Other National Virtues

October 6, 2010

This poem first appeared in Gwee Li Sui’s Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998) and reappeared in Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Edition of a Book of Poems? (2015). It was also featured in the anthology &Words: Poems Singapore and Beyond (2010) and read on the radio programme “The Culture Cafe” on 938Live by writer Adrian Tan. The commentary at the end is written as part of a guide for teachers in Singapore.

Other National Virtues

I asked for teh tarek
Got half the glass in effervescence
Got food poisoning because
Half my mee’s in its adolescence
Criticize, complain, condemn
With a hand over the abdomemn.

The players pant like pups
Think they are playing table tennis
The blundering referee
Is giving me tuberculosis
Criticize, complain, condemn
Throughout the National Stadiemn.

Sure, we may know we live
In a kind of modern paradise
But it’s hell when we come to
Any bureaucratic exercise
Criticize, complain, condemn
All over on the referendemn.

Gwee Li Sui

Every tradition has its own values, and a multicultural society has as many sets of values as it has cultures. Singapore as a nation further shares in five ideals of democracy, peace, progress, justice, and equality, as represented by the five white stars on its flag. From the 1990s, we also hear of “Asian values”, essentially values used to show how specific political forms and practices are cultural traits of the East.

But the national values I choose to celebrate are cheekily different. Through cheekiness, I hope to get my readers to reflect on the idea of social virtues and the reasons given to promote them. This poem was written in the mid-1990s, at a time when a public debate on what being Singaporean meant was brewing. My observed values are found in our day-to-day living in Singapore. Should national values point to what we need to be, what we wish to be, or how we truly behave?

It is not hard to see that these values are tied to the way we naturally work and play in Singapore. They help to produce feedback on production and service standards, as when we complain over a half-filled cup of tea or contaminated food. Whether such standards change as a result is a different matter. They also show Singaporeans as passionate, a quality others assume to be uncharacteristic, as when we curse creatively at football matches. “Tuberculosis” expands on the metaphor of spitting blood, used to signal great frustration.

The “referendemn” in the last stanza refers to the question of Singapore’s merger with Malaysia in 1962. That referendum, still the only one to be held in Singapore, resulted in a vote in favour of a merger, a short-lived development since Singapore was evicted three years later. Yet, in the mid-1990s, this issue was re-opened in public discussion, and Singaporeans were asked to speculate on a re-merger. The invitation challenged years of identity-building and exposed its vulnerability, sparking much furore.

Each stanza in the poem closes with a deliberate misspelling: “abdomemn”, “Stadiemn”, and “referendemn”. The spellings contribute to a sense of the ridiculous and, by creating false or forced rhymes, get us to laugh at what is artificial too. The ease with which Singaporeans tend to mispronounce English words is also in focus here. The fact that inexact speaking does not hamper our mutual understanding points to the shared fun Singaporeans derive from using Singlish. The 3 Cs of “Criticize, complain, condemn” vaguely allude to another popular Singaporean measure, the materialistic 5 Cs of cash, car, credit card, condominium, and country club.

Eight years after my poem was published, as criticism of the current government’s performance was mounting, ministers curiously began to lament about a “nation of complainers”. Even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, when responding to a National Geographic question about the high pay of ministers in 2009, called Singaporeans “champion grumblers”. We can take all this in a different light and read it for how our own leaders are becoming typically Singaporean to complain about complaining. Complaining is the power of the helpless seeking to remind others of their right to some dignity. It is infinitely better than being cynical.

Gwee Li Sui

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2 Responses to “Other National Virtues”

  1. Megan Says:

    is there a sense of irony in this poem? please state

  2. Gweek Says:

    Err… Yes?


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