Analysis: My Country and My People (by Lee Tzu Pheng)

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My country and my people
are neither here nor there, nor
in the comfort of my preferences,
if I could even choose.
At any rate, to fancy is to cheat;
and worse than being alien, or
subversive without cause,
is being a patriot
of the will.
I came in the boom of babies, not guns,
a ‘daughter of a better age';
I held a pencil in a school
while the ‘age' was quelling riots
in the street, or cutting down
those foreign ‘devils',
(whose books I was being taught to read).
Thus privileged I entered early
the Lion City's jaws.
But they sent me back as fast
to my shy, forbearing family.
So I stayed in my parents' house,
and had only household cares.
The city remained a distant way,
but I had no land to till;
only a duck that would not lay,
and a runt of a papaya tree,
(which also turned out to be male).
Then I learnt to drive instead
and praise the highways till
I saw them chop the great trees down,
and plant the little ones;
impound the hungry buffalo
(the big ones and the little ones)
because the cars could not be curbed.
Nor could the population.
They built milli-mini-flats
for a multi-mini-society.
The chiselled profile in the sky
took on a lofty attitude,
but modestly, at any rate
it made the tourist feel ‘at home'.
My country and my people
I never understood.
I grew up in China's mighty shadow,
with my gentle, brown-skinned neighbours;
but I keep diaries in English.
I sought to grow
in humanity's rich soil,
and started digging on the banks, then saw
life carrying my friends downstream.
Yet, careful tending of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom;
and perhaps, fence-sitting neighbour,
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind,
my people, and my country,
are you, and you my home.

My Country and My People by Lee Tzu Pheng 

This poem reflects the uneasy sentiments of Lee Tzu Pheng. She speaks of her rootlessness in the fluxing 1960s Singapore, back when the island first became sovereign. Even now, in 2012, her poem continues to resonate.

I've annotated the version below to share my understanding of what the poem is about:

My Country and My People

My country and my people
are neither here nor there, nor
in the comfort of my preferences,
if I could even choose.
At any rate, to fancy is to cheat;
and worse than being alien, or
subversive without cause,
is being a patriot
of the will. (A 'patriot of the will' refers to someone who loves his/her country against his/her will.)
I came in the boom of babies, not guns,
a ‘daughter of a better age'; ('daughter of a better age' is the motto of Raffles Girls' School where Lee studied.)
I held a pencil in a school
while the ‘age' was quelling riots
in the street, or cutting down
those foreign ‘devils',
(whose books I was being taught to read). (Note the irony: people are protesting against their colonial masters. However, paradoxically, they are reading books by their colonial masters.)
Thus privileged I entered early
the Lion City's jaws.
But they sent me back as fast
to my shy, forbearing family.
So I stayed in my parents' house,
and had only household cares. (This sentence reflects the gender stereotypes that people had then.)
The city remained a distant way,
but I had no land to till; (Land was being controlled tightly then.)
only a duck that would not lay,
and a runt of a papaya tree,
(which also turned out to be male). (A male papaya tree does not bear fruits and, generally, is considered a waste of resources to look after. This poem makes quiet commentaries on the power relations between genders.)
Then I learnt to drive instead
and praise the highways till
I saw them chop the great trees down,
and plant the little ones;
impound the hungry buffalo
(the big ones and the little ones)
because the cars could not be curbed. (Lee adopted the visions of increased modernity offered by the government until she saw the gradual subjugation of Nature.)
Nor could the population.
They built milli-mini-flats
for a multi-mini-society.
The chiselled profile in the sky
took on a lofty attitude,
but modestly, at any rate
it made the tourist feel ‘at home'. (A criticism that resounds even in 2012.)
My country and my people
I never understood.
I grew up in China's mighty shadow,
with my gentle, brown-skinned neighbours;
but I keep diaries in English. (Note the juxtaposition of various cultures. This suggests Lee's ambivalence about what it means to be a Singaporean.)
I sought to grow
in humanity's rich soil,
and started digging on the banks, then saw
life carrying my friends downstream.
Yet, careful tending of the human heart
may make a hundred flowers bloom; (This echoes the civic conciousness espoused by China then.) and perhaps, fence-sitting neighbour, (A 'fence-sitting neighbour' reminds me of a Chinese proverb describing someone who either passively or opportunistically waits. Is Lee alluding to the 'gentle, brown-skinned neighbours' which she wrote in the preceding line, or is she speaking to the reader?)
I claim citizenship in your recognition
of our kind,
my people, and my country,
are you, and you my home.

Critical Analysis

My Country and My People, by Lee Tzu Pheng, was written in 1976. That period was one of great changes in Singapore, with multiple and burgeoning instabilities after the isle separated from the Malaya federation. This poem reflects on the social dynamics fluxing then, questioning the meaning of patriotism and nationhood.

Because of the sensitive nature of the poem, in particular the line ‘brown-skinned neighbors’, it was banned in Singapore for a period. The censorship board feared that this poem might offend the sensibilities of the Malay community in Singapore at a time when racial distrust and tensions were already pitched.

The themes discussed – including the rampant development of the country, wanton posturing for tourists, post-colonial insecurity and envy – are relevant even now, some 36 years after the poem was first composed. In this way, the poem has a universal, lasting quality that transcends the period during which it was written. More importantly, this begs the question – has Singapore really progressed since then?

My Country and My People makes many references to the cultural and environmental norms in Singapore. Socio-political commentaries are embedded in the ethos of the poem such that it resonates with Singaporeans, perhaps even at the expense of outsiders unfamiliar with these localised developments.

Shared from the poet’s perspective, this piece is a dramatic monologue, with loose, lyrical lines. It rolls readily off the readers’ tongues, line after line, almost as though the poet herself is speaking, almost as though it was written to be performed in front of a crowd. Through the use of a first-person narration and uninhibited flow of words, the poet allows herself to be vulnerable in front of strangers, sharing her anxieties publicly and bravely.

What the poem lacks in compact elegance, it makes up for with tender expressions of hesitance, fear and vulnerability. In this vein, the poem resonates, perhaps more so with Singaporeans, perhaps more so in this age where the country is experiencing severe bouts of existential angst.

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