About the Seminar
My encounter with the poetic works of Teo Kah Leng (1909-2001), a former principal of the primary section of Montfort School in Serangoon, was the unexpected result of a two-year project on Francis P. Ng’s F.M.S.R. (1937), the first notable work of English poetry by a Singaporean writer. Through biographical research, I discovered that Ng, whose real name was ‘Teo Poh Leng’, was the younger brother of Kah Leng, also a poet. While Poh Leng wrote poetry throughout the 1930s until falling victim to Sook Ching, Kah Leng survived the Japanese Occupation and wrote actively in the 1950s-60s as British Malaya moved towards independence.
During the post-war decades, Malayan poetry matured at the University of Malaya. There students such as Wang Gungwu and Edwin Thumboo ‒ later credited as Singapore’s pioneer poets ‒ focused on the creation of a distinctively Malayan poetry inspired by Anglo-American Modernist writers. Meanwhile, outside the University’s poetry community, Teo, influenced by British Romanticists such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, produced an abundance of ballads and sonnets about Malaya’s natural environment, utilising rhymes and regular rhythms.
Through the 1950s-60s, Teo’s poems gained a wide audience via his school’s annual and Young Malayans, a magazine for Malaya’s English-medium school teachers and pupils. The University’s poetry community, however, felt poems of this kind were too conventional and preferred to emphasise free verse. As a result, Teo’s contributions were marginalised.
Through textual and discourse analysis, I will demonstrate that Teo’s poems, although falling into oblivion during Malaya’s era of decolonisation, constituted a significant part of the post-war Malayan poetry.
About the Seminar
The National Gallery’s inaugural exhibition on Singapore art, SIAPA NAMA KAMU?, which opened in November 2015, pushes the beginnings of art in Singapore back to the nineteenth century. This seminar presentation builds on an essay I was invited to contribute to a forthcoming National Gallery publication. In my essay I argued that if the received view is that art in Singapore began with a group of artists who developed what in the National Gallery exhibition is periodised as “The Nanyang Reverie”, then what we have in the National Gallery is a revision of that received view. This seminar will probe further into the underlying assumption of the argument for extending the narrative of art in Singapore back to the nineteenth century. What unifies the rather disparate categories of natural history drawings, landscapes, historic photographs and portraits as nineteenth century art in Singapore? Were they “works of art” when they were produced in nineteenth century Singapore, or were they more commodities? When did they become appropriated as “works of art”?