Friday, 29th August, 2003

The Mermaid and the Merlion

Date: Wed, 09 Jul 2003 10:02:14 +0800
Subject: [sg_daily] Commentary: The Mermaid and the Merlion

This commentary was published in the Today under a different title. This is the original commentary from the author.

The Mermaid and the Merlion
Yeo Lay Hwee, Senior Research Fellow, Singapore Institute of International Affairs

2002 was an interesting year for me. I was working in Denmark and closely observing the discussions going on in that country about necessary reforms in the education sector and labour market, and the tightening of the immigration policy. At the same time I continued to follow what were happening in Singapore from a distance. Looking at your own society from outside, and looking into a society in which you are an outsider draws a lot of interesting observations and lessons. From a distance, you see the forest, and from within, you look at the trees. At first glance, I am struck by the differences of these two small nations that are similarly surrounded by big neighbours. A key striking difference is how one is associated amiably by its fairy tale icon the little Mermaid, and the other by the towering Merlion a rather touristy icon void of any genuine historical or emotional attachment. And how surprised was I when on 15 September 2002, at the inaugural ceremony of the New Merlion Park, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew remarked that the idea of the Merlion thirty years ago was "derived from the famous Mermaid in Copenhagen".

That I must admit was quite a relevation. I began to wonder more deeply what the Mermaid and the Merlion have in common.

Both the Mermaid and the Merlion are well-known landmarks for tourists. But the similarity stops here. While the Danish Mermaid seemingly fragile, bravely sits out the storm at the same spot for 90 years, our kingly Merlion has to be shifted 120 metres from its original home in the name of development within its relatively short life span of 30 years. As SM Lee put it elegantly in his speech, "the spirit of change and continuity that has characterised the making of modern Singapore can be seen in its (the Merlion's) move to the new home".

The Merlion is without doubt uniquely "Made in Singapore". The Merlion was designed as an emblem for the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 1964 by a Mr Fraser Brunner (a foreign talent?). In 1966, it was registered as a trademark of the STB. It took another 6 years before the Merlion statues built by local craftsman, Lim Nang Seng was erected at the mouth of the Singapore river on 15 September 1972, as "a symbol to welcome all visitors to Singapore".

So the primary reason behind the Merlion was to help bring in the tourist money.

Now compare this with the beginning of the Mermaid statue erected at the Langelinie Pier in Copenhagen.

The Little Mermaid, a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837 has provided inspiration to many. Mr Carl Jacobsen (founder of Carlsberg) who attended a performance of ballet master Hans Beck's "The Little Mermaid" in 1909 was so thrilled with the performance, particularly by the leading prima donna, Ellen Price, that he ordered a statue of the Mermaid to be erected in honour of the story. The sculptor Edward Eriksen was commissioned to create a statue of the Little Mermaid, and he modelled the head of the statue after the head of the dancer Ellen Price, and the torso of the statue after his own wife, Eline. The statue cast in bronze was then presented to the City of Copenhagen by Carl Jacobsen in 1913.

One began with economics in mind, and the other was moved by the beauty and finer appreciation of arts. Though the latter has the same effect of raking in millions of tourist money for Denmark.

The idea behind the Mermaid was therefore not fully understood when we created the Merlion.

There lies the crux of our problems in Remaking Singapore. While the Little Mermaid despite losing the Prince gains immortality, what will be the fate of the money-making Merlion when it is no longer raking in the bucks? I was also told that the old nation, Denmark won its last war in 1611, and has since been fighting at least 10 other wars and lost. However, the Danes still celebrate these battles, and learnt that the world does not stop if you lose. They prepare for the next, and in so doing has given the nation the resilience and a strong identity that it is now. And that is the immortality that the Danish nation has gained. Governments in Denmark come and go, but the nation survives and the society remains strong and cohesive. Here in Singapore, we wonder if we will ever survive as a nation the day we lose our economic competitiveness?

In considering Singapore's future, it is not so important what the tourists think about the Merlion. More importantly, it is how Singaporeans feel about the Merlion. "Rough beast, you are neither idol nor ideal. Your heart is hollow, cold and open for admission, but we have nowhere else to hide our dreams". This was from a poem by a young Singaporean, Alvin Pang.

Indeed the Merlion may not be the most elegant beast. To some, it may be even a bit crass and tacky. But that is the only beast we have right now. If we Singaporeans don't work on softening this rough beast, and fill its heart with warmth and compassion, what future is there for us? Like the Little Mermaid, we must also dare to risk for the sake of love and eternity.

The Mermaid and the Merlion
logged by alf at 18:15, Friday, 29th August, 2003

Thursday, 28th August, 2003

Recent poetry in Singapore

I’m trying to focus on the most recent trends in Singaporean poetry, i.e. from, let’s say, 1997 to the present. As I see it (and correct me if I’m wrong) Singaporean poetry has entered some kind of critical phase, including among other things a deeper poetic insight than seen in much of the earlier poetry. But since I have only been in Singapore for a week I would much appreciate if you could give me your view on the latest developments in Singaporean poetry. For instance, what do you regard as the typical theme(s) for Singapore poetry of today? Are there any obvious differences from other poetries as you see it? Do you think that poetry in Singapore cannot be ideological even if the poem itself is not explicitly political?

I agree with you in marking 1997 as a critical milestone, for several reasons. But the events of 1997 can also be traced back to a gradual development of events, which arguably came to a watershed at the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize competition, which attracted perhaps the highest standard of entrants in the history of the competition (the SLP was discontinued after 1999). Many of the new generation of writers who have since been published had submitted their work for the 1995 competition -- this resulted in an airing of new talent and subsequent confidence to pursue publication.

1997 is a milestone year because it marked the rise of the independent small presses -- not least Ethos Books itself (my publisher -- in fact, my first book, Testing the Silence was one of their first titles). It marked the first time that an independent small player in the publishing field had chosen to take on the difficult niche of poetry in a serious way, matching good writing to quality book design and more sophisticated marketing and audience development approaches (eg readings, book fairs, book tours etc). This effort was soon matched by other small presses such as Landmark Books (who published Felix Cheong’s Temptations and Other Poems and Alfian Saat’s first volume One Fierce Hour in 1998) as well as the currently very active small press, FirstFruits.

What resulted from this flowering of small literary publishers was a sudden explosion of channels for new work to see print and enjoy a renewed readership, at a time where the internet was also making its presence felt, and a whole range of literary activities (monthly readings for instance) were being started. The result is that poetry in Singapore, almost overnight, came to enjoy a relative renaissance in public attention. More young poets have come forward with their work, expecting and enjoying publication and/or public readership since 1997 than at any other time in our recent history.

This has had an impact on the type of writing which has emerged (at least for the English language writing scene -- bearing in mind that there are similar exciting but separate developments in the other language scenes).

As I mention in NO OTHER CITY, I detect (circa 2000) a strong leaning towards urbane themes and concerns, issues of identity vis a vis modernity or globalisation (rather than say across our regional cultures). But I would hesitate to generalise too much about what is essentially still a very diverse field. There are still those who write in the vein of an earlier trope -- ie either trying to draw upon nationalistic themes (common during the early years of independence) or withdrawing into the more introspective, lyrical or even spiritual mode common to writers like Lee Tzu Pheng. But even these two approaches have had their successors : Alfian Saat of course has moved beyond the nationalistic verse, drawing upon his ethnicity and dramatic experience to project a powerfully rhetorical, polemic voice which is perhaps our most overtly successful modern political verse. Other poets like the self-styled confessional poet Cyril Wong have taken lyrical introspection to a sharper edge, interrogating issues of family, sexuality/sexual orientation and interpersonal boundaries. Still others either push the boundaries of traditional, received English-tradition forms (eg Toh Hsien Min and the sonnet or Eddie Tay and the Tang Dynasty lyric) or range restlessly across forms (such as perhaps my work) and even media (such as in Felix Cheong’s work).

I suppose one generalisation of our recent writing is that it touches on our experience of modernity as the experience of borders -- crossed or reinforced. An inevitable consequence, perhaps of a tightly regulated, physically small and restless globalised city-state. Our writers are still trying to feel their way across themes and boundaries, to develop their own appropriate idioms. It is common these days to read of conventions overturned, sexual or personal boundaries challenged or crossed, sometimes violently. Fewer affirmations of the status quo exist than perhaps before. And socio-political issues are certainly being addressed, often quite explicitly, in recent verse. The reduction of dependence on traditional establishment channels of publication has perhaps allowed this, as much as the changing tastes of readers.

I wonder also if that is not a consequence of the other unusual feature of our poetry, which is that most of our working poets are NOT full-time writers nor academics, as was the case in previous generations or in fact is the case in many other literary communities. We have day-jobs, as lawyers, doctors, engineers, managers, journalists and all manner of professions, and we bring our day-to-day experience to bear in a way which perhaps shades differently from the varsity view, for better or worse. The present generation of writers read well, broadly, and are far less beholden to particular schools of writing -- there is no one obvious movement, political or cultural, to which they claim common allegiance. In that sense, I think even our politically engaged writing cannot be said to be ideological -- in that sense -- not even in the work of Alfian Saat, our most explicitly polemic writer of the age.

Recent poetry in Singapore
logged by alf at 17:32, Thursday, 28th August, 2003