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Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003

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Wilfred Owen meets Hokkien peng
Page 3

THM: Can I take this as a hint that the upcoming collection you had mentioned will see a change in direction? I’m also quite intrigued that there were nine years between your first and second poetry collections, yet only two years will divide the second and third.

KBS: For my forthcoming third collection, I would say there will be no major change in direction, only in subject matter and treatment of themes. I will still have a number of travel poems about trips to more recent destinations, as well as a few pieces about places visited in the past. There will also be general pieces of observations of life, which I hope will be wiser and more adventurous. In addition, I am working on a series of nature poems.

After my first collection in 1992, I turned to other books and projects, including collaborating with visual artists especially Thomas Yeo and Ong Kim Seng. This is something I want to explore further, and also with other artforms. I also channelled much of my energy into my newspaper journalism, especially my features and columns, which consumed a lot of creative energy. I’ve never done a count, but I must have written several hundred columns.

In 1999, after I left fulltime journalism, I was able to harness the energy to refresh the poems I had been working on, on and off, in my drawer all this time, and put them together into The Worth Of Wonder. I had always been told that journalism works against creative writing in that it takes up too much of the same energies, and didn’t really believe it before, but have found this to be true in my own case. I was nonetheless able to produce anthologies and other books in that time, including trying out a stage novelisation and non-fiction works, but somehow never sat down to put my poetry together.

Wonder was published in 2001, as what I like to think of as the first book of Singaporean poetry in English in the 21st century. After it was released, I set myself a target of producing another book soon, and this is how I now have almost enough pieces for another collection. I might have been able to get this ready even sooner, if not for the two other projects that came up in between - the two books I edited in 2002, Heart Work (stories of how the Economic Development Board steered the Singapore economy from 1961 into the 21st century) and From Boys To Men: A Literary Anthology Of National Service in Singapore.

There may be more than two years in between Wonder and collection no. 3, as I am still working on the final editing and the publishers’ consideration and book production process may take a while. Anyway, writers are not supposed to say too much about works in progress, so I think I have said enough on this topic...

THM: So let’s talk about From Boys To Men then. I was surprised initially that it was a private initiative, and I think someone at that same subTEXT reading asked you if there was anything you had to watch out for while doing this, and you said, if I recall, something along the lines of, not really, you hadn’t crossed any boundaries. I think you were referring to the Official Secrets Act, but I’m not sure everyone came away with the same impression, because the book is arguably quite placid for an NS [National Service] anthology. Did you not receive any protest/ dissident writing?

KBS: We did receive a flaming email, but there were only a very small handful of pieces we did not include, and these were mainly due to lack of literary quality as much as anything else. Others were not included because they were off-tangent from the theme or could be sensitive if misunderstood. I would argue that many of the pieces are quite honest in their critical treatment of the subject. It’s certainly not placid by Singapore standards.

THM: Point taken. What about the demographics of the writers though? I don’t have the book on me, but remember feeling that there were some obvious weights. It may be a little too rich for an Oxonian to observe to a Cantabrigian that this anthology has probably the highest per capita Oxbridge influence among Singapore anthologies... is there a vernacular army literature? Furthermore, the generation of writers Umej and yourself belong to – and in particular Boey Kim Cheng, whose army poetry is admittedly strong – received possibly disproportionate coverage.

KBS: I haven’t done a study of the book as a critic, having obviously been too close to the book thus far. Your observation about Oxbridge influence is probably right, since there haven’t been that many anthologies in Singapore so far. I suppose every anthology will display some biases and preferences of the editors. In our case, we tried to be as inclusive as possible and this is reflected in the pieces that came from public submissions and from the women. Of course, we supplemented this with pieces from people we knew – more in the case of Umej than for me, as I did not do as much as he did in terms of asking people I knew for submissions. If we had been able to get the word around more than we did, we probably could have garnered more contributions. The limitations of this process explain what you call the “disproportionate coverage”. We would have liked to extend the range of coverage but since this is an anthology in the tradition of literature in English, it is inevitable that some kinds of writing will have an advantage over others. We did have one piece translated from the Chinese and could have included other similar pieces, but there is already, I feel, a wide enough representation of the main ethnic groups.

Still, I feel the anthology has a broad enough range of representation in terms of gender, period of experience (the pieces span from the early 1970s to Nov 2002), branches of service (including police, artillery, clerical etc) and attitude. It also covers all the main aspects of national service from enlistment to ROD [Run-Out Date].

As to whether there is a vernacular army literature, I think it exists in the oral tradition of army stories, swear words and coined terms like “keng” (malingering) and “siong” (physically demanding). This is something NSmen are already familiar with. This book aims to add another dimension – army stories and expressions that are couched in the tradition of English literature. This is, if you like, the place where the Singaporean Everyman in skeletal battle order, the Hokkien “peng” (soldier), meets Wilfred Owen.

THM: Dulce et decorum est... If Wilfred Owen were to meet the Hokkien “peng”, what do you think he would say?

KBS: That’s a tough question. I think Owen might say something like this:

“Beng, I know what you are going through is tough. But it is nothing like the real thing. There is no “exercise cut” when the storm clouds gather. When the real bullets fly, I can only say, you can only pray that the war will be for a just cause. In the meantime, endure, be strong, be alert, and serve with honour – for yourself, if nothing else.”

I am more intrigued by what the Hokkien “peng” might say to Owen... and this where my answer would be less confident. I am really unsure to what extent the Singaporean Everyman in SBO [skeletal battle order] can grasp what Owen was expressing in his war poetry. Maybe the better modern point of reference would be films like Saving Private Ryan, but the point is the same – whether there is that awareness of the issues, the conflicts of interests, versus blind obedience and bravado that is potentially destructive if misguided. This is something I hope this anthology can begin to change, to nurture what I call, in the book’s introduction, “the writing soldier” – that is, a citizen soldier who has a more developed awareness of conscience, compassion, creativity, critical thinking and courage (moral and intellectual). This is the value-add of literature, its five “Cs” of economic contribution, if you like.

In a recent interview with The Straits Times, the writer Mario Vargas Llosa made the observation that the decline of fiction reading, from what he has noticed and compared with the past, is mainly due to the fact that fewer men now read fiction. His fans are nearly all women. I am sure this is largely true of Singapore as well, with men more drawn to publications on sports and management. I hope From Boys To Men will make a difference, and mobilise some Singaporean men back to the critical terrain of literature.

THM: Thank you for your time.

KBS: Let me thank you for your time and effort too. It has been a really enjoyable conversation.

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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 2 Jan 2003


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  Related Links

Koh Buck Song profile
External link to the National Book Development Council of Singapore.

The Worth of Wonder
External link to Select Books.

Koh Buck Song on liberalising the arts
External link to Happening.com.sg.

Koh Buck Song on biotech investments
External link to Red Herring.

Koh Buck Song on the PAP cadre system
External link to Singapore Window.

Wilfred Owen Association
External link.

Dulce Et Decorum Est
External link.


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