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The Singapore Literature Prize is the top literary award in the country. The 2020 shortlist has just been announced and the category of poetry in English rightly includes the debuts of two bright young stars who have dared to craft highly experimental and yet totally absorbing books. Our SP Blog reviewer concludes that "In parsetreeforestfire Hamid Roslan has constructed an ingenious collection out of a melange of Singaporean languages." In a separate review of Marylyn Tan's Gaze Back, its reviewer enthuses that "This is a poetic collection told from the voice of the goat, from the eye on that spit, that has already been in the flames and now is going to de-code that experience for you."

All the stranger then that the shortlist also includes the latest tired poetic offerings of Singapore's unofficial "poet laureate." Padded out by what the publisher calls "some evergreens of his works," A Gathering of Themes by Edwin Thumboo repeats the same worn tropes that have deservedly been mocked as Thumbooism. What are they? "Double Helix by the Promenade," one of the 'new' poems, collects them as a vacuum cleaner collects dust into a brick. Addressing a bridge shaped like the double helix of a DNA molecule, the poem could have held up the complex constitution of Singapore for critical examination. Instead, it collapses into an approved, and approving, narrative of aspirational migration, ignoring (dismissing?) the original inhabitants of this land, which the colonial settlers, arriving on the tailcoats of the British, have marginalized to this day. There is also no reckoning with the consequences of Singapore's own neocolonialist policies, a heavy irony since the poem purports to meditate on "a shore reclaimed" with imported sand, the importation of which has wrecked the ecosystems and livelihoods of  farming and fishing communities in the Southeast Asian region. Instead, the poem naturalizes such exploitation as "skies/ Unfold our destiny," blithely complacent in believing that "clouds bring benedictions/ For us, for all," and not, in actual fact, the washing away of Cambodian mangrove forests undermined by sand dredging.

The poem does not have to agree with my political interpretation of Singapore's history; it fails even on its own terms. Aspirational migration can only be made exciting in a poem if it meets with tremendous odds. But these odds are described in Thumboo's poem in the most mundane language. The poem even fails to pay tribute to the lives and sacrifices of economic migrants and refugees. Its main intent is to flatter and exhort the wealthy descendants of immigrants to "untie possibilities," and this it does by resorting to such officialese as "A City in a Garden" (a Parks Board's slogan) and "Hands of the Nation." In grandiose language it tries to tie Singapore's history of migration to the wanderings of the whole human race, but the tie is given in reductive and chauvinistic terms. Can the double-helix bridge, so selfie-friendly, really carry "the sum of human history" without any strain? Overburdened with significance, the poem collapses from the start.

It has not always been so. Edwin Thumboo is Singapore's own William Wordsworth, radical in his youth, irrelevant in old age. His story is a story of loss to Singapore and Singapore poetry. One has only to read his early collection Gods Can Die (1977), in particular, its title poem, which is so attuned to the nuances of politics and language, to mourn the fall to the sycophantic and self-serving depths of a poem such as "A Great Lady," an elegy to the late wife of the first Prime Minister and mother of the present one. Belonging to a racial minority in Singapore, Thumboo has been embraced by the establishment to prop up a certain narrative about multiculturalism. Where was his voice when Opposition electoral candidate Raeesah Khan was falsely accused by the governing party of stirring up racial hatred for criticizing the racist status quo? We who belong to any kind of minority must remain wary of the temptations proffered by Thumbooesque assimilation. The elections just concluded had focused, not surprisingly, on the good of Singapore. We who are writers have a duty to ask, what is Singapore good for?

Jee Leong Koh
July 23, 2020


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