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The City and the Writer: In Singapore with Anne Lee Tzu Pheng

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/ Singapore 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                   —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Singapore as you feel or see it?

For several years now, I have felt a growing sense of alienation, that I am living a life that is not integrated into what, at the edge of my consciousness, is increasingly touted as "success"—the aspiration to a lifestyle perceived as desirable, of high maintenance but, to me, of superfluous, inordinate expense that I neither belong to nor feel at ease with. As life has, thank God, become simpler for me, the greater is my sense of the compulsive acquisitiveness around me; a purblind deference to monetary considerations in any matter or decision seems to propel all parts of our society. Has it ever been any different? Maybe not. An eroding sense of belonging shouldn’t bother me personally at this age, but it does make me feel a deepening concern for future generations, what we will become if this sense of disintegration is real among us and continues to grow.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The loss of the stars in the night sky I used to be able to see. I can’t recall when it was I last was enthralled by a sky as a magnificent field of stars. It lifted the spirits and taught humility, and though it overwhelmed, it also gave an intense sense of my connection with the greatness and mysteriousness of creation.

What is the most extraordinary detail in the city, one that goes unnoticed by most?

The sudden disappearance of buildings, landmarks and streets, houses. It seems to happen so quickly, like a sleight of hand; it’s unnoticed until the sudden, astonished realization takes over that the unfamiliar is the new old.

What writer(s) from Singapore should we read?

Without a doubt, our children—wherever what they think and write may be found: in school publications, essays, letters (including suicide notes), solicited and unsolicited; and the “man on the street,” found in social media even more than in the local newspapers.

Is there a place in Singapore that you return to often?

A place (physical): The house where I grew up in Katong, on the edge of the city, reverberates most strongly, but only in my memory, as the actual place is gone and the neighborhood changed beyond all recognition.

A place (non-physical): The first nine years of my childhood, inextricable from the house I grew up in; the experience and the house together conjure up thoughts and feelings which, I believe, have had an incalculable role in shaping who I have become.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Perhaps, for many of us, the National Library in Stamford Road, the one that no longer exists, a place where so many of us (certainly true of me) spent many happy hours reading for our school essays and projects, and where we discovered the treasure of other minds on the shelves and between covers that no one seemed to have opened for years.

But, of course, time changes and erases. For how long will the vanished National Library remain iconic in our memory?  I don’t know. My generation is already being phased out. I can, with some irony, think of another iconic object (not a place as such but for the position it occupies by default, shall we say?) created for the tourist but perhaps because of its artificially hybridized character became imported into literature: the merlion, fixed in our imagination by its all too literal and unignorable spitting image, evoking every feeling but the one it was meant to. Still, it has a useful role, literarily speaking, for better or for worse….

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Each one of us, if we have grown up in a city, has a city locked in our imagination and sensibility; these personal cities are revealed in the creative writing and art of our people. We enter these “hidden” cities through the creations of our artists, as many as there are media to build them in. If cities are conglomerations of people in which the arts flourish, each artist is in an anthropological sense, truly a citizen.

Where does passion live here?

In the struggle to survive life. What could be more demanding or more true? Anywhere in the world. Hardly unique and certainly not so to any city.

What is the title of one of your works about Singapore and what inspired it exactly?

The poem “My Country and My People,” whose title could not be more explicit. It was written in 1967, the nation being two years into its independence; a poem written out of a need to come to terms with changed political realities wreaking havoc on our sense of personal identity. What emerged was a personal scrutiny of "national" identity, and the acceptance of its absence or its imperfect birth, if that was the reality. The poem is built on an unyielding adherence to a personal integrity, without which neither the poem nor its subject in this case justified the existence of the writing.

Though largely well received, some reactions were confusing and perturbing. The poem was either called a jingoistic piece—I suspect, by being judged merely by its title—or more commonly as spuriously critical of the nation, all of which showed me just how badly misread it could be. I was very young when I wrote it, and think I, consequently, lost some innocence, all things considered. (Not necessarily a bad thing!) 

Inspired by Levi: “Outside Singapore, does an outside exist?”

Of course; it has to, otherwise we might as well be deaf, dumb, and blind––individually and collectively.


Anne Lee Tzu Pheng is one of the country’s foremost poets. She has won numerous awards, including the Singapore Cultural Medallion (1985), the SEA WRITE Award (1987), the Gabriela Mistral Award (from Chile, 1995), the Montblanc-CFA (Centre for the Arts) Literary Award (1996), and the Singapore National Book Development Council Award for Poetry three times. She has eight collections of poetry, including her collected poems, Soul’s Festival, which incorporates ger first few collections—Sing a Song of Mankind, Catching Connections, and Standing in the Corner; a book of reflective essays, Short Circuits; and a book, Growing Readers, for developing reading-readiness in young children. Her poetry is published and studied internationally, has been read over the BBC, and some of her poems have been set to music. She was a Fulbright Fellow to the University of California (Irvine) in 1996 and has mentored many young writers. She taught English Literature for 32 years until her retirement as Associate Professor from the National University of Singapore. In 2014, Lee was on the inaugural list of 108 women inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame (, established to honor the women who have made an impact on the nation and shaped society with their humanity, talent and creativity, vision, passion, and leadership.

Published Jul 21, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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