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Arts community supports Alfian Sa'at after poem quoted in Parliament

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Arts community backs him after Education Minister cites his poem in Parliament

Members of Singapore's arts community are rallying around the writings of poet and playwright Alfian Sa'at online after Education Minister Ong Ye Kung quoted some lines from his 1998 poem Singapore You Are Not My Country in Parliament on Monday.

Many felt these lines had been taken out of context and have begun sharing the poem in its entirety online, as well as other early poems by Mr Alfian.

Mr Ong was speaking about the withdrawal of a cancelled Yale-NUS College module on dialogue and dissent last month, which would have been led by Mr Alfian. He told MPs he wanted to give them a flavour of Mr Alfian's thinking, saying concerns that the project might be used for partisan political activities are not unfounded.


Mr Ong quoted a few lines from the poem, "Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all/ Do not raise your voice against me/ I am not afraid of your anthem" and " can you call yourself a country/ you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums/10 minutes' drive from the MRT?"

"This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence," he added. "But Mr Alfian Sa'at continues this attitude consistently in his activism."

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, a champion of the arts, wrote on Facebook: "We should not demonise Alfian Sa'at. He is one of our most talented playwrights. I regard him as a loving critic of Singapore. He is not anti-Singapore. I admire very much his plays, Cooling-Off Day and Hotel.

"It is of course true that some his writings are critical of Singapore. But freedom of speech means the right to agree with the government as well as the right to disagree."

Mr Alfian, who has won multiple Straits Times Life Theatre Awards for plays such as Nadirah (2009) and Hotel (2015), has often been critical of the establishment in his writing and called for more freedom of expression in the arts.

Singapore You Are Not My Country is more than 20 years old and was first published in Mr Alfian's debut collection One Fierce Hour when he was 21.

Over more than 100 lines, the speaker questions his relationship with a rapidly developing Singapore and examines the country's own uncertainty about its national identity.

Dr Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, one of Singapore's most eminent poets, told ST: "Singapore You Are Not My Country was the work of a young person bewildered by the whole struggle to grasp the anomalies in the life he had paused to try to make sense of. Unfortunately, it seems it is all too common to find that unless one overtly expresses love and praise of country, anything that voices distaste, doubt and dissent tends to be labelled unpatriotic..."

Actress and former Nominated MP Janice Koh said Singapore You Are Not My Country is one of her favourite poems by a Singapore writer. "What we truly need, more than ever, is an appreciation of loving critics and critical lovers."

In a Facebook post dated yesterday, Mr Alfian appealed to commentators not to make personal criticisms of Mr Ong.

He wrote: "You can direct your criticisms instead at policies, programmes, agendas, ideologies. You can question how the Government has chosen to define 'academic freedom'."

Singapore Politics