Sampan 2.0















Sampan* 2.0


“I think we’ve upgraded our sampan. Sampan 2.0″

– Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 2013


Dear Captain,

when your father cast off from Kuala Lumpur,

and you threw overboard the white man burden, you told us to row,

for our lives depended on it. Not to look back, should the salt in the air

steal our tongues and dissolve our freedom. To trust, that this is the course,

that you will lead us home.


Dear Captain,

Now we want to talk to our crewmates on this boat, but winds of progress howl too loud

We want to write poems on the floorboards but they have to remain clean

We want to shimmy up the mast and dream to the horizon, to be fine, and not be fined

But you say we must sail the straits time and again.

Lay down sand, expand our islands, lose the shape of history and reclaim new stories.

You give us an education fit to drive the sampan forward, teach us songs to sing,

tell us that cruise ships are dangerous, that we have no right to expect buffets

and tennis courts and  life jackets


So we become passengers with no access to the VIP lounge.

We view the stateroom once a year on National Day.

We have these small quarters, with portholes that glimpse only murkiness.


And you have people everywhere,

Captain, bussed in, shipped in, helicoptered in.

Are we the ballast to keep you afloat?

Do we get thrown overboard when we’ve lost our value?

When we can no longer scrub the floors or bail water with our bare hands?



We know there are others down in the engine room,

but you don’t want them to mix with the other passengers up top.

Yet when the sampan lies dead in the water,

when cranes collapse and polls reveal our course towards unhappiness,

Who sets their shoulders to push?

Who carries the bags of army boys?

Who do your toddlers love?



where is the kampung we set sail from?

The simple port that sparked an imagination of trade and life,

a commerce of ideas, a wild joy in our eyes.



when it floods do you know the sampan sinks below the waterline?

But you have never defined when we should sound the alarm.

Maybe not everyone below-deck is in your manifesto, yet Captain,

you tell us to row harder, you say we don’t wind our clocks to work

but we work like clocks, ticking off days like achievements,

hours of good progress, we are minute men without second chances,

because you know best of all, Captain, that our mutinies have no bounty.


We just want to sail a while without being reminded we are

upgraded and should run faster and faster to get to Sampan 3.0,

where children are made on demand,

where robots clear out food trays,

where we all take public sampans to work.


Captain you give us seawater to drink, and tell us

it has the lowest salt content in the world.

Thank you Captain, we know you care.




*Sampan: A flat-bottomed wooden boat, used in Asia.

Author: Marc

Creative educator. Sometime photographer. Fiddler of words.

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