Wang Gungwu, Head, East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore



First appearing in 1950, Pulse is perhaps the first published Singapore poetry collection. For its author, Wang Gungwu, and other undergraduate poets and writers at the University of Malaya, however, the notion of a Singaporean identity at that time would have made little sense. Writing in the University's Raffles Society's journal, the New Cauldron, Wang and his contemporaries were concerned to begin to develop a Malayan, not a Singaporean national culture. Articles discussed the place of Literature within nation-building, and the problem of cultural expression in a national language. For small community of largely anglophone students at the University, the manufacture of a "common culture" seemed particularly urgent. "The people of Malaya are a mixed crowd," editorialised a New Cauldron article:

... but they posses most of the requisities for nationhood. Time must be given for a common language to be evolved. This will come about through an increased contact between the different communities. A Malayan language will arise out of the contributions these communities will make to the liguistic meltingpot. The emerging language will then have to wait for a literary genius who will give it a voice and a soul, a service which Dante performed for the Italian language. ("The Way to Nationhood" 5).

An effort to jump-start this process by writing in a synthetic language, "Engmalchin," was largely unsuccessful, although it provoked a debate which has interesting similarities to discussions about the use of Singlish in contemporary Singaporean cultural production.

Wang himself was unique among his contemporaries in that he was fluent not only in English, but also in Malay and in Chinese: he published both English- and Chinese-language poetry in the New Cauldron. Pulse, however, consists entirely of poems in English, although with the distinctive presence of Malay, Mandarin and Chinese dialect words and influences. If some of the phrasing at times seems awkward, and the references obscure, we should remember that Pulse is one of the first efforts to produce a distinctively Malayan voice in English-laguage poetry. As such, the poems collected in the volume attempts to wrest English-language poetry from "the implicit body of assumptions to which [it] was attached, its aesthetic and social values, the formal and historically limited constraints of genre" and put it to use in a new context (Ashcroft et. al. 10-11). In this endeavour, several of the poems collected here meet with not inconsiderable success.

Philip Holden
Deparment of English Language and Literature
National University of Singapore



This introduction is reproduced with the kind permission of Philip Holden.

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Last Modified: 25 July, 2002