Poetic Beginnings

Part 2.1 of Poetry in English from Singapore and Malaysia

Rajeev S. Patke, DPhil (Oxon.) Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore

Adapted from Post-Colonial Literatures in English, ed. Rajeev S. Patke, 1998, by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University; Distinguished Visiting Professor, NUS, 1998-99.

The immigrant cultures, and especially the Baba Chinese, were the earliest to use English for creative purposes in the Malaya peninsula. But poetic traditions were slow in taking root because immigrant populations were generally intent on more pragmatic needs. Sporadic attempts at writing poetry in English began in the late 1940s, but Singapore's most prominent poet, Edwin Thumboo, could still feel in 1970 that 'although we have had the language for 150 years we continue to be embarrassed by the fact that we have not produced any writers of the first rank' (Thumboo, 1970, p.2). While literature in Chinese worked on ethnic themes which kept alive associations with the parent country, and Malay literature pursued a nationalist policy, English offered itself as a liberating possibility. The earliest poetry was motivated by the nationalist ideal of a Malayan consciousness. Here is a brief example from Wang Gungwu, whose Pulse (1950) was the first volume of poetry in English from the region:

Thoughts of Camford fading,
Contentment creeping in;
Allah had been kind;
Orang puteh has been kind.
Only yesterday his brother said,
'Can get lagi satu wife lah!'

Ahmad was educated;
The education was complete. --(Brewster, 1989, p.4)

Wang Gungwu and others of that generation could not reconcile the contradiction 'between our search for Malayan poetry and our decision to base that search on English forms' (Lim, 1989, p.540), and gave up poetry. This experimental search for a localised poetic idiom was called Engmalchin, a portmanteau word standing for a linguistic mix of English with Malaya and Chinese. The only style it could sustain was self-conscious and limited: 'borrowed visions... in colonised hearts' as Thumboo later remarked (1978, p.105). But it did lead to a kind of verbal ventriloquism, rich in sociological detail. Ee Tiang Hongs's 'Song of a Young Malayan', and the Singlish of Arthur Yap's '2 mothers in a hdb playground' are examples of the best that could be achieved in later extensions of this mode. The next generation of poets was oriented towards a symbolist and mythopoeic poetry, as in the case of Wong Phui Nam, of whom the Malaysian critic Lloyd Fernando wrote in 1969 that he had been able 'to get to grips with - rather than moan about - the detribalisation anxiety that has dogged the Malaysian writer for years' (Fernando, 1986, p.134).

From the late 1950s onwards, the production of poetry in Malaysia and Singapore has been closely associated with institutions of higher learning, through journals, undergraduate friendships, and sponsorship. The University of Malaya was founded in 1949; in 1961 it split into two, the campus in Singapore becoming the University of Singapore, renamed National University of Singapore in 1981. The university provided young poets their first opportunity for publication, in journals (The Cauldron (1947-49), The New Cauldron (1949-60), The Malayan Undergrad 1951-7), Write (1957-8)); and anthologies (Litmus One (1957), 30 Poems (1958), followed by many others). The journals Tenggara (1967- ) from Kuala Lumpur, and Commentary (1962- ) and Focus/ (1968- ) from Singapore continue the tradition, supported later by the government with Singa.

Tertiary educational institutions have played a considerable role in the production and promotion of poetry in Singapore. Many individuals have contributed to shaping poetry in the region, chief among them Edwin Thumboo. The most visible part of what has been a many-sided contribution is the set of canon-forming anthologies he has edited (The Flowering Tree 1970, Seven Poets 1973, The Second Tongue 1976, Anthology of ASEAN Literatures 1985, and Journeys 1995). Singapore also has an industrious tradition of local criticism by writers/academics, supplemented by the steady interest of expatriates as well as academics from Australia and New Zealand. Thumboo's autobiographical essay (see Offprint Collection) will give the student a first-hand account of how a poet has to strive very consciously to develop his own voice when using the legacy of an ex-colonial language. Comparisons between his views and those of Ee and Wong (Offprint Collection) show how deeply poets have been preoccupied with the advantages and disadvantages attendant upon their poetic choices and decisions. Writers not represented here also have much of interest to offer in this connection, and the interested student will want to explore their work independently (e.g. Robert Yeo for drama, fiction and poetry; Goh Sin Tub and Kirpal Singh for poetry and fiction; Elangovan for bilingual 'transcreations'). The starting point for any such work should be Gene Tan's bibliography (1994), and the anthology of writings by Singaporean women compiled by Leong Liew Geok (1998).

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