Singapore—After Education Minister Ong Ye Kung quoted a part of a poem from Alfian Sa’at in Parliament on Monday, October 7, netizens have taken to posting Mr Alfian’s poetry on social media as well.
Mr Ong was commenting on the matter of a module on dissent that was supposed to have been led by Mr Alfian at Yale-NUS and had been cancelled, saying that academic freedom must have its limits.
“Academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy, for this would undermine the institution’s academic standards and public standing.”
The main issue, he said, was that the module “may be used to conduct partisan political activities to sow dissent against the government is not unfounded. MOE [the Ministry of Education] had that concern too when we saw the itinerary of the ‘Dissent and resistance’ project.”
The Education Minister also read an excerpt from Mr Alfian’s poem, Singapore You Are Not My Country. Mr Ong commented that despite allowing for “some artistic licence”, the playwright “continues this attitude consistently in his activism.
Mr Alfian took to Facebook to air his side after Mr Ong’s speech, writing out the full line that the Education Minister had quoted.
“Do not raise your voice against me,
I am not afraid of your anthem
although the lyrics are still bleeding from
the bark of my sapless heart.”
And, while he said he “generally” didn’t “like explaining my own poems,” he wrote,
“Just stopping on the word ‘anthem’ might suggest that I am somehow rejecting symbols of the state.
But the whole line makes clear that I have grown up with the anthem as a Singaporean, that it bleeds from my heart, and that in spite of saying ‘I am not afraid of your anthem’ (bravado) I am actually afraid of hearing it and having it rouse patriotic feelings in me. And I am afraid of this patriotic love because it is so involuntarily, it comes from a primordial and irresistible place from deep inside.
I am afraid of these volcanic feelings because I want to protect myself from loving something too much.”
Iza Hussin called for “an Alfian virtual poetry flashmob, and posted a link to Mr Alfian’s page on poetry.sg.
She included Mr Alfian’s poem, Autobiography, whose first four lines are
Like most of us, I can’t remember how
I was separated from my first love.
(Did it die, did I break it, was it stolen
Or did it fly out through the open window?)
Theophi Kwek, who teaches poetry, also posted the words to Autobiography and wrote, “I’ve never once had to explain to my students that this is a poet who loves his country.… Of course, we may disagree on things. But it doesn’t take a class or workshop to see it: this is a poet whose love hits home.”
Janice Koh posted the words to Autobiography as well, calling it one of her favorite poems, and then she echoed the recent words of veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, “What we truly need, more than ever, is an appreciation of loving critics and critical lovers.”
Writer Andrew Loh posted a link to the full verses of Singapore You Are Not My Country (For Noora), which he said “Ong Ye Ķung woefully quoted out of context and completely misinterpreted” and invited netizens to read it for themselves.
Faris Joraimi posted Mr Alfian’s poem, The Portrait of a Sentenced Library, writing, “When the old National Library was being torn down in the late nineties, Alfian wrote this love letter to the places taken away from us. Read these lines and tell me if someone who hates Singapore could truly paint it with a brush like this.”
Ng Yi-Sheng, who has taught creative writing, posted the poem, Ghazal of Love.
Mr Alfian has also found support from some public figures, including Tommy Koh, and Nominated Members of Parliament Walter Theseira and Anthea Ong./ TISG