Why It Matters

Shaping identity with local poetry

Come next year, junior college students can expect a greater emphasis on Singapore poetry in their exams.

The move by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to include more home-grown works in the A-level literature in English syllabus will go a long way in getting younger generations to value local literature.

It signals to reluctant teachers and indifferent students that investing time and effort in parsing Singapore texts can also be an avenue to academic success.

From next year, at least one question in the poetry section of the unseen exam will require JC2 students to respond to a Singapore poem.

The unseen paper is so named because it trains students to bring their critical skills to bear on texts they may not have seen before.

To prepare students for the changes, the MOE has also commissioned an anthology by local writers for A-level study, the first of its kind. The anthology by Ethos Books, tentatively titled Lines Spark Code, is not compulsory for schools to use. But having it on hand will help allay the concerns of teachers who are themselves unfamiliar with local literature.

With the knowledge that the fates of their students could one day hinge on a Singapore poem, teachers have more impetus to introduce their charges to local works of quality at a younger age, perhaps as early as lower secondary.

This transcends academic practicalities. If a child is bred on a reading diet that privileges William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and J.M. Coetzee, foreign stories from foreign lands, they are bound to reject what they are not used to - even if it comes from their own culture. Without a place carved in the canon they know, a local poem becomes the foreign body in their system.

To grasp literature, one begins by understanding it in relation to one's own identity. And what is the Singaporean identity if not defined by Singaporean works?

It is perhaps through these changes to the unseen paper that future students can learn to better see themselves in the words they study.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2017, with the headline 'Shaping identity with local poetry'. Print Edition | Subscribe