Words to lift spirits

Poetry can offer consolation in the time of the coronavirus, said the Britain's poet laureate Simon Armitage as he penned the poem Lockdown last month.

As Singapore prepared to hunker down for the Covid-19 circuit breaker, The Sunday Times invited local writers to respond to the pandemic in words that could lift the spirits, serve as a sobering reminder or form a rallying cry. It received submissions from nearly 500 writers and publishes the top 10 entries here.

Each of the chosen authors will receive a one-night stay in a Raffles Hotel Courtyard Suite.

The hotel's general manager Christian Westbeld said: "Raffles Hotel Singapore has long played muse to renowned and budding writers alike.

"The refreshed Writers Bar and newly launched Writer's Residency Programme are set to reinvigorate the literary heritage that is embedded deeply in the Raffles ethos. Both play a part in our continued commitment to connect the past and present through the art of writing, while paying homage to famous literacy luminaries such as W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling."

Diary Entry

I recognise the same nurse

behind the procedural ear-loop

mask: her eyes bearing

news I can read as well as her kindness.

The ventilator

I have taken selfies with

has been a friend of mine,

closer than any coronavirus

I hope will leave today,

along with the sedation,

that breathing tube,

body aches

and dreams of elsewhere.

This room has a window

with a view of other windows

to other lives

I can only guess

are freer than mine

for now. Even behind her mask,

I know she is smiling.

Negative twice in a row

is the only positive

result we need.

She nods. I want to hug her

but know I can't.

Then when she exits -

you'd think I'm crazy -

I turn to face the ventilator now

and give a grateful little bow.

CYRIL WONG, 42, is a Singapore Literature Prize-winning writer whose works include the novel This Side Of Heaven, published earlier this year.


His motherland is far and his mother is further. Between him and her

there is a lack of signal, the overtime, the salaries missed,

the loans, the debts, the hopes, the threats that who he is is

to be dismissed. A matter of survival in the fight to exist.

"Stay inside, stay safe!" drowns his cries from a room with 12 others where

many come from the same place, and in leaving their family behind,

they become family here for one another. "Social distance"

is unknown to brothers who find their only comfort of touch in one another.

We thought we knew but we have only scratched the surface.

We walk on their bodies to claim our space in a land we call ours but

without them we have no land in the first place. And yet,

a riot and a virus are the only light shed on the struggles that they face. Those

whom we thought we saw every day, did we really see? To see is to search

beyond the rough hands and the dirty shoes, to acknowledge

not just the man who builds our foundations but

the man who left home to build a future for his children.

Now the alarm rings and we open our eyes. We donate our money and our time because

today we see for the "first time". But tomorrow, we say we have helped and once again

we close our eyes because to see that he suffers is a wound that runs too

deep. We wait for the next alarm to ring as we drift back to sleep.

SAVITHAA MARKANDU, 21, studies drama, applied theatre and education at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Lockdown In Hell

Lim floated to his altar and picked up his entry pass to the mortal world. After a year of failed attempts at sending his regards to his family on the wind, he would be able to visit them for real this Qing Ming. He had spent the past few days planning his visit, ignoring the neighbours drifting past his door as well as the news.

At his touch, the yellow entry pass faded to black and disintegrated. Next to him, the communications wall lit up with a priority broadcast.

"Due to the large number of coronavirus deaths, the gate to the mortal world is facing massive strain," said the official Hell broadcaster, a ghost with bright red lipstick and a frozen smile. "All non-essential travel will be cancelled till further notice."

He jabbed the "off" button and began circling the room in frustration, until he saw the smoke coming from the wall of the room. It was an offering.

Through the smoke, Lim could see his flat in the mortal world. His heart clenched as his wife came into view. She pulled a lighter away from his grandson, who was holding the charred remains of a mask. "Aiyoh, Ah Boy, what are you doing?"

"Giving a mask to Gong-gong."

Lim brushed his fingers against the mask that had appeared in his hand.

"What?" She looked as if she didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. "Don't, it's dangerous."

"Teacher said everyone needs one," insisted Ah Boy, eyes bright and earnest in a way that brought a lump to Lim's throat.

Lim pressed his forehead and palms against the image of his wife pulling Ah Boy into her arms, but he could only feel cold stone instead of warm skin.

Sorrow flooded his body as he brought his fists to the wall, wanting to punch his way through. He pounded and pounded until he slumped in exhaustion. It was hopeless, he thought, and braced himself to ram his head into the wall until he lost consciousness.

Then he heard a rumble of distant thunder and looked up, heart leaping with hope.

Ah Boy ran to the window, stretching his hands out to the sudden downpour. Lim tightened his own fingers, trembling at the fleeting touch of a child's hands.

CHUA XIN RONG, 29, is a public servant.


(To the medical staff on the front line)

Sweat on my brow but I cannot wipe it

off. The mask that fogs my glasses

with warmth glistens on the dimple

of my lip but no one sees it slither

into the crevice of a silent mouth.

We don't know how long this will drag

on for, how many leaves will be cancelled, how many birthdays missed. Time

becomes the passage between two beds

and the hope that the patient still breathes.

My son misses me badly. He sits

at the dining table after washing the dishes,

waiting for someone to teach him

to count past 10, to tie a butterfly

knot so he won't trip over his shoelaces.

Mother turns up the volume, afraid

of missing out updates. New death tolls,

an increase in confirmed cases. She mutes

the TV immediately after, afraid of

hearing her daughter's name. When father's

cancer turned terminal and he came home

bald, I took the Hippocratic Oath

as an apology. I watched her wheel him

into the passenger seat of our sedan.

This time, ma, just sit back. I'll strap you in.

CRISPIN RODRIGUES, 31, is a teacher and has published two collections of poetry, Pantomime (2018) and The Nomad Principle (2019).

2 socially distanced mothers in a hdb playground

GWEE LI SUI, 49, has published books such as poetry collection Death Wish (2017) and humour book Spiaking Singlish (2017). This poem takes inspiration from Arthur Yap's 2 mothers in a hdb playground.

It All Depends On Your Perspective

TOH HSIEN MIN, 45, is the founding editor of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His poetry collections include Means To An End (2008) and Dans quel sens tombent les feuilles (2016).

What My Kids Said


My five-year-old came home from school and said, Did you know the Wuhan virus is spreading?


We decided to limit our excursions to outdoor places.

I love nature, said the five-year-old. This is boring, said the three-year-old.


We ran out of nearby parks and found ourselves trying in vain to cook eggs in Sembawang Hot Springs.

We got used to Papa sitting in bed in his pajamas, On The Phone With The Boss.

The three-year-old dressed up with his sword and shield to go dragon hunting, then decided to work from home instead. Got virus mah, he said.

Red crosses mushroomed on seats overnight. You can only sit where there are no crosses, said the five-year-old. You can only sit on the crosses, said the three-year-old.

I told the five-year-old he would not have a birthday party this year. But why? he asked. I will only invite people without the virus. If they're wearing a mask, they have the virus, so I won't invite them.

We went to a library in the mall only to realise we had to queue to get into the mall, then queue to get into the library. We returned home, frazzled, to find Papa in his pajamas, On The Phone With The Boss. We tiptoed into the bedroom and had a picnic dinner on the floor.


The three-year-old stole Papa's headset and walked around the house, shushing us. Shh… my boss is calling me.

School closure was announced. Hooray! said both boys.

I made a timetable I was sure no one would follow.

I bought a Monopoly set and borrowed 33 books from the library.

The boys came home with piles of homework.

Circuit breaker started.

We didn't follow the timetable.

I tried to become a kitchen goddess, but their favourite dish was plain tofu, steamed with a dab of oyster sauce.

The five-year-old immediately took to Monopoly. The three-year-old hated it.

We went to the park connector for exercise, but it was swamped.

The park connector closed.

The five-year-old refused to leave the house, even for a walk. I'm cosy at home, he said.

The three-year-old cried and begged me to bring him with me to the supermarket.

Six days passed, but it felt like six months.

We stayed home. We stayed safe.

EUNICE LIN, 35, is a housewife and mother of two.

When This Is All Over

We will go to that dim sum restaurant and order

everything, even the lor mai gai we cannot finish.

You will take the first har gao

and put it on my plate. I will give you

the last bite of my chee cheong fun.


one metre apart is not apart forever;

one day we will split the char siew sou like lovers.

ELIZABETH FEN CHEN, 32, is a speech therapist and a winner of the 2018 National Poetry Competition.

Bathroom Prayer

I didn't want to write today.

I didn't want to write about

a world where people speak only with their mouths hidden.

I'm a sentimentalist like that.

I want to see teeth. Tongues.

I want to see a smile and

not think of death. Death is

a worm looking for a hole in

the side of our faces to bore into.

Death is a flyer in the mailbox.

Death is a room you check into, hoping to be let out of. Now,

every day I wake up without

warning. Groggy, I head to the bathroom.

I speak to the mirror most days,

watch the contours of my mouth

fit around the only prayers I know.

"Finally, right?" "Long time no see!"

"How are you doing?" "Stay safe."

VALEN LIM, 25, is a member of local literary collective Stop At Bad End Rhymes ("/s@ber"). His poetry has won third place at the Golden Point Awards and second place at the Goh Sin Tub Writing Competition.

The Contact Tracer

You are tracing the invisible Making the invisible visible, I tell her. You are my hero. She laughs - What's so invisible about people? No, no, I mean The Virus.

Maybe I am tracing relationships, she says. Or maybe I am tracing broken connections In a hyper-connected world. Who could say that Case XXY (We are still in triple digits) Spends a full 30 minutes every evening Chatting with the hawker centre auntie?

Or even that the Chinese auntie prays At the Serangoon Road Hindu temple Every Saturday, for world peace. Do people actually do that? I am incredulous.

And Case XXY does not tell his wife That auntie is his rock His mother who listens to him From the other world.

Most of the time I just pause To listen, even as I race to complete The flow chart that may save the life Of Case XXY's drinking buddy Who smokes three packs a day.

The virus does not discriminate, they say And don't waste a good crisis, Somebody important once said. But the web of connections that I chart Is knotted equally with hope and despair.

We are sitting diagonally across a Large round table, avoiding the seats With ominous red-taped crosses. What's a diagonal If the table is round? I ask.

She smiles. Let's just enjoy our drink And meet on the other side In a world which makes more sense.

AMIT AGARWAL, 43, is a film-maker and artistic director of the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline Words to lift spirits. Subscribe