Nov 25, 2009

Off for Holidays

Not blogging. Bye for now!

Nov 23, 2009

Another Review of Two Baby Hands

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has just published a review of my poetry book Two Baby Hands. The reviewer is Moira Moody, who teaches a writing course at Rutgers University, while at the same time pursuing her MFA there.

A Cha review will often cover two books at one go. This allows the reviewer to do a compare-&-contrast between two writers. In the current issue, Two Baby Hands is reviewed alongside with Equal to the Earth, by ex-Singaporean Koh Jee Leong.

    Country of Origin/Point of Departure: Gilbert Koh's and Jee Leong Koh's Poetry

    Two Baby Hands, by Gilbert Koh, and Equal to the Earth, by Jee Leong Koh, are two new volumes of poetry by Singaporean writers with very different aesthetics. Gilbert Koh writes of individual and social experience in simple lines and language that feels more than it says. Jee Leong Koh is an expatriate poet who uses the rigidity of form to contain poetry that otherwise knows no bounds: love, sex and selfhood are all exposed, and equally explored.

    In Two Baby Hands, Gilbert Koh writes to expose and record life through language that hints at complexity through imagery. A repeated motif of Koh's is the conceit of the photographer, and this clearly captures Koh's process:

      Smile, I commanded
      you obeyed
      and I caught forever
      that moment
      when something on your face
      disguised itself
      so well
      as happiness.

              Koh lingers on small moments, understanding when to render minutely, and when to pull away. When he writes "something on your face," he deliberately shrouds his sentence in an inscrutability that a more realized emotion such as "anger," "sadness" or "disgust" would have destroyed. The short but varied lines in the poem suggest the zooming motion of the camera, and that last abstract noun—"happiness"—becomes even more indefinite in his use.

              This idea of the photographer also pervades Koh's perception of the social world and his observations of modern life. In "The Schoolgirl Kills Herself after Failing an Exam" and "National Leadership," Koh examines the darker side of cultural attitudes that prioritize a narrow view of educational achievement as a prerequisite to any social advancement. In "National Day Parade," Koh slows down a moment of national celebration and collectivism to ask what these moments achieve for the individual. In "The Couple Next Door" Koh recreates the "good neighbor" who witnesses domestic violence in a typical metropolitan apartment complex:

                Her eyes avoid mine. I let the walls stand.
                I will be the stranger who sees and hears nothing.
                I believe we both prefer it that way.
                ("The Couple Next Door")

              "I let the walls stand" is an incisive line because of Koh's choice to shift a sentence syntax that would most naturally have an inanimate subject, i.e., "The walls stand," to a construction that denotes his complicity in this situation, "I let the walls stand." The next line makes the speaker even more active in an otherwise passive situation. The speaker chooses to "be the stranger who sees and hears nothing" as though in a role play. The final sentence stresses the speaker and neighbor's mutual conclusion, but says nothing about what is at stake, what should be done, what the truth is of that moment. To end the poem on this brittle line, forces the reader's thoughts in all the directions the "good neighbor" avoids.

              Even as Gilbert Koh pays careful attention to those intersecting his everyday routes in Singapore, his gaze is most powerful when contemplating the people for whom he builds his life. Tellingly, the title of his book is taken from a poem about his infant son. "Without You" is a simple and beautiful love poem that could be about anyone. The occasion of this poem is a train ride, suitable because of its universality and depersonalizing aspects: "outside blackness/ is screaming past the windows". A thousand different narratives surround him: "hands eyes strange footsteps mouths/ speaking words collapsing / here and now", but the speaker ignores these. No longer a photographer with an eye for the unusual moment, Koh drops all distractions to focus on romantic longing. The origin and destination is just "elsewhere" because until he is arrives, there is no detail, just anticipatory feeling:

                and I'm alive, suspended,
                hurtling through the blackness,
                nowhere without you.("Without You")
              If Gilbert Koh's attitude towards art is that of a photographer, then Jee Leong Koh's is that of a shameless model. Jee Leong Koh reinvents life by throwing himself onto new backdrops. At the same time, and perhaps more revealingly, Jee Leong Koh is a conjurer, playing with forces that his lines struggle to restrain ....

            I know Jee Leong. Not well, but we've met. In fact, some years ago, a publisher proposed that we combine our poems and do a book together. Jee Leong wasn't keen - he wanted to do his very own book - so that idea did not materialise.

            Jee Leong was an example of the PAP's Model Citizen and Ideal Success Story. He had good academic grades; performed well in NS and became an SAF officer. He got an PSC overseas scholarship and achieved 1st Class honours at Oxford. Jee Leong rose quickly in the civil service to become the vice-principal of a secondary school, at a relatively early age. (I know some of these details, because my brother, who is also in the Education Ministry, knows Jee Leong too).

            However, in Jee Leong's story, there was also a twist. A rather big twist, which would have made him, in the eyes of the PAP, a Non-Model Citizen and Definitely Not A Success Story. It seems to be the reason (or at least, a reason) why Jee Leong emigrated from Singapore. If you read on, you will know what it is:

              Equal to the Earth, Jee Leong Koh's second book, presents dynamic yet challenging poetry, and Koh's ordering and sectioning of his work is a crucial part of the way it should be accessed. Most poetry volumes can be enjoyed by opening them at any point, but the best way to appreciate Koh's work is by starting at the beginning and moving through to the end.

              Jee Leong Koh uses formal schemes well by emphasizing their confining aspects, and his opening poem "Hungry Ghosts" is in seven sections that describe an entire history of homosexual love. The third section, "The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him" omits any direct expression of lust, but the lines drip of male longing held within austere language, mimicking styles of the period:

                The Peach Terrace glints under the autumn moon
                pink as skin seen
                through red silk gauze.
                ("The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him")

              This historical trajectory is followed to the moment of Western incursion, and in "The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys," a Western man ogles several Chinese prostitutes.

              However, this history is connected to the present-day, and at the end of the poem sequence, the modern narrator is introduced as an inheritor of this past of illicit love and sexual exploitation. His father shows him this history as a venture to the Gates of Hell, and this section has constrained parameters written in an ABA rhythm that boils with emotion. When the author turns to male love, the inevitability of this development is clear, but so is the misunderstanding. The poem ends in America, miles from the pain of family, but unsettled:

                I am left standing beside the golden shock
                of cattails tall as I am, gazing across


                ... Then a burst
                of knocking, from the thicket, the smart stabs
                of a woodpecker tapping in a bowl of bark.
                I should go. Winston's coming up.
                ("Hungry Ghosts")

              In these lines, homosexual love is finally naturalized in a vivid, descriptive language structured in formal meter that is Koh's true and modern voice.

              This first sequence charts Koh's identity formation by tracing the narrator's debt to the past as well as his inevitable need to leave Singapore. In the second section, his poems canvass America, and are energy filled with exploratory energy, but also the emotional displacement concurrent with this choice:

                Since citizenship doesn't follow coming out,
                but childlessness does, we understand our whereabouts
                are recognizable but never familiar.
                ("Actual Landing")

              Jee Leong Koh uses formal structures to hold surges of desire, anguish, and imagination. His repeated trope of the ocean embodies humbling and vast depths of feeling. The symbol is key to understanding the overpowering, at times magical forces of the Earth that Koh describes.

              The phrase "equal to the earth" is evoked forcefully in "Blowjob" which follows a man/elusive sex object who works with machines harnessing the crude oil beneath the sea floor: "You master the force compressing bones / to crude trapped in the earth's scrotum". The character in this poem is homo-erotic but heterosexual in his relationships, inscrutable but thrilling in the intensity that he represents.

              Thus energy and mystery begin to describe Koh's project, but his message is driven home in another poem, "Raznovmenie, or Nonmeeting,"
              previously published in this journal. "Raznovmenie" is written in forceful triads that think that love is defined by its remove as well as intimacy:

                you're exerting a force equal to the earth's
                a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
                This is not so ridiculous as some may think.

                for didn't Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
                not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
                We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words.
                ("Raznovemenie, or Nonmeeting")

              The way Koh explains love's power, even in physical absence, through allusion to Tsvetaeva and Pasternak is extremely effective. The Soviet poets Tsvetaeva and Pasternak maintained an artistic and romantic connection entirely through correspondence. Koh draws on their pain and even the absurdity of their relationship, filled with writerly energy but starving from a lack of any real and physical connection. As unsatisfying as this may seem, "the writing of non-meeting" only emphasizes the unearthly strength of love in the words themselves. The poet writes to dominate the lines, but the writing sometimes dominates.

              Jee Leong Koh and Gilbert Koh view Singapore differently—one as a country of origin and a central focus; the other as a point of departure and a backdrop to a new flowering of identity. Their volumes are equally promising and rigorous in the different directions they take, and together only suggest that the country's poetic climate is not easily reduced.

            Nov 20, 2009

            Brief Thoughts on Religion in Singapore

            An email from an American reader:

            Hello Mr. Wang,

            My name is Gregory Hoffman, and I am a High School student in Miami, Florida. In the coming weekend, I am representing Singapore in a Model U.N. competition. I will be the delegate for Singapore. In the general assembly, we will attempt to create a resolution on two primary topics: religious intolerance, and the situation in Afghanistan.

            In researching I have found very unreliable information throughout the web on religious tolerance(or intolerance) in Singapore. I understand Article 12 of the constitution of Singapore gives equality to all citizens of Singapore, and clearly states that discrimination on the ground of religion is prohibited. Furthermore, Article 15 speaks upon the freedom of religion within Singapore. That said, I am aware in the middle of the 1900's a few riots occurred. Since then( preferably more recently), what has Singapore done to promote religious tolerance? In the model U.N., I must represent my country's interests and work towards a resolution with other countries with similiar interests. Any help you are able to give would be GREATLY appreciated.

            Thank you very much,
            Gregory Hoffman

            Here is the 2-cents-worth reply which I dashed out in a few minutes:

            Hi Gregory:

            You are referring to the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950. At that time, Singapore was not a sovereign nation yet. Therefore the Constitution you refer to did not exist at that time. Singapore only became an independent nation in 1965.

            I might as well add at this time that for any country, what the constitution says and what actually happens in the country can turn out to be quite different. A constitution is a paper document, and while paper documents can espouse high ideals, they cannot actually stop people from physically fighting in the streets.

            In general, Singapore has been a very peaceful nation since 1965. There have been no noteworthy incidents of religious violence since then. In fact Singapore is one of the rare places in the world where you will find, say, a church built on the same street as a temple, or a temple next door to a mosque.

            The government here is determined to maintain religious (and racial) harmony. It is a point that they have consistently reiterated through the years. It was a point to which the Prime Minister devoted a significant part of his speech in the most recent National Day Rally (which is traditionally one of the most important political speeches that the Prime Minister makes, in any given year).

            Having said that, I should add that while the government treats all mainstream religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) with respect, its treatment of minority groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses can be rather shoddy. But I will leave you to your own Internet research.

            Mr Wang
            As an afterthought, I sent the following additional note:
            The clue in my earlier email might have been a little too subtle. So here's the main thing - google straight for the PM's most recent rally speech. The PM is quite long-winded, and prone to repeating old news. So his speech will cover your question - "what has Singapore done to promote religious tolerance?" - quite adequately.

            Nov 18, 2009

            The Rationale for Banking Secrecy

            When I read articles like the one below, I can't help feeling that the financial crisis has caused many people to seriously misunderstand the concept of banking secrecy:
            ST Nov 17, 2009
            Stamp out bank secrecy

            BERLIN - GRAFT watchdog Transparency International hit out at rich countries over shady banking practices on Tuesday as it published its annual rankings naming and shaming the world's most corrupt countries.

            'Corrupt money must not find safe haven. It is time to put an end to excuses,' said the Berlin-based group's head Ms Huguette Labelle.

            In the wake of the financial crisis, the Group of 20 (G-20) industrialised countries turned up the heat on tax havens, targeting rich countries with long-held banking secrecy laws like Liechtenstein and Switzerland. But Ms Labelle said extra efforts were imperative, calling for more bilateral treaties on information exchange in order to 'fully end the secrecy regime'.

            Overall, the 2009 corruption list is 'of great concern', the organisation said, with the majority of countries scoring under five in the ranking, which ranges from zero, highly corrupt and 10, which is very clean.

            The bottom five nations - Somalia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan and Iraq - show that 'countries which are perceived as the most corrupt are also those plagued by long-standing conflicts, which have torn apart their governance infrastructure,' TI said.

            The five countries seen as least afflicted by corruption were New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden - and Switzerland. New Zealand scored 9.4 points whereas Somalia scored 1.0 points.

            The score is based on perceptions of the degree of corruption as seen by business people and country analysts.
            So what do we see here? Transparency International publishes its rankings of corruption levels in different countries around the world. At the same time, TI also says that it's time to put an end to banking secrecy. The way TI puts it, it sounds as if banking secrecy and corruption go hand in hand.

            On the other hand, TI's actual research leads to the opposite conclusion. Both Singapore and Switzerland have an extensive banking secrecy regime (Singapore's statutory banking secrecy laws are in fact modelled on Switzerland's). Yet both countries are in the list of world's top five least-corrupt countries.

            So it's very simplistic to suggest that banking secrecy leads to corruption (or creates a conducive environment for it).

            It's important to go back to basics and remember why banking secrecy exists in the first place. Banks hold a lot of information about their customers. If your company is planning an IPO, your bank knows about it. If your business is losing money, your bank knows about it. If you pay your suppliers through your bank account, the bank knows who they are.

            In fact, just by looking at your credit card statements and bank statements and GIRO arrangements, your bank knows where you shop; what you buy; where you've travelled to; what's your salary; how much you got for your bonus; whether you use Starhub or Singtel; and what's the name and address of that other woman who's not your wife but with whom you share a joint account. Etc etc.

            That's all private information. It's not anything illegal, but it's private. Banking secrecy evolved as a legal regime, precisely because the law needs to stop banks from blabbering your private information to people who have no business knowing it.

            Now of course banking secrecy, as a legal regime, has its own built-in exceptions and qualifications. For example, a bank may legally disclose your information to the police, if you've become a suspect in a criminal case and the police need to know about your money matters. A bank may legally disclose your information to its own professional advisers (eg its own lawyers and auditors). And a bank may legally disclose your information to the tax authorities, if there's a tax-related investigation.

            But to say that the world needs to "stamp out bank secrecy" and "fully end the secrecy regime" - that's ridiculous. Newspapers will have a fun time reporting Britney Spears' latest credit card purchases. Your nosey-parker kaypoh auntie might call up your bank to find out how much you really have in your savings account. Banks might sell your telephone number, email address and personal profile to telemarketers selling anything from insurance to club memberships to massage chairs - see how many nuisance calls you get then.

            Little Discoveries on the Rental Route

            My wife and I have started searching for a place to rent. We checked the ads; called up several property agents; drove around the relevant neighbourhoods; and viewed a number of apartments.

            This is a new experience for us - we've never rented before. Mrs Wang is fussy about details like the bathroom design, the shape of the bedrooms and whether the aircon is working. I'm fussy about details like the term of the lease, and whether amenities are nearby, and how the kids are going to get to school.

            I also learned that landlords can be very fussy about their tenants.

            Some of the things I'm going to write about next will sound offensive to some people. Well, these are not my personal views. I'm just describing life as it is in Singapore (the warts and pimples and prejudices included). These are things that I've recently learned, heard and encountered:
            1. Some non-Indian landlords do not accept Indian tenants. They feel that Indian families might make their apartments smell funny. (A property agent told me that).

            2. One landlord wanted to investigate my religious beliefs. Being a Christian, he was firmly against accepting any tenant who might bring "false idols" into his apartment and set up an altar there.

            3. One landlord refused to rent his place to three single Australian expats who had come to view. That landlord feels that ang-mohs like to hold wild parties, get drunk and damage the furniture. A previous ang-moh tenant had left stains on his designer sofa. Alcohol, semen and ... vomit?

            4. One evening, I went to view an apartment. At the same time, three young PRC ladies in scanty clothes and heavy make-up also came to view. In the kitchen, I overheard the owner angrily telling the property agent not to bring any prostitutes to view his place.

            (I don't know why so many PRC prostitutes are in Singapore these days. This particular apartment was not close to Geylang or any other traditional red-light district, by the way).

            5. Landlords are interested to know what kind of job you have, and whether you're rich. They don't want troublesome tenants who end up being unable to pay. It helps to tell them that you're a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant (if you are).

            6. Interestingly, I met a security guard at a condominium who was moonlighting as an unofficial property agent. When I told him that I had come to view an apartment, he promptly brought me to view another apartment. The owner (who had already moved out) had given him the key. I gave the security guard $10 for his kind assistance.

            Nov 13, 2009

            PR Buys HDB Flat for $653,000

            This is the story of how young Singaporeans are being squeezed out of the housing market. The PRs are squeezing them out. One account does not tell the whole story, of course, but you know who has the full figures, don't you. And that's why you will also never know the full story.
            ST Nov 12, 2009
            Record $653,000 for flat
            By Jessica Cheam

            A FOUR-ROOM Queenstown HDB flat has sold for $653,000, setting a new record for price per sq ft (psf), amid continuing red-hot demand for resale flats.

            The buyers, a male Indonesian permanent resident and a Singaporean woman, could have bought a condominium unit in an outlying area for the price.

            But they were won over by the location, just five minutes walk from Queenstown MRT station, and on the top, 40th floor of the block, with unblocked views of greenery from all windows.

            The four-year-old 969sqft unit at Forfar Heights, Strathmore Avenue, sold for $68,000 above valuation - a level determined by an independent valuer.

            This works out to $674 psf, smashing the previous record of $609 psf, achieved in January last year, by about 10per cent.

            This may be an unusually high price but resale prices have been moving up.
            This isn't a bad purchase, by the way. It all depends on the seller's individual needs and circumstances, but I can easily see how it could make sense to some people, to fork out $653,000 for a 4-room HDB flat.

            Firstly, the flat is very nicely renovated (the Straits Times has photos) and looks as classy as a new condo. Secondly, on a psf basis, the flat is still cheaper than many condos. Thirdly, it is really quite close to an MRT station and a HDB hub of coffeeshops, supermarkets, clinics etc.

            Next, there is the issue of privacy and facilities. People are generally prepared to pay more for condos, because of the quiet, privacy and the facilities. On the other hand, a HDB flat on the 40th floor is going to be quite peaceful and private anyway; very cool and breezy if you open the windows; and the view would be absolutely spectacular.

            As for facilities, the odd thing is that many condo residents end up not using the facilities very much anyway. This is one assessment that buyers need to make for themselves. It's all very well to live in a condo with a big swimming pool, two tennis courts and a gym. On the other hand, if no one in your family is actually interested in swimming or playing tennis or working out in the gym, then effectively you're paying extra money for nothing. In that case, you might as well buy a HDB flat.

            Nov 12, 2009

            Strange Tales From Cyril Wong

            After publishing half a dozen poetry books, Cyril Wong must have grown bored and decided to try his hand at writing short stories instead. Let Me Tell You Something About That Night is the result.

            I must confess that when someone described the book to me as a collection of "modern-day fairy tales", I was a little skeptical that this book was going to be worth reading. Happily, I overcame that initial skepticism enough to pick up the book at Kinokuniya.

            I'm about halfway through the book now, and quite enjoying it. Gerrie Lim has a little blurb on it which goes: "Cyril Wong is proving himself to be a prose stylist of a calibre that threatens to outdo his poetry, with words so poignant and heartfelt, and a narrative drive that's often direct and bold yet breathtaking in its fragile beauty." I think that those words sum the book up pretty well.

            Cyril Wong is writing fairy tales, but these are not fairy tales for children (maybe for young adults and older). The stories do not quite end with a "happily ever after" and the characters are much more complex than the usual handsome prince or big bad wolf. A subtle gay theme runs through several stories, and that will put off the Thio Su Miens and the like-minded, but the stories themselves are not sexually explicit.

            Several of these fairy tales are set in a recognisably modern, and even Singaporean, context. For example, one story is about a condominium security guard on night duty. Using his CCTV cameras, he spies on two women who have entered into the lift, only to discover that they are not quite human. In another story, a Malay schoolboy discovers that he has the ability to see how each person will eventually die.

            Let Me Tell Something About That Night is something fresh and different. It's a welcome new addition into the existing body of Singapore literature. Do yourself a favour, go and get the book.

            Nov 9, 2009

            Congratulations to the Boy

            Stephan is a German expat working in Singapore. He married a local lady and settled down here. They have twin boys. Stephan is also a long-time reader of my blog and we had met for lunch a few years ago.

            I recall Stephan telling me then that his boys were sporty, and good with their hands, but not academically inclined. He was a little worried that they wouldn't be able to cope with the Singapore education system. He didn't know the education system here very well, but he had heard some horror stories.

            Stephan's concerns look a little misplaced now. He just emailed to tell me that one of the twins has qualified for the Gifted Enrichment Programme. That puts the boy somewhere in the top half to one percent of the general student population.

            The question is whether the boy should accept the GEP place. That would mean that he has to transfer from his current school, to one of the GEP schools. Neither twin is very keen on this idea, because they, being two good brothers, want to stick together in the same school.

            I think that joining the GEP has some practical advantages. One such advantage, as I understand it, is that a few top secondary schools will accept GEP students under the DSA programme, without even waiting to see the GEP student's PSLE results. Okay, you also have to show some ability in some sport, art or musical activity, but the main thing is that you are a GEP student. That's what makes the door swing open.

            This also means that if GEP students know how to play their cards right, they can enjoy a relatively fun-filled, stress-free time, from Primary 4 to 6. Sure, they can also choose to slog, if they prefer. But at least they have the choice. It isn't exactly imperative for them to do very, very well in the PSLE.

            One concern that parents may have is that the GEP child may feel unduly stressed, about having to compete with other extremely bright kids. I don't think that this is such a major concern. With some parental guidance, the GEP child should quickly understand that the GEP student population comprises the very brightest. Even if he is the bottom 10% of his GEP class, in all likelihood he still compares very well to the wider universe of non-GEP students. His ego need not feel too bruised.

            Also, between being constantly bored in a normal school (because you are too bright and the the usual curriculum doesn't challenge you) and being stressed in a top school (because the GEP curriculum is too tough), I actually think that it's better to be stressed. Boredom is a kind of suffering too.

            If Stephan eventually decides not to send his son to the GEP, then I think that Stephan should just constantly bear in mind his son's giftedness anyway, and give him regular, ample opportunities to develop and explore his own interests. (Of course, the same applies to the twin brother too).

            A useful book I once read was The Gifted Adult, by Mary Elaine Jacobsen. The author made the point that gifted people tend to develop quite intense interests - this in itself is one of the defining characteristics of giftedness. Although the book was about gifted adults, I believe that this point applies equally to gifted kids. So if you're a parent of a gifted child, do try your best to give him the room, space and resources to pursue his hobbies. He will appreciate that, because that's how he grows.

            Nov 7, 2009

            On Writing For Yourself, and On Writing For Others

            I got married in 2000. My first kid arrived in 2002, and the second kid, in 2004. In that same year, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. This was an emotionally difficult time for me.

            My father had his surgery, to remove the tumour, and he survived. However, the doctors explained that in the next few years, the risk of recurrence would be high. I felt that I should spend more time with my father. I also wanted my children to spend more time with him. It was entirely possible that there wouldn't be much time left.

            Soon after my father was discharged from hospital, I took him and my family on a holiday. This was the first time I had ever taken my father on a holiday anywhere. As he was still recuperating, we opted for a quiet, peaceful holiday at a Bintan beach resort.

            While at Bintan, we spent a lot of time just lazing around the beach. I would park myself on a beach chair with a book, while my father took my son to play by the sea. I would just watch them from a distance - this was their special time together. Out of this holiday, the following poem emerged:

              My Father Takes My Son For A Walk

              Small waves sing and sigh and run to the shore,
              Push and pull at their ankles, as they walk hand-in-hand
              Along the edge of the sea.

              My father is white-haired now, his shoulders stoop.
              With each step he is approaching the end of his life
              Altthough in this moment he does not think of it.

              My son is a young child. Shells and boats excite him.
              In the years ahead, the old man beside him will
              Become for him an uncertain memory.

              I have my own journey. I am watching them,
              As if from a very great distance, as if I were a wave
              Travelling out into the endless sea.

            This poem has attracted very mixed reactions from readers. Those who liked it, really loved it. But apparently, those who didn't like it, quite detested it. First, let's take a look at the positive feedback:

              "Very effective. The perspective of three generations in a few lines."

              "Simple, yet so effective. He's "a wave travelling out into the endless sea." One day he will be the grandfather taking his grandson for a walk along the edge of the sea, and his son will be the one watching. Gilbert, great images. Thanks."

              ... In particular, I love this poem. It strikes a chord in my soul and evokes much tenderness."

              "How lovely. Your detail for things that move the heart is very special. I have pictures of my mother and my son when he was young. Oh how I miss her!"

              "It's lovely. I love the ambiguity of the last line, a sense of movement and loneliness. Nice."

              ".... reading it now, I still feel the emotions rushing towards me. I feel especially touched by the line 'In the years ahead, the old man beside him will/Become for him an uncertain memory.' How true these words are."

            What about the readers who hated the poem? One of them, an SPH journalist, disliked it enough to write an entire article about it. An excerpt from her article:
              The cliched personification of the waves, simple monosyllabic words and obvious alliteration all open the scene on much too precious a note. The emotional tenor - one of quiet reflection - is appropriate ... but the poem crosses the line into sentimentality.

              Stock images, such as the `endless sea' and the `white-haired' old man, do not help matters - which is a shame, because Koh does have an eye for detail.

              The trick is to write simply without being simplistic, but the poem doesn't quite achieve that balance.

              .... The syntax is equally unimaginative. The short declarative sentences and plain old subject-verb-object word order ... lend unbearably slow pacing to the poem.

              It is a quiet, sensitive snapshot a moment, but Koh's writing is too spare. Any emotional resonance soon fades with the final vague image of receding waves.
            I am never that surprised when readers respond differently to any of my poems. I've learned from experience that this is quite possible. Maybe it's just something about the way I write, or perhaps it's just the way that poetry generally is.

            In the past, I've asked a number of experienced poets to give me frank feedback on my poems. Every now and then, the feedback on the exact same poem would return in sharply different forms. For example, a poem might thoroughly impress Felix Cheong, but receive a ho-hum response from Cyril Wong. Conversely, Cyril might praise a poem enthusiastically, but Felix would just say, "Errrr, this one doesn't work for me at all."

            As I look back now on My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I find myself no longer interested in discussing the merits or weaknesses of the poem. What interests me is another kind of question - the extent to which poets should write for themselves, or for others.

            When I first wrote My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I never intended to show it to anybody. It was a highly personal poem, written just for myself. The first draft of the poem I completed in less than 15 minutes, literally while I was on Bintan's beach watching my father and children.

            But a year later, I felt ready to show the world the poem. First, as usual, I had to edit the poem. But this time I found it really difficult. I knew that some words and phrases arguably didn't work so well. I experimented with deleting them, changing them, shifting them around. I also came up with one or two new ideas to incorporate into the text. Finally I produced a revised version that I felt would be more satisfying to a critical reader.

            The only problem was that the emotional tenor of the poem had changed. It no longer quite captured what had happened that day, on the beach. The old man had become slightly larger than life; the sea less placid, a little more hostile; and as for the protagonist, he was still reflective but somewhat more certain and assured. Yes, the revised poem was still a snapshot of that same day, but it was like a doctored photo, Photoshopped with special effects. It was no longer the real thing. No one would ever know, of course, but me.

            After some consideration, I threw away the revised version. And went back to the original version (or something very, very close to it).

            Nov 6, 2009

            Chess, Poetry and Homework

            Something odd just arrived in my inbox. The sender's name I shall not disclose (anyway, I do not know her personally). It appears that she first sent the email to "" (QLRS is the acroynm for a literary journal in Singapore). After that, she forwarded the email to me.

            The email is a little cryptic. The person made no attempt to introduce herself or explain why she had written to me. She didn't even say "Dear Gilbert" or "Hi there". She merely wrote:
              Discuss the effects of juxtaposition for the poem between the "old folks" and the "bright-eyed teenagers" or other examples of juxtaposition. Discuss the speaker's attitude towards such school trips, as evidenced in the poem, with regard to his tone and use of irony. Reply asap thanks.
            Looks like a Literature essay question. And I even know which poem the question is referring to. It's one of my own poems, entitled Old Folks Home. Years ago, I gave permission to the Ministry of Education to reproduce the poem for teaching purposes. It appears that they're still using the poem. And it appears that the email sender is hoping that I'll do her homework for her, LOL. Anyway, this is the poem:
              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 ECA 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.
            I grow a little sentimental. I wrote this poem a long time ago. The term "ECA" betrays the poem's age, because no one says "ECA" any more. Nowadays the official term that the schools use is not "extra-curricular activities", but "co-curricular activities", or CCA.

            The original seed of this poem - I still remember. At that time, I was about 13. I was visiting an old folks home, to play chess with the old folks. It was a volunteer trip, organised by a local chess club (I was a member then).

            So there I was, having a nice quiet game of chess with a frail old man in a wheelchair. Then suddenly a big group of school students showed up. It was their school field trip. There were so many of them. Some of the big boys were playful and rowdy. A teacher started yelling at them to stand in line, keep quiet and behave themselves. Many of the students, I could tell, didn't even know what they were supposed to be doing there.

            Most of the old folks looked either indifferent or annoyed, about the visiting school boys. As for my chess opponent, he was in a winning position. But suddenly he made two bad moves in a row, and lost. I felt bad, defeating him in that way. He complained bitterly that the school boys were making too much noise and he couldn't concentrate.

            I told him that we could play again. He sighed and said, never mind. Then he brightened up and said in Mandarin, "One thing about those school boys, they often bring Khong Guan biscuits for us. I don't like the boys, but I like their Khong Guan biscuits. I hope they brought some Khong Guan biscuits today."

            He went on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits. He wouldn't stop. Something in that moment really moved me. I put the chess pieces back into their box. I felt sorry for this wrinkled old man. He had so little left in his life to look forward. Even Khong Guan biscuits were a big deal for him. I wished I'd thought of bringing a big tin of Khong Guan biscuits, just for him.

            Years passed. Somewhere along the way, I took up poetry. I also became a better and better chessplayer (in fact, I became the NUS chess champion and captain). One day, as I was analysing a chess position, I suddenly remembered the two bad moves. In my mind, I saw that frail old man, sitting in his wheelchair, shocked by his own blunder. So I stopped analysing, and started to write a poem instead. Old Folks Home came out.

            You can't see the old man in the poem. But I can. Although he must be dead by now, I can still see him, and I can still hear him going on and on about his Khong Guan biscuits.

            How To Read The People In The Poetry

            Over the years, I've met many writers in Singapore, but I spend little time with them. In a year, I attend no more than two or three literary events. Still, at these events, there are always a few writers who talk to me as if they know me very well. I also talk to them, as if I know them very well.

            Actually, we do know each other very well. The reason is that we've read each other's works. Obviously, the details of a writer's personal life do seep into his writing. In fact, if you read, say, Cyril Wong's poetry, you don't just meet Cyril Wong - you also meet his father, mother, sister, boyfriend etc. Cyril will even slice them open and show you the insides of their heads.

            Beyond the biographical details, a writer's works give you a peek into his inner world. If you're a sensitive reader, you can feel the writer's personality. You can sense his mind and soul. You may not be able to describe it with words, but you feel it nonetheless. It's the vibes.

            Gwee Li Sui commented on an earlier post, saying that I am a person of "sentiment and reflection". Actually he is very right. Oddly, many people who do meet me regularly in real life would never know that. They see only the Aggressive Investment Banking Lawyer side of me. But Li Sui, whom I think I've met only once before, was able to pinpoint a deeper side of me, simply by having read a number of my poems.

            David Fedo is an expat working in Singapore, and also a poet. I'm now re-reading his book, Carrots, which was published this year. I like David Fedo. In real life, I've only met him, and his wife Susan, twice. Both of them are warm, kind, honest, sincere people. I pick up the same vibes in David's poems. It's a psychic thing. David is a good man, the kind that eventually goes to heaven, if heaven exists.

            For those reasons, I keep coming back to his book. David feels like an old friend, somebody I'd meet over coffee to talk about old times. It's an odd thing for me to say, because as I had mentioned, I've only met him twice - we have no "old times" to talk about. But that's poetry for you. That's what poetry does.

            I see clearly in David's poetry the advantage of age. The older you are, the more you've lived. The more you've lived, the greater the wealth of personal experiences and memories you can tap, for the purposes of creating poetry. The continual passage of time itself creates new perspectives in the writing. Here's one poem that I like:

                Unknown Poets, Unremembered People

                The shaggy-haired young man from Ohio,
                stanzas dancing in his head,
                and some even on paper -
                dead long ago in Vietnam.
                Years later
                a sister, wondering, sends me his photograph
                and some of his work.
                It is handwritten,
                untidy, a bit unformed -
                quite wonderful.
                I write back, saying inadequately,
                "Thanks for sharing this with me."

                Another poet, a decade ago,
                so prolific in the established journals -
                those short-lined insinuating lyrics,
                so much promise,
                images that might even stamp an age -
                what happened to her?
                Then one day a colleague tells me
                she's been dead for three years -
                a stroke, he thinks, someplace in Virginia.
                The poet disappears, then the poetry.

                Like my cousin,
                not a poet,
                killed thirty years ago
                when his plane lost an engine,
                hit a mountain.
                In my mind I never see Dennis not smiling:
                his special genius was to be happy.
                Now I am of a vastly diminishing number
                who even remember him or the broad smile
                or who know (for example)
                what happened to Weldon Kees,
                who was a poet,
                or who ever think
                of my three talented and unknown uncles,
                all strangely dead early of heart disease.

                The dead and forgotten,
                the living and unknown,
                the stones on an Artic shore,
                have their own lonely histories.
                Of course one might say
                that all histories,
                even for Hart Crane and Anne Sexton
                and the other famous and remembered,
                are lonely and vanishing too.
            Poetry is subjective, of course. But David's style has all the elements that appeal to me. Firstly, the poem is not a trivial one, but tackles a significant, heavyweight theme (life, and death, and the deeply human desire to remember, and be remembered). Next, based on that theme, the poem proceeds to tell a story. The story is simple and moving. The poem finishes, takes a bow and makes a quiet, dignified exit.

            No theatrics, no histrionics, no self-indulgence. No techno-beats or disco lights. No attempt to execute any attention-grabbing "Look, Ma, no hands, I'm so clever" type of literary devices. The poem is honest and heartfelt. It respects its own theme. It remembers, respects and honours all the people and places in it.

            Some people would say, "But what about the craft?". Craft refers to the poet's technical writing skills. When we talk about a poet's craft, we usually talk how inventive and original he is with language, whether he uses innovative images or striking metaphors, and perhaps whether he arranges his line-breaks into interesting shapes etc.

            But there is another kind of craft. David's poem demonstrates it. This aspect of craft is subtle, unobtrusive, largely invisible. Most readers will feel its effects, without ever being able to put a name to it. It is the ability to say a lot, with very few words. David also has the ability to say it so smoothly that the reader swallows the poem, digests it whole, with nary a hiccup. Look at the poem again:

              The shaggy-haired young man from Ohio,
              stanzas dancing in his head,
              and some even on paper -
              dead long ago in Vietnam.
              Years later
              a sister, wondering, sends me his photograph
              and some of his work.
              It is handwritten,
              untidy, a bit unformed -
              quite wonderful.
              I write back, saying inadequately,
              "Thanks for sharing this with me."
            How easily the poem flows. But an inadequate critic would not appreciate this. If you approach the above stanza mechanically, as if you were marking the answer to a 10-year-series exam question, then the stanza looks like a poetic failure. After all, out of 12 lines, arguably only one line possesses a "poetic" attribute - that would be Line 2, with the image of stanzas "dancing" in a person's head. Every other line is just "prose" pretending to be "poetry".

            But to me, all 12 lines are not only poetic, but beautiful. The artistry lies in the way every word, every phrase works to bring out shades of meaning in every other word and phrase. The 12 lines operate as a highly united team. In 56 words, David creates three human beings so real you can almost reach out and touch them. You learn that there was a man, he was young, alive and vibrant with ideas, and then he got killed in a war. Years later, when the sharp edge of grief has long passed, you sense what his sister feels - she is wondering, hoping to learn more about the mystery of the man that her brother was, and she tentatively reaches out to a stranger for possible answers. And David is that stranger. You can feel his thoughts, as he holds the photo and the papers, his final connection to that shaggy-haired young man he once met, so many years ago.

            (All this is achieved, in 56 words! Those of you who are unimpressed should do a little experiment yourself. Try writing a story, in 56 words - see how far you get).

            Reading David's poem gives me the sense of travelling a vast distance. In its entirety, the poem is less than 2 printed pages long. But in that space, David has successfully compressed the life and times not of one person, but several different persons. These people - they lived, and died, and were almost forgotten, and then suddenly the poem, like magic, breathed life into their memory again.

            That's no mean feat. I love this poem, and I love Fedo's book.

            Nov 5, 2009

            "Boo!" Said The Critic

            An NUS student has reviewed my book Two Baby Hands. The review was extremely negative and I think that many people were surprised by it. In response to the review, one reader even wrote:
              "I strongly believe that reviewers are entitled to express their own opinions. Still, to me, this review was really way off. I was very, very surprised by how one-sided it was. In fact, I got the distinct feeling that the reviewer has some personal grudge against Mr Wang. Just my guess."
            (The reviewer has denied this).

            Virtually overnight, a small troop of Singapore writers also appeared on this blog, to find out what's been going on and/or to chip in with their two cents' worth. Actually I am slightly taken aback at how quickly they all popped up (I wonder how many of them might in fact be long-time lurkers here). The writers included Alvin Pang; Gwee Li Sui; Toh Hsien Min; Alfian Saat; Laremy Lee and Teng Qian Xi.

            I was also told that the quality of the review (and presumably the merits of the book) are now being hotly debated on some Facebook group discussion. However, I am not privy to that.

            Since the time the review came out, I have received a number of encouraging, supportive emails from friends. I appreciate this, but also expected it - that's what friends do for each other, right? What did surprise me was that a few people whom I've never met before also made the effort to contact me and share their thoughts. For instance, here's a nice email I received from Tammy Ho, a poetry editor in Hong Kong, relaying a message from one Bob Bradshaw, who lives faraway in California:

              "Dear Gilbert,

              We at Cha read a review of Two Baby Hands at QLRS and felt that it was an unfair analysis. Bob Bradshaw (our former guest editor and regular contributor) has the following to say, for example:

                "I don't recall seeing a more cruel review than Gilbert Koh has received at QLRS. Gilbert Koh is a fine poet. I haven't read the book, but I have enjoyed a number of his poems. I was appalled at the attack. Please pass along my feelings to Mr. Koh. He deserves much, much better! ...."

              Anyway, we enjoy your poetry and we are sure many many others like your work."

            Thanks, Tammy & Bob. You brighten my day. :)

            At the moment, I am still feeling quite annoyed. But oh well, in the end, what's a review? One person's opinion. Life goes on.

            Nov 3, 2009

            New Adventures in Real Estate

            This year the property market was like a movie with a spectacular and improbable plot. However, the story was all real.

            Mrs Wang and I have just sold our HDB apartment. This morning I signed the option papers.

            We really weren't planning to sell at this time. Our new home is still under construction and it won't be ready, for about a year or so.

            How then did we end up selling our HDB apartment? Well, it was literally a case of a stranger coming to our flat and knocking on the front door. He asked, "Are you interested in selling your flat?"

            That was a week ago. He was a property agent. He had a small flock of very interested buyers. They came to view. There were discussions. The offer was good. We sold. And that was that.

            Now I shall have to get busy scouting around the neighbourhood, looking for a place to rent. Renting will cost some money. Then again, with an extra few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, I don't mind. I also feel it's safer to lock in the profit now.

            ST 24 October 2009
            HDB Resale Prices at Record High

            Prices of HDB resale flats in Singapore rose to record highs in the third quarter, according to data released on Friday.

            The latest data from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) showed that the Resale Price Index rose 3.6 per cent in the third quarter over the previous quarter to 145.2 points. This has raised concern among some potential homebuyers, who fear that prices may continue to rise.

            The last time the HDB resale market saw such high transaction volumes was more than four years ago, in the fourth quarter of 2004. Back then, 11,562 changed hands, compared to the 11,649 seen in the third quarter ended September this year.

            ERA Real Estate said the typical quarterly HDB resale volume ranges from 6,000 to 8,000 units at most. Eugene Lim, associate director, ERA Asia Pacific, said: "We have seen the HDB resale volume jump to above 10,000 for second quarter and above 11,600 for the third quarter this year. "

            The third quarter is a very good month for HDB resale. It's likely to taper off partly because cash over valuation, due to increased demand, has increased.

            "HDB homebuyers are a price sensitive lot. So it will probably hit a resistance level. And in that sense we will expect resale volume to taper downwards in the last quarter."

            The Bilingual Policy & Its Victims

            ST Nov 3, 2009
            Bilingual policy was most difficult: MM
            It took 30 years to get method of teaching Mandarin correct, he says
            By Jeremy Au Yong

            INTELLIGENCE does not necessarily translate into a flair for languages.

            That was the lesson Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he learnt in implementing the bilingual policy in schools.

            'Initially, I believed that intelligence was equated to language ability. Later, I found that they are two different attributes - IQ and a facility for languages. My daughter, a neurologist, confirmed this,' he said in an interview carried in Petir, the People's Action Party magazine.

            Asked to pick policies he would have implemented differently, he cited the teaching of bilingualism, especially in English and Mandarin, as the most difficult policy.

            'I did not know how difficult it was for a child from an English-speaking home to learn Mandarin,' he said.

            'If you are speaking English at home and you are taught Mandarin in Primary 1 by Chinese teachers who teach Mandarin as it was taught in the former Chinese schools, by the direct method, using only Mandarin, you will soon lose interest because you do not understand what the teacher is saying.

            'You spend time on extra tuition, and still make little progress. Many were turned off Mandarin for life.'

            In the end, the Government recognised that students with the same ability in other subjects may not be able to cope being in the same second language class. It took 30 years for the issue to be resolved.

            'Eventually, we settled the problem in 2004 by teaching the mother tongue in the module system. Had we done this earlier, we would have had less wastage of students' time and effort, and less heartache for parents,' he said candidly.

            He took 30 years to see that "intelligence does not necessarily translate into a flair for languages". Wow, that is so ... not quick.

            But the biggest problem with the bilingual policy was not the way the Chinese language (or for that matter, the English language) was taught in schools.

            The biggest problem was the government's rigid insistence (that lasted for many years) that a student who wished to progress to the next higher stage of education would have to pass both English and Chinese - entirely regardless of what he wanted to study, at the next stage.

            So for instance, let's say you are outstanding in mathematics. In the A-levels, you score distinctions for your maths and maths-related subjects. You have always scored distinctions for your maths. And you wish to go to university to pursue a maths degree.

            However, you flunked your Chinese paper. Therefore you will not be allowed to study maths in university.

            That was the way it used to be, in the past. The bilingual policy was characterised by a very striking lack of logic.

            Well, on the bright side, the system is more flexible now. Yes, it took the government a few decades to fix it. But better late than never.

            Nov 2, 2009

            Poetry and Politics and PhDs

            Sometimes my poems travel to slightly odd places, and it takes me a while to find out.

            Just discovered that a few years ago, a certain Simon Benjamin Obendorf discussed a poem of mine in his PhD dissertation. Obendorf was then pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy degree, at the University of Melbourne, and is now a lecturer at the University of Lincoln.

            The appearance of my poem in a dissertation wouldn't be that unusual, if it were an English Literature dissertation. However, Dr Obendorf's area of academic interest is actually political science and international relations.

            His 287-page dissertation is entitled Sexing Up The International, and somewhere around page 41, he begins to discuss my poem. The relevant passage is below:
                I had a small part in a
                Big show of a great little nation.
                My uniformed mates and I were
                To march out, swing left,
                Turn twice, and get off the grounds
                In twenty seconds flat.
                Meanwhile the music boomed,
                The lasers splashed,
                And the darkened crowds hit
                A new high of pre-planned,
                Programmed excitement.
                Later at home, my mother replayed
                The video tape five times
                But couldn't tell her tiny toy-
                Soldier son from any of the rest.
                "That one is me," I said,
                Pointing at the screen.
                I couldn't be sure.
                Still, we laughed and clapped
                Our hands like children,
                Knowing that it was not
                Supposed to matter.

              Gilbert Koh's poem, "National Day Parade" depicts the thoughts of a young Singaporean national serviceman regarding his participation, as part of a military unit, in one of Singapore's spectacular independence day parades. These parades are held annually, either at the historically significant Padang (field) near Singapore's colonial City Hall and Supreme Court buildings or at the National Stadium. The presentation of the parades has been identified as a strategy by political elites in Singapore to both craft appropriate national identities and to strengthen popular support for government ideologies and the political status quo. Indeed, the Parade organisers are extremely open about this aspect of the Parade's raison d'etre. On the official National Day parade website for 2004, one feature essayist writes that "there is a need for the rituals of patriotism, so as to galvanise an entire nation into remembering our past, to celebrate the present, and to remind us that the future is yet to be." Commenting on the tendency for the Parade to highlight or refer to key moments in Singapore's history, she goes on to exert that "by writing history in this manner, the idea of nationality is made definitive and official." While commentators have, in recent years, identified a shift in the visible role played by the military in these parades (from one of demonstrating military might through the parading of armoured vehicles and weaponry to one of emphasising the combat skills and professional discipline of military personnel through demonstrations such as skydiving, parachuting and choreographed bayonet drills) the Parade, both in its presentation and its organisation, remains a thoroughly military affair.

              .... Kong and Yeoh have explored the ways in which national identities that are consumed in, and constructed through, the staging of this elaborate national ritual are marked by "an acute awareness of the need to survive in a neighbourhood of regional hostility". This gives rise, they argue, to the "military flavour of the parades, asserting the capabilities of a small island in defence." This aspect of the parade has perhaps been captured best by Devasahayam, who argues that the National Day parade, held annually on 9 August (the date of Singapore's expulsion from the Malaysian Federation in 1965) is a symbolic dialogue with Malaysia in which Singapore, in an overt display of sabre-rattling, demonstrates its military might both to Malaysia and to other regional powers.

              Koh's poem - with its references to the author and his "uniformed mates" marching in the "big show of a great little nation" - captures much of the tenor of these analyses but it is also a deeply personal response to the enforced homogeneity of military and national identities as well as a comment on the ways nationalist propaganda serves the ends of social control in, and for, the modern state. This personal response is informed not only by the author's participation in the conceptions of identity reinforced and celebrated by the parade, but also by a critical personal reflection on those identity formations and the methods used to compel adherence to them. References to "toy soldiers", to the submersion of the self in both the military unit and the nation, and to the crowd reaching new heights of "pre-planned, programmed excitement" suggest a mode of reading Singapore's preoccupations with domestic social control and international vulnerability that begins not with the state, but starts with, and works out from, the individual.

              The fact that these insights can be derived through critical reading of a piece of contemporary Singapore poetry demonstrates the nexus between literature and personal responses to the international. Philip Darby has argued that "many facets of the relations between societies can be related to lived experience" and further that "literature's concentration on the personal can be a corrective to international relations' preoccupations with aggregates, its mechanistic presumptions about international processes and its positivist approach to outcomes." Allied to these opportunities are the benefits that might flow from the application, to real events and to everyday life, of modes of enquiry drawn from textual analysis. Gender analysis comes immediately to the fore, here. Scholars working in postcolonial literary studies have long drawn on literary materials to illustrate the ways in which external and internal exercises of power and hegemony have acted to shape gendered subjectivities within postcolonial polities ....

              ... the parade's significance is not merely due to its position as a state scripted ritual. As a reading of Koh's poem suggests, the parade references idealised, state-endorsed visions of everyday life and gendered subjectivity. Yet it is also a space in which Singaporeans participate in and consume such identities and messages. And it is such a dialogue between the elite and the everyday - marked by processes of resistance, cooption and volunteerism - that acts to shape the nature and contours of Singaporean everyday life. What I am interested in exploring here is how, or to what extent, everyday life might stand as a productive site of analysis for those interested in unpacking, or gaining new perspectives, on the penetration of international issues into Singaporean everyday life, on the ways in which the international concerns of the Singapore state are reflected, consumed and played out both in domestic policies and in everyday settings; and the ways in which the international can be theorised not merely from the familiar analytical standpoints of state and nation but in ways that build out from individuals, subjectivities and the processes of everyday life ...
            I feel somewhat pleased with my little poem, for making it into a political science dissertation. I like crossing walls and borders.

            In fact, it's a little ironic that it takes a political scientist like Obendorf to point out the connection between literature and the real world, at the personal level. Good poetry is all about that connection - it's all about real people, real events, real life. Good poetry has a soul.

            In contrast, I'm often bored by the likes of, you know, some typical young smart-ass undergrad Lit student from NUS, attempting to comment on my works. I shouldn't generalise, but they tend to be oh so literary, oh so clever, and oh so hopelessly trapped within the formal framework of their own academic discipline.

            When they try writing poetry themselves, aaaaack. They are so eager to impress with their "craft" that they cram every line with big words, flowery phrases or some original and entirely ill-fitting metaphor. "See, look at me, I'm so clever" is what they're trying to say with their poetry.

            In the end, their poems feel like a model answer to a 10-year-series math question. Technically correct, occasionally even technically excellent. But also inauthentic, pretentious and quite lacking any genuine insight.

            I shouldn't be mean. Maybe they are just young and immature.

            One For The Scrapbook

            Stephanie Yap is a sub-editor for the Life! section of the Straits Times. She was also one of the 12 writers invited to join the recent Ubin writing retreat.

            Last week she wrote an article in Life! about the experience. I'm posting the article here, as a little souvenir from the trip.
            ST Oct 29, 2009
            Ubin for inspiration
            No TV, no Internet, but plenty of creative energy when writers get together on a five-day island retreat

            By stephanie yap

            On a sweltering Monday afternoon, while the rest of Singapore was cooped up in air-conditioned offices battling food comas, a dozen of us were herded to a quiet offshore island. Among our number on the bumboat bound for Pulau Ubin were winners of the Singapore Literature Prize and other assorted literary awards, prolific authors with double-digit bibliographies, Singapore literary pioneers and one Straits Times journalist.

            We were the guinea pigs of the first Catalyst Creative Writing Residential Retreat, organised by non-profit organisation The Literary Centre in collaboration with the British Council and supported by the National Arts Council. The pilot for what is intended to be a continuing series of writing retreats open to anyone interested, last week's camp was modelled on Britain's renowned Arvon Foundation creative writing courses.

            But where Arvon's courses are held in the majestic Scottish highlands or the bucolic English countryside, this retreat saw us sequestered at a solar-powered Ubin chalet compound, beside a beach strewn with litter thrown up by the busy Johor Straits.

            With no TV, Internet access or - gasp - air-conditioning, for five days we were freed from all distractions so that we could get cracking on the Great Singapore Novel.

            Nudging us on our literary way were daily group writing workshops and personal sessions conducted by our intrepid and patient tutors, British writer Courttia Newland and Singaporean writer Suchen Christine Lim.

            This will seem odd coming from a journalist, but one of the things the workshops taught me is how much you can actually write when facing a deadline.

            During the workshops, conducted in an open-air pondok or hut, we were tasked to write short pieces based on various stimuli, ranging from something as intangible as a childhood memory to the physical prop of an empty chair placed in the middle of the pondok.

            In one memorable exercise, we paired up and took turns walking around blindfolded so that we would be forced to experience our surroundings with our other senses. (We were kind to each other: Newland said that when he does the exercise with kids, they usually end up making the blindfolded ones fight each other.)

            Though what we wrote was ostensibly fiction, naturally some personal details crept into our works, which is why we, the self-proclaimed Ubin 12, have this pledge: What happens on Ubin stays on Ubin.

            In between our daily activities of writing, swatting mosquitoes and making illegal phone calls home, we were also expected to take turns cooking for the group.

            You have not supped unless you have tasted instant noodles made by three poets and a novelist. My guess is that none of them will be coming out with a cookbook anytime soon.
            Heheh, I was one of the three poets. To be fair, we were not cooking mere instant noodles. We were attempting to do mee goreng. It was disastrous.
            And during the long afternoons, the scorching sun having dried up what little creative juices we had to begin with, we would sneak out of the compound to explore the rest of the island.

            Salvation from each other's cooking came from the nearby village and its motley assortment of restaurants, including a seller of ice-cold Thai coconuts and a former opium den-turned-coffee shop.

            The more adventurous among us even rented bicycles and ventured into the jungle, which holds enough histories, secrets and wild boar to fill several epic novels.

            Once, three of us stumbled upon a Taoist shrine devoted to a German girl who died after World War I, when she fell into a quarry while fleeing the British soldiers who wanted to imprison her family.

            Now a deity with the power to bestow 4-D numbers on her loyal worshippers, she is represented by a blonde Barbie doll in a glass case, who smiles beatifically amid offerings of pressed powder, face creams and lipsticks.

            Another day, a group of us checked out Chek Jawa, one of Singapore's last wetlands. As planes from all over the world flew overhead on their descent into Changi Airport, we cast our eyes downwards and spotted jellyfish, mudskippers and fiddler crabs with monstrously giant claws which they wave to attract females and intimidate rivals.

            But in truth, we did not even have to venture far from our beds to encounter wildlife. Back at the chalets, the compound was ruled by a pack of stray dogs, led by an alpha male and his favourite companion, a female who managed to coax chunks of our dinner from our plates, thanks to her heart-meltingly liquid eyes.

            But it is the nights around the barbecue pit that I remember most fondly. With the sun down and a breeze coming in from the sea, we would stuff ourselves with roasted meat and alcohol, then sit around and read each other our stories.

            In Singapore, few writers are full-time wordsmiths, most having to hold day jobs to make a living. Among us on the island were practitioners in the fields of law, finance, education, arts management and the media.

            Our varied experiences came to play in our stories, which featured student riots, school bullies, flashers, courtroom dramas, gerontophiles, army days, magic stones and tigers roaming HDB corridors.

            Some works were in a raw state, others already highly polished. But in the diversity of offerings, it was clear how much the Singapore literary scene has to offer, if only writers are given the time and opportunity to write.

            At the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival, alongside a host of international and regional stars, I look forward to home-grown literature being celebrated in symposiums, readings and book launches.

            But I am also grateful for programmes such as Catalyst, which recognise that before audiences can be grown, writers must be nurtured. And there is no better way to help them develop their craft than by giving them some space, time and good company.


            Some of the participating writers will talk about their experiences at the retreat in The Creative Writing Experience at The Arts House, The Hall, on Saturday at 6pm. Admission is free.
            I did go to the Arts House last Saturday evening, to do the talk, together with the other writers. A very decent-sized, interested crowd showed up and asked many questions. In fact we ran out of chairs.