His history, in poetry

His history, in poetry
Singapore's Finance and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam
PHOTO: Reuters

No numbers, just words. An old photo of a youthful Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam poring over poems with his ACS buddies has caught the attention of Singaporeans he snapshot was taken in June 1978. Just three young men, spouting poetry.

Who would have thought one of them would go on to become the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Singapore.

"I was not an 'economics' person till later, during my university years," Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam tells The New Paper on Sunday.

"I spent all my time on sports during my school days and was distinctly unscholarly by nature. I began reading widely only after my school years. Writing was, for me, just an offshoot of an interest in society," he adds.

Calling it "this rather embarrassing photo", Mr Yeoh Lam Keong says it evokes warm memories "of when we edited a collection of local poetry for the Young Writers Circle of the National Library".

"(This) photo was taken in the home of Chew Kheng Chuan, a mutual good friend of mine and Tharman. We were in NS at the time," explains Mr Yeoh, an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and vice-president of the Economic Society of Singapore.

The two classmates at the London School of Economics crossed intellectual swords two weeks ago, after Mr Tharman had given a 27-minute speech at the PAP rally in Bukit Panjang on Sept 6.


The photo, which first appeared on Sept 11 on Mothership.sg, a Singaporean digital news agency, already has over 36,000 views.

Mr Tharman says he never regarded himself "as a poet, much less a good poet".

"Among the three of us, KC and Lam Keong were better writers. I did some poems in my early 20s, a few of which got carried in this book. I wrote very occasionally until my late 20s. A few poems were carried in Commentary, the journal of the National University of Singapore Society," he adds.

Mr Chew, better known as KC, says the photo serves as "a sweet memory of a friendship that continues today".

"We were not NS mates, but we were good friends from ACS (Anglo-Chinese School). Even then, it was clear to me that Tharman was the brightest of our classmates and of our generation, narrowly defined... I am glad Tharman stayed the course from our earlier interest in Singapore politics," says the special adviser to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Asia.

As to his reputation as the "inveterate sng buay (sour plum) addict", Mr Chew says: "I haven't taken sng buay in decades, so I guess I am no longer an addict. I had liked it inordinately as a teenager, and that was why the reputation among close friends. Salt is bad for you."

Would they change anything from those times?

"Not with regard to my friends Tharman and Lam Keong," Mr Chew says.

Mr Yeoh adds: "Perhaps, I might not have allowed Tharman and KC to talk me into taking up economics in university and studied marine biology instead."

This article was first published on Sept 20, 2015.
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