Poetry and art writing in Singapore

5 Singapore poems not to quote out of context

By Nabilah Said
(2,500 words, 7-minute read)

In 1968, Lee Kuan Yew uttered the words “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford” to a roomful of University of Singapore students. There have been some quibbling over, even mythologising of, what he may have meant. To Prof Koh Tai Ann, then the young student whom he was responding to[1], and to many others since, it was a proclamation – that Singaporeans needed to focus their efforts on more pressing matters, and more practical subjects. Nevermind poetry. 

Living in a different time as we do now, it might appear that Singaporeans today have more time for poetry. Or do we? There is a continuing concern that fewer students are taking Literature in school[2] and major bookstores are closing at an alarming rate.

But dedicated efforts on the Singapore literature, or SingLit, front are starting to bear fruit. Our local and independent publishers are putting out more SingLit books, and there are both private and public initiatives that promote local writing. Every April we have the Singapore Poetry Writing Month, centred on a Facebook Page with 6,200 members and a newly launched online journal. Poetry appreciation takes place offline as well – there have been readings on the MRT and buses, and even an upcoming literary body slam. And Pooja Nansi, Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador, is the new director of what promises to be a slightly cheeky and exciting Singapore Writers Festival opening next month.

Yet, a recent incident might be another cause for concern. On Oct 7, Singapore minister Ong Ye Kung quoted lines from Alfian Sa’at’s 1998 poem, “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, in a Parliamentary speech made in response to a furore over a cancelled course on dissent that Alfian was meant to deliver at Yale-NUS. 

Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all,

Do not raise your voice against me,

I am not afraid of your anthem…

…how can you call yourself a country,

you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums ten minutes drive from the MRT?

(Read the poem in full here)

With regard to the lines quoted, he suggested that the Singaporean playwright and poet “continues this attitude consistently in his activism”. Such a conclusion leaves little room for a consideration of nuance, subjectivity, and, more to the point of studying Literature itself, of empathy, which are key aspects of analysing and critiquing the arts. Many in defence of Alfian later posted the full poem on Facebook in solidarity. If anything, reading the poem in its entirety would help give others a better understanding of the writer’s intentions, no matter where their opinions lie on the matter. Alfian wrote the poem at age 21; one would easily hear something similar being uttered (perhaps less poetically) by scores of middle-aged taxi drivers in Singapore today – as far away from the ‘liberal echo chamber’ as you can get. 

The National Library Board says that more Singaporeans are reading[3], but in the era of misinformation and deepfakes, how we are reading becomes an equally important part of the conversation. Are we working harder to discern truth and meaning from perception and opinion? 

While the issue is rarely black and white, poetry, in particular, allows room for multiple meanings to be read from a single word. As context becomes particularly important, quoting someone out of context can create a misleading perception of the writer or speaker. Such myths, if perpetuated, can have dangerous consequences – not least in the form of another poetry anthology.  

As poetry continues to arrest our imaginations, here are five instances of poems about Singapore that we should not quote out of context: 




labourers demonstrating for justice

bus drivers

screaming with banners in their hands

in the campaign song of bahasa kebangsaan [4]


Who write one? Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (translated from Malay by Azizah Malik and Rasiah Halil), Cultural Medallion award winner in 2013 and three-time winner of Singapore Literature Prize

From where? Di kota ini (In this city) published in The Poetry of Singapore (1985)

What it can be manipulated to mean: Make like the Hong Kong people and take to the streets! 

Why cannot quote out of context? A closer reading suggests that the persona in the poem is reflecting on the past in quite a factual, albeit romantic, fashion (“remembering yesterdays”), and expressing a sense of unease about his current state.


Full version:

I am too tiny here
although I’ve grown up
all memories stay
at the family’s home
with a Chinese neighbour
burning joss sticks
every evening
children parading lanterns
and ladies in cheongsams

Now I am still so very young
in the bleakness of nostalgia
remembering yesterdays
labourers demonstrating for justice
bus drivers
screaming with banners in their hands
in the campaign song of bahasa kebangsaan

Today I’m still defining
living as trash
on the ocean’s surface
when it’s pay day
enjoying myself in the night club
flirting with prostitutes
inhaling the polluted air
of factories and cigarettes

Walking along this path
makes me seek the certainty
of our insignificance
in this cosmopolitan city
where there are no melodies of dondang sayang
no more boisterous shouts
honouring bahasa kebangsaan





jesus also like government what. he where got care whether you blind or not, house got light or not. he just hang up there all day for people to see, put money in box, give him so many candles for nothing.


Who write one? Alvin Pang, winner of Singapore’s Young Artist of the Year for Literature in 2005 and Singapore Youth Award for Arts and Culture in 2007

From where? Candles taken from the book When the Barbarians Arrive (2012)

What it can be manipulated to mean: Insensitive to other religions! The writing promotes the tyranny of lower case letters against the upper case letters! 

Why cannot quote out of context? Rather than religiously impertinent, the poem is heartwarming and lighthearted. The textures of Singlish sounds immediately familiar and its two characters come across as refreshingly honest, just like a well-meaning relative might be. 


Full version:


oi, ah pa know you take candle from the church again, you going to get it.

nevermind i bring them back when you study finish. you dont say he dont know. so dark how to read, how to study? 

got moon tonight can see a bit. ah leong house got light, i use mirror borrow a bit of light. good enough. candle you bring back. i dont want wait get scolding because of you.

i bring all the way home you ask me to bring back for what? anyway tonight good friday church got so many candles they where got notice nine less? 

notice dont notice also wrong. you bring them back.

dont want. 

go now. late already, wait ah pa come home you die.

dont want. wait the sisters see me bring back so many candles they know i took them. 

just say you give them to baby jesus lor.

so stupid, baby jesus is christmas lah. good friday is dead jesus! 

anything lah. i not go church one how i know? you just bring them back there ok? ah pa always say people must be honest. cannot steal, cannot cheat, cannot lie.

ah pa say that but he also lie what. last week health inspector come he also lie, say our house very clean. actually he hide two dead cockroach under one shoe. 

that was different. that was government. lie to government dont count because they dont care whether you good or bad, they just want money for licence. no license we die they where got care.

jesus also like government what. he where got  care whether you blind or not, house got light or not. he just hang up there all day for people to see, put money in box, give him so many candles for nothing. he also not taking exam, i borrow some candles to study why cannot. 

aiya up to you lah. say so much also no use. you better go study before ah pa come home.

say so much i hungry already. i go downstairs buy mee from Fat Girl, you want?  

dont want, i full. ah ma see you eat some more she scold you. eat and eat, so stubborn and fat like pig. wait you dont study fail exam then you know. you so fat and stubborn next time can do what?

i can be driver like ah pa, or sell meat like ah leong or gangster like ah soon. then government come to ask for money i call my gang beat them up. anyone bully you i beat them up.   

xiao! you become gangster get injured how? head kena parang chop one big hole how? 

then you better quick study become doctor lah! then if i need hospital you can cure me. then ah por cough also can cure. also make money so got light in the house. then no need borrow candle from jesus anymore! 





and perhaps, fence‐sitting neighbour,  

I claim citizenship in your recognition  

of our kind.


Who write one? Dr Anne Lee Tzu Peng, winner of Cultural Medallion award for Singapore literature in 1985 and S.E.A. Write Award in 1985 and 1987

From where? My Country and My People (1967), anthologised in multiple publications   

What it can be manipulated to mean: Want to migrate to neighbouring country is it? 

Why cannot quote out of context? Rather than the kind across the Causeway, it appears that the persona in the poem is appealing for the kinship of those closer to her, her fellow countrymen, as they navigate their differences and what home means for all of them. Dr Lee herself described the poem as being about “what patriotism means, my fears, my contributions”. The poem was banned from radio airplay in the 1970s, but continues to find resonance today – it is also the theme for next year’s M1 Fringe festival. 


Full version:

My country and my people
are neither here nor there, nor
in the comfort of my preferences,
if I could even choose.
At any rate, to fancy is to cheat;
and, worse than being alien or
subversive without cause,
is being a patriot of the will.

I came in the boom of babies, not guns,
a ‘daughter of a better age’;
I held a pencil in a school
while the ‘age’ was quelling riots
in the street, or cutting down
those foreign ‘devils’,
(whose books I was being taught to read).
Thus privileged I entered early
the Lion City’s jaws.
But they sent me back as fast
to my shy, forbearing family.

So I stayed in my parents’ house
and had only household cares.
The city remained a distant way,
but I had no land to till;
only a duck that would not lay,
and a runt of a papaya tree
which also turned out to be male.

Then I learnt to drive instead
and praise the highways till
I saw them chop the great trees down,
and plant the little ones;
impound the hungry buffalo
(the big ones and the little ones)
because the cars could not be curbed.
Nor could the population.
They built milli‐mini‐flats
for a multi‐mini‐society.
The chiselled profile of the sky
took on a lofty attitude,
but modestly, at any rate,
it made the tourist feel ‘at home’.

My country and my people
I never understood.
I grew up in China’s mighty shadow,
with my gentle, brown‐skinned neighbours;
but I keep diaries in English.
I sought to grow
in humanity’s rich soil,
and started digging on the banks, then saw
life carrying my friends downstream.

Yet, careful tending of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom;
and perhaps, fence‐sitting neighbour,
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind.
My people, and my country,
are you, and you my home.





Generous, arty type also can do,

so long as Harvard, Yale-NUS trained.

Do you live in Singapore? Is it you?


Who write one? Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who has won awards such as the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Multiethnic Literatures of the United States Lifetime Achievement Award 

From where? Do you live in Singapore?, published in Do You Live In? (2015)

What it can be manipulated to mean: Why, arty types in LASALLE, NAFA, SOTA not good enough is it? Why Yale-NUS so special one? 

Why cannot quote out of context? If you only read these lines, you miss out on the joke that the persona in the poem (written in the villanelle form) is making – that these are ludicrous requirements their mother would want for their potential partner. Oftentimes, a poem adopts the voice of the persona who may be undermined or even mocked throughout the course of the poem because they may be saying something absurd or laughable. The voice of the persona is thus not the voice of the poet, and in fact, sometimes the opposite.  


Full version:


(With thanks to Wendy Cope)

Can someone make my mother’s wish come true?
Transnational CEO with private plane,
do you live in Singapore? Is it you?

Rich connected family, not kiasu,
successful lawyer, smartly dressed and sane.
Can someone make my mother’s wish come true?

Generous, arty type also can do,
so long as Harvard, Yale-NUS trained.
Do you live in Singapore? Is it you?

Better if you have freehold bungalow:
Thomson, Holland Village, villa in Spain.
Can someone make my mother’s wish come true?

President’s Scholar with high EQ too,
sensitive, sexy dancer with a brain,
do you live in Singapore? Is it you?

Only citizens need apply. We’ve few
other requirements: preference Christian.
Can someone make my mother’s wish come true?
Do you live in Singapore? Is it you?





Depart white man.


Who write one? Edwin Thumboo, literary pioneer and winner of multiple awards including the first Cultural Medallion in 1979, the inaugural S.E.A. Write Award in 1979 and the Public Service Star in 1981. 

From where? May 1954, published in Ulysses by the Merlion (1979)

What it can be manipulated to mean: Oi, it’s Bicentennial year, how can we be anti-colonial?

Why cannot quote out of context? The poem details the kind of discomfort the persona has with his colonial master, feelings he grapples with throughout the poem, which are complex enough for him to end with the lines “We may still be friends, / Even love you… from a distance”. Thumboo had written it during a time in which he and some others had been on trial for sedition, but the poem continues to be relevant today, as former colonies try to decolonise their histories. 


Full version:


We do but merely ask,
No more, no less, this much:
That you white man,
Boasting of many parts,
Some talk of Alexander, some of Hercules.
Some broken not long ago
By little yellow soldiers
Out of the Rising Sun…
We ask you see
The bitter, curving tide of history,
See well enough, relinquish,
Restore this place, this sun
To us… and the waiting generations.

Depart white man.

Your minions riot among
Our young in Penang Road
Their officers, un-Britannic,
Full of service, look
Angry and short of breath.

You whored on milk and honey
Tried our spirit, spent our muscle,
Extracted from our earth;
Gave yourselves superior ways
At our expense, in our midst.

You knew when to come;
Surely know when to go.

Do not ignore, dismiss,
Pretending we are foolish;
Harbour contempt in eloquence.
We know your language.

My father felt his master’s voice,
Obeyed, but hid his grievous, wounded self.
I have learnt:
There is an Asian tide
That sings such power
Into my dreaming side:
My father’s anger turns my cause.

Depart Tom, Dick and Harry.
Gently, with ceremony;
We may still be friends,
Even love you… from a distance.



Selected references:

[1] Koh Tai Ann, “The Singapore Experience: Cultural Development in the Global Village”, in Southeast Asian Affairs, 1980, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, p.303.

[2] Pearl Lee, “Dearth of Literature Students raises concern”, 24 August 2015, AsiaOne

[3] National Library Board, NLB 2018 National Reading Habits Study on Adults, pdf available here

[4] Bahasa Kebangsaan (Malay): National Language

Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.

About the author(s)

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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