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Lai Wan Chee, sailor
We're an island people, but not born sailors:
for most, the voyage here was more than enough.
Then came the war and the world changed.
Heyerdahl took Kon-Tiki across the Pacific
and the message was clear.
There comes a time in the story of every people
to cast loose the old ropes
and sail uncharted seas alone.
Our craft was small and vulnerable,
so we rigged a new, twin-hulled, experiment.
It broke apart in the first rough water
as two contending currents split.
The Captain cried.
Huge waves threatened to swamp us
but he seized the helm and, always one
to challenge the storm rather than run before it,
he steered our tiny boat
away from the safety of our sheltered coast
into deeper, international waters.
There was no going back.
The river was left behind, becoming smaller,
its way of life changed, for ever.
For we, his crew,
sensing fresh wind filling our sails,
felt pride stir in our souls.
We bent our backs to the future,
straining over long oars for long hours
as we rowed for the promised Sea of Prosperity
in the light of five bright stars
and a crescent moon.
This poem is from my 1995 Singapore Literature Prize-winning collection of poems, From The Belly Of The Carp.
The book consists of a series of monologues spoken by characters connected with the Singapore River. In the 1960’s, when this sailor was speaking, the river was still very much at the heart of Singapore.
There are very few actual historical figures in the book - Raffles, Farquhar, Governor Swettenhan, Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay, the historian Song Ong Siang and the Scottish traveller, Isabella Bird. It was a deliberate choice to write about ‘ordinary people’.
But while I didn’t want to write Mr Lee into my book directly, I couldn’t ignore him. So I pay tribute to him in this poem, using the metaphor of him as the captain of our Singapore ship.
Mr Lee’s also referenced in another poem about the cleaning ot the Singapore River which as been widely anthologised. (The Civil Servant)