"A Luxury We Cannot Afford"? Poetry and Public Policy in Singapore

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

Although nationalism in Malaysia rapidly took on a fundamentalist aspect, in Singapore "industrialisation was the product of nationalism, not its cause, and Singaporean nationalism has developed before the emergence of a homogeneous and distinctively Singaporean culture" (Willmott, 1989, p.581). Government policy in Singapore continually emphasizes the need to sustain a peaceful and industrious technological society smoothly harnessed to the production of economic prosperity. This agenda has extracted a price from the poets, who have felt the pressure to assimilate public ideals in the name of national betterment. The other alternative has been to resist them in the name of individual freedom and artistic autonomy. Thus,

Edwin Thumboo (1970): what profiteth a man if he gaineth National Identity, but loseth the power of his poetry?

Ee Tiang Hong (1971): (the poet) is responsible only to his art and to himself.

Arthur Yap (1984): I don't think it's a poet's business to be a spokesman of any kind.... I'm not a person who wants to write poems with a political basis or a social basis, commenting upon society as such (Lim 1989a, pp.524-7).

Shirley Lim and Kirpal Singh offer two diammetically opposed views of the relation of politics and poetry in Singapore: Lim has argued that the conflict between public role and private individuality confuses social and political spheres, constricting writers and giving credence, in Singapore, to the view of poetry expressed in 1969 by the then Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, as "a luxury we cannot afford" (Hyland, 1984, p.137). To resist this attitude while choosing to remain depoliticized has meant that the writer has risked feeling either alienated from society or marginal to its energies and preoccupations, unable to offer anything but the mildest or most oblique resistance. Kirpal Singh has made the counter-claim that "Post-independence poetry from Singapore and Malaysia furnishes us with ample proof that our poets writing in English have involved themselves intimately with political issues" (Singh, 1989, p.181), whereas the Australian academic Anne Brewster feels "that social and political needs tend to determine both what many critics expect and what many poets write in Singapore. The demand for social relevance and national themes in literature may well be an inevitable by-product of rapid development' (Brewster, 1982, p.48).

In 1985, Lee Tzu Pheng reflected on how the anxiety poets felt when confronted by an eagerly modernising contemporary reality led to meditations full of "urban disquiet" about the marginal relevance of the poet to the times. Her 1997 poem 'The Merlion to Ulysses" comments ironically on Edwin Thumboo's canonical poem "Ulysses by the Merlion," refracting very mixed feelings about self, community, nation and the appropriation of western myths for symbolising local identities:

I am the instant brainchild of a practical people...

I am the scion of a wealthy race.
I wear the silver armour of my moneyed people.
(Lee, 1997, p.9)

Significantly when Lee Tzu Phen reads her poems aloud, she gives them a personal, intimate quality that contrasts with the more obviously public and oratorial manner with which Thumboo presents his poems, even the more personal ones.

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. These materials were originally developed by the Singapore Institute of Management, under the direction of Tan Ee Boon, for the Open University. Anyone wishing either to learn more about open SIM/Open University courses, or to enroll in AZS431, Post-Colonial Literatures in English, the course for which these materials were developed, should contact Ms. Tan at

Main Web Page Singapore Literature [Politics]

Last Modified: 20 March, 2002