Powerful poems #1: Wendell Berry’s “Enemies”

When I talk about poetry with any student whose only exposure to this genre has been the torture of having to sit for exams, I sometimes start with this observation:

Poets don’t craft their poems so that they can torture you in an exam room; they write to convey something powerful, something that makes them want to create art that in turn creates in them a desire for escape from the confines of prose.

There is power in poetry, and I’m hoping to be able to talk about it in a new series of posts, just to see if I can get a few more people in the world to appreciate this form of literature.

I’ll start with Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” — please click and read it before continuing reading my post!

Quick instructions for reading a poem:

  • Read it aloud, don’t worry too much about unearthing meaning yet. Please don’t forget the title.
  • Check the dictionary for any word you want to think more deeply about, even if you think you understand the word already.
  • Read the poem again — preferably, aloud.

How much we need poetry like this in our age of polarisation. Poet Wendell Berry quite clearly knows this, hailing from a society that is particularly polarised — the US. In Singapore we are perhaps less split along political lines, but we are still prone to the habit of thinking that the people we disagree with are our enemies.

That one word title primes all of my protective faculties. Who are these enemies that the poet wants me to think about? (Grrr, my inner guard dog goes.) I consider those I think of as my enemies, and I am blindsided by the first line’s introduction of a hypothetical: “If you are not to become a monster”. Why should I be bothered with not becoming “a monster”? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with the monstrosity of my enemies? And why, if I am not to become a monster, must I “care what they think”?

The poetic voice points out that there is danger in caring about what my enemies think. “If you care what they think”, he asks, “how will you not hate them”? I’ll reveal a little about myself here: I almost unavoidably think of certain groups of people I find irredeemably selfish as my enemies because I view them as hampering and preventing the larger mass of humanity from progressing in several ways I find important.

I think of the people who support the structures in our world that worsen the problems associated with climate change and resource depletion. I think of our younger generations, who will be growing old in a world that we may not recognise. In 2021, the rich world is already suffering from the ravages of extreme weather. What will this look like in 2070? Or in 2100, when the babies born now will just be finishing their eighth decade of their lives?

I think about my enemies, and I consider what they must be thinking — perhaps they’re greedy, and they just want to generate profit at all costs, the future generations be damned. Maybe they’re an example of pure, unadulterated evil, and that they just want to watch the world burn. And then I catch myself, and I realise: I’m becoming “a monster / of the opposite kind”, just like the poem warns.

If I’m honest with myself, I am capable of harbouring the desire to destroy my enemies. I have become monstrous. “From where then / is love to come — love for your enemy / that is the way of liberty?” Berry asks. The enjambment that leads from the second stanza into the third stanza is a little distracting, as if the text is screaming at me: Pay attention!! Don’t let your focus waver!! You’re capable of monstrosity!!

The text answers me: “From forgiveness.” But I can feel myself resisting the idea that my liberty lies in the forgiveness of those I think of as monsters. I could label that resistance as anger, bitterness, and indignation — and I realise that without the ability to drop those emotions, I remain a prisoner of those feelings that potentially have such a debilitating effect on our bodies.

Personally speaking, I need to be able to understand the motivations of someone I’m angry with in order to be able to move from anger to love. My enemies might, in fact, be suffering with insecurity in spite of the wealth and power so many of them already have. When I sit with that knowledge, I find myself able to find my own insecurity, and to identify how I sometimes have been far less than perfect because of my fears. I find myself less able to hate my enemies, and more able to love them, when I spend enough time with that knowledge.

I can feel, within myself, the freedom and liberty that our poetic voice presents to us when I manage to love my enemies (a freedom that is also rooted in my spirituality that includes the love for our enemies that Jesus called for). My enemies then become “as sunlight / on a green branch” to me – they have provided a pathway for me to experience the nourishment of what forgiving someone feels like.

But it is still important to register that what my enemies have done is, to me, wrong. To my judgement, their actions are destructive. Wendell Berry’s final words in “Enemies” warns me that I “must not / think of them again, except / as monsters like (myself), pitiable because unforgiving.” Perhaps my enemies have chosen their paths because they are unable to forgive. (Are they unable to forgive the universe for not being protective enough of the ones they love? Hmm.) If I allow myself to hold on to my indignation, my hate rises again, and I remember that I, too, am capable of monstrosity.

So I remind myself that despite their wrongdoings (that might be right and justifiable actions in a moral framework different from mine), it is possible to love and forgive my enemies. It is possible, perhaps, for me to avoid monstrosity myself.


I recently texted a friend that “the Big Sin of social justice movements is to fail to extend compassion to the oppressor”. I know that many people will resist this by ranting about how nobody bothers to extend compassion to the oppressed and marginalised. But hear me out — maybe we can do both, and maybe progress can be had if we made as much of an effort to understand the pains of the oppressors as we put in the effort to stand with the marginalised.

My sense of things is that those we think of as our oppressors are acting from positions of pain and trauma, even while they cause more pain and trauma. I read Wendell Berry’s “Enemies” as calling for us to end that cycle. I hold on to the hope that we can.


Did you enjoy this article? Did you manage to enjoy the poem? Let me know in the comments!

How do I start with preparing for the unseen poetry section?

Very occasionally I respond to posts on Reddit, and a few days ago someone asked for notes on unseen poetry. My response:

I’ve found Edward Hirsch’s writing helpful in helping my students think about poetry more deeply – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69955/how-to-read-a-poem

For unseen poetry, the band descriptors say that the best answers show a “Sensitive and informed personal response showing close engagement with the text”. Ask your teachers if the use of the personal voice (“I feel”, “it strikes me”, “I have an impression that”, etc) is encouraged, and how you can express that in your literature essays (I’ve found that there sometimes are teachers that will discourage this, so please check your school’s style).

Hirsch’s writing resembles the kind of writing we’d LOVE to see in an essay, especially since he does that “personal response” thing very powerfully (but he’s a GREAT writer, so don’t be concerned about sounding like him, develop your own style).

As always, check the dictionary to ensure that you KNOW the meaning of the words in any text. (I’ve found the Merriam-Webster dictionary most helpful for digging out meanings that aren’t listed in the Lexico or Cambridge dictionaries.)

At the B4/C5 level you probably have some difficulty with understanding the literal meanings of some of the poems, so really try to work at that.

Poetry Foundation also has an app that allows you to spin for random poems, and some of my students have found that helpful too. (Spin till you get one you like, lol.)

Hope this helps!


I want to say more about Edward Hirsch’s book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, because it saved my academic life when I was in NUS. If not for it, I probably would have done quite badly, and that’s putting it mildly.

When I entered university fresh from the army, it was already already seven years since I’d last read a poem. That was in my Sec 2 literature class, when my school (a boys’ school famous for students unable to speak Chinese properly) kept on telling those of us who wanted to take literature at the O-levels that “boys generally aren’t very good at literature”. (Ha! Look at me now!)

So, as a 21-year-old entering academia again after 2.5 years in the army, I didn’t dream that I would be able to major in literature, and I definitely couldn’t see a future where I could compete with students who’d been taking literature at the O-levels and the A-levels. I thought I was going to major in psychology. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) the entry-level psychology module was mind-numbingly boring, but the entry-level literature module was pure FUN from day 1.

But what could I do, when I was writing essays on poetry, and I was graded on the same scale as the O- and A-level literature kids?

Enter Edward Hirsch’s amazing book. I devoured it, finishing it in about a week (it’s a long one). It saved my life when it came to discussing poetry with the other A-for-A-level-literature kids.

I don’t know if Hirsch expected a young undergraduate to end up falling in love with poetry through his brilliantly written book, when that undergraduate picked up the book out of a desire to get an A for his university assignments and exams. It’s weird how other people’s writing can impact us like that.

I am filled with gratitude that the world carries such treasures such as these!


I tell that story on this website because I want to convey to the students desperate for unseen poetry notes that learning about poetry and how to write about poetry is a process that needs a deep commitment. If you sit down for hours each day to study for a single science paper, you should be doing the same for literature as well.

There is no shortcut.

But I want to reassure you that if you put in the effort to think about poetry and reading more deeply, it will eventually become rewarding and fulfilling to the point where you will never want to give up the habit. And it’s a good habit too.

Hope this helps!

Covid-19, inequality, and student stress

We can’t deal with stressed out students at the national level by merely tinkering with the education system. We have to lower the penalties for those of us who do not do well in school.

Covid-19 and its impact on the economy has highlighted for us the inequalities baked into our society. Regardless of the progress that we may have made in Singapore on income inequality, the divide here has never been clearer.

Two headlines from recent weeks have helped me explain this to students who have trouble understanding the economic divide we have here. One reads: “From luxe private home dining to discounted tickets, high-end restaurants innovate to cope with heightened alert.” The second reads: “Covid-19 restrictions: Taxi, private hire drivers report fall in income as some operators offer aid.”

Our young people can be forgiven if they think that the exam results they get now will dictate their future. It certainly seems like it, right? Fail to get into university, or fail to get into JC, or fail to get into a good secondary school, and it all seems like it’s going to fall apart.

The truth is that there are ways to succeed in Singapore even if you don’t do well in school. But it is also true that a comfortable life is much easier to come by if you do well for your exams at each stage. The advantages really do add up.

If you do well for your PSLE, you get into a better secondary school that will make it easier for you to get into a better JC, which raises your chances of getting into a good university, which raises your chances of getting a good degree. At each stage, there are ways to raise your chances of success even if you’ve tripped a bit at the previous stage (hello, private tuition).

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

Fortunately, there are paths to success for those who don’t do well in school. If you fail your A-levels, for example, you could always take it again as a private candidate. Our lives are a sum of our choices at each moment, and it is always possible to choose better actions at each stage of life.

But a cruel tendency remains: there are penalties for those who don’t do well at each stage.

There are solutions to the problem of economic inequality, including giving free money to all of us. It probably sounds ridiculous to some of you, but the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been argued for in Parliament, by AWARE, and even in the Singapore Business Review.

Whatever solution is chosen or not chosen, those of us with the privilege to examine these problems and their solutions must care about this. Sure, if you’re rich, during the lockdown you get to consider ordering a luxury meal in–but do you see the way that your children may be suffering?

Children and teenagers are not blind agents shuffling their way through the world till they finally get to adult maturity; almost all of them are sensitive and perceptive creatures who are have already developed some of the abilities they will continue to use as adults.

Many of them, even if they cannot speak eloquently about these issues, already have impressionistic understandings of how our world works. Many of them understand, on some level, the penalties they face for failure, and pressure themselves into working hard because of that.

Some of them have even put themselves under such profound stress that they cope by appearing lazy.

Those of us who are privileged neglect societal problems at our own risk, and Covid-19 should remind us of exactly how connected we are. The air your private chef or delivery rider breathes out is exactly the same air that you will breathe in.

Why is our society so relentlessly competitive? Maybe because we understand that to fall behind in the race is to lose out on all kinds of safety and dignity.

This is why we can’t deal with stress in the education system by merely tinkering with that system, even though incremental improvements are always welcome.

We teach and learn in a larger system that impinges on us, and no matter how much teachers and tutors try to deal with our students’ wellbeing in the educational setting, we are effectively powerless when it comes to the larger problems in society–unless we all come together as a society to solve these problems.

There are solutions to be thought about, and those of us who can do so must at least care about what is to be done.


PS: For those who are too stressed out about this, let me recommend a few books (and one article) that I’ve personally found helpful. There are ways to success, no matter how you define it. Don’t give up!

Shawn Achor (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.

Shawn Achor (2018). Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being.

Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Dan Harris (2014). 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story

Bertrand Russell (1932). In Praise of Idleness.

Do I say “migrant workers” or “foreign workers”? What’s the difference?

[This question came up in a chat group I’m in. My response below.]

Let’s think about how the words “migrant” and “foreign” are used.

When I am dealing with an idea that is completely unfamiliar, I say that “the idea is foreign to me”. When an object that does not belong in a human body enters it — like a sharp piece of something — we say something like “the foreign object entered his body, causing injury”.

When we think of “migrants”, on the other hand, we think of migrant birds, migrant animals — or the fact that the vast majority of us (Singaporeans) are either descendants of people who migrated from lands some distance away or first-generation migrants.

Describing people as “foreign workers”, therefore, foregrounds the differences between “us” and “them” — they are foreign, they are alien, they are something other than us.

But when we say “migrant workers”, we leave more linguistic space to acknowledge commonalities. They are migrants, and we are migrants and the children of migrants.

An educator’s perspective on “fake news”

I intend to send this in to the Select Committee that has been formed to tackle fake news in a few days. Comments and suggestions are welcome, but I also encourage my readers to send in their views.


I am a private tutor who teaches General Paper (GP), and new students sometimes say: “I thought I wasn’t allowed to criticise Singapore’s government in my essays!”

When it comes to misperceptions of the world, my new students start off with plenty. It’s already an uphill battle to fight these errors, and I believe that introducing legislation aimed at battling fake news will only further stoke needless fear into a populace already unsure of those (in)famous “OB markers“. This would especially be so if the legislation is aimed at social media, the ground for so much of our political discourse these days.

I completely understand if politicians think that this fear of authority, particularly the fear of speaking out against authority, is a good thing — surely it makes a population easier to control, in some ways. However, considering the current government’s goals, this fear that has worked so well in the past may prove counterproductive now, especially when we consider Singapore’s economic productivity.

Already we are struggling to attain a level of productivity comparable to other developed countries, but this makes no apparent sense: aren’t we topping the charts when it comes to the famed international student assessment benchmark, PISA? Why is this not translating to high levels of productivity in the workplace? My opinion is that the fear of authority — which is so effectively worked into Singaporeans via the education system, national service, and our national bureaucracies — plays a huge role in this lack of productivity.

The economy from here on out is going to be ever-shifting and unpredictable. The current government correctly places an emphasis on lifelong learning, since it is those with the ability to react effectively to such changes who will be more productive in this new landscape. It isn’t just knowledge that is important. What is crucial is the ability to use that knowledge, to test data against reality, to tell falsehood from truth — in short, we need to know how to solve those inevitable problems that arise daily for the modern worker.

The fear of authority acts against this skill of problem-solving that necessarily involves some level of risk-taking, and therefore the risk of angering authority, especially in the context of the modern office.

Witnessing history unfold before us with the presidency of Donald Trump and the attendant phenomenon of fake news is worrying, but we must be careful of knee-jerk reactions that will only set us back as a nation. What we need to combat fake news is a Singaporean public that can think critically for itself. It may be a public that’s more resilient to persuasion, but isn’t that the goal here, to have a public that can resist manipulation by malign forces?

Video games and the factory worker ethic

On Tuesday I had the good fortune of meeting an airline pilot by chance, who told me something that I had suspected but never confirmed: you can learn some of the skills involved in flying a plane with certain flight simulator games (he used Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator X” himself). These games are challenging and fun, and according to the pilot, mastery in such flight simulator video games is looked on favourably if you apply to be a trainee pilot. Play, in this case, is not just for its own sake but also for some kind of utility (i.e. learning how to fly a plane). This stands in stark, stark contrast to most video games out there on the market today, especially smartphone games (Flight Simulator X happens to run on non-mobile platforms).

Most mobile games nowadays have a learning curve that plateaus rapidly, usually within a few hours. Take any first-person shooter game for example — most games out there feature simplistic swipe-and-tap mechanisms that are miles away from the experience of firing a real gun. These games are usually “pay or grind to win”, requiring that a player either put in real-world currency (pay to win) or repeat certain actions/stages multiple times (grind to win) before they are allowed to advance. The use of “grind” exposes how this sometimes feels for players, with a game sometimes taking on a boring, tedious quality before bestowing on the player a reward that often requires more grinding to exploit fully.

The idea of grinding in games isn’t a new idea. I did it myself as a teenager when playing in multi-user dungeons (MUDs), but at least I had plenty of people to chat with in-game when grinding (the reason I type so quickly nowadays is that as a teenager I learnt how to type as quickly as possible to grind efficiently and chat online at the same time). What is new, I think, is the typical teenager’s view of these games.

Unlike 30-somethings today, most of our teenagers grew up in a world dominated by video games. When the phrase “childhood play” is mentioned, what do you think of? I think mostly of chasing people around in void decks and playgrounds, digging in the sand, and a very dangerous night of inadvertently creating a bomb with sparkler powder and a milo tin. Yes, it is mixed in with afternoons spent at the video game arcade (Alien vs Predator, woohoo!), but it is dominated by self-directed, physical play. Teenagers these days share some of my childhood experiences, but also will have experienced a whole host of computer-aided play — whether it be the old Pokémon games, Xbox games, or whatnot.

We need to interrogate what “play” means to us, especially because we have moved firmly into the smartphone age, and are moving into an age of augmented reality gaming (i.e. Pokémon Go). When thinking about mobile games that require grinding, I realise that I have almost completely stopped processing them as “play”. The gamer is forced into the mindset of a factory worker, logging the hours to “create” a product (with the sad irony that no product is created, other than an experience that the gaming company hopes will lead you into giving them money to avoid playing certain parts of the game).

That play should be fun is a point so obvious that it seems to need no discussion, but we have millions of people who work at mobile games that can feel like a factory shift, all the while thinking that they are indulging in play. In a strict sense they are participating in a game and are thus playing, but because so many of them are not actually having fun, I want to reframe this in-game grinding as factory work for the game companies. I have to admit the possibility that some gamers grind while entering into some kind of peaceful, focused, meditative space, and for them I would admit that this is play. (Meditative space is fun space!) Yet, I assert that this experience is rare because most people have no idea what this meditative space feels like in the first place.

Moreover, play in digital space is inferior to play in a physical space. Consider almost any kind of offline play, and you are bound to encounter something that will help people learn outside of the zone of play. If you play the guitar, if you play football, if you play with fire, if you play in the sand, if you play with your friends, you will pick up and refine your abilities in the musical, physical, visual, kinesthetic, social, and even intellectual realms. As children, many of us were introduced to the concept of fairness when deciding on the rules of the games we played together, after all. For most of us, it is innately rewarding to play these games and learn in these realms. It is just a vulgar accident in a vulgar society that learning in these realms helps us to get better grades and jobs. (Yes, I believe that society should be arranged in such a way that most of us get to act like rich people who do not need to work.)

Playing certain video games makes us more likely to want to get jobs, so that we can earn more money to pay for “luxuries” like in-game currency, so that we can unwind from the stressful jobs we work at. Playing in the offline world has the advantage of usually being cheap, requiring less money for us to have fun, while giving us the skills to earn more money in less time.

It is unfortunate that I keep on moving back to the necessity of making a living, but this is the world we live in, and we need to deal with it. I believe, however, that play can be our guide in deciding what to do with our lives. We need less of the factory worker ethic when playing, and more of a child’s wonder and excitement. Play should be fun — just like teaching can be fun. Are you having fun yet?

My Twitter is back up!

Sometimes students look at the articles I’ve saved on my own reading list app (I use pocket), and they wish that they had a nicely curated series of articles (like mine) to read. So I’ve revived my Twitter account! I’ll be posting tweets with links to articles that I think people should read.

If you’re doing the O-levels, you should understand the vocabulary in these articles, at the very least.

If you’re doing the A-levels, you need to go one step further: please be able to analyse each article, and be familiar with all the underlying issues.

Happy reading!

Oh shit, oh SHIT: “about two in five of the teens surveyed had paid for sex” — Straits Times, 10 April 2016

In the first-ever study of Singapore youth who have had sex with prostitutes, it was found that about two in five of the teens surveyed had paid for sex. The interviews were conducted with some 300 heterosexual boys aged between 16 and 19 who went to a government specialist clinic that treats sexually transmitted infections (STIs), between 2009 and 2014.

More teenage boys paying for sex: Study

 

Thankfully, the 40% of teens who paid for sex do not come from a random sample of teens — this sample was selected from boys who had already sought treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Still, the numbers are staggering — and these are only the boys who have sense enough to be worried about their health. What about the more oblivious ones?

These boys may be in the minority (given that there are over a million youth in Singapore), but the interviews published in the Straits Times suggest a male youth culture that has been poisoned by pornography and misguided peer expectations about sex:

“These boys want to feel accepted and want to boost their ego. They may not have a girlfriend to boast of, but they can pay to ‘conquer’ a prostitute. . . . The boys say their friends dare or urge them to go to a sex worker to initiate them into manhood.” – Associate Professor Wong Mee Lian

“My army mates talk openly about their sexual experiences and visiting prostitutes. And if you have nothing to share, they tease you. . . . I was a bit embarrassed (about being a virgin) and I wanted to fit in.” – 19 year old boy, who had his first sexual encounter with a prostitute last year when he was 18.

— Allure of paid sex for teenage boys

Over in Australia, researchers have found that girls as young as 15 are having to deal with porn addicted boys — pornography is shaping the behaviour and expectations of young teenage boys, and girls who are unfortunate enough to have to deal with them are crying out for help (source). I would be thoroughly surprised if this isn’t happening in Singapore as well, since pornography is also cited as one of the key reasons why our teenage boys are patronizing sex workers. (“Never having had a girlfriend, or one who is sexually active, and watching pornography frequently are the two strongest reasons why teenage boys turn to prostitutes, according to the first study here on teens who pay for sex.” — Allure of paid sex for teenage boys)

All of us — parents, teachers, children — cannot hide our heads in the sand any longer. We ignore these issues at our own peril. This isn’t just an issue about STIs, this affects children’s mental health too: teenagers who indulge in casual sex are more likely to suffer from depression than their peers who avoid casual sex (source).

This isn’t solely about sex education as we commonly conceive of it, either. We need to give our young ones a comprehensive education about love, even if we adults haven’t figured that out yet. At the very least, we need to tell them (and show them with our lives) that the most rewarding forms of sex often take place within loving relationships. We need to talk about pre-marital sex. We need to explore with our children why some married people stray from the boundaries of their marriage to commit adultery. We need to talk about pornography. We need to speak openly of these issues so that our children are as prepared as we can get them to negotiate the minefields of human sexuality. And yes, we do need to teach abstinence, but together with all of the above.

The more conservative segment of Singapore cannot scream and shout about abstinence-only sex education. Too many studies have shown that this kind of approach is “scientifically and ethically problematic” (source), to put it mildly. Our society will survive this crisis, of course. But what kind of romantic world will we be leaving our children to inherit, if we take no action?

Singapore Children’s Society chief executive Alfred Tan states the obvious (in the ST article), but his statement is no less important for it: “We have to start talking about sexuality issues with our children, to let them know what’s right and what’s wrong, when they are as young as possible.”


PS. I have to apologize for the clickbait title, but I feel that this is an issue more crucial than any change to the PSLE t-score or whatnot. The habit of looking for instant gratification is exactly what’s wrong with our society, and not just in terms of sexuality.

 

The musical I co-wrote will be performed this weekend, 1-3 April 2016!

This is just a shout-out to people who would like to see the other side of my work. I wrote the lyrics to My Love is Blind, a musical about a man who goes blind in his twenties, and had my sticky fingers involved in the music and bits of the script as well.

See what The Online Citizen had to say about the showcase last year:

“Let The Blind Lead The Blind”: Local musical confronts stereotypes of the visually impaired

Tan Guan Heng wrote his first novel My Love Is Blind in the early 1990s. It was a painstaking process: he had to first type his manuscript out in Braille, then record himself reading it aloud, before sending the tape to a typist for transcription. The book was published in 1995.

“It’s semi-autobiographical,” he said about the novel, which revolves around a young man learning to carry on with life after losing both his sight and the love of his life. “About 70 per cent of it comes from my own life.”

Twenty years later, his story is close to coming to life on the stage. Stella Kon – a Singaporean playwright who wrote the well-loved Emily of Emerald Hill – had helped him edit his novel all those years ago, and thought of it as a good story for a musical. Through Musical Theatre Live! (MTL) – a non-profit organisation of which Kon is chair – a team was put together to life the story off the page and on to the stage.

Get your tickets here — http://ticketingmtl.peatix.com/

Of course, if you want special ticketing arrangements (limited number of guest tickets lah, nod nod wink wink), feel free to contact me.

PS. If you get free tickets, please consider donating to the production company — writers, actors, set designers, sound crew, etc. need to pay their bills.

PPS: Dear friends and family. DON’T SAY BO JIO OK? 😀