poet had almost all the traits necessary to become a Bill
Gates, or at least, some early dot-com millionaire. He was
geeky and too clever by half, a loner who spent too much
time in libraries or in front of the screen. He wore thick
glasses and never had a girlfriend.
tragically, the poet sucked at math – a prerequisite
subject for any would-be computer scientist. He simply couldn’t
get his head around calculus. Trigonometric equations made
him break into a sweat. Log tables gave him anxiety rashes.
he winded up at the back of the class, writing little parodies
in rhyming verse. Boy’s school stuff.: Limericks about
the body parts of classmates. Couplets about copulation.
also discovered that reading and writing were about the
only thing he was actually getting good grades for. Which
was a change from seeing “talkative” and “needs
to study harder for math” on his report card every
year. What fun he had when he persuaded his parent to buy
him a computer so he could write essays and earnest stories,
while sneaking in the latest computer games.
least writing and especially poetry, was like computer programming,
also a way of codifying reality through language to invite
certain responses from an audience. A different school of
the same sorcery.
the end of junior college (senior high), the poet found
himself the dazed recipient of a government teaching scholarship
to read Literature in England. His father, a teacher himself,
was appalled at the prospect of having another teacher in
the family, and vetoed the option, wanting him to accept
a place to read Law at the local university. (A path many
a writer in Singapore has chosen – much to the detriment
of their writing).
his years of playing with words had taught him how to bend
the truth to his advantage, and he managed to change his
parents’ minds by convincing them that government
teaching scholars would rise eventually to becoming ministers
of education in due course.
having read far more books than was useful or advisable,
and possessing a solid education with no practical skills
whatsoever, having perfected the art of lying beautifully
in public, he graduated and became a teacher.
his pleasant surprise, the poet rather enjoyed corrupting
bright young minds and messing around with their notions
of reality, even though, as a Chinese man teaching literature
in English, he was taken far less seriously than his expatriate
colleagues. Yet imagine the opportunity that was laid before
him, a chance to relive his youth, to alter the destiny
of those who would otherwise have taken the fateful path
he chose. Turn back, he could tell his young charges, it’s
not too late to stop writing poetry. Try fiction! Read Tom
Clancy! Read Amy Tan!
course he did nothing of the sort, and as soon as his competence
as a teacher and his incompetence as a productive member
of society was confirmed, he was plucked out of service
and put into good use as a high-flying civil servant, policy-maker
and occasional speech writer for ministers and other senior
officials. A panderer of words for political profit.
who has seen the British “Yes Minister” series
would have a fair grasp of the trauma involved, the subterfuge
and sly rhetoric, the bad food. With an English degree and
no governing experience, the poet was of course put in charge
of a high-level program meant to reform, modernize and reinvent
the entire civil service from the ground up. It was called
PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century). His job title
was an acronym of an acronym of an acronym: CPSO (Coordinator,
PS21 Office). His trade was fine speeches full of business
school jargon and consultancy hype. His literary heroes
were Jack Welch and Gary Hamel and Dilbert’s pointy-haired
boss; 6 Sigma and ISO 9000, not sonnets, were his chosen
odd thing is that it could all have worked out: After all,
Singapore is a bizarre creation, in a sense the product
of a mad artistic genius. Only an epic sculptor could have
dreamed up the sweep and arch of its highways, the Grecian
hubris of its towering skyline. And how else could the opium
dens in Chinatown have morphed into salmon-pink walkup studios
and Taiwanese tea houses? What but a playwright’s
diabolic imagination could have let the Arts Ministry regulate
the Internet and the police license theatre?
who but a closet poet could have come up with all those
national metaphors politicians love to doll out in every
other speech: Singapore Inc., Singapore as a football team,
an air-conditioned nation, as wafer fab plant, as stock
market, as Disneyland, as a boat (as in don’t rock
the poet as bureaucrat found that he could influence either
the language or the agenda of change in his city-state,
but never both at once. He was as impotent as a Hollywood
screenwriter, as an unpublished novelist, as a sonneteer
waiting for royalty checks.
then a bizarre thing happened. In one rather expensive management
class (run by folks from the Society for Organisational
Learning at MIT), the poet found an improbable link between
corporate spiel and poetry. Poems were written and read
by high-powered management trainees to inspire their deepest
passions and best performance.
of his sappy poems from that period are still being circulated
in the Army edition of the same management course.)
poet and his course-mates read dramatic monologues, held
hands, visualized their futures, regulated their breathing,
had group hugs and stuffed toys and inspirational posters.
read American poet David Whyte’s book, THE HEART AROUSED:
Poetry and the Soul of Corporate America – which for
all its soggy earnestness made a stirring case for the need
to reconnect the jaded contemporary, industrialized salaryman
to some sense of the spiritual; to remind them as Gibran
had, that Work is Love made visible and that what we do
soon becomes who we are. In the hardnosed, business-minded
Singapore Civil Service, this was a shattering revelation.
Statistics show that over 50% of the participants in the
course either quit their jobs or became pregnant. It was
poet realized that he could no longer work in a position – whatever the prospects and paycheck – which
failed to honour the imagination, creativity and structured
logic he loved in both computers AND poetry, but which sought
instead to bend them to Machiavellian ends.
even though he accepted, and even to an extent respected
the inherently dirty task of realpolitik and pragmatic governance,
he jumped ship after two years and joined an edgy new print-and-web
newspaper called, unfortunately, PROJECT EYEBALL, as a web
from managing the online edition of the publication, he
soon became also a tech columnist, copy editor, arts columnist,
political commentator, gender analyst, book reviewer, film
critic, news reporter and editorial stand-in for the editor.
For the first time in his life, his multiple hungers could
be satisfied, all the divergent threads of his creative
life woven into the vital tapestry of 24/7 journalism. He
had range, he had mojo, he was in a half-way house with
fellow word addicts. The online news wires were like an
intravenous drip, feeding him hour after rich hour of stimulation
colleagues in the IWP can best appreciate how profoundly
satisfying it is to work in a community of peers with a
common quest – like-minded souls who for all their
personality quirks and idiosyncrasies and sins, appreciate
good writing and good work, give credit where it’s
due, regardless of the source, and who accept you as you
are, a confused human being with diverse and unorthodox
interests, fraught with prejudices and passions but one
of their own.)
course it was too good to be true -- the newspaper folded
due to financial pressures after the dot-com crash. This
is of course what happens in fairy tales after the “happily
ever after” bit.
1997, while looking for a publisher for his 1st
volume of poetry, I stumbled upon this little advertising
and design called Pagesetters. The managing director
of Pagesetters is a real fan of poetry, and being
a bit of a restless activist himself, decided to
sit down with us and start a movement instead of
just publishing a couple of poetry books. We started
Ethos Books, driven by a belief that good writing
deserves to be heard, deserves a market, deserves
the best creative effort in terms of design and
packaging and marketing. Because Pagesetters was
a commercial advertising and design house, it had
the expertise and budget to design and produce good
books. I think that transformed the publishing market
back home. But as with all public literary activity,
the fate of an indie small press is very much tied
to the financial health of its sponsors. I work
for Pagesetters as its Head of New Media and dabble
in its publishing arm from time to time.
for the poet, he has turned ad man, become publicist, impresario,
entrepreneur, webmaster, literary activist, both road-builder
and road-hog, the salesman and the sold. He has, at last,
become a visible enough target of derision for a new generation
of hip young writers who believe (and in some cases, have
demonstrated) that all it takes to be a successful full-time
writer is to want it hard enough and leave the country as
soon as possible.
again the poet folds his many lives into the same geometry
of day, and struggles to juggle the mathematics of his fractured
selves, the calculus between profit and pleasure. Once again,
he is making a living as perhaps the wrong sort of geek,
who can’t get his sums right. The secret formula to
a livable literary life remains elusive. Year after year
the words add up, while the days count down to zero.