A Luxury We Cannot Afford

There is a strong feeling in Singapore that the country is nearing the end of an era and about to embark on the next, as the political leaders of its independence go the way of all flesh, as the country gears up to celebrate its 50th birthday this year. So it is timely that an anthology of poetry should be compiled that reflects on the Leader of Singapore’s transformation from British colony to First World nation. Under the editorship of poets Christine Chia and Joshua Ip, 56 of Singapore’s finest poets contribute their take on who the anthology will only call the Man. Anyone with the least acquaintance with Singaporean politics will know who the Man is; it is an indication of his power–and the style of his politics, his critics may charge–that he remains unnamed but it is also an indication that the Man is no ordinary man, but a potent Symbol. Poet and critic Gwee Li Sui explains further in his percipient foreword to the anthology A Luxury We Cannot Afford, published by Math Paper Press. SP is pleased to bring you Gwee’s introduction to a literary and political milestone.

The anthology will hold its New York launch on Saturday, January 10, 2015, 7 – 9 pm, as part of the Second Saturdays Reading Series. Please email Jee Leong Koh at jeeleong.koh@gmail.com for details.


Foreword: No Man but One is an Island
By Gwee Li Sui

A man’s history is the story of a country, and a country’s history is the story of a man. This pair of truths forms an Ouroboros, a magic circle within which many Singaporeans understand their development from a colonised people to First-World citizens. The spell, to be sure, is one they are happy to live under. It neatly explains Singapore’s existence and place in the world the way a creation myth explains the existence and place of everything. How The Man was like before he became The Man fascinates less. The story officially takes off when he and a people met on the political stage, and the relationship has since played out like romance.

The Man is many things, and a lot of collective good can be attributed to him. For the bulk of his adult life, he has been the face of Singapore to the world and the face of Singaporeans to themselves. This face shows intelligence, shrewdness, resolve, stoicism, and a sternness hiding hurt. Its backstory is heard a million times if one has grown up on the island. It tells of how a small, diverse population threatened by racial strife and communism, with no hinterland or natural resources, with looming neighbours, a bare infrastructure, and a young economy, became an international force to be reckoned with. This story has few variations.

Where others have been pioneers, The Man has engineered a change that made pioneering itself meaningful. As this symbol of symbols, he answers for everything. He was, for a long stretch, a Mosaic figure, a people’s discipliner who gave himself to delivering the Land of Milk and Honey he had promised. On this journey, he tamed the untamable in natural society: discourse, information, continuity, opposition, poverty, and population. His leadership came with a rare gift in oratory, and his half-warm, half-cruel candidness brought him the early wisdom of age and the wit of youth in later years. Today, The Man is a global sage, and his opinions are the only credible soft power Singapore exports to the world.

This last addition to an ample reputation is secured by concrete and yet vulnerable achievements. Before a doubting world, The Man has created not just an economic miracle but also a geopolitical friend to anyone committed to mutual prosperity. His foreign policy was seemingly without the burden of ideology. Thus, under him, glowing only with mercantile spontaneity, Singapore has played the modern Janus, looking East-like to the West and West-like to the East. The mind still boggles over how the island’s skyscrapers and endless rejuvenation exist simply to serve bread-and-butter issues. In a world affected by the Cold War, this has led to different names in different mouths: utilitarianism, soft authoritarianism, communitarianism, Neo-Confucianism, and so on.

As much as The Man is many things, he is also not a lot of things. He is clearly not an idealist. He knows what he does not want more than what he wants, and a country was governed in this manner. He did not wish for a colonial mindset to cripple national self-will and so, in a slew of capacities, he challenged assumed cultural superiority. He did not want his people poor and internationally impotent, having no illusion about the leverage of wealth in global politics. He could not tolerate false praise or false criticism, preferring unadorned facts to clever opinions. To instil a potentially dull sense of rightness, he allowed national campaigns to inspire and lawsuits to dissuade. The country he built continues to be limited not by its myriad aspirations but by its shall-nots and would-nots, whether known or unknown.

Lacking abstract ideals, The Man is not sentimental. His Singapore is quick to throw out or cut down what it has – with no hint of regret – to embrace what it desires. Few statues were erected during his time in power as if to show individuals as incidental and greatness transient. The state alone must be the spectacle. Recent critics may compare The Man to Ozymandias, but this is not fair, seeing how the spirit of The Man belittles such ways of aggrandisement. Indeed, lacking sentimentality, The Man has no interest in culture or wish to be a Renaissance Man. While he has become a maker of many books of late, he himself was not sharpened on books. He is not known to cite writers although his own words are often as anecdotal as a sensitive writer’s. To him, novels are mere bedside reads and poetry a luxury ill-suited to a hard people.

Yet, in a wonderful irony, poetry has remained one of the most resilient and well-loved art forms in Singapore. Poetry has been a part of the country’s life for as long as The Man, appearing like a parallel character, his doppelgänger. Given this proximity, in view of how The Man is a colossus in a nation whose literature tends to be socio-realistic, one would expect him to be a major feature in verse. This is not the case. Despite obsessing over and wooing the same love, The Man and poetry hardly meet. The dominant image in Singaporean verse is rather the Merlion, a gimmicky symbol of the national will. So common is the Merlion across languages and generations of writing that we have come to speak of its depiction as obligatory for aspiring poets. Critically, it is not presumptuous to say that all Merlion poems are ways of writing about The Man and avoiding his mention. In all of them is an image of the nation that is an image of him.

What the Merlion poems show is a range of attitudes from immense pride, adoration, and gratitude to doubt, displeasure, and sadness. In this anthology compiled by poets Christine Chia and Joshua Ip, we can now observe the same manifold and even conflicting attitudes towards The Man. The editors of A Luxury We Cannot Afford have brought together a clear emotional spectrum from the awe and respect of enthusiasts and cheekiness of grandchildren to the implicit fear of inquirers and the rejection of cynics. All these are further expressed in both direct and oblique ways – as if one can always afford more obliqueness with him. The overall sense is true to the historical moment in which the poets stand. The admiration is not sycophantic, and the criticism is not mean-spirited. We as readers must rise above our own impressions and realise that a truly complex personage can never be pinned down by a single portrait.

A Luxury We Cannot Afford is an important celebration of The Man through the powerful feelings he arouses. Credit must be given to Chia and Ip for their inventiveness, audacity, and farsightedness in drawing such a volume out of the shadow of a missing precedent in English. I must also thank them for believing me to be without favours to gain or grievance to air and thus objective enough to write a creative foreword few would have the folly to attempt. Yet, this anthology is as much a social document as it is artistic pleasure, and my curiosity as both a poet and a critic has been piqued. I am convinced that lovers of writing will be relieved to find poetry’s moral responsibility to this pillar of Singaporean identity finally met. We have now poetic voices reflecting at the crucial tail end of an era, just before they can rethink how they feel against what happens next. This is poetry at the edge of a personality storm, and it electrifies.


Reprinted with the permissions of the author, publisher and editors, this foreword appears in A Luxury We Cannot Afford, edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip (Math Paper Press, 2014).


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Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. His works of verse include Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998) and One Thousand and One Nights (2014). He also wrote Singapore’s first full-length graphic novel in English, Myth of the Stone (1993), which appeared in a special twentieth-anniversary edition last year. A familiar name in Singapore’s literary scene, Gwee has written on a range of cultural subjects too. He edited Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009), Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010), and Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011) and wrote FEAR NO POETRY!: An Essential Guide to Close Reading (2014).


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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