Zakir Photo
Zakir Hossain. Image credit: Left Brain Right Brain.

The Power of a Poem

Zakir Hossain, a celebrated poet and migrant worker in Singapore, wrote a poem, which sparked a response from the state. Diana Rahim reflects on the power of words, wielded to question, and words wielded to control.
We write prose
we write poetry
do not think we are spared
From either of their outcomes

Literature’s Purpose, Said Zahari

In June 22, poet Zakir Hossain wrote on Facebook about the unexpected end to his 19 years in Singapore after his work permit was denied renewal due to an “adverse record with a government agency”. Tormented and wondering what exactly this “adverse record” is, he seeks clarification from the Police Cantonment Complex and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, both telling him that this “adverse record” does not exist in the system, and that this confusion had been an “administrative error”. Zakir is then told the real reason his work permit was not renewed was because he was deemed “ineligible”. This clarified little, and he now had the new agony of wondering what made him ineligible for a work permit, since he could not think of anything he had done wrong. You can read Zakir’s post about the non-renewal of his work permit, the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) response, and Zakir’s response to MOM’s statement in your own time. Today, I am not looking at the statements per se, nor to argue about the facts, since to do so would be to speak in the pedantic terms this issue has been pushed into. Instead, I want to talk about poetry.

In the Ministry of Manpower’s statement responding to Zakir’s post about the non-renewal of his permit, they reference a poem he published on Facebook on 16 October 2021. It is a pained, direct and powerful poem from the very opening line:

   Minister of Manpower Tan See Leng
   Please do not call us “your brothers”

Several contentions were raised by MOM regarding the poem, one of which was the line:

   If we are truly your brothers why do you send in armoured vehicles to surround   our work camps?

This, MOM took to be a “false characterisation” as, “There were no soldiers, let alone armoured vehicles, around,”. However, an article by Channel News Asia published on 14 October 2021 reports that there were four Special Operations Commands vehicles and several armoured police vehicles parked outside the Westlite Jalan Tukang dormitory compound, along with riot police deployed to respond to a call for “assistance”. MOM’s statement also took issue with Zakir’s poem signing off with “workers of Westlite Tukang”, even though “he himself had never lived there” as though it is unprecedented for poets and writers to explore and represent the experience of others, what more a class of people to whom one belongs to and shares an experience and struggle with. But of course, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not here to debate the bare facts, since to do so is to debate within a framework in which poetry does not belong.  Cycles of statements have not, and will not bring us no closer to better understanding the purpose or power of a poem.

It feels like something out of an absurdist fiction to read MOM’s statement, and their treatment of the poem. A poem must have been a strange creature for those in power to consider; an alien, soft, and transcendent thing that spills through the steel bars of the language of the state, a language most at home in forms such as laws, regulations, press releases, announcements, ministerial speeches and statements.

The state is an unimaginative, imagined entity, and its language comes closest to the opposite of poetry, speaking as it does with the definitive language of bureaucracy. That strange babble that defines hard lines on borders and laws: what constitutes a marriage, what is defined as a public gathering, the exact weight of cannabis at which death becomes the price, the percentage of minorities who can purchase apartments in a public housing block and a myriad of other things, some of which seem absurd to be subjected to definition and regulation.

Poetry does not live there, in that impoverished, sad space where language is merely functional for the purposes of the state. Perhaps it is for this reason that statements from the state never call Zakir’s poem a poem at all, but a “Facebook post”, which is true in the same way that you can call a laptop a metal object—the barest of description, the thinnest statement of fact to render it so vague that it is undeniably imprecise.

Yes, here is the contradiction: a poem is held to a standard of absolute precision that MOM’s statement itself does not itself seem to abide by, a statement, one must add, that intended to relay what they view as the correct facts. How mutable and forgiving the borders of language can be when required. How we describe, name (or un-name) is never just a matter of description. In the hands of the powerful, it can be an exercise in control.

After all, Zakir’s poem in itself resists against workers being called “brothers” when their treatment do not reflect that familial endearment in the slightest. Removing Zakir’s poem from its true name, nature and context led it to be subjected to the kind of interpretation only reserved for factual statements; an inane literalist reaction that leads the poem to be deemed “misleading, false or deliberately provocative”.

Zakir is a poet, and if you are a writer of any kind in Singapore, what has happened to him should concern you, as it raises serious questions about the scalpel of brute fact-checking and literalist (mis)interpretation that was set to Zakir’s poem. Can it also be set on any piece of literature? Are we to be content with our literature being treated this way? We have seen a version of this when Alfian Sa’at’s “Singapore you are not my country” was mentioned in parliament by Ong Ye Kung to question Alfian’s loyalty to Singapore. Interestingly, when Alfian Sa’at’s dissent module was dropped by the now defunct Yale-NUS, “administrative errors” was also cited, a similarity I could not help noticing. Alfian Sa’at’s “activism” was also disparagingly raised alongside the mention of his poem, just like Zakir. Of course, in mentioning this I’m not saying that their situations are exactly similar, and they are undoubtedly two very different men with different circumstances, stories, position, citizenship, and poetic styles. The similarity I see is in the unimaginative, impoverished treatment they and their poems received.

Of course, there’s another thing in this whole issue that can harden and yet shift and become porous when needed; a thing that is at the heart of what had brought Zakir to Singapore 19 years ago and sent him home before he was ready to leave. What has happened to Zakir is in part the outcome of how borders in a neoliberal country like Singapore can cruelly solidify and permissibly soften according to who and what you are: porous when it comes to billionaires, corporations and oil giants polluting the earth, but far more solid and unforgiving when it comes to Rohingya refugees, workers seeking a better life and supposedly “activist” migrant labourers. Zakir was welcome when he was part of the wave of migrant labour that would work on important projects such as Jewel Changi Singapore and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), which the state is proud to showcase, but once he spoke up about the basic rights that migrant workers should have, once he expressed in a poem his distress and anger, he is branded as an “activist”. It must be said that in his response to MOM, Zakir took issue with being referred to as an activist, writing in his reply “It saddens me that MOM saw my efforts to speak up about migrant workers’ issues, and to take part in community initiatives, literary art festivals and workshops, as “activism”. To be labelled as an activist in Singapore is incredibly charged, considering the extremely low tolerance the state appears to have for challenges and criticisms to its practices, actions, laws and policies. One would think that a migrant worker expressing distress and anger is perfectly normal considering what he and other workers in dormitories have had to experience, but it seems migrant workers are only appreciated and celebrated when they quietly endure the strenuous labour and the constraints imposed on them. The moment the worker asserts their basic rights, the narrative changes from one of mutual benefit and fraternity, “brothers”, to outrage at the lack of ‘gratitude’ these workers display and steps are taken to keep them in check.

For all the splitting of hairs, I can’t help but wonder what threat Zakir’s poem  posed, exactly.

The statement claims that the poem could have “incited migrant workers” and “inflamed their emotions and possibly caused incidents of public disorder,”.  Yet what “public disorder” exactly has happened with the sharing of his poem on his own Facebook page? Does a poem hold more of a threat than armoured vehicles, and armed riot police? It seems that the memories of Singaporeans are short. It should never be forgotten that just two years ago, it was reported in BBC that “out of Singapore’s 58,341 total positive PCR tests to date, 93% have been among that migrant worker community”, that they experienced a spate of suicides due to the mental anguish of being confined to suffocating dormitories, and are still subjected to different restrictions on movement than Singaporeans. Is it truly a poem that has the potential to inflame workers, and not the accumulation of these indignities and suffering? After all, along with the many things that MOM does not dispute in Zakir’s poem, such as the rotting food, that infected workers were not isolated, and that some slept on the floor of corridors, is the fact that the workers are not their brothers.

What is the power of a poem? With Zakir’s poem, it is the power to tremble the powerful.

About the author(s)

Diana Rahim is an editor, writer and sometimes visual artist whose work currently explores the politics of public space and the experience of the environment. She dreams of autonomy, and kinder, more generative decentralised futures.

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