August 8, 2009 Saturday

Property craze sparks poem

IN BETWEEN listening to the real estate agent's spiel about the rainshower in the bathroom and studying the gleaming mahogany parquet flooring, Mr Toh Hsien Min started forming a poem in his head.

That visit to a condominium showflat resulted in Mr Toh, 34 - a leading member of the crop of English-language Singapore poets born after Independence - writing a poem for Insight.

He went down to The [email protected] showflat in Pasir Panjang with the sole purpose of doing research for the poem after spotting an advertisement for the condominium in the newspaper.

Showflat-viewing - a symbol of Singaporeans' love affair with property - is the 'classic Singaporean weekend activity', declares Mr Toh as he explains his choice of subject matter.

'There are people who spend all their weekends just going to showflat after showflat. It's part of the fabric of our economy and society,' he says drily.

When the poet and editor of Singapore's premier literary journal QLRS uses words like 'the economy', he speaks as an insider who knows what he is talking about. He is a risk analyst for an international bank, and as conversant in the language of financial models as he is with Shakespearean sonnets.

'It keeps life interesting. I need to exercise different parts of my brain,' he says coolly - without any emphasis, elaboration or dramatic hand gestures - of his choice of both day job and vocation.

In person, Mr Toh is like his poetry: formal and controlled, at times glacially so, but with emotion and wit bubbling beneath the surface.

He needs to be prodded to reveal more about his interests outside of poetry, before he finally offers: 'I don't see how it would be relevant to your piece but I do a lot of wine tasting.'

He does not say so, but one wonders if this self-consciousness is due to the lingering sting from a review of his last collection of poetry Means To An End (2008).

In a review in QLRS, fellow poet Ng Yi-Sheng consigned Mr Toh's work to the 'reluctant yuppie' school of poetry that he felt pervaded Singapore's shelves.

This is, no doubt, in contrast to Mr Ng himself, who at 28 is a full-time writer.

Mr Toh's track record as a serious poet and literary advocate speaks for itself.

He has three poetry collections to his name, including a maiden collection, Iambus (1994), which he published at the tender age of 19.

His work has also been published in international periodicals, such as the Atlanta Review and the London Review of Books. While a literature undergraduate at Oxford University, he was president of the university's poetry society.

His love of verse stretches back into the mists of childhood, when 'the earliest things I can remember writing were poems'.

'When I was eight or nine, I had this great little book called Junior Poetry Workshop which showed you some simple poems and set simple exercises for you to do, and I loved it.'

This passion for poetry extends also to his belief that there should be debate and disagreement over it - at the risk of his own poems getting a bashing.

It was the dearth of literary criticism here that prompted him to start QLRS, an online literary journal, eight years ago. It now has 5,000 to 10,000 visitors a week, including readers from universities and libraries in the West.

Ultimately, he believes, Singapore literature can grow only if 'others stand up and take a view of things, point out where we (writers) can improve'.

On Member of Parliament Irene Ng's suggestion of publishing an anthology of poems about Singapore, he notes that there are already several such anthologies, such as No Other City, published by Ethos Books in 2000.

The best way of drawing society into a dialogue with its poets is to put more of Singapore literature on the school syllabus, he says.

'I'm not sure forcing people to study it necessarily cultivates a love for it, but it would create awareness. It's probably the best option we've got.'


Toh Hsien Min

On sunlit Saturday afternoons

we see it starting up:

the white honeycomb

like so many scattered over the island.

Cars jam narrow lanes,

hand-gestured by sweaty men

playing runway controllers

to a landing in a hillside clearing

of hastily laid tarmac

chattering like crisp anticipation.

Entering the reception area

elicits a tanned and honeyed smile

and a brochure showing

views into the impossibly azure

reserved for an exclusive few

although no blazing sun

heats the still and humid air.

Maps proclaim an expressway

and uncluttered straightline roads

into the heart of town

or to prestigious institutions

and sparkling shopping malls

for those who eschew

the MRT station in the proximity.

The ones who do not believe

in the sagacity of a keen crowd

may see how all is given depth

by a beautiful scale model

whose swimsuited plastic figurines

recline on tiny deckchairs

beside the infinity pool

blending in with the water feature.

A swarm of flip-flops

point inwards from the patio

to the coolness of Italian marble

outlined by timber skirting,

while the air-conditioning

invades even the kitchen,

where the spice racks sit

beside an Australian cabernet.

In the rooms, queen-sized beds

do not swallow so much space

as to hide the parquet flooring

while the built-in wardrobes

are draped with satin dresses,

and the hotel-inspired bathroom

boasts a rainfall shower

and a deep designer sink.

No one will settle in this showflat

and sit out on the balcony,

yet its scrubbed ceramic tiles

witness a strange bonding,

families on the threshold

of attaining revivifying change:

the bewildered grandmothers

following their sons-in-law

and trying to hold on

to the grumpy children

while all the time each one

projecting the heft of happiness

upon emulsion paint

might not imagine their experience

repeating across the island

with the punching of calculators

and drone of floating rates

wherever apartments rise and fall,

but in this clamour

the capability for reinvention

and the aspiration of the tribe

are as clear as the view out to sea.

If this collective buzz seeks

to arrive at a destination

greater than any each may know,

and if the sense of ownership

lasts only as long as an unblocked

vista into the green crests

of Kent Ridge cannot be outbid

by a lofty en bloc offer,

we know that this coming together is

to build something real,

something more than high tensile steel

and concrete columns,

something we can hold

not in our hands but in our hearts:

perhaps a nation,

perhaps a community,

perhaps a home.