Reviews / November 2008 (Issue 5)

Poetry of the Global Economy: Toh Hsien Min's Means to an End

by Eddie Tay


Toh Hsien Min, Means to an End, Landmark Books, 2008. 56 pgs.

Poetry and financial modelling do not quite go hand in hand, yet Toh Hsien Min morphs effortlessly between his day job as a risk analyst and his calling as a poet and chief editor of Singapore's premier online literary journal, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. The last time we met, he was based in Hong Kong for a month. He was trying to explain to me over dinner at Lan Kwai Fong the finer points of building a financial model for risk analysis.

Toh's latest collection of poetry is important because it gives us a sense of what the younger generation of writers in Singapore is about – they want to have their cake and eat it too. Like Toh, who holds postgraduate degrees in literature from Oxford as well as Chartered Financial Analyst and Financial Risk Manager certifications, they tend to be professionals comfortable in a corporate environment; at the same time, they are not out of place at international literary festivals.

Toh's poetry has become more artless, personal and personable. This is obvious when we compare the opening poem of his second collection, The Enclosure of Love, with that of his latest poetry collection, Means to an End. "Puerto de Sol" from the earlier collection balances the language of the sermon with that of the street, the sacred with the profane, divine perfection with the ethical struggles of a flawed self. The language and thematic concerns of the poem come across as those of an aesthete. In contrast, in "The Bridges" from Means to an End, we find an intimate and meandering consciousness that foregrounds the persona's struggle with the fallibility (and hence, malleability) of memory: "we imagine we want to / remember more than we can remember, or want to".

This theme is sustained across the next two poems in the new collection, and in "Birth of the Modern City-State" we find a poem that eschews official memory, whether in the form of the Merlion, the Cenotaph or the Tan Kim Seng Fountain, in favour of the personal, the elusive and the transitory. The poem conjures up these official national memorials of Singapore only to abandon them in the ensuing narrative. It focuses on fragments of personal memories that include "squatting on the airport runway in Kuala Lumpur, / taking a leak", "being badly seasick in a rocking boat / a mile from Tioman", and being on a road trip "through the oil-palm plantations of Johore". The poem is playfully subversive in the way it contrasts fond recollections of childhood trips to Malaysia with the compulsion to remember where one is at present:

We are here because we only remember. We only remember
because there was something in each of these streetlamps of memory
to fix them beside those double yellow lines. There was
only something because of the architecture of the city
to which we all subscribe, and which still shapes and
outlines what we are for as long as we are it.

The persona is drawn back rudely to the present. Singapore the modern city-state is remembered reluctantly and as an afterthought; we see in this poem the hoarding of fond memories in the neighbouring country against the contemporary reality of life in this overregulated city, as represented by the image of those double yellow lines. If the in-joke among the younger generation of Singaporean poets is that everyone must have a Merlion poem, then "Birth of the Modern City-State" fits the bill by virtue of it trying not to be one.

Yet what is one to make of poems with titles like "The Happiness of Meaning in the New Economy" and "HR in the Time of Recession"? In the latter poem, we partake in the screening of CVs and "see the fear / in their reduced asking salaries". Poems like these are reminders that the stereotype of a brooding, emaciated and otherworldly poet with a taste for absinthe and who lives a penniless (and hence bohemian) existence on the margins of society no longer hold. At least, this is the case for many of the younger Singaporean poets. The roll call of these poets includes people from the media, banking, and legal industries who are savvy people conversant with financial statements, jetlag and the state of the global economy.

This is not to say that Toh's poems are uncritical of what goes on within the cauldron of capitalism. In "Printing Money", a poem about how the Protestant work ethic of the common man is rendered irrelevant by size and fluidity of capital in the global economy:

My dad doesn't print money, but someone out there
does. It all revolves on being on the right side
of that ocean-equation, whether you're holding Treasuries
and knowing how to deploy the funds you haven't got.

My other favourite poem is "What Work Fulfils", a poem about corporate ennui:

You sit in meetings where your boss tells you off
in front of your clients, prepare papers that will be
marked with red ink like your seven-year-old's
exercise book, pick up the phone to lie to people
who could just as wearily decide to commit
a sum that comes to one basis point of the budget
for that financial year to your stewardship

The poem suggests that capitalism has betrayed itself – gone are the days when idealism co-existed with capitalist enterprises, epitomised by "college students at Dartmouth, / where BASIC was invented … / [who] sometimes went out of campus to their own organic farm / to tend lettuce and red cabbage and sweet peas". Toh has timed the market perfectly. His poems are certainly prophetic in the light of the current economic meltdown that began with America's subprime mortgage crisis.

Editors' note: Three new poems by Toh Hsien Min are featured in this issue (issue #5) of Cha.

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