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Inspired by those morning bus rides

Malay writer frequently uses the time spent on public transport to ponder new ideas for his works. -ST

Mon, Aug 10, 2009
The Straits Times

IT IS 7.30am and bus service 67 is trundling down Geylang Road, where the workday is winding down for some and just starting up for others.

Fresh out of back-alley brothels, massage parlours and karaoke lounges, pimps and prostitutes from China and South-east Asia are gulping down a quick kopitiam breakfast before heading home for some shut-eye.

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At the same time, bleary-eyed South Asian, Thai and Chinese workers are leaving their cramped living quarters for the daily grind at a construction site.

Bus 67 is one conduit for their humble journeys, and who else is watching them on board but Malay-language writer and civil servant Isa Kamari.

He rides that bus every morning from his home in the east to his workplace in the Rochor area.

Mr Isa, 49, was honoured with the Cultural Medallion for literature two years ago. He penned for Insight a poem based on the sights, sounds and smells of his morning bus route.

'You don't see such a concentration of foreign workers in one place like you do in Geylang. You can see almost every part of Asia there,' says the novelist and poet, who works as an architect with the Land Transport Authority.

He finds this sea of migrant workers mind-boggling and 'in some ways disturbing for a developed country, but it can't be avoided because we need foreign workers'.

It is no accident that a bus journey inspired this poem. He does not drive, and frequently uses the time spent taking public transport to gestate ideas for creative writing.

That, along with writing late into the night, is how he has managed to produce seven novels, two poetry collections and one volume of short stories, on top of holding down a day job.

'I think art is all about focus. My motto is: There is always time to catch time,' says the recipient of the prestigious South-east Asia Write Award in 2006.

Past Singaporean winners of the annual regional prize include Edwin Thumboo and Philip Jeyaretnam.

The prolific writer's output includes plays, television dramas and song lyrics. A collection of his theatre scripts will be published at the year end.

He is also a member of a spiritual music trio, Sirrfillsirr, which performs here and in Malaysia and is now working on its second album.

While his identity as a Malay Singaporean and his Muslim faith have shaped many of his artistic creations, Singapore as a place has not influenced his works - until, perhaps, now.

Writing this poem for Insight 'set me thinking, maybe I should be (producing) a collection of thoughts about Singapore'.

After all, certain things are distinctive about life here, for example, 'the political culture based on meritocracy and equal opportunities for different races'.

This, he explains, has made him a somewhat different person compared to, say, a Malay from Malaysia or Brunei, even though they all share the same cultural roots.

'That's why I think the sense of place needs to be recorded. It is like a mirror where you can look at yourselves, and reflect upon how it was, is and can be in future,' he says philosophically.

While much of his poetry has explored the sense of alienation arising from modern living and the need for a spiritual anchor, his novels have looked at cross-cultural issues, taking Singapore history as a starting point.

His first novel Satu Bumi (1998) is a tragic love story revolving around a young Chinese girl adopted by a Malay family in pre-independence Singapore.

It was translated into English by his translator wife, Dr Sukmawati Sirat, last year and published under its English title, One Earth. It was previously translated into Chinese in 1999.

He has also written a novel about Maria Hertogh, the Dutch girl who unwittingly became a flashpoint for race riots in 1950. The English version of this novel, In The Name Of Love, will be launched at the end of this year.

Underlying these explorations of racial prejudices and tensions is his firm belief that 'there is humanity in everyone to go beyond these parochial views and to be more open-minded and tolerant and understanding of one another's cultures'.

In the words of Malay daily Berita Harian's literary critic Mohd Raman Daud, Mr Isa has 'carried himself as a Malay writer with a universal mission'.

Perhaps for that reason, the latter's biggest hope is for local literature to see more translations of works written originally in Malay, Chinese or Tamil, so that they can reach a wider audience.

'I think there should be more effort in trying to get translations done for works by different ethnic groups, so a better understanding of our different cultural roots could be achieved,' he says.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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