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  • The Way Ahead:The Politics and Poetics of Singapore's Developmental Landscape
  • Jini Kim Watson (bio)

The objective of national liberation is, therefore, to reclaim the right, usurped by imperialist domination, namely: the liberation of the process of development of national productive forces.

Amilcar Cabral, "National Liberation and Culture"

State and Poetic Narratives of Postcolonial Modernity

In January 1964, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew undertook a whirl-wind tour of independent African states in order to win support for his new country, Malaysia, which had incorporated Singapore, Sabah (British North Borneo), and Sarawak into the Federation of Malaya in 1963. In this period of emerging postcolonial statehood, recognition of Malaysia by African states was an essential international PR exercise in the face of suspicion and aggression from Sukarno's Indonesia. In Lee's memoir The Singapore Story, Lee relates the experience of visiting seventeen African countries in thirty-five days; the varied levels of welcome given to the Malaysian contingent reflected the complicated national ideologies in currency at the time.1 Although Lee's diplomatic exercise was made moot by the effective ejection of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, just two years [End Page 683] after their merger, the trip was nevertheless important training for this leader of the fledgling postcolonial city-state of Singapore. More than the varying levels of support garnered at the meetings with African heads of state, Lee's memoirs describe his own reactions to the physical and spatial environments of these encounters. His brief and metonymic descriptions read as a comparative architectural tour of Africa's new seats of postcolonial power, where the presidential personage, the built environment, and the well-being of the nation are strictly correlative. For Edwin Thumboo, the father-figure of Singaporean poetry, such a correlation between built form and nationalist ideology would also be crucial. Approximately ten years after Lee's trip—the experience of which would deeply influence Singaporean national space—Thumboo published the landmark collection The Second Tongue: An Anthology of Poetry from Malaysia and Singapore, and the images most useful to his project have to do with the modernizing physical landscape. This essay explores the way forms of a statist, developmental landscape are taken up in both political and poetic discourses. I examine the relationship of poetry to nation-statehood through the work of Thumboo and Arthur Yap, two prominent Anglophone poets early awarded literary Cultural Medallions by the Singapore government.

Before returning to the question of poetry, I will briefly trace the genesis of Lee's understanding of rationalized, national space. For Lee, his African experience is most instructive regarding the varying material environments of different nations. In order to meet Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah at his refurbished Danish slave-trading post, for example, Lee is forced to "walk[] between Indian-style oil lamps, wicks floating in small brass bowls lining both sides of a red carpet" (531). This is only to be outdone by his encounter with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who is dressed in British-style military uniform and flanked by "two cheetahs lightly chained to posts" (536). Here, Lee points out that "[i]n contrast to the sometimes handsome buildings around them, [the people] looked shabby and poor" (536).2 But in Northern Rhodesia, soon to [End Page 684] become Zambia, Lee notes approvingly, "[w]e were put up at the Livingstone Hotel, an attractive, single-storey, rambling building, like a large inn in an English provincial town" (532). The governor's mansion of Lukasa, moreover, deserves praise for its well-maintained—but not luxurious—condition, evidence of the "one well-run system" put in place by the British.

Recalling later visits to the Zambian capital, Lee remarks on the dilapidation of the once beautifully kept city:

I remembered the flowers, shrubs, trees and greenery at the side of the roads and at the roundabouts when I was driven in from the airport in 1964. Roses grew in abundance. Six years later, the roses had gone and weeds had taken over. Nine years after that, even the weeds had given up; the roundabouts were covered with tarmac.

(Singapore Story 538)

The disappearance of the "well-run" British system is visibly evident in...


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