"My country and my people, I never understood"

The first part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Nathan Thompson
Illustrations by: Heather Ezzell
October 10, 2013
"My country and my people, I never understood"

Singaporean literature had been a patriotic tool used to hammer out the cause for independence before that was gained from the British in 1963. Post-independence poets found themselves caught in the rapids of capitalism; their art seen as a distraction from the serious business of goal-achieving. This led Singaporean poetry away from big-picture nationalism to focus on more introspective themes.

Arthur Yap and Lee Tzu Pheng are two examples. Yap’s “expansion” is a minimalist verse where the poem becomes a nuclear hot cell with each word painstakingly arranged. Critics have drawn attention to Yap’s humorous, conversational style and his use of odd juxtapositions to stimulate contemplation.

Lee Tzu Pheng is a contemporary of Arthur Yap, and her anthemic, “My Country and My People” deals with themes of identity and environmentalism. The patriotic title soon becomes ironic as the poet’s ambivalent feelings are revealed.

Development has an unnerving habit of improving lives while eroding natural resources; and, in a country that has developed as fast as Singapore, this change is impossible to ignore. Both poets address this and the issue of what it means to come from Singapore – a country of immigrants. Using different styles –  Yap’s thoughtful minimilism and Pheng’s lyricism – they reveal the growing pains of a new country.

“My Country and My People” by Lee Tzu Pheng

My country and my people
are neither here nor there, nor
in the comfort of my preferences,
if I could even choose.
At any rate, to fancy is to cheat;
and worse than being alien, or
subversive without cause,
is being a patriot
of the will.
I came in the boom of babies, not guns,
a ‘daughter of a better age’;
I held a pencil in a school
while the ‘age’ was quelling riots
in the street, or cutting down
those foreign ‘devils’,
(whose books I was being taught to read).
Thus privileged I entered early
the Lion City’s jaws.
But they sent me back as fast
to my shy, forbearing family.
So I stayed in my parents’ house,
and had only household cares.
The city remained a distant way,
but I had no land to till;
only a duck that would not lay,
and a runt of a papaya tree,
(which also turned out to be male).
Then I learnt to drive instead
and praise the highways till
I saw them chop the great trees down,
and plant the little ones;
impound the hungry buffalo
(the big ones and the little ones)
because the cars could not be curbed.
Nor could the population.
They built milli-mini-flats
for a multi-mini-society.
The chiselled profile in the sky
took on a lofty attitude,
but modestly, at any rate
it made the tourist feel ‘at home’.
My country and my people
I never understood.
I grew up in China’s mighty shadow,
with my gentle, brown-skinned neighbours;
but I keep diaries in English.
I sought to grow
in humanity’s rich soil,
and started digging on the banks, then saw
life carrying my friends downstream.
Yet, careful tending of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom;
and perhaps, fence-sitting neighbour,
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind,
my people, and my country,
are you, and you my home.

“expansion” by Arthur Yap [from Only Lines (1971)]

no stretch of darkened sky
would show a patch of red
a patch of sunset
where the sun will not stay
after dark
the skyline of houses
grows with the sky
and who can tell
what is this completion;
i cannot chew the month to days
masticate the days to hours
and line the hours each to each
saying, out of context, i die.
where once a single day
was a day and a night
it is now the amoeba of day
of night,
the line of sponge houses
soaks in the sky
as the sponge sky
seeps into the houses.
where once houses hung from sky
they now are clutches.
so one urban expansion
has to lean on another
or they die
while the tree of night grows and grows

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