Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 32, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

'People, traffic and concrete': Perceptions of the City in Modern Singaporean Poetry

Dennis Haskell

This essay is concerned with presentations of the city in recent Singaporean poetry written in English, and the phrase "people, traffic and concrete" comes from "a singapura sequence," by the Malay poet, Muhammad Haji Salleh. In titling his poem, "a singapura sequence," rather than "a Singapore sequence," Muhammad is pointing to one of the raw facts of contemporary Singapore life - the dislocation of the present from the past and from the traditions of the past. In English literature this is the situation which, in the early twentieth century, gave rise to Modernism, and Modernism is pre-eminently the literature of the city. Ban Kah Choon and Lee Tzu Pheng, in examining Singapore-Malayan poetry, have written that "the ultimate typology for the poet is ... not merely history but literary history",1 and English Modernism must form part of the heritage of any poet writing in English, in any cultural context. Of course, in Singapore one of the important factors in poetry is the existence of at least four major languages, English being probably the dominant one. I have no expertise at all in this area, and only wish to point to two comments: Lee Tzu Pheng, in her "Introduction to Singapore Poetry in English" in the 1985 anthology, The Poetry of Singapore, notes that "the lack of accompanying cultural support in the way the language was received necessarily posed questions of authenticity... the problems associated with the search for an authentic idiom and a viable literature ... has [sic] been a search for continuity and relevance."2 That use of the word "relevance" points to the concern for a social poetry which is quite marked in Singapore, and which itself is a legacy of colonialism. The second comment, and one which does not necessarily conflict with Lee Tzu Pheng's, is Edwin Thumboo's opening sentence in his "Introduction" to his 1976 anthology, The Second Tongue: "The English language remains one of the less ambiguous legacies of British imperialism."3 To some extent the English language is, itself, another 'world', but it is a world which Singaporean poets, through their struggle to maintain cultural "continuity," can shape into their own.

In Singapore the challenge of dis-continuity is posed not just by the shift from colonial subject to independent nation and by the inheritance of English as a literary language, but also by the quick shift from a traditional agricultural society to a manufacturing and service industry society in a major world city - for the people, a quick shift from kampung to HBD flat. To succeed economically in a post-colonial environment, Asians have had to create industrial- or marketing-oriented cities. Hence Muhammad Haji Salleh's poem, "quiet village." To a New Yorker, a Londoner, a Sydney-sider, perhaps even to a 1989 Singaporean, the title "quiet village" has connotations of a rural idyll, free from the rat race of city life. But Salleh's village is quiet through enervation:

the inhabitants are too poor, too desiccated to care to talk


so they sit leaning against their houses' stilts

feeling the force of the new, grip

... killing them one by one.

It is not too much to say, I think, that Singapore is still coming to terms with the shock of change. The large city and independent nation status have come almost all at once. Thus Edwin Thumboo writes: "adjustment and adaptation, the search for roots and the putting down of roots: these are among the prime impulses moving the Singaporean" (The Poetry of Singapore, p.3). Speaking at a seminar on "The Creative City" held in Melbourne in September 1988, David Yencken said that: "A city can be interpreted as an expression of the past, as the tangible, physical evidence of the evolution of the city's history. Seen this way, the city ... has strong psychic significance as the roots of our common culture and as the expression of the old, the comfortable and the familiar."4 However, the city of Singapore has undergone not "evolution" but revolution, and Lee Tzu Pheng's sense of a "lack of accompanying cultural support in the way the [English] language was received" must be enormously heightened by an awareness of the physical absence of "the roots" of a "common culture" and of "the old, the comfortable and the familiar." Rome wasn't built in a day, but might have been if the Caesars had had Singaporean town planners. In Singapore there has been no time for rites of passage, so that we can find Robert Yeo writing sardonically of "the Urban Renewal Department" taking over a Christian Cemetery because it "needed that plot for a park"5 (with a clever pun on "plot"); writing longingly of his "Malacca Grandmother,"6 because she represents a link with the past; and commenting ironically that "Five years ago/we had no history" in a poem that ends, "Nothing is new except what is forgotten."7 That sardonic note is a pointer to David Yencken's comment that "there is a deep psychic need for constancy in the midst of change. That is one reason for preserving the old and familiar" (Meanjin, p.602). In a city such as Singapore a new sense of time prevails. The present becomes the past very quickly - history slips away, and the present slips away too. Thus the poet Lim Li writes about the "present and past" as "a sequence of conflicting superimpositions,"8 and Arthur Yap - in a typically witty phrase - can speak of a "chronicle of current antiquity."9 In "Khan Tok in Chiengmai" Edwin Thumboo takes a city mind, nervously, out of the city:

This taut blue sky

Unnerves what certitude

What city memories we bring.

"We" watch a traditional dance, the dancers having "Limbs rich with centuries," and, "As the rhythm conjugates its mood / We feel simple, undetailed" and "Move into another time."10 "We feel simple, undetailed": it is the city which represents complexity. David Yencken believes "it is complexity that gives cities richness, vitality, life and, significantly, health" (Meanjin, p.597), but as Ee Tiang Hong notes satirically in his poem "Sunday," that detailed complexity can be exhausting:

You wish for more Sundays

And quiet, and freedom

To sleep a bit longer

The days you are really alive. (The Second Tongue, p.149)

Simplicity / complexity is one of the binary oppositions which country and city are traditionally seen to represent, parallelled by the opposition of innocence / experience, naivety / sophistication, honesty / beguilement - with their moral implications of good / bad; even though the country is the place of bumpkins and hillbillies, it traditionally has a kind of purity. Wordworth, when he went to the city, was astonished to find, "The face of every one / That passes by me is a mystery!".11 It was only in the city that Wordsworth thought

... a blind Beggar ...

Wearing a written paper, to explain

His story, whence he came, and who he was

... an apt type

... of the utmost we can know,

Both of ourselves and of the universe...12

Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, in the poem which introduced Modernism to the English poetic tradition and citified English poetry, is not much better off. He is not blind - he has seen the mermaids riding the windy waves - but he is impotent. In his "singapura sequence" Muhammad Haji Salleh would seem to concur: "the city of people, traffic and concrete / is suddenly jerked into life," with the passive voice suggesting a mechanical puppeteering of ugly movement, rather than the individually willed grace of Thumboo's dancers in Chiengmai.

Implicitly this is to see the city as an 'other world' indeed, as disruption of a longstanding traditional world, with a different sense of values, of individuality and of relationships, a different spatial sense, a different sense of time, and a different sense of personal, cultural and national identity. In his "Introduction" to The Second Tongue, Edwin Thumboo writes of Muhammad's poetry that

we detect a conviction that these [traditional] sources of being are equally if not more instinct with appropriate value than that offered by the city... In such a milieu feelings find and sustain each other readily because life is integrated, customary rather than institutionalized, creating a type of understanding that amounts to a full possession of a situation, issue, or problem.

(The Second Tongue, p.xxiii)

It is hard not to read "a singapura sequence" as a protest against what Lee Tzu Pheng has called "the urban takeover of the Singaporean imagination" (The Poetry of Singapore, p.462). The poem begins with the dawn light, the sea and the river waves - in other words with nature, which stands as a constant, and thus a reminder of past tradition in which the landscape impinged closely on people's lives. In "a singapura sequence" nature is noticed only by the poet, and the people are divided into the exploiters and the exploited. The traffic is another form of "litter," and "the pavement is crowded by indifferent feet" - one is tempted to go on "that press / to early coffee-stands."13 The city is not the site of "complexity" in Yencken's sense, but of "confusion," and there is an Eliotian stress on refuse and waste. Despite my allusion to Eliot's "Preludes" Muhammad's style is mostly not like Eliot's but is plain, descriptive, synechdochal, for the most part a kind of higher journalism. However, it's not so when "the island moans and shrieks along its brown arteries" - a metaphoric representation of traffic and a sign of nature in protest. In the middle of the day nature is seen as an angry presence:

The sun, concentric and red, looks angry

and burns the island of two jungles hot

to the building foundations and roots of wild nameless trees.

At night, however, nature attempts to cleanse, or attack, the city:

the streets cool and the waves talk to themselves

scraping the sand to the sea, washing it

and dragging down what it [sic] can.

Similarly, in Lee Tzu Pheng's "Bukit Timah, Singapore" (The Second Tongue, pp.128-9) the city is portrayed as a monster:

This is the way the city is fed

men, machines,

flushed out of their short dreams

and suburban holes

to churn down this waiting gullet.

They all "feed/the megalopolitan appetite." The city, then, is a monster gorging on people and machines - that is, something outside the people and machines whom we might have thought comprise the city. This is one way to portray the powerlessness of Singapore's individual inhabitants. Some of them suffer poverty, some loss of dignity. "Life will be orderly, comfortable," but with an enervating order of exhaustion, monotony, regulation and routine, punctuated by momentary excitements at "the new nightclubs," but with no sustaining rituals. The poet wonders what an "old farmer would say / if he lived to come this way."

One imagines that the old farmer could hardly bear to comment on Sng Boh Khim's "Modern Love Stories" (The Poetry of Singapore, pp.527-8), a poem whose title is simultaneously straightforward and ironic. These love stories - "sedate date[s] in sedate / surroundings" - are pale imitations of the movies:

here the cackle of neon atop

the empty cavern of the cinema

insists the west, all civilisation

is dead given rebirth in this nondescript metropolis.

The past is discarded, and the poem portrays a Baudrillardian world in which the mere image or sign constitutes reality.

The poems cited might suggest a unanimity of response, whereby modern Singaporean poets see themselves as re-enacting Wordsworth's dilemma, and repeat Eliot's depiction of the city as a spiritual Waste Land. This is the larger poetic response but it is not the only poetic response. The undoubted leader of the pro-city poets is Edwin Thumboo, who, in his "Introduction" to The Second Tongue, comments warily on "the idealised simplicity of a traditional way of life" (p.xiii). In his essay "Exile to Native in Singapore Poetries," Thumboo welcomes the new city life as a challenge:

To adapt to new, changing realities - moving from kampung to high-rise flats - demands the courage to move out of a particular, familiar and comfortable history, into one in which that history has a place but with other histories to initiate a broader sense of the contemporary, of the history to come.14

That is the voice of Singapore, not Singapura, and is as much exhortation as comment. It is a note also found in Thumboo's "General Introduction" to The Poetry of Singapore:

Modernisation can be viewed as an equation in which part of tradition yields in favour of attitudes and practices that accord more fully with the demands of new circumstances. What is given up has the comfort of old certainties; what is to be gained is less visible, a promise, part of a new social contract whose benefits take time to unfold. (p.7)

The striking difference between this and the view presented in the poems by Muhammad, Lee and Sng is the notion of "a new social contract," for contracts are freely entered into by both parties, but the poems cited portray the city as imposed on - or swallowing and disgorging - individual Singaporeans, and predetermining their reality. At the Melbourne conference on "The Creative City," the American town planner, Jon Jerde, declared that

City-making is the most extraordinary art form, because it is based on a collaboration between people, most of whom will never know one another...

City-making is not about individuals. It's about the unbelievable collaboration of many un-kindred souls.

(Meanjin, p.609)

Similarly, David Yencken states that "a city can be perceived as a series of experiential relationships - events and activities and spaces and structures that generate emotions" (Meanjin, p.599). These are "social contract" views of the city, and they find poetic expression in Edwin Thumboo's aptly titled "The Way Ahead." The poem presents a mini-conference on town planning: "We were to speak, to chat, / Involve our several minds on how / To frame a City." The "I" of the poem portrays himself as the non-professional, "The average man, the man-in-the-street." Precisely because he is "The average man," the speaker has the strongest awareness of what the city entails:

A city is the people's heart,

Beautiful, ugly, depending on the way it beats.


The City is what we make it,

You and I. We are the City,

For better or for worse. (Gods Can Die, p.59)

The city is not exterior to the people, it is a marriage, it is the people, collectively.

Thumboo's later poem, "Island," provides in broad outline, a history of the sweeping change to modern Singapore.


There was a quiet island,

With a name.

You must believe me

When I say that sunlight,

Impure but beautiful,

Broke upon the bay...15

"You must believe me" because the observation cannot be tested; the island is quiet no longer. These delicate, hushed lines, with their fairy tale beginning, present a world about which you can be "Romantic. Nostalgic. / But images change." Now there is

A new song in the air:

Cranes and gantries rise;

Dynamos and diesel hum.


A welder's torch explodes

Into a rush of stars...

The simplicity of these short lines suggests a modern Blakean innocence, in a context that would have shocked Blake; it shares nothing with Eliot's "unreal"16 cities and the muttering consciousnesses that inhabit them. For Thumboo the new city is a "song" to be gradually learnt:

In time images of power,

Our emergent selves,

Will be familiar

As, first, the body learns

This other song.

Thumboo is not entirely alone in presenting this positive image of the city. In a more muted tone it's found in Lee Tsu Pheng's not surprisingly famous poem, "My Country and My People." The poem charts a somewhat troubled personal coming to terms with both old Singapore and the new city, in which "They built milli-mini-flats / for a multi-mini-society" (The Second Tongue, p.162). The poem, however, ends with acceptance of a complex, even slightly uncertain identity, conveyed in carefully modulated lines:

I claim citizenship in your recognition

of our kind.

My people, and my country,

are you, and you my home.

This is a construction of the city-nation as people, as a set of human recognitions, and citizenship as a matter of personal bonds.

I've left it until the end to examine the work of the most complex and intricate poet of the Singaporean city, Arthur Yap. His poetry has come back to the issue again and again, and offers a range of responses. His first book, Only Lines,17 presents, in the poem "location," the monotony of village life:

... if i stay here any longer

i am already

where i shall always be...

In contrast, the must anthologised poem, "old house at ang siang hill," flatly notes that "re-development / ... will greatly change / this house-that-was / dozens like it along the street," then ruefully observes, "nothing much will be missed / eyes not tradition tell you this." The closing rhyme provides a ruthless sense of finality.

The poem "traces," quoting King Lear, asks sarcastically "as a dog, a rat has life ... / should it be lived so teemingly?". The complex, almost surreal poem, "expansion," presents urban expansion as a form of darkness. Yap's next collection, Commonplace,18 includes one poem with an ingenious title, "There is No Future in Nostalgia," in which development is signified through people being replaced by machines. In the book, down the line, sarcasm returns in the poem "public beach"; thinking of land reclamation, Yap comments:

sand & sea are less today

as there is more of life.


we run away before the waves arrive

with a little last fresh collapse.

The poem "roll call" depicts modern society as a zoo of triteness, with peanuts as rewards. "2 Mothers in a HBD Playground" portrays the triteness of consumerism. A less obvious response is "& the Tide" (Commonplace, p.39), which shows even the tide "being urban-renewed" and which ends, "the renewal of a large imagination / may be rare, in a seascape." A city is a consciously made artefact and this elliptical ending of Yap's poem may suggest that curtailment of nature means curtailment of imagination also. Reading this poem, imagination may be noted by its absence in that HBD playground.

The other extreme from conscious human creation is shown in Yap's "most of october" (down the line, p.45), a philosophical contemplation of landscape. Here the vastness of nature is seen to provide no place for human consciousness:

the landscape is too empty. it threatens to dissolve and include me in it. It threatens in a series of vast sizes and, above all, in its indifference.

In this inanimate world of vast space, with a teleology so fixed that the landscape reminds the poet of "painting by numbers," consciousness does not belong.

The most complex of all poetic responses to modern Singapore is presented in Yap's "down the line" (down the line, pp.9-11). It is an extremely difficult poem and what I offer is my personal interpretation. The poem begins,

the wind that weaves across buildings

carries the calculus the city is reckoned on

and this points to the poem's concern not just with the city but with the basis on which the city exists. That word "calculus" suggests a mathematical, scientific frame of mind and provides a reminder of Yap's earlier, quietly sardonic poem, "everything's coming up numbers" (Commonplace, p.2). The poem goes on,

it rains & the gurgling of drains, protomusic,

will soothe ancient nerves, iron out new alarms.

The city has music of a sort - "protomusic," not quite as positive as Thumboo's "new song in the air," but the gurgle of water sounds does suggest that elements of tradition continue in the city in altered forms.

Yap also declares,

if tomorrow someone sings a confessional

of some 'ism or other, the refrain sinks in

as only a totality & any event, being given

predetermined, is at the onset already silent.

In other words, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Individuals and individual events are seen in terms of summationary modes of thought - they are fitted into stereotypes and classifications. The city is a place of -isms, and of politically determined mass beliefs, a place where "credulity is a bigger commodity than credibility" - where 'truth' is simply what the "calculus" reiterates as truth, however incredible. "down the line" portrays the city as a state of mind, a set of reactions, so ingrained as to be absorbed into the blood: "we hear, what told, / wheels of woe, a battery of ear-assault / pooling in the lymph."

Yap's poem "the send-off" ends, "The city sleeps, is tired from the weight / of responsibility that is time's endowment" (The Second Tongue, p.143). This is to see tradition as a responsibility, and that sense of responsibility towards the past, I would argue, underlies the whole range of responses of Singapore poets to the rather sudden creation of the new city state. It has been created so quickly that both city and village may have some of the aura of 'other worlds' to the Singapore poet.

Writing in 1977, Ban Kah Choon and Lee Tzu Pheng remarked on the absence of sensuous imagery in Singapore poetry, and attributed this to the lack of a collective significance attached to objects in the culture (Crewe (ed.), p.195). A similar line of argument was put in 1981 by Koh Tai Ann, who likened Singaporean poetry to the English Movement, pointing out that "the achievement in poetry is almost wholly the work of a partcular type of sensibility nurtured and formed in the university,"19 and that a university haunted by the ghost of D.J. Enright. Certainly there is no Prufrockian, self-conscious malingering in Singapore poetry, and one would hardly think that part of the Singaporean temperament. The poems do tend to be stark, even in Yap's succinct and elliptical works; this is perhaps an understandable reaction to an erasure of the physical signs of tradition. At the conference on "The Creative City," the British scholar Susan Clifford said, "People own what they are looking at - not on paper, but ... in terms of their investment of affection" (Meanjin, p.626), a point of view exactly put in Ee Tiang Hong's poem, "Ownership and Control."20 Most of traditional Singapore cannot be looked at - it's not there - but to the poet this must be a challenge as well as a loss. Lee Tzu Pheng states in her poem, "From a Student of William Butler Yeats" (The Poetry of Singapore, p.514), "Our symbols have changed, / and are changing." However, a city need not be constructed just as a set of buildings, a physical presence; it is a collaboration, all the more so when the city is the nation, and in that collaboration the "investment of affection" in the past may remain. In a very fine poem, titled "Dinosaurs,"21 Arthur Yap writes:

... no dinosaur could entirely submerge

without resurfacing in a museum,

a new-generation contemporaneity,

as no meaning could go away

without returning upon itself.

In this way the past is another 'world' which lives on in the poetry of the new Singapore. At least through the trope of absence, it is present in a city that is a linguistic and emotional collaboration, much more than "people, traffic and concrete," its movement much more than a series of jerks.

University of Western Australia


1 "'Only Connect': Quest and Response in Singapore-Malayan Poetry" in The English Language in Singapore, ed. William Crewe (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1977), p.200.

2 The Poetry of Singapore, ed. Edwin Thumboo et. al. (Singapore: Ministry of Community Development, 1985), pp.452-3.

3 The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1976), p.vii.

4 "The Creative City," Meanjin, No. 4, 1988, p.599. All subsequent references to Meanjin are to this issue.

5 "Christian Cemetery," The Poetry of Singapore, p.488.

6 "Malacca Grandmother," The Poetry of Singapore, pp.488-9.

7 "From 'Coming Home, Baby,'" The Poetry of Singapore, pp.490-2.

8 "Sentosa, 1976," The Poetry of Singapore, p.523.

9 "down the line," down the line (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1980), p.10.

10 Gods Can Die (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1977), p.23.

11 The Prelude (1850), Book VII, 11.628-9.

12 The Prelude (1850), Book VII, 11.639-46.

13 T.S. Eliot, "Preludes, II".

14 A Sense of Exile: Essays in the Literature of the Asia-Pacific Region, ed. Bruce Bennett (Perth: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature, 1988), p.48.

15 Ulysses by the Merlion (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1979), pp.16-7.

16 For example, in "The Burial of the Dead," The Waste Land.

17 Only Lines (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1971). 18 Commonplace (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1977).

19 Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia: Political and Sociological Perspectives, ed. Tham Seong Chee (Singapore: Singapore Press, 1981), p.177.

20 Tranquerah (Singapore: Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, 1985), p.33.

21 Man Snake Apple (Singapore: Heinemann (Asia), 1986), p.22.

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