Written by Cyril Wong
Dated 4 Nov 2015

Leong Liew Geok has been a poet less concerned with portraying an authentic inner life than with celebrating the everyday existence of Singaporeans. Unlike many of her contemporaries for whom issues of national identity dominated as a central subject, Leong is more concerned with capturing the flavour and idiosyncratic actualities of a localised culture. Hers is an unpretentious poetry that revels enthusiastically and persuasively in the daily minutiae of living in modern and ever-evolving Singapore. In “Coffee Shop, Clementi” from Love Is Not Enough (1991), for instance, the poet goes to great lengths to list the name of every local food she can remember:

Fish porridge and beefball noodles scald
Tongues out for quick thrills; where chicken rice
Bubbles, as pure kueh tutu steams,
It’s not only fast food on the cheap
I come for. Plundering appetites, voices
Riding high, eyes which eat, while waiting.

There is no nostalgia or literary posturing here, only a series of lively descriptions that sum up the speaker’s observations at a local coffee shop.

Elsewhere in her first collection, Leong often speaks as daughter, wife, and working mother, dramatising the day-to-day frustrations of dealing with family, all the time locating her writings quite naturally within a recognisably contemporary Singaporean setting. A poem like “Dramatic Monologue” from the same collection articulates a series of typically Singaporean complaints:

I don’t believe this
just a leetle drizzle on Friday
night and traffic clogs four, five lanes
up Orchard Road going to the dogs…

Why is this car so
SLOW? Worse than a grandmother
snail and I have to be behind
it trust my luck. Ahaa!
Female Drriverr what can you expect?

The attempts to make words and their rhythms sound Singlish on the page are arguably effective, but once the poem reaches its conclusion, it has conveyed nothing much else beyond the impression that these are the things that locals like to grumble about; this is also what they sound like when they complain out loud. Yet, it is this sense of anonymity that distances the reader from the poem; the writing might make reader smile in recognition or amusement, but it does not deal seriously enough with whether such complaints might point to a deeper socio-cultural malaise.

In the later pages of her second collection Women Without Men (2000), however, Leong features a sustained monologue in verse, lasting over several poems, that succeeds in conveying not only a plausible inner life but a layered reflection on the societal environment that the persona struggles to find happiness and purpose in.

In “The Gardener Walks to the Bus Stop,” the gardener spends a large section lamenting that nobody in Singapore seems to care about gardening anymore. He gazes upon at a concrete slab and exclaims that the city has stolen nature’s ability to bloom, “What robbery: open space bald with slate, / Without an inch of grass to show for love”. In one of the last poems in The Gardener series, “The Gardener’s Had Enough,” the speaker talks to himself now about what he has achieved as a gardener, a reflection that segues into a touching meditation on his own dwindling mortality and the world he will leave behind:

Cease giving chances,
You’ve nothing to lose–
Throw the unblooming out,
They simply must choose.

That gardening’s a business
Is matter of fact;
No plant’s irreplaceable,
There’s nothing to regret.

There’s no meeting point
Between the living and dying:
Either you, or your plants expire,
Though you don’t feel like watering.

“Blooming” or “unblooming” can refer not just to plants but also analogically to the productivity of corporate workers and civil servants in Singapore. The speaker bravely admits that even gardening is like a business too, in which one must be merciless with plants that do not flourish accordingly. In broaching the topic of death and expiry, the gardener is suddenly resigned, even a little embittered, and no longer feels like watering.

Leong has created a persona that is not only believable–a persona that is likely a projection of personal anxieties about growing old in Singapore–but it can also be a symbolic figure for Singaporeans who have been, or will be, left behind by a social system that cares more about its young than its old, a system which constantly demands productivity from its citizens all the way until their sixties. Leong has moved on to writing poems that evince both an affecting sense of interiority as well as critical commentary about the growing pressures of her society.

Works cited

Gan, Eveline. “Poverty Among Singapore’s Elderly Makes It Hard for Many To Afford Good Food.” Channel News Asia 14 June 2005.

Leong Liew Geok. Love Is Not Enough. Singapore: Times Editions Pte Ltd, 1991.

—. Women Without Men. Singapore: Times Books International, 2000.