The Call of South Africa in Singapore

March 18, 2011

The following is the Editor’s Introduction of Man/Born/Free; Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore, ed. Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011), pp. 6-15.

A spellbindingly simple idea has been gaining momentum of late, and it tends to be celebrated in countries with developed and fast-developing economies. This idea – popularised by Pulitzer-winning American journalist Thomas L. Friedman – posits that the world has, for a number of years, been “flattened” by the flow of technology-enhanced global capital.[1] Equal opportunities for wealth now allegedly abound in what has become a level playing field that bridges whole continents and transcends deep cultures and long histories. This picture of the world looks positively exciting although it comes at a price we are also not left to ignore. More than ever before, a society needs to stay “relevant” and “competitive”, “on top of the game”, eager to “change and adapt” – because, should it fall behind, the drop is very sharp.

Such double-edgedness seizes our minds greatly because it points to yet another instance where questions of humaneness are not so much answered as reframed. Relations between economics and equality have this bad habit of merely moving pockets of problems around, through factors from uneven wealth distribution to infrastructural differences among nations. Stuck in a wide range of zero-sum games, the world feels like a rather perverse place that always chooses to return to us broken. We may be more honest simply to admit that societies share less in some clear map towards general prosperity than in an empathy for each other’s wretchedness. After all, the social and technical implements of modernity have been improving our daily lives only to raise their pace, giving us more time that is wasted away as quickly. Political and economic interdependence forges trust and understanding among peoples, but it also grows frustration and a sense of insecurity through endless comparison.

Furthermore, while human achievements are too vast to recount, many age-old problems continue to haunt us to this day. Still no country can afford to proclaim the eradication of poverty – although the academic and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani has done so quite happily for Singapore.[2] To be sure, the social challenge must be to avoid thinking in a fatalistic way even as endless war is waged against conditions that devalue human existence. Yet, whenever an economy prospers, the benefits may not reach the needy adequately or at all while other problems are bound to surface. For each form of discrimination that is beaten back institutionally, a new form emerges and an old one hides away within invisibly resentful hearts. The words of the nineteenth-century writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr ring true here: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.[3]

These observations are made not so much to dampen spirits as to do the opposite, to clarify where an authentic affirmation of life must lie. The argument hopes also to highlight an ethical case for eternal vigilance, that proverbial price of liberty and, may I add, equality. Towards both of these goals, through the history of the twentieth century, we have surely all become spiritual children of Nelson Mandela and siblings to South Africans, through whose momentous struggles we find an image for every struggle against discrimination. It is South Africa that has allowed the world to understand that the worst in man must be overcome by the best in man, through a strong commitment to humanity and a broad show of compassion. It is Mandela, its most famous champion of freedom and first democratically elected president, who teaches us in words as in example that the human spirit is its own absolute in the face even of insurmountable odds.

Writing on his years of imprisonment particularly on Robben Island, Mandela has memorably described the existence of two kinds of victory on earth. There are “victories whose glory lies only in the fact that they are known to those who win them”, and this he exemplifies with his own political incarceration. The category can, in fact, be enlarged to include any form of triumph built on the exercise of power and advantage over another and capped with some measure of fame or benefit as prize. Yet, more significantly, Mandela stresses another sort of victory, a far more desirable one that arises out of “being true to one’s ideals, even if no one else knows of it”. In its determination, he says, “any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure”.[4]

This self-assuredness, this stubbornness with which one proceeds to judge the moral content of things done to a human, is also found in writings of South Africans such as Nadine Gordimer, Dennis Brutus, Peter Horn, André Brink, Karel Schoeman, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Arthus Nortje, Mongane Wally Serote, Gcina Mhlope, and Phaswane Mpe. Adam Small, one of the key literary voices of the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement, thus describes his own feeling of dispossession in a poem satirically titled “Gesondheid!” (“Bless You!” in Africaans):

o Land of Sunshine
my honour you trample down
but in my blessed wine
am I and my brown
o taste whene’er you toast
to God know what
and I am very sad
great grandmother’s clarity
great grandfather’s sweat![5]

Small’s reduction of polite blessing into sarcasm, God to “God know what”, represents a deliberate institutional undermining that is fuelled by righteous anger. Through it, we come to understand how Mandela’s twenty-seven-year imprisonment could have been transformed so fluidly into the potent symbol of oppression. What his sentence really stands for is the generations of suffering under racial hatred and distrust, a whole legacy of imprisonment lived in the head. It is this powerful sense that makes the prison a far more universal symbol, one we can extend here not just to the Singaporean writings on confinement by James Puthucheary, Tan Jing Quee, Aaron Lee, Alfian bin Sa’at, and others. We can also relate it to Edwin Thumboo and Ting Kheng Siong on colonialism, Abdul Ghani Hamid and Elangovan on the disenfranchised, Anuar Othman and Alvin Pang on racial discontent, Lee Tzu Pheng on gender inequality, Kirpal Singh and David Leo on the abuse of power, and Amiroudine on the violence of modernity. This image further lets us to explore how spiritual and reflective questions of freedom can be in writings by Masuri S N, Goh Poh Seng, and Boey Kim Cheng.

The underlying point – that a commitment to human freedom is itself virtuous – is made before by the eighteenth-century Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau has argued that, when a person enters society and becomes bound to its rules or laws, something happens to his or her freedom, which would otherwise remain crude and stupid. The transition “puts justice as a rule of conduct in the place of instinct” and so gives individual actions “the moral quality they previously lacked”.[6] What the social creature therefore gains, in other words, is the exercise of his or her mental faculties and the ennobling of his or her sentiments, a development that, in turn, maintains the humaneness and maturity of a system. So dependent is society on mere humans to give it its moral framework that it evolves or devolves according to the willingness with which these affirm their own freedom through it.

In both Rousseau and Mandela, we find a rather curious but important understanding that man must paradoxically be forced to embrace freedom. Both recognise that the future of humanity lies in the health of societies only because their corruption cannot ultimately serve the purposes of life. Societal malfunction leads to the curtailment of individual freedom – first arbitrarily, then systematically – and this inevitable gradual collapse highlights how freedom must always be treated as indivisible. Mandela puts it as such: “The chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”[7] If I seem then to have come full circle to acknowledge, as I did at first, human wretchedness, it is just to stress what is distinct here from helping each other hope by stupidly increasing wealth. We must rather help to re-create the very conditions of hope that are primarily independent of such pursuits, by tying hope not to status, things, achievements, and productivity but to the mere dignity of being alive.

* * *

Man/Born/Free, the title of this modest collection of poems and stories from Singapore, takes its words from Rousseau’s famous saying: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”[8] This title does not just illustrate – through the substitution of blank spaces between words with slashes – the unjust condition that denies man his liberty or equality. It also visually represents something positive, the social contract that binds an individual paradoxically to his or her own freedom. The dual meaning here is intended as I have hoped both to affirm the great inner resource within every person and to warn against our failure to understand or protect it enough. As part of the 2011 event Spotlight Singapore in Cape Town, my volume thus showcases the trials of the human spirit as expressed by Singaporean writers as well as their varied explorations of conscience.

This thematic selection is far from exhaustive and shows only samples from a wide range of moments bringing a literary sensibility to the cause of high ideals. To put the human spirit at the centre of the anthology is meant firstly as an acknowledgement of the inspiration the new South Africa offers. It is also a foundational invitation to re-look at and re-examine Singaporean writing from a perspective that has been habitually ignored by followers and commentators alike. My choice to select writings across Singapore’s four main languages – English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil – is key to this documentation and celebrates the legacy of the now-defunct journal of creative writing Singa, published from 1984 to 2000. We have indeed been seeing a resurrection of this need to be linguistically and so culturally representative in anthologies such as Fifty on 50 (2009), edited by Edwin Thumboo, Isa Kamari, Chia Hwee Pheng, and K. T. M. Iqbal, and Alvin Pang’s Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore (2009).

Crucially, the move here also identifies the space of multiculturalism as where Singapore can meet South Africa, with its staggering eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sesotho sa Leboa, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. The post-apartheid “rainbow nation” has, in fact, enshrined its own belief in diversity in a hybrid national anthem that was adopted in 1997. This song combines the former anthem Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa in Afrikaans), used between 1957 and 1994, with the pan-African liberation anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa in Xhosa). The stanzas further employ five of the most widely spoken languages in the hand:

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
[God bless Africa
Raise high its glory,
Hear our prayers
God bless us, her children.]

isiXhosa and isiZulu

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika – South Afrika.
[God, we ask You to protect our nation,
Intervene and end all conflicts,
Protect us, protect our nation,
Our nation, South Africa – South Africa.]


Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
[Ringing out from our blue heavens,
From our deep seas breaking round,
Over our everlasting mountains,
Where the echoing crags resound,]


Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.[9]


The political significance is never lost on postcolonial states that a truly transformative support for social peace and harmony cannot involve oppressive notions of elitist superiority again. Conversely, as this collection also highlights, the mere performance of a nation’s multiplicity can signal the conviction of a more representative matrix of emotions and thoughts that would have been missed if just one dominant language were at play. To strengthen such a point, I have gone on to restore to the Singaporean literary identity a sense of continuity in this respect and selected texts from a full range of nearly six decades of Singaporean life. It ought to hold up and testify now to the power of thinking voices to confront both public and private ethical questions through the years, the value of hope in the social realities of individuals, and the committed belief in the functioning of justice and freedom.

All this clarification is necessary because, for too long, there has been a rather false perception, even among academics, that Singaporean literature pathologically lacks social and political awareness. For example, the Australian critic Dennis Haskell speaks of “an absence of political poetry in Singapore” and “an absence of any tradition of political poetry”, which then proves for him some underlying common practice of self-censorship.[10] The notion that ours is “much more a poetry of description and evocation than of declamation” is not challenged enough, and yet this case reminds me of an Uyghur folktale where the beloved comic figure Afanti went looking for a bronze coin around his yard. When asked by his neighbour how he lost it, Afanti replied that he had dropped it in his room, but it was simply too dark to look indoors.

It is the South African poet James Matthews who surely shows that he understands better with this comment on his own country’s problems: “Living in our land is a political action.”[11] Writing as well as living are forms of embedded action and cannot be taken to avail the dimensions of its engagements easily without sufficient immersion into the full context of their acts. For example, both South Africa and Singapore share in the long and painful experience of colonialism, and it explains an early generation of Singaporeans growing up with anti-colonial African writings and Black spirituals taught in schools. But how do we explain Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country (1948) still being read as a school text after over three decades – unless these words resonate not as distant history but truths just a layer away?

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.[12]

When we give ear to such subtleties in day-to-day manifestations, to changing feelings towards difference as redefined by globalisation, immigration trends, the post-9/11 world, and so on, we realise that new questions are actually being raised even if the broad issues remain the same. It is this understanding that makes it possible to read what Catherine Lim wrote on materialism, Yeng Pway Ngon on social sanity, and Said Zahari on nationhood both historically and as texts with sudden contemporary relevance. We can further get behind into the structures that inform Johar Buang’s and Kadayanallur Jameela’s feeling of loss, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s call to transcend, Gwee Li Sui’s and Isa Kamari’s inquiry into religiosity, and Gilbert Koh’s and Ng Yi-Sheng’s paranoia. Cast a reader’s eye across the Indian Ocean, and we can also sense the promise of the future in Antjie Krog’s “My Mooi Land” (“My Beautiful Land” in Afrikaans) still stirring but with slight dissonance from the way the poem felt in 1969:

look, I build myself a land
where skin colour doesn’t count
only the inner brand of self

where no goat face in parliament
can keep things permanently verkramp

where I can love you,
can be beside you in the grass
without saying ‘I do’[13]

This volume owes much to the encouragement and confidence of numerous individuals in different capacities. There are the organisers of Spotlight Singapore in Cape Town who gave advice at each step of the process: Colin Goh and Phan Ming Yen of The Arts House, R. Ramachandran of the National Book Development Council of Singapore, and Richard Lawton and Ré Storm of the Raintree Group. The publishers of Ethos Books, Fong Hoe Fang and Chan Wai Han, are truly inspirational figures, and I want to dedicate my current work on this anthology to them. Their clarity of vision, courage, unceasing kindness, and perseverance through personal difficult times embody the main themes celebrated here in credible but extraordinary ways. In my own capacity, I wish to thank Kim Mi Wol for instances of ethical reflection she sparked in me that have gone into the early imagination of this book.

The end of this rather original project must be to encourage readers to go forth and dare dream a vision of a brighter and freer future for others. In his poem included in the volume, Isa Kamari cites a passage from the Qur’an which he translates wonderfully: “God will not change / The condition of a people / Unless the people change their condition.”[14] These words present an all-too-familiar human choice between stagnation, or even regression, and true social transformation, and we hear in them Mandela’s own rousing words echoing:

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.[15]

Gwee Li Sui

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

[2] Kishore Mahbubani, “Following Singapore’s Lead on the Road of Development”, Earth Times (15 January 2001).

[3] Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes (31 January 1849).

[4] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994), p. 341.

[5] Adam Small, “Gesondheid!”, The New Century of South African Poetry, edited by Michael Chapman (Jeppestown: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2002), p. 177-78.

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, translated by Maurice Cranston (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 64.

[7] Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 544.

[8] Rousseau, The Social Contract, p. 49.

[9] “National Anthem,” South African Government Information <;.

[10] Dennis Haskell, “‘Authority’ in Modern Singaporean Poetry”, Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature. Volume 2: Poetry, edited by Kirpal Singh (Singapore: Ethos Books, 1999), pp. 19-34, p. 32.

[11] James Matthews, Cry Rage: Odyssey of a Dissident Poet (Cape Town: Realities, 2008), p. 107.

[12] Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (New York: Scribner, 2003), p. 73.

[13] Antjie Krog, “my beautiful land”, The New Century of South African Poetry, p. 260.

[14] Originally from Qur’an 13:11.

[15] Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 544.

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