Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Hong Lim Park"

Since this poem is context specific, here’s a bit of background information. Hong Lim Park is a public park in Singapore with a Speaker’s Corner. To read more, click here, and search under Singapore.

Hong Lim Park

a fat man stands
announces an opinion
as if it mattered

in the hot sun
the trees yawn and
almost sigh

the retirees wish
they had their
park back

by Gilbert Koh

Note: First published electronically by Softblow. Permission to reproduce here granted by the poet himself. Thanks, Gilbert.

To read Gilbert’s other poems, go to his blog Reader’s Eye, which is listed on the sidebar of Links.

Although very simple, this poem is ambiguously complex, and far from being didactic like other more overtly political poems, it allows the reader to bring his/her own reading to it. As such, it is necessary then for me to lay down my own ideological stance here (to each their own). Distressed over certain worrying trends in Malaysian socio-political landscape, I decided to put this poem up as a little food for thought.

Hong Lim Park represents Singapore government’s very strict and sometimes near draconian control over free speech. At the speaker’s corner, people can’t just go up impromptu and speak on a topic, but need to apply for a permit to speak from the nearby police outpost. As it is known, strong political dissent and opposition in Singapore are often clamped down hard and there is little room to publicly express differing political viewpoints on issues.

The first stanza of the poem plays out the tensions on the ‘freedoms’ that are allowed at the speaker’s corner. The word “Announce” though suggesting something important brought to the public’s attention is quickly understated and reduced to being only an “opinion”. The sharp irony in “as if it mattered” further dismisses whatever weight that “opinion” might have. Indeed, if the “opinion” had been allowed, it certainly wouldn’t have mattered too much – not political nor too big a social issue, since the speaker and the speech made would have been first checked and given approval. .

In fact, would anything addressed at the speaker’s corner interest anybody at all? The mention of the trees in the second stanza mark the absence of any listening party in the park, just as their animation with human expression of boredom (“yawn”) suggest a complete disinterest or apathy to whatever is being said.

At the poem’s close, retirees sit around comfortably and want more than anything else to enjoy the nice greenery of the park. Having somebody yakking and ranting away seem to be a nuisance and disturbance of the peace. To them, why would anybody seriously bother standing there talking “in the hot sun”?

Some other questions to consider:

- Is a different reading of the poem possible?
- Does the arrangement of the poem create a certain effect or ‘feel’?
- Does the word "sigh" in the second stanza complicate my reading of apathy in the poem?

BTW: For those Malaysians who haven’t heard or watched Danny Lim’s short film 18 (the film itself takes 18 minutes) which won Gold for short film documentary at the Malaysian Video Awards and came up runners up in the amateur category at the 2005 Freedom Film Fest, please click here or here (it is copyright free).

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Blogger madcap machinist said...

Nice piece, DI! I hope Gilbert will comment on his own poem too :-)

The brief stanzas and the lack of punctuation in the poem makes me feel as this is just a fleeting glimpse of the park as you pass by in a taxi.

The first stanza, when it is described that the fat man announces an opinion, and not actually expounding it, does support your reading.

The image of yawning trees is really funny, and yes, very apt. I got that sense of a lack of audience when I read that stanza too.

At the end of the poem, and considering the context, I do wonder if the retirees don't really want their park back for some peace of quiet (as is obvious), but if they wish they had the park back for them to speak out in.

Which raises the question: where is everybody else?

4:59 PM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Thanks, machinist, it's always a pleasure to read your comments. You are very perceptive about the retirees wanting their park back (in the second sense). I actually hadn't thought of it that way and gives the poem a different edge from the futility and apathy that I was reading into it.

Indeed, what happened to the other people in the park? It seems that, myself included, when we become meterially comfortable, we are less likely to care about the issues affecting us.

I can't help but feel the relevance of the poem after one of today's headlines. In an Asian context, I believe a certain degree of limited regulation is necessarry, but am definitely worried about the tenor in which certain 'opinions' were expressed against akternative, non-mainstream, non-mainline views. [apologies about this 'political' bit]

11:21 PM, August 02, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

I'm not sure which headline you are referring... but I follow your meaning.

Once something is no longer practised, with time it will be forgotten; if we are silenced often enough, our children may never learn to speak.

4:42 AM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

Dreamer Idiot, firstly, my congrats to you on two things: putting up an obviously topical and political poem, and an "almost local" one at that!

Machinist, I likes this observation of yours: "The brief stanzas and the lack of punctuation in the poem makes me feel as this is just a fleeting glimpse of the park as you pass by in a taxi." I can really visualise watching this out of a window.

I was also struck by its structure -- the stanzas read and feel quite like haikus. It's used well, capturing stills, which is probably what leads to the passing-by-in-a-taxi effect.

I feel very sad for the fat man in the sun.

10:25 AM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Thank you, Dreamer Idiot, for featuring my poem on this blog. :)

In Singapore, you cannot actually go to a public place and make a speech about anything, if you do not have a police licence. You would breach, if nothing else, the Public Entertainment Act. "Public entertainment" has a wide definition, so even if you were speaking on a serious topic that was not very entertaining, you would still breach the Act.

Hong Lim Park was set up as a social experiment - it was supposedly going to be a place, the only public place, in Singapore, where people could freely gather and make speeches. That was supposedly how it was going to be. However, later it turned out that you needed a police licence anyway (and when you applied for it, you had to inform the police beforehand what your speech is about, and they have the power to impose conditions like how long you can speak, and what you must not talk about etc).

So of course the Hong Lim Park idea died. Hardly a soul ever makes a public speech there now. No one ever goes to the park except a few retirees.

"Sigh" in the 2nd stanza is intended to also convey the idea of mild despair with the state of free speech in Singapore (along the lines of "Sigh, when will speech ever be free in Singapore...?")

7:34 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

DI, we are getting closer to home base now, aren't we? - from Japan, then to Singapore, which is as close as we can get - for now - for local poets and poems. I think that's one of the aims of this blog, to discuss more local poems.

Anyway, MM - as always - is spot on with his observation of the glimpse effect of the first stanza. "fat man" gives one a sense of some kind of ridicule for the free-speaker in that park, doesn't it? Is that why Sharanya, you're sad for him?

10:22 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Don't thank me for featuring your poetry (I'll probably introduce others in the future), because I really think many readers including myself can learn from your poetic technique.

Sharanya, thx for you kind words. ;)
So, can one of us feature your own poetry in the future? *wink*
Looking forward to your posting next week.

More local poems for the future, I certainly hope so, though we have a scarcity or dearth of quality Malaysian poetry written in English at present. I guess that is why I hope this blog can generate poetry interest and writing among young Malaysians. However, we could probably start with people like Sharanya and Cecil rajendra, and perhaps Wong Phui Nam (if I can get hold of one of his collection). :)

6:06 PM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

DI, I have considered, even way before this, doing an analysis on any of Sharanya's pieces. Much earlier still, I did one, privately, on her request, on another writer's piece. She had to decline my request to post the analysis up as she still wanted to re-draft it further. What I really wanted was to show readers how a writer went about creating her piece. I myself actually did a self-analysis of sorts, on a poem I was working on last year, and posted it.

11:20 AM, August 05, 2006  

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