memory, Poetry

Once upon a time

Once upon a time
we fought for freedom,
Now we just sit
and bitch about foreigners.

Once upon a time
we would have raised up questions,
Now we just sit
and lap up empty tears.

Once upon a time
this flag was red and white,
Once upon a time
for this country we’d fight.

Once upon a time – once upon a time.

Once upon a time
the future was in our kids,
Once upon a time
each school was not that bad.

Once upon a time
we could love all our children,
Now we take away
childhoods they never had.

Once upon a time
we could look to retire,
Now we will all work
until the day we die.

Once upon a time – once upon a time.

Once upon a time
our leaders stood for something,
Now they always say
their salary’s not enough.

Once upon a time
they’d jump into the ring,
Now they always say
politics is much too tough.

Once upon a time
we had real men of substance,
Now we just have millionaires
ranged neat in rows.

Once upon a time, once upon a time.

Once upon a time
things were going so well,
Once upon a time
they were going right.

But then along
came a spider sneaking,
he could weave deep darkness
straight out of light.

Way back in
nineteen eighty-eight,
If we had stood up before
it was too late.

Nobody knows, just how far we’d go.

Singapore Flag

Maybe it still isn’t too late,
to turn the back the clock on our fate,

Everybody knows – that nobody knows.

Majulah Singapura, Majulah Singapura.

I wrote the poem “Once upon a time”, based on the tune and rhythm of “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen. You can watch the video above to hear its most recent reincarnation in the Justice League.

Childhood, family, love, memory

To be three

They say you don’t remember
Anything before the age of four.
Don’t remember that thumb
jammed in the door,
Don’t remember that tooth
Chipped on the floor,
Don’t remember tantrums
In the toy store,

Don’t remember your mom’s
Sleepless nights,
Don’t remember your dad’s
Tired sighs,
Don’t remember your brother’s
Protective lies.

You won’t remember the castles
Built of pillows for stone,
The snowmen made of clothes
Carelessly thrown,
You won’t remember being tucked up
Late at night,
You won’t remember the first time
You said goodnight.

But we do.

With love, your family.
Happy Birthday, dear Sophie.

memory, National Service, Poetry

Thank you for your service

In the half-light before dawn,
Seventeen years before you were born,
Boys stood half-waked on a parade square
A hundred conscripts gathered there.

One by one, to each in turn,
Gun-metal was given, assigned to learn
The ways to maim, to shoot, to kill
All extensions of a nation’s will.

Then, as I cradled plastic and metal
Cold and deadly in my arms
I thought,
I hope I never have to use this.

Now as I sit in a cab
Carrying not a rifle, but you,
I think,
I hope I never have to lose this.

National Service

Background:

Nothing quite inspires divisions in Singapore as National Service.

  • Some love it. They think it turns boys into men and in doing so, unites those men no matter their background, giving those men a stake paid for in blood, sweat and time.
  • Others hate it. They think it perpetuates patriarchy (by excluding women), infantilises infantrymen, steals away 2+ years of life, puts at risk health and safety; and is simply a penny-pinching way of raising and maintaining an army on the cheap.
  • Many just surrender themselves as they surrender their civilian identity cards and their hair.

I enlisted in 1998, I remember it was sometime in February because my first week coincided with Chinese New Year and all the Chinese recruits got to book out while the rest of us Indian, Malay and Others stayed back to guard the camp from bak kwa.

The other thing I remembered was the initiation – when they introduced you to your rifle. I remember being woken up at an ungodly hour because the ceremony was supposed to be held at the break of dawn. I remember holding that Colt AR-15, cold and slick with rifle grease and thinking, “Could I actually kill someone with this?”

The rest of NS passed in a haze of training, guard duties, getting in and out of trouble on weekdays and falling in and out of love on the weekends, always waiting for the next book-out and and counting the days to freedom. And after that the yearly recall for refresher training, mind-numbing patrols, filling sandbags and failing fitness tests.

I wrote this poem after this picture was taken, at the Army Open House in 2017. I think I must have been four or five when I first attended my first Army Open House at my dad’s military camp. My father was an army regular, and I distinctly remember riding around in an M113 armoured personnel carrier, wearing oversized mufflers to drown out the rattle and roar.

Thirty-three years later, I’m once again sitting in the back of an M113 APC, holding my daughter as a cheerful National Serviceman tells us to smile for the camera.

And I thought to myself, those two-and-a-half years in green – yes – she is worth it.

family, love, memory

land-line

In the dorm stairwell
hung a public phone
where each week
I’d call home.

Each call a litany
of hellos and reports
of health and weather,
food and whether
I had enough money

as the phone burned
pound coins per minute
till I found international
calling cards at the corner shop

and talk became cheaper,
silences awkward, intervals longer
till the next stairwell call
till you couldn’t pick up at all.

Hand resting on the lever
I cradled the receiver
and dialed again.
Again. Again.

Background

Before widespread, high-speed internet and mobile phones, being overseas for work or study meant the only way to speak with someone back home was via an expensive long distance call.

I suppose this is an experience that is pretty much ancient history, thanks to tech.

memory, Poetry

present perfect

Let the past be
because it can never be.
Your mistakes have spoken hoarse
my mistakes have replied.
Turning back the clock
breaks the mechanism inside.

sea on a boat

Background:

I was sitting on a boat, travelling to Pulau Ubin, a small island north of the mainland of Singapore where my students were having a camp in the closest thing Singapore has to a rustic hinterland. It was almost the end of the school year, and for the students, this would be their last major school event together before they went home for the summer holidays.

For some strange reason, on that rickety small boat, I started thinking of The Great Gatsby, and the silly, desperate dream Gatsby has of recapturing the past even though it’s all ultimately futile. Even though he succeeds in catching the falling clock, it has always been broken.