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'“Unprecedented times” is like a chant, a hymn of platitudes uttered to calm the soul, or a lie bleached beyond purity till we can’t tell its origins.'

yang menghulur salam dari jauh itulah pulau

yang menggenggam salam dari dekat adalah semenanjung

yang gementar ditiup angin itulah pulau

yang resah di bawah bulan adalah semenanjung

~ T. Alias Taib

The poem by T. Alias Taib reverberates to a rhythm of despair as I recall the performance, Panggilan Pulau (An Island’s Call) that I curated for The Arts House just before Singapore started her ‘Circuit Breaker’. Selat Tebrau, also known as the Straits of Johor, moves along quietly, at times almost stagnant due to the lack of inactivity on the Johor-Singapore Causeway bridge. This monolithic audience watches the joget of ‘rindu’; longing that continues to chart unmapped boundaries as it spans across the straits. The temporal realm of interstice is no longer accessible. I could hear the shrivelling cries of children forced to be apart from their parents echoing under the grey sky. Poignant yet it eclipses the truth that promises are meant to be broken. The lockdown and ‘circuit breaker’ on both sides of the borders were extended and no one could read those nuanced lips of politicians and keyboard warriors anymore. I, myself, had faith in politics and poetics and how it would be normal again until this becomes the new normal.

Observing the ebb and flow of the natural vegetation near the borders, as if choosing to heed the primal calling in the elucidating straits, the dance of life unveils itself through blurred and transient reflection in the waters. As I sat along the waterfront facing Johor Bahru, the southernmost state of Malaysia watching “the sea discards its hissing syllables, sighs”, the undulating movement of Selat Tebrau continues to define the landscape of the two countries even when both choose to dance to a different but familiar tune, accompanied by distorted movements and utterances that take a life of their own. How different yet similar as the tapestry of the nation continues to be weaved with emotionally charged energy in the writings that carry the burden of history. One can rekindle memories by following the trail from Pedra Branca to the grains of the Nasi Lemak. What we need is a catharsis for disembodied voices and repressed bodies before grief and pain go astray. After all, “pain is truth, all else is subject to doubt.” I will have to continue fighting for space even when the constellation refuses to be configured in my favour. It’s a sign of my sovereignty, or perhaps it is the start of a catastrophe, one that will prolong the era of death, a fate that refuses to fade.

Illustration of a bridge over water

“Unprecedented times” is like a chant, a hymn of platitudes uttered to calm the soul, or a lie bleached beyond purity till we can’t tell its origins. The dance between language and truth will detach the spirit from the body, to escape from having to grapple with uncertainty where the answers are nothing but blurred images that appear from foggy lenses when you alight from the public bus. I turn the pages of the newspapers rapidly, wondering if I am in competition with the Shinkansen. Perhaps, I am missing Japan, the grand crossroads of Shibuya where every single thing is a fleeting memory. The faster life speeds through, the less pressure there is on my veins to carry blood towards my heart. The obituary makes more sense these days as I look at the order of the day, often the men come first and then followed by women. Oh, did I mention about Liyani’s party? 100 hours of ‘pro-bono publico’ work to defend humanity. George Orwell comes to mind – “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” And once again, language challenges the augmented reality overshadowed by rhetorical lamentations of hope and a better tomorrow.

57532 cases and counting. A life attached to a number. Indeed, “life is very simply beyond description” when a socialite’s nightmare is made up of migrant workers rushing into her home. Her way of damage control – to donate to two charities. A first world nation has exhibited her level of toxicity and rage against humanness. No one asked for an apology, or did they? Has the pandemic taken a toll of our mental well-being? What will the merlion spew this time? Will we be sacrificing another crown jewel so that it can frame the picture of our idyllic island life? I need my beacon, the divine light to guide me to be human again. I don’t wish to fall within the cracks. This society is not forgiving, not when the elderly is pushing cartloads of cardboard to make a living or selling packets of tissue to buy their next meal. Will blindfolding ourselves make us stronger or more vulnerable to witness it all? I should move faster, period.

This island in the embrace of the sea, caressed by many who hailed from distant lands is a place I call home. But now, this is the current delineation of home – to be in the presence of my loved ones. A safe space to divulge my innermost thoughts and feelings without a possible massacre led by keyboard warriors, the ability to stay awake in a ‘woke’ society, and to be imbued with the inherent power of the aksara to rediscover the word and the world according to my palette and palate. My gaze is no longer meant to erect more walls and enclaves but to traverse different realms of being while haunting melodies of predicaments and priorities in life continue to seduce and cajole the tired soul. These are unknown boundaries that I will have to navigate and negotiate in the course of my journey, perhaps till the end of time. One may say that it is a kind of trance, but you can’t truly detach your spirit or ‘semangat’ from the body as you transcend from the mundane to the sacred, from the known to the unknown.

As I cycle back home amidst the greenery, I take pleasure in greeting the elders who have the privilege to go jogging and at the same time, giving way to migrant workers because no one in power sees the need to widen the lane, Leonard Cohen’s sublime voice feel like a balm that soothes and shields me from the cacophony of deafening and drowning symbols and sounds of this world – “may you be surrounded by friends and family, and if this is not your lot, may the blessings find you in your solitude”.

[1] Translation by Annaliza Bakri: the one who greets from afar is the island/ the one receives the warm greetings is the peninsular/ the one who trembles when the wind blows is the island/ the one restless under the moon is the peninsular

[1] Pang, Alvin (2017) What Happened: Poems 1997-2017, Singapore: Math Paper Press.

[1] Coetzee, J.M (2000) Waiting for The Barbarians, London: Vintage.

[1] Wong, Cyril (2013) The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza, Singapore: Epigram.

Annaliza Bakri is an educator and translator. Her research interests include the interplay of ideology and ethnicity in shaping dominant narratives in literature, language education, and the intersection between translation, history and humanity. Her writings have been published in various publications. She translated a poetry anthology, Sikit-Sikit Lama-lama Jadi Bukit (2017) and also co-translated award-winning poet Alvin Pang’s What Gives Us Our Names into Malay – Yang Menamakan Kita (2019).

 Copyright © 2020 Annaliza Bakri.

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