Monday, 18 February 2013

In search of a new narrative

S'pore Story of survival against the odds may not resonate with younger generation
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Sunday Times, 17 Feb 2013

Singapore is at an inflection point.

The old narrative of survival against the odds - by a hardy, thrifty people who backed a thrifty, honest government made up of incorruptible leaders who made personal sacrifices for the country - has lost its allure.

Indeed, many will say that old narrative no longer holds true. A new generation born into affluence is neither hardy nor thrifty. The Government these days pays its top officials market-based pay. Its top rungs have been sullied by sex and corruption scandals, thereby ceding the moral high ground.

But what is to replace that old narrative? As yet, there is a va-cuum. The result is a society at the cusp of change that wants to discard the old without quite knowing what will replace it. The country is full of angry young voices who know they want something else, full of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo, but have not quite come together to articulate an alternative.

When things are in flux, and data and hard economic forecasts cannot point the way, the wise retreat to story, myth and poetry.

Edwin Thumboo's landmark poem Ulysses By The Merlion has a fictional Ulysses ruminating on "...this lion of the sea/ Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail/ Touched with power, insistent/ On this brief promontory... Puzzles".

And why? In part because "Despite unequal ways, Together they mutate, Explore the edges of harmony, Search for a centre".

Thumboo wrote of a people who came from distant shores to make a life for themselves here, buying and selling, and who "mutate" together exploring harmony, searching for a centre. The poem was published as part of a collection in 1979. It would have resonated with many Singaporeans then.

Since then, several younger poets have returned to the Merlion theme, circling round the iconic symbol, reinterpreting it.

One of the more incisive is The Merlion by one of Singapore's most promising younger poets, Alfian Sa'at. Published in the collection One Fierce Hour in 1998, it conjures a conversation the narrator has with a friend on the Merlion.

Like mythical Ulysses, the Merlion leaves this friend puzzled. Unlike him, the strange creature leaves the friend less than impressed. The friend likens it to a post-Chernobyl nightmare, and notes its self-doubt. The Merlion, creature of land and sea, is "marooned on this rough shore,/ as if unsure of its rightful/ harbour".

The friend goes on to analyse the Merlion: It "tries to purge itself of its aquatic ancestry,/ in this ceaseless torrent of denial, draining/ the body of rivers of histories, lymphatic memories". Its "jaws/ clamp open in self-doubt,/ still surprised after all these years".

He goes on to ask: "...what brand new sun can dry/ the iridescent slime from the scales/ and what fresh rain wash the sting of salt/ from those chalk-blind eyes?"

Unlike Thumboo's Merlion, an imposing creature of mystery, Alfian's is a creature half-pathetic, half-grotesque, full of self-doubt, fumbling towards its dotage. If only it had paws, sighs the friend. Then it would not look so grotesque. Of course these are just two poems by two different writers. Of course the Merlion is just an icon dreamt up by the then Singapore Tourism Promotion Board, and designed on commission to promote Singapore.

But like Singapore, the Merlion is a creature of the human will and imagination, wrought not from nature but from fiat, deliberately fashioned and crafted.

Singapore - this unlikely nation, this triumph of will over nature, this carefully constructed artefact - is both admired and mocked for its deliberate approach to policy and planning. Past generations bought into the Merlion myth of distant peoples coming together, exploring the edge of harmony, searching for a common centre.

My own late parents were immigrants who fled communist China. They became Singaporeans, but for years my father used to talk of returning to China to live out his last years. He went back for one trip, then came back to Singapore vowing never to return. The village he grew up in had become strange to him; the people grasping and greedy. He died in Singapore.

When I hear the vitriol directed at foreigners and immigrants, I wonder how I would have felt, a first-generation native Singaporean, if my friends in school had harboured such views, and made me feel unwelcome because my parents, unlike theirs, were not born in Singapore.

Yes, beyond a tipping point, a country populated by immigrants loses its feeling of home. Singapore is arguably reaching that point. But even as we debate the ideal population figure and ratio of foreigners to locals, we must not let the conversation become personal and directed at the foreigners who have, even if temporarily, made this their home. They are guests after all, and many Singaporeans come from traditions hospitable to guests.

Today's Singapore is like Alfian's Merlion, sloughing off its aquatic ancestry of maritime travel, engaged in a torrent of denial of its past. But what will the future bring? "What brand new sun can dry/ the iridescent slime from the scales/ and what fresh rain wash the sting of salt/ from those chalk-blind eyes?"

Alfian's answer as a poet is a recourse to ambiguity and irony: If only it had paws.

Poetry exists in the realm of myth and imagination. Words can be prosaic, like the Population White Paper which drew so much flak for projecting a population of 6.9 million. Or they can be poetic and prophetic, pointing to the future.

As a journalist who has truck with words on a daily basis, and a former student of poetry who still seeks solace and wisdom in words of the imagination, I turn to words both to enlighten the mind and to fire the soul.

In these two poems from two poets of different generations, I find two myths of Singapore.

The first is the prevailing, conventional narrative of a Singapore of immigrants who settled here, made a success of their lives and this place, and searched for a common centre. That Singapore Story, I hope, will continue.

But there is an emerging alternative narrative, or narratives. This is not the space to explore those other, infinitely more varied narratives. But just this one poem shows the way. The other version of the Singapore Story is full of questioning and self-doubt. It is comfortable with puzzles, not seeking to find a definitive answer. Most of all, it is witty, ironic and ambiguous.

What new sun will blaze, what fresh rain wash away the salt of chalk-blind eyes? No one really knows.

But the optimist in me likes to think that if young talented Singaporeans are still engaged with the myths of yore and reinterpret them, still engaged with all the values and hopes and dreams of this nation, there is hope yet for Singapore. The Merlion continues to puzzle. It is not ignored.

A new generation will find a new narrative. What story line will flow, we do not know. But we know it will not be a linear one. It will not consist of One Definitive Myth. It will be contested and contended over.

And in that contention, a new kind of Singapore is being forged.

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