[a version of this review was published in Karyawan vol. 13 issue 1, Jan 2018]
What does it mean to lose a place? In a capitalist city-state like Singapore where economic interests supersede sentimentality, nostalgia, & even history, where heritage sites are mowed over or revamped for a highway or a new shopping district, what does it mean to remember a place except to participate in a kind of mourning?
Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit is an anthology of poems edited and translated by Annaliza Bakri. The poems, placed in their original language and translations side by side, are focused on specific places in Singapore written by Malay poets both award-winning and established, as well as more contemporary, younger voices. These poems were selected based on their rumination on specific sites in Singapore, such as the poets’ individual kampungs, Orchard Road, Tebrau Strait (commonly known as Straits of Johor), and the area most associated with the Malay community, Geylang Serai. As the book progresses however, one realises that it is too simplistic to reduce the anthology as a collection of poems on places. Additional considerations had also been “to include voices that spoke of loss, nostalgia, identity, problems, dreams and aspirations.” In a way, the places were either central, or tangential, to these other considerations.
A considerable number of the poems are meditative, caught in a rumination of a place in a past era, recounting its now vanished sights and sounds, such as “Silent River” by Mohd Khair Mohd Yasin, “Geylang Serai” by Yatiman Yusof and “Bukit Timah Sidewalk (memories from the 60s)” by Nordita Taib. Some are more experiential than descriptive such as poems “Bus 67” and “Haji Lane” by Isa Kamari, while others are odes to specific places, or a retelling of a historical episode. For the most part, a sense of nostalgia pervades the collection of poems, regardless of the voice or form it takes.
This tendency to poeticise places in a wistful, even mournful rumination is a telling one. It is as if one cannot speak about these places without invoking the ghost of its former streets, its former people, and the memories the poets associate the place with. It is no small fact that a considerable number of the poets lived through a developing Singapore, and some even remember a pre-independent Singapore, before the split with Malaysia.
“Song of Tebrau” by Juffri Supa’at, for example, is an almost loving ode to the Tebrau Strait that one can’t help but read in parallel with Singapore’s relationship with Malaysia. Mourning the absence of intimacy and warmth that was once felt, he asks
because we were once
disappointed and failed in love?
Similarly, “Tebrau Strait” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed is also a loving, even an almost erotic ode, at the end of which he presents the Straits as a place subjected to the political wills of men, while she herself is indifferent –
and you remain silent
calm and gentle
letting clams and cockles rodents roam about
moving on with life
who will earn profits
who will carry the burden.
Presenting these places as innocent victims to development and capitalist imperatives of profit is something we see throughout the text. The spectre of development is never far, and often spoken of as a kind of violence, a tide, a wave that has swept over these places, changing them so completely that the poets are at a loss to comprehend the fact that they are no longer the same. As Yatiman Yusof writes in “Geylang Serai,”
Now the wind blows
and everything is gone.
This sense of standing unnerved, helpless only to watch as change happens in a blink, is a familiar sentiment of those who have lived through the rapid development of Singapore.
Part of the pain of development is the way former prized places, often seen as places of peaceful natural respite and pristine slowness, is helpless before the violence of development. In “Geylang Serai” by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, we are given the following image:
A distance away
a bulldozer roared madly
flattening the attap houses
the old mosques.
This image appears again in Norashikin Jamain’s “Kampung Melayu” where she writes “your chest is scoured / by lorries and bulldozers.”
Interestingly, even the very air is mentioned in several poems, to mark perhaps the corruption that development brings – with Jamain describing “the freshness of the morning / disturbed by the stale vapour from vehicles’ fumes,” and Ahmad Md Tahir in “Shenton Way” writing “The air gets viscous / as it dissolves in monoxide.”
Corruption is an interesting concept to turn to at this point. To point out that the air is corrupt, or to look back and remember a place as one of natural simplicity, is perhaps something only truly done in retrospect, after it is compared against the current tide of development. Corruption isn’t only spoken of in the physical and literal definition but also through a lens of morality and value-judgement. Development is seen as a corrupting, almost immoral force. When combined with the strong presence of Islam in the lives and words of these poets, we see how the language of religion is employed to further reiterate the loss felt. In “Wak Tanjong Will Continue to Stand Here,” Suratman Markasan writes an ode to the madrasah that stands in the face of moral and religious degradation: “there are many signs everywhere / that made us confused and the ulama sorrowful” – with the students being the ones “who know the real truth.”
The mosque especially is important in our discussion here. The mosque for the Malay/Muslim community is a religious place, but its value extends beyond its practical purpose. It also functions as a place where the community gathers. The aspect of community, one which is contrasted against the alienation and isolation replete in capitalist city-states like Singapore, is important for us to keep in mind when understanding the sense of alienation.
In “Kampung Race Course Mosque,” Faridah Taib writes:
what is left is just history
no more kalima
the rhapsody of the prayer call
can I buy a nostalgic past?
can the unyielding tears be its replacement?
Masjid Al-Falah makes a couple of appearances in the book as well. In “Saturday Night (In Orchard Road)” by Juffri Supa’at, we read the following lines:
From a corner
the call reverberates from Al-Falah
in the midst of roaring
vehicles and city dwellers.
This is perhaps one of the more elegant, quiet expressions of insecurity and loss in the face of development. The mosque, a place that represents spirituality, communal gathering, and the Muslim community is not only in the corner, but audibly fading, drowned out by the sounds of deafening progress.
National narratives often present the speed of development Singapore went through after independence as a success story. One that proves our miraculous and meteoric rise from “third-world to first.” But of course, it is imperative to remember that this is a national narrative, a constructed one, or at the very least a kind of wilful selection and shaping of facts. The poems in the collection present a different narrative: one where the speed of development people bore witness to was experienced with a sense of longing, mournfulness, loss, and even a sense of disassociation and dislocation. More importantly, the poems are also a form of resistance against the speed of forgetting that accompanies the kind of development we are caught in, where places are destroyed and rebuilt faster than our memory and recording can cope with.
For a moment, these poems throw us into the personal narratives and memories of these places. In just another decade, perhaps this book would provide the only lasting piece of existing memory to remember some of the historical images and memories recounted. Who else will remember the smell of a river so many decades back, or the call of the birds? Who else might remember that a place once had another name, and that for a long time, nobody had called it any other way? Perhaps this anthology of poems can be a call for us to also participate in the act of slowness and remembering; to write our own kind of poems to fossilise what would be swept away so quickly by the winds of capital and national development.