Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (b. 1950)








Written by Faris Alfiq
Poetry extracts translated by Tse Hao Guang
Dated 29 Oct 2017

Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s poetry deals with many aspects and issues pertaining to Malay society in Singapore. One of the major themes in his poetry is the power of words against racial discrimination. From “Deklarasi [Declaration]”:

Kita hari ini bangun dengan puisipuisi
Lantangkan suara sampai menembusi tembok diskriminasi
Kenyataan ini harus bertulis dengan tulisan jawi
Dengan nama yang maha suci
Siapa pengecut mementingkan diri
Bukanlah lagi dari anak cucu kami

[We stand today with poetry
Voices swell to pierce the wall of discrimination
This fact must be written down in Jawi
With consecrated names
Whoever is cowardly, selfish
Is no longer our offspring]

The above poem is one of many that affirms the strength and purpose of Mohamed Latiff’s involvement in the literary scene. For him, poetry is a means to fight against discrimination and for the Malay community’s rights. “Deklarasi” is a rallying cry that calls upon members of the Malay society to express their voices through the written word, challenging the “wall of discrimination”. The poem ridicules those who do not speak out as “cowardly, selfish” people who are not, in fact, part of Malay society. In this way, Mohamed Latiff acknowledges the importance of language and intellectual discourse as a means to liberate the next generation.

More than merely asserting the role of poetry in the fight against social discrimination, Mohamed Latiff frequently uses his poetry to reflect the conditions of Malay society in Singapore, including those places which hold historical or cultural significance for the Malays. In “Geylang Serai,” he conveys a sense of place with vivid imagery:

Di sinilah kami ke ranjang pelamin
Dengan lecak lumpur
Dengan atap bocor
Bau longkang
Mengisi ikatan pernikahan
Menyimpul kabus kenangan 

Di sinilah kami menitis doa
Menjulang mimpi
Dipayungi gugatan rindu
Dalam lorong penuh keremangan
Di bawah kabut neon yang suram
Kami menghitung bintang

[This is our bridal bed
With slippery mud
With leaky roof
Longkang stench
Fulfill the marriage bond
Fasten the mist of memory

This is where we drip prayer
Uphold dreams
Shelter claims of yearning
On a path full of dusk
Under gloomy neon glow
We count stars]

The poem captures the conditions of the Malays living in Geylang Serai at the time, bringing to life its dirty roads and poor drainage. Despite this situation, however, the Malays, “we,” never lose hope, and continue to pray, dream, and count stars.

Besides exploring the social memories and imagination of various locales portrayed in his work, and beyond serving as a voice for the Malay people, Mohamed Latiff’s poetry also critiques the Malay community. This critique is sharpest when he talks about the state of the Malay community in the face of development and globalisation, as seen in “Bangsaku di hari lahirku [My People On My Birthday]": 

Mereka berkumpul lagi
di flet-flet mencakar langit
di hotel-hotel tegak membukit
di casino-casino berderet
anakanakku menggangguk menunduk
minta kerja tukang sapu putung rokok
          Inilah bangsaku

[They gather again
in skyscraping flats
in upright piled-up hotels
in rows and rows of casinos
my children nod, bow,
beg to work as janitors cigarette rollers
          These my people]

In this poem, the Malays in Singapore congregate around luxury flats, hotels, and casinos, unable to find good jobs. Later, in the same poem, Mohamed Latiff suggests that the Malay community has not embraced the fast-paced development and economic growth that characterises Singapore’s post-independence phase:

Di kilauan sains dan teknologi
di puncak politik dunia sepi
di kederasan ekonomi
ummiku punya mimpi sendiri
punya nasib sendiri
punya takdir sendiri
di kiri duri di kanan api. 

[At the flash of science and technology
at the lonely peak of world politics
in mercurial economy
my mother dreams her own
dooms her own
destines her own
thorns on the left on the right fire]

The poem ends with “her own” caught between thorns and fire, possibly suggesting the Malays entrapped by the twin issues of a failure to embrace development on one hand, and unsolved problems plaguing the community on the other. A similar conceit is explored in “Singapura,” where Mohamed Latiff writes about rapid progress leading to a loss of belonging:  

Kutanya Tuhanmu ianya adalah kepantasan
Dan perlumbaan
Kulihat pipimu rambutmu. Pipimu susumu. 
Nafasmu kulihat semuanya
Lalu aku memekik: 

Ada bianglala yang pecah
Ada rindu yang basah
Ada doa yang pasrah
Ada luka tanpa darah

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

Di mana rindumu
Di mana sayangmu
Di mana kasihmu? 

[I ask your God, which is speed
And is race
I see your cheek your hair. Your cheek your breasts.
Your breath I see it all
Then I shriek:

My Singapore
There a broken rainbow
There a dampened yearning
There an abject prayer
There a bloodless wound

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My Singapore!
Where is my yearning
Where is my darling
Where is my love?]

Here, Mohamed Latiff’s persona addresses a ‘you’ whose God is speed; this persona “shriek[s]” to be heard, as if drowned out by the noise of progress. The poem ends on questions of yearning and love, placing such emotions in opposition to unrestrained change. It mourns for a seemingly lost version of Singapore, describing the current state of the nation as “a bloodless wound” so successful that it does not know it is hurting.

The idea of a city wounded by modernisation also surfaces in “Di kota ini”. The poem describes a sense of detatchment: the imagery is graphic, portraying vices that occur in the city as a result of modernisation: 

bercumbu di kelab malam
bergurau dengan pelacur
menyedut udara kotoran
asap rokok dan asap kilang

Berjalan di sini
membuatku menari kepastian
bahawa kami masih kecil
di kota kosmopolitan
yang tiada lagi irama dondang sayang
tiada lagi sorak-sorai
mendaulatkan ‘bahasa kebangsaan’

[making out in nightclubs
flirting with the sluts
breathing dirty air
cigarette and factory smoke

Walking here
makes me seek assurance
that we are still small
in this cosmopolitan city
no more dondang sayang rhythms
no more cheers
to honour the ‘national language’]

Here, Singapore’s progress has led to moral and environmental degradation. In addition, as a contrast to the persona’s memories in a previous stanza of bus drivers protesting for their rights in Malay, there is no more “bahasa kebangsaan,” suggesting that language itself has become estranged from the land. Instead of having a coherent culture, which in previous stanzas clearly includes the persona’s Chinese neighbour, lanterns, joss, and cheongsams, Singapore has become a flattened-out “cosmopolitan city”. Mohamed Latiff’s yearning for an older time is made surprising by his references to political protest and Chinese culture—clearly, this is not simply nostalgia, and might be more accurately described as a lament against both decadence and depoliticisation.

Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s poems are a sobering reflection on the conditions of modern society and the ordinary people that live in it. He succinctly captures the social imagination and memory of Singaporeans, and presents nuanced and heartfelt social critiques of the Malay community. Through his words, readers are able to understand pertinent social problems which are brought to the forefront, and can then better empathise with the struggles of the marginalised.