Poet in Residence

In the second part of a National Day special, Life! takes a look at photographs, paintings and poetry by foreigners inspired by Singapore.


by Clarissa Oon

6 August 2011

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When Mas Selamat Kastari made his infamous escape from Whitley Road Detention Centre, Eric Tinsay Valles was living just down the road.

The Filipino-born teacher and poet marvels at how, in the days and months after, his neighbourhood was swarming with police officers. Extensive resources were mobilised to recapture the terrorist leader.

The contrast with the Philippines was stark. There, ‘jailbreaks happen in the south all the time and nothing is heard of the convicts afterwards’, says Valles, who has since moved fromWhitley Roadto Clementi.

The explosive impact of Mas Selamat’s 2008 escape onSingapore’s relatively placid society spawned one of his poems, Astir On Whitley Road.

It can be found in Valles’ maiden poetry collection, A World In Transit, published earlier this year bySingapore’s Ethos Books.

His 11 years living here, and his experiences growing up inManila, both ‘stimulate and create tension in my writing’, explains the gentle, soft-spoken bachelor.

A Singapore permanent resident, he has taught English language and literature at the NUS High School of Math And Science for the last five years.

‘I love my country, that’s why I haven’t applied for citizenship here. But part of my calling as a writer is to call attention to certain challenges that I observe in whichever society I am in.’

In the Philippines- a passionate and outspoken democracy ridden with corruption and violence – there is ‘a lot of anarchy and chaos’.

Examples include last year’s hostage crisis where Manila police botched the rescue of Hong Kong tourists held by a gunman, with tragic results.

Valles thinks one big challenge for regional governments in thePhilippinesis to fight corruption and beef up law enforcement.

As for Singapore, he is constantly struck not just by how ‘everything is so clean and green’, but also by the ‘uniformity and conformity’.

‘In that sense, it makes things convenient. Nothing unexpected comes up here.’ Aside from the odd national drama like Mas Selamat’s jailbreak, that is.

Born to ethnic Chinese parents in a middle-incomeManilasuburb, Valles attended some of the best schools there. These include the Jesuit-run private university Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines, where he did his master’s in English studies.

After graduation, he packed his bags for Taipeito study Mandarin, and worked as a journalist with several Taiwanese English-language newspapers.

In 2000, he relocated here to work on a still-uncompleted PhD in English Literature at the National University of Singapore.

His poetry has been published in several international journals and Singaporepoetry anthologies.

In his free time, the committed Catholic gives spiritual counselling as a lay member of global Catholic organisation Opus Dei.

Highly educated Filipino professionals like Valles make up a growing contingent here, debunking the stereotype of Filipinos as domestic workers and service staff.

Despite the resentment of some Singaporeans at the swelling tide of foreigners, Valles has not experienced any tension. ‘People around me are very polite.’

However he can understand the sentiments. ‘If I were Singaporean I would probably feel under threat.’

He supports a ‘Singaporeans first’ policy in certain industries, but believes at the end of the day that ‘the pie is big enough for everyone’.

While on a two-week writing residency at theVermont Studio Centerin the United States in June, he found himself missing – of all things – the MRT.

He does not drive and has got very attached to the efficient public transport system here. The word ‘convenient’ – a favourite adjective of Singaporeans – crops up a few times in this interview.

When asked if there is an equivalent word in Tagalog, he is stumped for a while, before coming up with madali, ‘which is associated with being quick’.

Nothing in his mother tongue quite conveys the ease of getting around, he concludes, ‘but we have a lot of words for suffering and misery’.

A World In Transit is available for $17.12 at Kinokuniya, Books Actually and Select Books.

Astir on Whitley Road

 A police detail

Toting machine guns, jaws taut,

Eyes shiny like tots whose heads

Still spin after a carnival ride,

The day after Selamat shattered

The peace in our palm-lined neighborhood.

Their skin like cowhide,

Boots planted on college green,

Sometimes scuttling about like fire ants

With pincers seeking some enemy

Who drives children away

From playgrounds on the street.

Is the fugitive angry?

Does he wrestle with shadows under a flyover

As the city scurries home to dinner?

I slink to our vulnerable gate,

Look for vagrant traces on the sidewalk,

Hope not to catch the bloodshot eyes

Of that bearded man

On the poster. I have not spotted his limp

On the driveway. He has not peered

Through a fish-eye in the front door.

But robs us of rest and ravages the pastoral

Of manicured lawns and licorice sunsets

That made writing here so easy.

 Eric Tinsay Valles

Eric Tinsay Valles’ poetry has been featured in international journals and local anthologies. Mas Selamat’s escape in 2008 inspired him to pen the poem Astir On Whitley Road. — ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

Singapore Press Holdings Limited


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