Aug 1, 2013

Gilbert Koh's Miscellaneous Poetry Updates

Just for my own records. Before I forget where, when or how my poems pop up.

Little Things: A Poetry Anthology

Ethos Books is coming up with a new anthology of Singapore/international poems that "situate poems from Singapore as part of a global literary scene". The editors are Associate Professor Loh Chin Ee and Associate Professor Angelia Poon from the National Institute of Education, and Esther Vincent, a teacher. One very old poem of mine, entitled Durian, will be included. The anthology will be out very soon - this month actually.

Loh Chin Ee is actually an old classmate of mine from the NUS Law Faculty, but I haven't seen or spoken to her for, uhhh, about 13 years at least. After graduating with a law degree, Chin Ee chose to pursue her passion for teaching and literature, which is why our paths never crossed in the legal profession.

Understanding Literature 2, by Andrew Leng

This is a new textbook for upper secondary students in Singapore. It will be published by Pearson Education, with a proposed print run of 10,000 copies over 10 years. It's scheduled for publication in June next year. They want to include one of my poems in this textbook. The poem is My Father Takes My Son for a Walk.

School of the Arts (SOTA)

Got some emails from 3rd year students at SOTA and I learned that their homework was to create some sort of model or sculpture based on my poem Construction. Interesting.

NIE Supplementary Textbook

In another National Institute of Education book project, Dennis Yeo selected one of my poems (Early Influences) for reproduction in a book to be used to teach the English language. The book will contain poetry, prose and drama. It aims to expose Lower Secondary students to Asian literature.

Project LAVA (Literary Arts - Visual Arts)

Another LAVA project. It's organised by the National Arts Council in conjunction with the National Parks Board. Alvin George Khoo will be creating a sculpture from wood, interpreting three poems (one from me, one from Ghani Hamid, and one from Colin Tan). The poem from me is My Father Takes My Son for a Walk. The sculpture will be installed at the East Coast Park sometime this year.

Feb 13, 2013

MRT Breakdowns and a Quick Thought on National Productivity

I was more than an hour late for work today, because the MRT train broke down. I boarded the train at Bishan, it was supposed to take me to Raffles Place, but instead it stopped at Toa Payoh and an announcement was made and all the passengers had to get off. This was right during the morning rush hour too.

Apparently, there had been a fire at the Newton MRT station, so they stopped the train services along the red line. Fire seems to be a new reason for train breakdown - I don't quite recall that they specifically had fires before, but they do regularly come up with new sorts of reasons for trains to break down. So the experience is not that new. It's certainly not the first time I've experienced an MRT breakdown in the past three years or so.

Catching a taxi at Toa Payoh right then was impossible. There were hundreds of stranded train passengers milling out from underground, getting to the main road, and all of them were trying to queue and call for a cab at the same time.

I gave up and tried to catch a bus. It took me a while, because I am not familiar with the bus services in Toa Payoh (I hardly ever stop there, except when the train breaks down). Finally, I figured out what bus number I wanted to take, but when it came, I couldn't get on it, because it was too crowded.

In the end, I took another bus (SBS No. 105) to Scotts Road. That was not where I wanted to go, but I needed to get out of that crowded area at Toa Payoh. I had to stand all the way on the very crowded 105, but hey, at least I was on a bus that could actually move and it wasn't on fire.

Upon reaching Scotts Road, I tried to queue for a cab at the Far East Plaza taxi stand. But the first five or six of the cabs I couldn't board, as they were changing shifts and not headed to the area where I wanted to go. Finally I managed to get a cab.

I chatted with the driver and I mentioned that the train had broken down. Coincidentally he had just come from the Newton MRT area. He told me that he had seen some police cars and fire engines there, and there were lots of people getting out of the train station and trying to get a bus or cab.

The driver said that at the Newton MRT area, he had wanted to stop to pick up a passenger, but he didn't dare to. The reason was that there were lots of policemen and he was afraid he would get a summons for picking up a passenger at the Newton taxi stop. He explained to me the difference between a "taxi stop" and a "taxi stand". Even if there are 50 passengers queueing at a taxi stop, only three taxis can be there at any given time. If yours is the 4th or 5th taxi, you have to drive on. You can't stop even if it's for a few seconds.

When I finally reached work, I found that several of my colleagues were also late for work, thanks to the train breakdown. One of them had been stuck at Dhoby Ghaut MRT. He had actually managed to get onto the train, but it wouldn't move and for a long time, there were no announcements as to whether it would move or not. So he just stood there waiting and waiting and waiting, and wondering whether he should continue to wait.

Then I remembered this article which I had read on on Channel News Asia:
S'pore's productivity well below most developed countries: DPM Tharman 
SINGAPORE: Singapore's productivity is well below that of the most developed countries, according to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. 
In a Facebook post on Sunday, he noted that restaurants here are experiencing difficulties finding employees. Mr Tharman said some restaurants have raised pay to attract part-timers during the peak Lunar New Year season. 
But most still have difficulty finding people, because the overall labour market is close to full employment. Mr Tharman said these are real problems for businesses, but the solution is not to ease up on foreign worker policies. 
He said the solution has to be more fundamental.
"Fundamental", phui. "Basic" would be a better word.

Dude, don't get too complex. If 100,000 people in Singapore were one hour late for work this morning because the trains broke down, that's 100,000 man-hours lost.

How do you expect Singaporeans to raise their productivity, when your public transport infrastructure can't even get them to work on time?

Feb 6, 2013

Shocking Statistics About the Poor in Singapore

Holy cow. Singapore is doing much worse than I thought. An excerpt from the TODAY newspaper:
Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing gave figures to show that incomes at the bottom continue to rise but said the Government will do more to help low-income Singaporeans. 
He was responding to Nominated MP Tan Su Shan's question on social mobility. 
The real median gross monthly income for employed residents increased 1.3 per cent a year from 2002 to 2012, after rising 2.7 per cent a year from 1996 to 2002, Mr Chan said. 
For the lowest 20th percentile of employed residents, their real gross monthly income rose 0.1 per cent each year from 2002 to 2012 and 2.2 per cent a year from 1996 to 2002.
0.1 per cent? That's effectively zero. Especially if you are in the bottom 20 percentile.

Imagine if your real gross monthly income was $1,000 in 2002. Ten years later, your real gross monthly income would have risen to about $1,010 in 2012.

 So after one full decade of "national progress" under the PAP government, your quality of living has increased by the value of 2 packs of toilet paper at NTUC Fairprice.

 I wonder if Chan Chun Sing managed to keep a straight face, when he said in Parliament that "incomes at the bottom continue to rise".

Dec 21, 2012

Gilbert Koh - Poems Here And There

Didn't write much at all in 2012. But the world around me recycled some of my old poems and they got a new breath of life. Recording my poetic momentos for 2012 here:


This month, I was mentioned on the Straits Times' front page. Not only on the front page, but in the headline article. Nice publicity for the literary arts:

Click on the image to see a bigger version.

This was about the National Art Council's Project Lava. The idea was to pair up a visual artist with a poem, and have the artist create something based on his interpretation of the poem.

In my case, the artist was Sonny Liew (who has previously illustrated Iron Man for Marvel Comics - how cool!) who created a very large mural (16 x 4 metres) at Punggol Waterway. The mural incorporates an old poem of mine Accident. More details in the follow-up article in the ST's Life! section.

Click on the image to see a bigger version
Accident is a short little poem about a chance encounter blossoming into love. I wrote it around 1997 for my girlfriend (now my wife). Although the poem is only a few lines long, it seems to have made an impression on many readers. In fact, Oxford University Press has previously asked for my permission to reprint this same poem as an introduction to one of their books, Gazing at Stars (2011).


Jeremy Boo made an excellent documentary in 2011 about dementia (Before We Forget). He followed up in 2012 with a book on the same topic. The book is a collection of stories, photos and essays, from Singaporeans who have had a loved one suffer from this disease. 

Jeremy not only included one of my old poems, Grandmother's Garden in this book, but also entitled the book after my poem. So there you have it - Grandmother's Garden and Other Stories

Inside the book, there is also an evocative, abstract, black-&-white, vaguely disturbing, artistic interpretation of my poem. (Hmmm, I wonder if there's something about my poetry which attracts artists who want to create pictures about poems). The illustration shows the contours of an old woman's face rendered as a garden, with a huge tree growing out of her eye, blocking out the old woman's view of reality. Well, dementia is like that. 

The book launch for Grandmother's Garden was quite an interesting event, that one. Partly because of the historical legacy of the venue. I was allocated an honorary seat and got to sit in the chair of former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee. MP Denise Phua was the Guest-of-Honour and spoke sincerely and movingly about her own mother, who is suffering from advanced dementia. Book sales at the event were very brisk, I autographed many people's copies, and all sale proceeds went to charity.


I was invited to write a poem for the kids' section of the Sunday Times. I've never really written anything for kids before, so I decided to give it a shot. Besides, they promised to pay me a few hundred bucks (hmmm, I just realised that I still haven't received payment).

The result was My Bedtime Monsters. I really enjoyed myself writing this poem, and my kids enjoyed the poem a lot too. I think that in the hands of a skilful teacher, this poem could make a very fun and enjoyable lesson for young children around the kindergarten age. With a group of kids, you can recite this, sing it aloud, dance to it or act it out: 

My Bedtime Monsters 
Look at the monsters beneath my bed!
One is purple and the others are red.
Their eyes are bright and their claws are long
They play all night, as they sing their song:
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!" 
They hide in the day from dear old Mum
When Dad's around, they're rather glum.
When I'm alone, they giggle so loud
From under the bed, they come tumbling out
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!" 
They hop on my pillows and dance on the floor,
But first they will always close the door.
They don't really want my parents to know
How loud they are, when their voices go:
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!" 
There's Starky the Stink, and Polly the Plump
Fannie the Fink, and Grolly the Grump.
They're fun and friendly, like friends should be
And I'm so glad that they're friends with me
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!"


My poem Garden City was first published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore about eleven(!) years ago. It's nice to know that there are people still interested in it today. This year the National Institute of Education featured the poem in Enl*ght, its publication for secondary English Literature teachers.

Garden City was analysed and compared to the poem The City Planners by Margaret Atwood. Since Margaret is an internationally acclaimed writer who has won awards such as the Booker Prize, I feel somewhat honoured. An excerpt:
In this article, we will look at Gilbert Koh’s “Garden City” and Margaret Atwood’s “The City Planner”, both written by two people from very different contexts and cultures, and examine how despite such differences, the two poems indisputably share distinct similarities as they comment on the role of nation-building and to a larger extent, modernisation and urbanisation via social engineering. This article takes apart the two poems to provide a guided comparative analysis and suggested questions which may be used as a resource in the classroom.  
This poetry pairing activity is targeted at the Upper Secondary level, and may potentially yield interesting and rewarding results should teachers design relevant activities to help their students relate to and engage personally with the themes and issues present in the poems. 
... Both poems are similar in the sense that they are critical of modernisation, urbanisation, and its dehumanising effects on the individual. While “Garden City” evokes biblical allusions to satirise the nation’s ‘fall from grace’ – Paradise, the true Garden of Eden – in her “steel and concrete” quest to “expand” and “develop” into a city, “The City  Planners” juxtaposes vivid imagery  with an oppressive silence and lifelessness to effectively  explore the binary oppositions of rationality  vs. insanity, and order vs. chaos in order to comment on the unnatural dehumanising effects of city planning on both inhabitants and planners.
It was a little disappointing to me, though, that the article steadfastly refused to comment on the political aspects of my poem. I am sure that the commentator knew that the poem is actually about Lee Kuan Yew and the control he exerted over the creation of modern Singapore. But this, after all, was the National Institute of Education, and so the article carefully refrained from making any overtly political comments. Lee's name was mentioned nowhere.


Then there was Old Folks Home. For several years now, the Ministry of Education has featured the poem in the print version of its Literature in English Lower Secondary Resource Kit. So a fair number of young Singaporeans today have had to study my poem in class. If I recall correctly, one year Cedar Girls School (or was it Saint Nicks?) even used it as an exam question. 

In 2012, the new development was that the Ministry wrote to me again and asked for permission to include the poem in their upcoming online Guide to the Literature in English Teaching Syllabus 2013. This guide is for Upper Secondary students. I said yes. I think that these are official online resources for Literature teachers only, so I will probably never see how the poem is presented or discussed. But it's nice to know that the poem lives on somewhere.

It's a gently ironic poem, about the unbridgeable distance between the young and innocent, and the old and dying.

Old Folks Home 
All day long they lie on the
straight rows of white beds or sit
in the heavy-duty wheelchairs
pushed out into the breezy sunshine
of the gardens. 
Resigned to the prisons
of their own failing bodies,
they drift in and out of the haze
of senility, half-forgetting
themselves in the patient wait
for death. 
Still the bright-eyed teenagers come,
on Saturday mornings, by the busloads,
sent by their schools
on compulsory excursions
to learn the meaning
of compassion
as outlined in the CCA syllabus. 
They bring gifts of Khong Guan biscuits,
they help to mow the lawns,
they clap their hands performing happy songs
and valiantly they attempt the old dialects
trying to communicate. 
Later they will clamber noisily
back up the departing school buses,
and next week in class
they will write startlingly
similar essays
on what a meaningful,
memorable experience they had
at the old folks' home
last week

Oct 30, 2012

The National Cost of Growing Old .... Is Perhaps Not That Large

Greying population could 'cost Govt S$13b more by 2025'
by Teo Xuanwei 
SINGAPORE - By 2025, public services for what will be a greyer Singapore could cost the Government S$79 billion, or S$13 billion more than what it spends today, according to a new report released by global management consultancy Accenture. 
Even as the Government has highlighted the effects of the dramatic demographic shift in the coming years, including higher social spending, this is the first time an estimate of the cost has been worked out. 
According to Accenture's report, which covers 10 countries, the increased spending in public services - defence and public safety, education, housing and healthcare - will come up to the same percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2025 as it stood last year at 12 per cent. 

The less-informed reader might feel scared. "Oh my goodness," he will say, "How can Singapore afford all these costs?"

There are many possible ways. For example, as senior citizens form an increasing proportion of the population, younger people form a decreasing proportion. In other words, there will be fewer young people for the government to look after. Increased expenditure on the old can be offset by decreased expenditure on the young. For example, if Singapore has fewer young people, government expenditure on education must logically decrease.

Also, fiscal spending isn't necessarily a bad thing (although the PAP will never be heard to tell you that). Government spending on areas such as geriatric healthcare must surely create jobs and stimulate economic growth to some extent. For example, there will be more jobs for nurses, doctors and other people who run and manage hospitals and old folks homes.