implementing rulings that influence how Singapore's different ethnic groups interact. Both the white man and the men in white impose a certain ideology as well – that of European supremacy in the former, and of the need for Singapore's continual progress in the latter. The purposes for these measures differ, but the top-down approach remains.
The colonial ideology creates a division and tension between the "East" and "West", where the colonised are devalued with respect to the colonisers. Within Arthur Yap's poetry there is the suggestion that this "ideology of progress" creates a division and tension between the public and the private: a certain discomfort experienced by individuals within the greater social realm that has been carefully manicured by the authorities.
In "dramatis personae" for example, "the public" is clearly disassociated from the persona in the first section, "public park":
along the bench we're variations of a line
The poem suggests an idea of the "public" that is separate from the sense of self – instead of a positive feeling of inclusion, there is a negative feeling of exclusion and obligation to a larger social entity. In this case, that entity imposes restrictions and conditions on one's personal space – the right to pick flowers that are 'grown for you', in a sense. This sense of obligation to larger social structures exists in many poems, even if it is not their central concern:
in the garden two children
but this is Sunday
In "garden episode", the qualification that "it wasn't a festival" is a detail that emphasises the private nature of the episode by highlighting the absence of a communal celebration that would 'justify' or explain the presence of sparklers. "sunday", similarly suggests that the frame of the poem is private, cut off from obligations to the external society that demands that each action is part of a greater good. This greater good being, as mentioned above, the notion that Singapore must progress in order to survive.
The pursuit of material progress must come at the cost of 'values', and this is a current that runs through many of Arthur Yap's poems. In "a scroll painting", for instance:
the mountains are hazy with timeless passivity
On "The Wondering Minstrels" website, this poem was seen as denying that art can measure up to life, with one commentator taking it as a reply to Keat's "Ode on a Grecian Urn". I find the tension not so much between art and life, as between the painting's glorification of a "perpetual unattainment" and the persona's mocking attitude towards it. Elements in the painting are described comically, the dainty clouds bumping into the parakeet "perched suicide-like" on a branch; the persona cannot (or will not) appraise the painting based on its artistic value but rather on the criteria of material progress. Scroll paintings are not quite agents for progress (unlike, perhaps, family planning posters) and this leads to the final assessment that the painting is "stupid" because he "know[s] the stupid bird can never eat the stupid peach".
In "old house at ann siang hill", a similar voice seems to suggest that even tradition is expendable in the pursuit of progress:
so what if this is
In contrast to the opening of the poem, the viewpoint has shifted to that of the civil servant, with the casual disdain for the past, the calculative dismissal, and the firm conviction that "re-development" and change will mean progress; to hold on to the past is merely nostalgic sentiment, an old fashioned belief in "ghosts" that is not congruent with the rapidly modernising social and physical landscape of Singapore.
Interactions between those in authority and those subject to it also feature in Yap's poetry. In "an afternoon nap", an "ambitious mother... proclaiming her goodness", punishes her son for his mediocre grades, while the "embittered boy" proclaims his "bewilderment" and berates her for her "expensive taste for education". Both proclaim the other's "wrongs". It is tempting to read this poem as a metaphor for the relationship between government and citizens in Singapore, especially given the paternalistic character of a government which institutes policies regarding its citizens' child bearing, hygiene and courtesy habits.
In Yap's "The Correctness of Flavour", published in Straits Times: Life! Books, the paternalistic habits of Singaporean authority are again portrayed, but this time in relation to language, specifically, English:
waiting for the lime sherbet to arrive,
English, of an officially sanctioned variety, is established as the language of modernity, the international language that provides Singapore with an important link to the global economy. English has become the language of bureaucracy in Singapore and the medium of education. To speak 'good English' is a contributing factor to the progress that ideology demands. Meanwhile, the local patois, Singlish, with its alternative grammar – "lime sherbet today don't have" being an example" – and liberal assimilation of non-English words into common usage, is relegated to a secondary position, the quaint feature of Singaporean speech that is dispensable in favour of the greater good. Yap's poem can be read as a commentary on this debate, as well as a suggestion that the particular variety of English being promoted may not even exist: to say lime sherbet "today doesn't have" is not grammatical English, and in my experience, has not been used in any version of Singlish I've heard.
The reaction to these grand narratives seems to be either ineffectual disgruntlement, or, at least, ambivalence. Like the children in the poems, Singaporeans are often characterised as either indifferent, or powerless. Part of this ambivalence perhaps stems from the undeniable fact that Singapore has succeeded tremendously since independence. While "old house at ann siang hill" satirises the voice of the haughty civil servant, another poem,"there is no future in nostalgia" warns us against over sentimentality. Old things pass by in "various variations and permutations", and there are modern conveniences in their wake: the "stamp-machine", "pressure cooker" and "spin-dryer" of the poem. Progress has occurred, and it is hard to bite the hand that feeds you when your mouth is full. The ultimate value judgements are left to the reader's own political inclination.
"two mothers in a h d b playground" perhaps brings out this ambivalence the most: the poem, structured as a dialogue, reads as though we were eavesdropping on a private conversation, the 'private space' of the two women. The Singlish used in the poem reveals the way Singaporeans have partially assimilated English from the white man; the content of the poem suggests how Singaporeans have partially adopted the ideology expounded by the men in white. Education is valued by these women, not as a tool to global economic viability as proposed by the administration, but merely as a type of status symbol. The mothers express value in monetary terms, a side effect of sudden prosperity perhaps, and are clearly enjoying the material comforts they now have – vitamins, furniture and a "new motor car" – but are markedly apolitical and personal, generally unconcerned with the larger issues of nation building. While the mothers are in a public space – a "playground" demarcated for recreation – we are given a view into their private space, which is necessarily shaped by the forces around it, without being an identical clone of these forces.
Arthur Yap does not deal with issues of Singapore's national identity and politics in an overt way, in the style of Edwin Thumboo for instance. However, many personae in his poems are clearly affected or shaped by this national identity: they possess a self-consciousness in a public space replete with rules, they see the world in the terms of the familiar ideologies unique to Singapore. Arthur Yap's poetry, to borrow the buzzword, is "Uniquely Singaporean", not just in describing scenes familiar to us, but also with a distinctly Singaporean outlook, a Singaporean voice.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 4 Jul 2006
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