AFG Venture Group Dispatches

Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.

Singapore: Through a Poetic Lens – Lindley Edwards, AFG Venture Group

The recent Whitepaper, ‘Australia in the Asian Century’[1], highlights that trade and investment relations between Australian and Singapore will continue to be very important for our country. The 2025 outlook in this Report forecasts that  ‘relations will strengthen further as Singapore develops its services sector and as regional economic integration advances. Singapore has positioned itself as a hub for global firms coming to Asia and Asian firms wanting to go global. It is also focused on maintaining its reputation as an important base for high-value manufacturing, and its financial sector and legal services sectors are growth areas[2]. This Whitepaper also suggests that Singapore/Australian Government relations and people to people links will be of growing strategic importance to both countries.

I was reflecting on this ongoing importance of the Singapore relationship and realised that I had not read any Singapore writers or poets. For me poetry as an art form, conveys that our concerns, feelings, emotions are universal.

One of the things that working with people from other countries has taught me is the importance of understanding both history and having an appreciation for another’s culture. Central to that appreciation is to understand how another makes sense of the world, names things and communicates. Language and how language is deployed is central to understanding a culture. I might be a very imperfect foreign language speaker but I have found that the study of a language and how it is deployed gives wonderful insights into how a particular culture describes and organizes itself. In this context, it has been disconcerting to find that there are some commentators in Australia that are questioning the value of Asian literacy for students.[3]  Language patterns give great insights into how a culture prefers and expects to interact. When a culture has many words for some thing or a particular experience or state, it shows that this is highly valued and the opposite is true, where there is no language there is no value. My personal view is that Asian literacy education does need more investment and it also needs to be supported by programs that show how to use the language skills learned and what the value of learning a foreign language is and how an individual and our society will benefit from multicultural engagements.

But back to the subject matter at hand, which is Singapore through the lens of some of its poets.  Singapore, due to its colonial heritage and English based education system, has a strong tradition of the English written word. However, this may change in the future, given the increased emphasis of mandarin in its school system. Most students are multi-lingual. It is important to also note that the body of Singapore poetry and literature is very multicultural as it encompasses four main languages – Mandarin, English, Malay and Tamil.

In the poems I read, what was very evident was the changing nature of Singapore. One of my favorite poems was written by Edwin Thumboo, an Emeritus Professor at National University of Singapore and a poet. I found his poem, ”Island”[4], described the changing nature of Singapore, its history and future in an evocative manner:

ISLAND

Once
there was a quiet island,
with a name.
You must believe me
when I say that sunlight,
impure but beautiful,
broke upon the bay, silvered
the unrepentant, burning noon.

There were persons in this place.
Too young to know the sea,
Aminah cried;
Harun, who followed crab and tide
ambitiously, learnt
to keep the spray out of his eyes.
Their father in his bid
to make a proper life,
lived the way his father did.

Mangrove and palm
unfold in brittle shades of green.
Houses on stilts, boats drawn up
the sand, the makeshift pier, village shop,
smoke from kitchen fires,
all frame a picture.

Romantic. Nostalgic.
But images change.

Nearby hills are pushed into the sea.
Tractors roar, lorries thrive
till the ochre of the land
scooped out day and night,
crept upon the sand.

Aminah, Harun now reside in flats,
go to school while father
learns a trade.

Along Shipyard Road,
not far from Bird Park,
a new song in the air:
Cranes and gantries rise;
dynamo and diesel hum.
Men in overalls and helmets
wield machines, consulting plans.

A welder’s torch explodes
into a rush of stars;
rivets are hammered home till
hulls of steel emerge.
Sophisticated, self-propelled,
the towering drillers look attractive:
This one bound for Norway;
the one before works by Antarctica.

In time images of power,
our emergent selves,
will be familiar
as, first, the body learns
this other song.

It is impossible to read this poem and not be aware of the transitions and changes Singapore has made over the past half century.

I also enjoyed the work of poets like Toh Hsien Min, who besides being a poet, is both a risk analyst and the Chief Editor of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His poem “Printing Money”[5], has the universal refrain from parents that ‘they don’t print money’ and the universal fear that we might find ourselves on the wrong side of the global economic equation. The first stanza is as follows:

My dad doesn’t print money, but someone out there
does. It all revolves on being on the right side
of that ocean-equation, whether you’re holding Treasuries
and knowing how to deploy the funds you haven’t got.

For anyone who knows Singapore, I recommend the Poem “A Tale of Singapore”[6] by Ahmad Shiddiqi, he references all the main places and different activities and cultures that make up Singapore. Throughout the poem, he continually references his love of Singapore, and uses a phrase from the Singapore National Anthem, of ‘Onward Singapore’:

Majulah Singapura[7]!
Onward, Singapore!
An island country
southern tip of Malay Peninsula
my most lively, lovely Singapore,

This poem can be accessed in full as referenced in the footnotes at the website Poem Hunter. Other Singapore poets whose work I enjoyed were Koh Buck Song, Kirpal Singh and Alvin Pang.

If readers have a favourite Singapore poet or wish to contribute a poem, feel free to email it through and we will add it to our news section of our website.

 

References

“Over There – Poems from Singapore and Australia”, edited by John Kinsella and Alvin Pang, Ethos Books, 2008.

“Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond” edited by Edwin Thumboo, Ethos Books, 2010

“Poems from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia & Singapore”, ‘Writing in Asia Series’, Edited by Yasmine Gooneratne, Heinemann Asia, 1979 .

 

About the Author

Lindley Edwards is the Group CEO of AFG Venture Group, an Australia/Asia based corporate advisory business. Lindley is also a Non-Executive Director of a number of not for profit and community organisations.

 


[1] http://asiancentury.dpmc.gov.au/

[2] ibid

[3] http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/innumerate-debate-on-asia-literacy/story-e6frgcjx-1226478964163

[4] http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/ellthumb/site/poems/island.html

[5] Toh Hsien Min, Means to an End, Landmark Books, 2008.

[6] http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-tale-of-singapore/

[7] Malay for  ‘Onward Singapore’