Speech by Minister of State for Education, Ms Sun Xueling, at the Opening Ceremony of Poetry Festival Singapore 2021

Published Date: 30 July 2021 06:00 PM

News Speeches

Professor Edwin Thumboo, founding advisor of Poetry Festival Singapore,

Distinguished guests,

Poets and friends,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Boys and Girls,

1. I'm glad to join you today at the Opening Ceremony of the 7th Poetry Festival Singapore. This year's festival theme "Community" suggests a sharing of common interests and goals despite our differences. This theme is most timely, as it allows us to reflect on our Singapore community, which is currently undergoing structural and societal changes, shaped by major events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and longer-term challenges such as aging as well as climate change.

Poetry Festival Singapore

2. Poetry Festival Singapore first took place in 2015, under the guidance and careful planning of Emeritus Professor Edwin Thumboo. I'm so thrilled to meet you today, Sir. Originally called National Poetry Festival, it was a revival of an idea and project of four pioneer Singapore poets: Professor Thumboo, Mr. Wong Meng Voon, Masuri S. N. and V. T. Arasu, who envisioned a platform by which poets writing in all of Singapore's official languages could come together to create new work and promote the Singapore poetry scene. Through the years, the festival has stayed strong and steadfast to its original vision. Today, Poetry Festival Singapore continues to generate, promote and foster greater interest in Singapore poetry in our four official languages through an annual poetry festival and other associated activities.

3. Poetry Festival Singapore enters its seventh year today. I appreciate the team's efforts in adjusting its festival's offerings to meet prevailing Covid-19 guidelines, so that they can continue to bring poetry to more people. And this year's event features activities such as poetry readings and performances that will be attended by a physical audience, as well as livestreamed to a larger, virtual audience.

4. In addition, it is heartening to note that some poets, who in many ways are the conscience of our community, will make a poetic tribute to healthcare workers at this year's Poetry Festival. They will be reading poems on Covid-19 at the festival, focusing on the resilience and selflessness of our healthcare workers. Indeed, Singapore poetry, a tapestry of interwoven languages, cultures and traditions, can provide a soothing balm during moments of distress. Together, let us continue to carry out meaningful initiatives for the good of the entire community.

5. Besides the ongoing pandemic, one other challenge that our community faces is climate change and sustainable development, and our poets have continued to use their craft to engage with and raise awareness on this topic. Directors and members of Poetry Festival Singapore have edited or contributed to related poetry anthologies. For instance, The Nature of Poetry (2019), co-edited by the Poetry Festival Singapore adviser Professor Edwin Thumboo and Eric Tinsay Valles, compiles poetic musings on the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the transformation of Singapore into a city in a garden. Another work, From Walden to Woodlands (2015), co-edited by Ow Yeong Wai Kit, a committee member of the Festival, has been recognised by the National Library Board as an ecological classic that draws inspiration from the flora, fauna and habitats native to Singapore and explores our relationships with the environment. Wai Kit is a literature teacher and recipient of the Outstanding Youth in Education Award who is now serving in the Ministry of Education Headquarters. We welcome more of such poetic projects to encourage everyone to play their part to combat climate change.

Poetry in the Digital Age

6. I'm heartened that more young people are participating in this year's festival. Five years ago, the Poetry Festival Singapore's annual National Poetry Competition, which welcomes entries in English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil, had 90 submissions from writers below the age of 18 years old. This year, there are 191 entries from writers below 18!

7. For these young people and our students who love poetry, they experience something incredible about the power of a line of poetry to convey observed reality and emotions through sound, imagery and form. Poetry, as with other literary works, capture a moment in time, encapsulating the writers' thoughts and ideas at that point. The difference with poetry is that it is compact, often to be read in one sitting, maybe even over a few minutes. And yet, or perhaps, because of that need for brevity, every word hits home. And when students read and write poetry, they enter this world of conveying ideas in compact, yet imaginative ways. It both broadens their perspectives and expands their minds. When they read Singaporean works, they further get the privilege of seeing themselves writing the experience that they connect with, immortalised in poems.

8. Poetry also allows us to cultivate empathy by viewing our world from different lenses, and putting ourselves in the shoes of others. For example, when writers in Singapore write of their memories of their childhood, and when we read and reflect on their works, we too are transported back in time to the Singapore of the poet's youth, as we walk in the poet's shoes. By extension, when students write poetry, they then capture the reality of their lives, including the concerns they, and their world today, grapple with. It becomes a space for self-expression, to make sense of the world through their words, and a portal for future generations to look back at. I am glad that there is greater interest amongst youth in writing poetry and practising the arts as a hobby, an emotional outlet or a restorative tool.

9. Our youth are also encountering poetry in novel ways such as via Instagram or short films. The rise of Insta-poetry, a genre of pithy poetry popularised on Instagram, has made it easier for young people to discover and hone their talent as poets. Insta-poetry is helping to bring poetry back to mainstream consciousness. But our younger generation, a majority of which are avid social media users, also need to be exposed to a wider range of poetic works, particularly Singapore poems. This is a challenge for Poetry Festival Singapore: To raise the mainstream audience's awareness of the range and depth of poetry, especially that rooted in Singapore.

Poetry Recital

10. At this point, I would like to share a poem with you. This poem was written by Singapore poet Aaron Maniam last year. Interestingly, Aaron Maniam was my classmate in school. So, let me read my former classmate, Mr. Aaron Maniam's poem, 'Things To Do In A Pandemic'. May these words bring us comfort as we all navigate living and learning during tough times, while reminding us of the little joys in life.

'Things to do in a Pandemic'

Grow a beard. There will be other ways we
Won't recognise ourselves when this is over.
Wear old T-shirts, the ones musty with
Memory and former selves to rediscover.
Listen to old music, watch reruns - histories
Large and small. For solace, and for learning.
Sew - tea cosies, new curtains, anything
To stitch together what the days whisper.
Call it something else. We will need the labels
Later, when we all but forget our own names.
Run, wearing a mask. Sympathise with those
Whose breath catches in the coming days.
Learn to read eyes above masks - soul-windows,
Word-lit, life-lined, quite possibly smiling.
Send friends a picture of a flower for each death.
Nature has ways to celebrate those with no names.
Walk alone. Hear the lallang sing, the cow
Grass muttering, the silence of air newly clean.
Take up calligraphy. Draw. Pray.
Soften the sharp edges of words.
Bake. See how everything rises
To occasions if we know how to call.
Watch children play - better yet, join them, laugh.
They know as much as anyone can in such times.
Plant green beans. Watch them sprout. Witness
What happens when we remember to face the sun.

11. Let us generate finely crafted Singapore verses for solace and hope in these difficult times, and let us continue to foster the sense of community in Singapore. Thank you.

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