No. 8-9


Toh Hsien Min  

Introduction to Singapore poetry on Ars Interpres

There is actually a multiplicity of Singapore poetries.  As a small immigrant nation that recognises four official languages, Singapore boasts of Chinese, Malay and Tamil poetry as well as English poetry.  The Chinese poetry scene in Singapore is especially rich and plugged in to the wider Chinese diaspora; its reach beyond Singapore’s shores is arguably the deepest and longest-running of the four.  But recently it has been English poetry that has been in the limelight.  

It is difficult to pinpoint when Singapore literature in English was first written.  Certainly there had been colonial authors writing in Singapore virtually since it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819; the most famous of these were W. Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad.  Much of the difficulty owes to the problematic definition of what was or became “Singaporean”.  Many of the Chinese, Malay and Indian immigrants to the thriving sea-port of the early nineteenth century considered themselves Chinese, Malay and Indian.  There was a concept of Straits-born Chinese, but this was shared within the Malay Archipelago.  Assuming works by non-colonial residents of Singapore count, there is some evidence of a kind of Singapore literature published in English as early as the 1830s.  However, the first notable Singaporean poem in English is often argued to be F.M.S.R., by Francis P. Ng, published in London in 1935. 

Nevertheless it has been convenient for academics to coincide the first generation of Singaporean poets with Singapore’s independence in 1965.  A new wave of poets emerged in those years, led by the likes of Edwin Thumboo, Goh Poh Seng and Robert Yeo, and, a little later, Lee Tzu Pheng and Arthur Yap, who are sometimes identified as spearheading a second generation.  In the 1980s through to the earlier half of the 1990s, poetry was produced by the likes of Boey Kim Cheng, Simon Tay and Koh Buck Song, but in that period plays and short stories were very much dominant.

The turning point is often said to be how the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize led to a new crop of young poets finding one another, but this is debatable, particularly as the prize had been running for a few years and some of the so-called fourth generation poets had already separately met.  What provided much more of a foundation was the emergence of small presses, such as Landmark Books, Ethos Books and later Firstfruits Publications, who were willing to publish poetry, less for commercial reasons than for the benefit of the wider community.  With an energetic and competitive base at home, and the emergence of new media technologies, the new generation of poets found it increasingly desirable to publish and promote their work overseas.  This has led to Singapore poetry being published in the likes of Atlanta Review, the London Review of Books, Poetry New Zealand and Poetry Salzburg Review.  Collections of Singapore poetry began to be found in the Poetry Library in London and City Lights in San Francisco.  Fourth generation Singapore poets have flown around the world to read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the Queensland Poetry Festival, among others.  

And now, Singapore poetry has arrived in Sweden.  The poets in this issue of Ars Interpres number among the best of the new Singapore poets.  Inspired by the themes selected by Ars Interpres, Eddie Tay and Yeow Kai Chai have reached outwards, to respectively craft condensed verse under the influence of classical Chinese lyric and engineer authoritative postmodern experiments.  Cyril Wong has redeployed his sensuous style, barely constrained by anaphoric form, where personality blurs into language.  Collectively, Heng Siok Tian’s Singapore flavour, Paul Tan’s sympathetic monologues, Madeleine Lee’s urban meditations and Yong Shu Hoong’s mezzo-piano narrative languor offer a snapshot of the cosmopolitan yet internalising poetic voice of their generation, and of Singapore at large.  It is our hope that this small sample will help more readers to discover the most vibrant English poetry in Southeast Asia.




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