Understanding Alfian Sa’at’s comments after Lee Kuan Yew’s demise


A peacemaking attempt. I keep on wishing we would fight less and talk more.


SECTION ONE : The Fallout

In recent days, admirers of Alfian Sa’at (one of Singapore’s most important poets — we study him in university!) have become detractors, because of his response to Lee Kuan Yew’s demise. On Thursday, four days after Lee’s passing, Sa’at posted this picture:

This post led some of his Facebook “friends” (funny word, that) to believe that he was making a direct comparison between North Korea and Singapore, that he was saying, essentially, that Singapore has become North Korea (cue angry comments arguing against that notion). In a comment lower down in the post, Sa’at responds to one of his critics, saying: I like the picture. The composition is very nice. And those colours! It makes me so happy looking at it. What’s ‘North Korea’?

Quite obviously this is a man who enjoys sarcasm and irony — and we need to appreciate the irony inherent in his posts to appreciate that Sa’at is not being ignorant, flippant, or disrespectful. If anything, he continues to be patriotic in his unrelenting effort to make us examine ourselves, and the stories we tell ourselves.

SECTION TWO: Reading Closely

On the 24th of March, Sa’at posted a poem from an old collection of his poems, first published in 1998. Curiously, this did not attract any attention from his detractors.

In Other News
The sun rose at 7.07 am. The prisoners wake up and wash
Their faces with cold water. They can hear the chirps
Of a flock of swifts, but cannot see the creatures
Sweep across the brightening sky like words blown off a page. 
A blind man has dropped a glass in his one-room flat, 
And on his hands and knees he pats the floor for shards. 
A maid chases after a boy with his shoes in her hands. 
He tumbles down the stairs in his socks to the waiting 
School bus, their soles black like salted eggs because
This is revenge on her for not trying hard enough
To drag him out of bed on time. Once they reach the bus
He will grab his shoes and scream at her in front
Of his friends. And she will smile, as if it all means 
Nothing to her, and it is not she who means nothing. 
A Bangladeshi labourer whitewashes a wall serenely,
Familiar with the act of being made invisible. 
High tide was 3.1 metres at 12.39 am. A woman stands
On a jetty at the reservoir, seeking quiet, knowing 
That it is quiet only in the water. Fish rise to the surface
Near the beach, poisoned by algae, and death this innumerable
Enters the realm of omen, nightmare, indifferent waste. 
A man watches by his father’s bedside, in a hospital ward,
The fans spinning to cool the bodies of nine patients. 
He wishes he could have given his father a smaller room
To die in. He clips the old man’s fingernails, since 
You groom that which you cannot save, and wonders
Who he can borrow money from for the funeral. 
There will not be any for a newspaper obituary.

As I keep on reminding my students, we need to pay attention to every poem’s title!!! — and this one is particularly important. The news that exploded all over our social media feeds on the 23rd of March was the news of the death of the senior Lee. The title “In Other News” reminds us that Lee’s death wasn’t the only important thing to happen.

But what’s so important about a “blind man [who] has dropped a glass in his one room flat”? Does it matter to us, so soon after Lee’s demise that “on his hands and knees [the blind man] pats the floor for shards”? It is a sad image, that the blind man seems to be forgotten by everyone around him, such that nobody helps him with the broken glass. But how is this relevant after such a momentous event such as the passing of our former Prime Minister?

One thing that we have to see is that Sa’at, in this particular poem, is telling stories of the forgotten — the prisoners who are deprived of the view of chirping birds, the blind man, the maid who is mistreated by a willful child, the son who cannot afford to pay for his father’s funeral or newspaper obituary.

Sa’at, posting this old poem so soon after Lee’s passing, may be trying to remind us not to forget those who suffer, even as we suffer through the grief of a former PM’s death.

SECTION THREE: The Forgotten

Who has been forgotten? Expect Alfian to provide some answers to that, after Sunday.

Alfian Sa'at: OK I'll let you do your own thing and climax on Sunday and I'll mind my own business in the meantime. But after you climax I can talk, yes? Or rather, we can talk. In the clear light of day, away from the fog of myth.

This “fog of myth” that Sa’at wants to clear is crucial for all of us to think about. Those who say mourn now, fight later sometimes accuse people like Sa’at of ignoring the facts of Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions to Singapore, while Sa’at (and others like him) are calling on us to pay attention to the facts of Lee Kuan Yew’s life. I think it’s brilliant that we can all agree on one thing: those who disagree with us need to be educated in the history of Singapore.

In the national mourning of Lee Kuan Yew, stories have been forgotten. From those whose stories seem insignificant (like the characters inhabiting the space of “In Other News”), to those whose names probably sound vaguely familiar  — Lim Hock Siew, Francis Seow, Chia Thye Poh, Tan Wah Piow, Lim Chin Siong, and so on.

While some mourn for Lee Kuan Yew, others mourn for these almost-forgotten lives.

When people are in pain, a slight irritation is unbearable (scratching an itch is pleasurable, scratching an abrasion is torture) so it is probably unavoidable that feelings have been hurt, and will continue to be hurt, in the coming days. But let’s try to agree on what we can, and remember the fact that most of us who bother posting and reading about this care about what happens to this country.




Understanding Alfian Sa’at’s comments after Lee Kuan Yew’s demise

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