Poetry in Parliament: A Brief Analysis

One month on and the school is in the news for the same reason – its name (I hereby profess that I love the local media as much as LKY loves SIA pilots). For this reason, we had a brief debate in the office today on the intention of Seah Kian Peng’s parliamentary speech. Is he chiding Eunoia? Is he on its side? Those who saw extended criticism cited the transcript Those who took the latter position referred to the call to action after his literary sleight-of-hand: ‘And to the students of Eunoia, be confident and make the name your own’. So what we have here is… a difference in interpretation of the same event.

My answer, is not cheem
But every week I walk around Braddell Heights, Marine Parade,
Serangoon Central (and yes Aljunied too)
I can see
Our language, is one kind,
Our style, you don’t mind I say
Is other places cannot find.
Nasi Lemak and Roti Prata,
Our yong tao foo got halal one.
Who is the Singaporean?
I ask you, you just listen, can tell lah.
By the way, I ask you, what is this – “Eu-no-ia”?

Seah Kian Peng

> ‘.’ <

Paratext vs Main Text
I hesitate to use the terms, ‘speech’ or ‘text’ because the call-to-action or the enquiry into the Singaporean identity that follows the ‘poem’ is what we would call paratext. By Kevin Wheeler’s definition, a paratext is ‘anything external to the text itself that influences the way we read a text’ and can come in the form of biography, autobiography, scholarly footnotes, reviews and not least, other interpretations themselves. The main text or primary text for us in this instance, is the poem itself, starting from “My” and ending on “?” and on a typical page, the title and the name of the writer.

In our little quaint world of Literature, this distinction is really really important… especially if you subscribe to reader response theory. When we encounter unseen poetry, prose or drama, we focus on the text itself and all its poetic, narrative and dramatic qualities. We (try our best to) ignore what we know about the writer and avoid speculating too much* about the historical and social context in which the text was written. This in a way forces us to focus on OUR interpretation(s) of a text, based on the literal meaning and more importantly, the methods (i.e. techniques, devices) and effects (i.e. mood, tone, atmosphere, qualities).

*Note the use of ‘too much’; the topic paper and the period paper usually demand some knowledge of relevant developments in history (e.g. SG50 and the search for ‘Singaporeanness’). I cannot quite shake off my Paper 1 roots here. Oh, by the way, this thing you are reading is a type of paratext!

> ‘.’ <

Purpose of a text
Getting back to the tension in the office, the differing interpretations come from a reading of different texts. What I would like to explore in this post is the different ‘messages’ behind Seah’s poem. While easy to dismiss it as ‘amateurish’, I think there is quite a lot of literary merit here — certainly enough to deliver an online lesson or two! In the next section, we will analyse in Paper 1 fashion, the use of language, style and form in the main text and ask what its effects and purpose are.

Perspective and tone
(What) Right from the opening line, the speaker exudes a steady confidence as he provides us an ‘answer’, or more accurately his answer to the question of Singaporean identity. (How) To use the word ‘answer’ is to proudly wave one’s understanding of Singapore, its language, its style and not least, its food (which we will cover in the next paragraph). The use of ‘my’ probably restrains any arrogance (contrast ‘my’ with ‘The answer’) or bravado. (How) We sense this modest confidence later on: the more commanding phrases ‘I can see’ and ‘you just listen’ are balanced by the mild apology in ‘you don’t mind I say’. The difficult question, ‘Who is the Singaporean?’ is quickly effaced by the easy response, ‘can tell lah’. (Why) From these bigger questions, we note that the speaker is concerned not just about himself as the dominant first-person ‘I’ would suggest. The poem is about Singapore, as evidenced by the collective ‘we’ in ‘Our language’ and ‘our style’.

Diction / Word Choice
(What) With this in mind, the word that leaps from the first line is arguably ‘cheem’ (i.e. profound, complicated) rather than ‘answer’. (How) The colloquialism* here is itself the theme of the poem — the concept of Singaporeanness itself. This theme is, in the speaker’s words ‘not cheem’. (Why) If the answer is simple and straightforward, then perhaps the Singaporean identity is too — to the speaker at least.

(How) In Seah’s words, the Singaporean language is ‘one kind’. The phrase literally means ‘unique’ and ‘distinctive’. The Singlish expression ‘one kind’, which combines two proper English words to form a new meaning, is itself ‘one kind’, unique, special to Singapore. ‘Singaporean diction’ or Singlish is evenly spread out across the poem: we noticed it in lines 1 and 5, seeing it again in 9 (‘one’) and 11 (‘lah’).

*An informal, conversational term; not necessarily pidgin. 

(What) Likewise, the laying out of Singaporean places ‘Braddell Heights, Marine Parade, Serangoon Central’ and ‘Aljunied’ and food ‘Nasi Lemak and Roti Prata’ as well as halal ‘yong tao foo’ in the poem is significant. (How) Whether you see nasi lemak and roti prata as uniquely Singaporean or not, these images of food and place are meant to read as proud emblems of such. The mixing of ethnic references is clear. Nasi lemak is seen as a staple Malay dish (appropriated by many Chinese hawkers), roti prata is commonly associated with the Indian-Muslim community (and loved universally!) whilst yong tao foo, the most Chinese of dishes is identified only in its halal form to show harmony between Singapore’s Chinese majority and the Malay-Muslim minority.

(What) The sentence structures too are doused in Singlish flavour to reflect the speaker’s pride in Singaporeanness. (How) The turn of phrase ‘other places cannot find’ is far from grammatically correct, as one might say of ‘got halal one’. Appropriate substitutes such as ‘you cannot find it in other places’ or ‘there exists a halal iteration’ lose the obvious punch: the brokenness allows for the most emphatic (‘cannot find’, ‘one’) words to end the line,  (Why) giving the language of the text much of the same unrepeatable quality as ‘Our style’ and our food. Indeed, the language in the poem is itself a statement of intention.

(What) This pride in Singaporean syntax, place and culture translates to the poem’s structure in equal measure. (How) The notion of Singaporeanness forms the centre, or indeed, the whole of the poem: the first eleven (of twelve) lines push forward an overtly Singaporean or Singlish quality. In fact, one might argue that ‘lah’, that one word visitors to our sunny island catch quickly, is an apt culmination of the poem’s message — to recognise and affirm our shared identity.

(What) The point of tension then lies in the closing line, line 12, of the poem, ‘By the way, I ask you, what is this – “Eu-no-ia”?’. (How)By the way‘, functioning as a prepositional idiom, detaches the line from the rest of the poem, as if to identify ‘Eu-no-ia’ as un-Singaporean. Similarly, the separation of ‘Eu-no-ia’ (I’m quoting from line 12 rather than referring to the name) from ‘the Singaporean’, ‘Serangoon Central’ and ‘yong tao foo’ is achieved by the double use of the interrogative in ‘I ask you’ and ‘what is this…?’. There is perhaps an accusatory undertone here, as the speaker splits the word ‘Eunoia’ into three syllables to challenge its validity as a word… and subsequently its place in the poem’s Singaporean vocabulary. It is ‘this’, an indefinite thing to be placed in quotation marks, because it is not a definitive name. (Why) Echoes of the online fulmination (eh, sorry, can don’t use this word anot?) are heard in that last line. ‘Eunoia’ is a ‘laughing stock‘, an insult to our three main languages, and finally, does not belong in the Singaporean lexicon. It is that simple, isn’t it?

(What) Or is the poem more cheem that it appears? A closer study of the last line might suggest some sympathy towards the name. (How) While we previously posited that ‘lah’ is a suitable climax to the poem, the last word of the poem is in fact ‘Eu-no-ia’. The last sentence is, to reiterate, an interrogative one. Is ‘Eu-no-ia’ Singaporean? The very intention of a question is to clarify and inquire. In this light, the splitting of the word expresses the speaker’s curiosity towards the word and possibly, its place in Singapore culture. (Why) Focusing on these methods, the closing line destabilises the concreteness of ‘lah‘ in line 11, and re-considers what it means to be Singaporean.

(Personal response) So is Eunoia as Singaporean as Roti Prata and Aljunied? Perhaps not right now but were Roti Prata and the name Aljunied Singaporean from the onset? Time will tell. Some beautiful thinking would help too.

P.S. I promise not to title 1530 word posts ‘brief’ in future.

The Literat

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