Written by Hazel Tan
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Alfian Sa’at is a prose writer, poet and playwright. He has written various plays, two short fiction collections and three poetry collections. His first collection of poetry, One Fierce Hour, debuted in 1998, while his second, A History of Amnesia was published in 2001. The Invisible Manuscript, published in 2012, was composed before his earlier work. The first two collections were written when he was reading medicine at the National University of Singapore. Lee Tzu Pheng described his first collection, voted by Life! as one of the top ten books of 1998, as one of the “most exciting collections of poetry by a Singaporean in the recent years” and Alfian himself as a “natural poet” whose “image-making comes by instinct”. In a survey of Singapore poetry in World Literature Today (WLT) Rajeev Patke notes that he is “vigorous and energetic,” and “harnesses syntactic repetition…very effectively”. He also indicates that Alfian’s “ear for language as sound is acute in respect of social nuance and poetic rhythm”.

In One Fierce Hour, the reader discovers that Alfian is unabashed, brutally honest and wry in his observations about Singapore. Lee notes that he is “regarded as something of an enfant terrible” mainly because of his poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country”. Patke suggests that in this poem Alfian takes the “tradition of the poet’s engagement with his country to a new level of rhetorical excitement” (WLT). The reader is able to feel seething fieriness in his critique of the country:

Singapore you are not my country.
Singapore you are not a country at all.
You are surprising Singapore, statistics-starved Singapore,
Soulful Singapore of tourist
brochures in Japanese and
hourglass kebayas.

However, it has also been noted that Alfian’s more critical tendencies are balanced by “a lot of love” (Young). In “Singapore, You Are Not My Country,” the speaker identifies as a “patriot” who laments losing “a country to images,” to a rapidly changing landscape. In a review of Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore, where Alfian’s “A Penunggu Story” was anthologised, Laremy Lee notes that Alfian is one who also “effortlessly moves between socio-political commentary,” “emphasising a perennial human concern – the tension between holding onto links with the past versus moving forward into the future – through typically Alfian wry humour”. This voice runs through his first volume of poetry too. For instance, in “The Last Kumpung”, he writes:

What is there
to look forward to
but nostalgia?

In the same volume, Alfian also “explores the glorious past and heritage of Malays,” a common theme that runs not only across his poetry, but also his plays and short stories (L. Lee). In “Sang Nila by Moonlight,” he writes about the legendary Sang Nila Utama, the Srivijayan prince from Palembang who is understood to be the 13th century founder of Singapore Here, the speaker imagines seeing “Sang Nila / in a moonlight corner” and reveals the grandiosity of this legend through the use of irony and sarcasm:

But how frail your mane looks now
With tattered moonlight
Combing the few strands.
Who knows what you were counting
When I first met you tonight?
Tomorrow the sun will rise,
And drain your heart of light;
The Sea will summon its gulls
And you will be out of sight.

Later, in A History of Amnesia, Alfian’s voice, though still “unapologetic, unafraid and unyielding,” mellows and is much “quieter, more meditative, but also more resonant and incisive” (Lee T. P.). Here, he “investigat[es]…loss of various kinds – of innocence, of relationships, of illusions”. The volume is divided into three sections: “The Amnesiac’s Diary,” “The City Remembers,” and “White Light of History”. In the first section, Alfian recalls the first beginnings of love in poems such as “Autobiography” and “Dissection Class”. For instance, he likens the experience of dissecting an animal to that of recalling the loss of a love:

Memory entering the head like a knife.
A girl's hands slicing the heart in two.

Here, Lee Tzu Pheng notes that Alfian’s “attention to significant detail conveys a warmth which is tempered frequently by the cutting edge of irony or sharp, disapassionate observation”.

Also of note in this collection is the sequence “The Electric Ghazals,” written and addressed to his friends. Here, Alfian adapts the “traditional Persian poetic form, clearly finding it its self-reflexiveness concluding stance a useful strategy” (Lee T. P.). The ghazal usually contains a reference to the writer in its final couplet, a technique which Alfian employs towards reflection and meditation on his relationships with those the poems are addressed to.

In the second section, “The City Remembers,” he writes poems that paint family portraits and speak of devastating events in the country’s history. For instance, in “The River Musi,” Alfian recounts the SilkAir crash of 1997, where no passengers survived:

Suddenly one day visitors came.
The village liar claimed to have seen
An explosion in the sky.

Alfian provides an avenue of reconciliation and nudges readers to recall the even that devastated the country in 1997 here, when readers are told that by the speaker is made witness to a “village liar” who “claimed to have seen “an explosion in the sky”. The choice of perspective awards the readers distance and allows them to retrieve shards of the painful memory. Here, it is clear that the poet understands the pain in retrieving memories, yet understands that amnesia only provides absence, and not closure.

Most of the poems in the last section of the volume, “White Light of History,” deal with remembering obscure or difficult events in Singapore’s history. Lee notes that this section “uncovers the more disquieting aspects of Singapore life,” particularly “its tendency to political paranoia”. For instance, Alfian writes of Chia Thye Poh, who was a political prisoner of Singapore for 32 years. In these poems, he provides insight into the hard beginnings or truths that have underscored Singapore’s history, and reminds his readers that the nation has a harsh side. To this history he offers “a facility with words that is [ . . . ] intuitive and aware” (“Honeymoon Double Bill”) and his ability to “listen to the inner voice of his lines” (Muhammad).

Works cited

Alfian Sa’at. A History of Amnesia. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2001.

—. One Fierce Hour. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2004.

“Honeymoon double-bill.” The Straits Times 26 Nov 1998. Web. 

Lee, Laremy. “Bending laws, reclaiming lore.” Quarterly Literary Review Singapore 12.3. (2013). Web.

Lee, Tzu Pheng. “Unforgettable and in fine form.” The Straits Times 7 July 2001. Web. 

Muhammad Amir. “Deny thy country, young man.” The New Straits Times 28 Oct 1998. Web.

Patke, Rajeev S. “Poetry in English from Singapore.” World Literature Today 74.2. (2000): 293.