Toa Payoh Central is a quintessential microcosm of life in Singapore’s HDB heartland. It is a melange of commercial enterprises, peopled by older folk as well as a slew of younger people who work in the HDB Hub that links to the MRT station and the bus interchange and becomes an all encompassing multi-level strip mall.
These are common moments; pauses to buy 4D, to check messages, to while away work hours.
Starbucks is contemplated by a small group of statues of uncertain provenance. Security cameras exchange safety for privacy.
Sharp corners of buildings jut out, trying to add a touch of post-2010 into the landscape.
A row of spiral staircases are surprising spectators in a nondescript car-park.
Courts rises out of the shimmering afternoon heat, a bastion of A/C and relevant home appliances.
Older folk pause in the middle of their perambulations, stopping to think and dream, to remember what no one else sees.
Photographed with the Fuji X-T2 and Meike 28/f2.8.
The new Singapore Tourism Board video (above) is all about hip people in pretty places. The average tourist will never see any of these people. And if they do go to these locations they certainly will not get these perspectives.
The feel is gritty, the soundtrack grooves to the refrain ‘this is the place’ and builds an anticipation to be blown away by the unseen. The sparse spoken word voice-over hints at a country of edgy, defiant possibilities.
The reality is that these human possibilities are colorfully engineered constructs of ideals. The entire video is a freeze frame homage to the mise en scene of social media. It’s guaranteed to get a lot of likes. And hopefully some package tours.
Yes, we have to sell Singapore. And perhaps it is true, Orchard Road is no longer current and the theme park has lost its thrill. But there are other things to feature beyond this slick selection of experiential moments that seem to comprise the passion of this country.
Passion also means suffering, and that word is indeed apt, as there are whole swathes of people who will never be cool enough for this country.
There is no place like this
with flattened ideas, hearts and hills
There is no place for those
who deny the whitewashed will
This is the place
where passion is a mod-sin word
raised up to be worshipped
by an undercut, lit shook herd
But passion is also suffering
frustrated from raids
on dreams disappeared
A wish to have a full meal,
lights on at night
make good on impossible loans
no rats gnawing at toes
To love who you want to love
But this is a place
where you cannot love freely
So when people visit
what is it they really see?
They won’t hear about one people,
one nation, they don’t care for our songs
of celebration, they only see success
stories, buildings that clip the clouds,
shops full of bright baubles
trains that wear no frown
They don’t see the offerings
swept up by workers
with no minimum wage
behind maximum fences
When race is not about the finish line
but the colour of our skin,
all of the Others
are washed away by the spin
When the boxes that keep us apart
help to keep our nation smart
When the leaders that we need
are voted least likely to succeed
This is the place
with world-class education and
bad grammar littered everywhere,
where schools are processions of paperwork
real learning is after school tuition-care
This is where we live
amongst a splendour of trees
but insist on double-bagging
styro-foamed plastic wrapped packaging
This is where creativity becomes a hashtag
and then a graded course in five sessions
with a complimentary tote bag
This is the place
where gambling is never as bad
as honest questioning
Where we’re encouraged to spend
without worry, but the interest
on our lives grows daily
This is the place where we roll dice, leave on the red lights
patrol with swagger, check IDs to prevent terror.
where we claim to be secure, claim to endure,
but will not stop to ask if people are ok;
we’re messaging the monsters in our heads
Where backstreets are abandoned trolleys and non-existent homeless,
where graffiti is state-sanctioned, toe the line wholeness
where nostalgia is best sold with one story-line
where we’re told what to do, and do what we’re told
time after time
and any other way out needs a license
and any other opinion means silence
Where impossibilities lead to endless possibilities
and then censorship and then fewer possibilities,
until all that’s left is a national education lesson on harmony
Where who you were will not be who you will become,
not unless your name is Meritocracy
This is where compassion should be made compulsory,
but all we get is a country we love to hate, and passion
becomes just another word for never being sorry
Every now and then, a horror story of the inequalities and inadequacies of how Singapore treats its ‘underclass’ emerges. Domestic helpers are often abused or ill-treated and construction workers are denied basic medical and legal recourse if they get injured. Essentially, construction companies see them as gross liabilities and don’t want to waste a cent on their medical expenses. Organisations like TWC2 though continue to do sterling work in helping these disenfranchised workers, often incurring the ire of private companies.
Hossain Md Alamgir is one such victim. Read his full story here. The original page has been removed, but the cache remains. Inspired, and horrified, by his story, here is a poem for him and everyone else who comes up against the dark side of this city, lauded globally for providing an excellent quality of life … for those who can afford it.
Hossain with broken foot
Hossain with broken foot
Hossain cracked safety boot
Hossain met metal plate
Hossain bevelled by fate
Hossain swells with the pain
Hossain must work again
Hossain would sign a lie
Hossain should not know why
Hossain takes boss to court
Hossain finds they forgot
Hossain arms for a fight
Hossain holds up his rights
Hossain sweeps up the floor
Hossain can’t keep the score
Hossain back home you go
Hossain someone we know
Note for Note takes place this Saturday, 25 March, at 8pm at the Arts House. Its been a project I’ve been working on since last December, and it certainly hasn’t been easy to pull together all these talents onto one stage! But I think the end result will be very satisfying. Think of this as a teaser into the larger body of work of each poet and musician. And after listening to them, go forth and buy their books and music!
When ST interviewed me for this show, I said something to this effect:
Music often elicits an emotive response while poetry demands an intellectual affectation. When the two are brought together it is my hope that a new space is created, one that offers a creative insight into the intellectual workings of the poem through the emotional resonance created by the music.
Besides Note for Note, there are a bunch of other stellar performances, exhibitions and screenings going on as part of the House Party weekend, so do take some time to hang out at the Arts House.
Intersection is a project that has been three years in the making. Often, ideas are birthed from an offhanded remark in the heady rush after a successful show or exhibition. But it takes a certain doggedness to nurture that idea, coax it to life and rally the relevant forces to keep it blooming until it finds its perfect space to breathe and bloom. This exhibition and book was the result of never letting go of that idea. Nicola and I had this grand plan to create an artistic map of three neighbourhoods in Singapore, London and Yangon. The ensuing poems are artwork would resonate across themes common to all three cities. And through this process of intersecting various threads, we would hopefully find some nexus of meaning.
As a result, we’ve created 24 poems and 33 artworks. The exhibition opens on 10 January at Intersections Gallery, 34 Kandahar Street, and runs from 11 January – 12 February and 22 February- 5 March 2017.
There will be an artist talk on 17 January and I will be running a photowriting/walking workshop at the gallery on 11 February.
The book is a 60-page, limited edition risograph print of images from Nicola’s art together with my poems. Here’s what the cover looks like!
Here’s a sneak peek of one of the poems, accompanied by Nicola’s art.
We used to play at founding Singapore;
someone had to be the Temenggong, ceding
everything he could see, never pushing back.
The rest of us were British, asking obvious
questions about the trees; why gelam
bark was used for sails, why frangipani trees
always grew in the cemeteries. Not once did
we think these roads and schools and
rules encircled the kampung. We believed
in the glittering crown of the colony, so we
banished rogue tigers across the water,
stooped to serve an empire of khaki and tea.
This weekend is Neon Lights, a madcap music festival that also has a large chunk of exciting arts programming. In addition to trying to catch some of my favourite acts like Foals, Jose Gonzales and Funkadelic, I’m curating the spoken word segment of the festival. Held in the Rocking Horse tent, it’ll feature new work by Deborah Emmanuel, Steph Dogfoot, Ng Yi-Sheng, Jennifer Champion, Shivram Gopinath, Kok Wei Liang, Shak and yours truly.
We go on in between the bands, so there’s no danger of being drowned out! If you’re thinking of going for the festival this weekend, maybe this will help you decide. And if you’re already going to be there, do drop by and say hi!
After close to two years of work on this anthology, it is finally here!
This Is Not A Safety Barrier is a collection of poems and photographs responding to this ubiquitous phrase found on plastic barriers at construction sites. It represents a selection of opinions seen in disparate images, both textually and visually, from people who are pushing back against the barriers, many invisible, that exist all around us.
In doing so, I hope that this collection expands the space of civic society and creates further opportunities for dialogue about who we are as a people and where we are going.
This project was made possible with the steadfast support of Ethos Books and my incredible co-editor, the gifted Yen Phang.
Come join us at the launch on 17 September 2016 at The Projector!
And on 27th and 29th July, I’m teaming up with Marylyn Tan and Shivram Gopinath to put on a brand new spoken word theatre/performance called House Party. Its not your typical spoken word show, but neither is it strictly theatre. We’re even thowing in a couple of songs just to shake things up!