The crucible of the familiar: Some Dreams From Now

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Launch of “Some Dreams From Now: 135 Years of Rafflesian Writing”. Credit: RPAC

On the morning of the 14th of January, we all settled into LT1 for the literary experience of a lifetime. (Lit nerds, you’ll wish you were there).

It began with an opening speech from our Principal, Mr. Frederick Yeo, reflecting upon the preparations for the RI Bicentennial celebrations. Mr. Yeo mentioned how a variety of books had been published by adults documenting RI’s illustrious past but this time a collaborative effort has seen the curation of numerous student pieces, creating an anthology that Mrs. Cheryl Yap calls “a dream come true” as the student voice is heard at last.

Mr. Frederick Yeo in his opening speech. Credit: RPAC

The release of this literary anthology, Some Dreams from Now: 135 Years of Rafflesian Writing, marks the first milestone in RI’s Bicentennial celebrations for 2023. What better way is there to showcase the Raffles Story, than through the eyes of Rafflesians past and present?

The anthology was put together through the efforts of editor and alumnus, Mr. Theophilus Kwek; a team of Y56 student researchers; publisher, Pagesetters, run by alumnus, Mr. Ng Kah Gay; and the support of the Raffles Archives and Museum led by Mrs. Cheryl Yap. The research team trawled through 135 years of The Rafflesian, the school’s first newsletter, and read hundreds of poems, stories and essays written by Rafflesians to curate the anthology we see today.

Former principal of RI and current advisor to MOE, Mr. Wong Siew Hoong, the Guest-of-Honour for the launch event, remarked that one of the things RI must do is to be resolute in the face of the very real changes that we face in the present. This is indeed a pertinent remark as the school emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and prepares to mark its Bicentennial with a number of exciting celebrations.

Mr. Wong said that “the history of RI is intertwined with the history of Singapore”, and this is undeniable. Through the pages of the book, one sees the way Rafflesians responded to the world changing around them, and it is a sentiment that was shared by Mrs. Yap, who mentioned in our interview with her that “the students of RI are not apathetic. They are involved.”

Raffles Publications had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Theophilus Kwek before the launch event.

In an exclusive interview we had with Mr. Kwek before the launch, Mr. Kwek also mentioned that the engagement of Rafflesians with the world reflects what he believes makes up the Rafflesian Spirit that we have all heard about. “The true Rafflesian Spirit is not about always chasing greater heights, but rather about what we can do for our community,” says Mr. Kwek, and this indeed rings true.

In a panel discussion moderated by Mr. Kwek, Ms. Clarice Chee, one of the student researchers on the team, raised an intriguing observation that Rafflesians today live in an intersection between the past and present, and we are constantly redefining ourselves and holding ourselves up against our past to make sense of the world today.

The three parts of the anthology, structured according to time period, reflects how Rafflesians were first living on the edge between the colonial and local, then growing in fervour for independence and national identity, before finally taking a step back to find their place in the world. However, Mr. Kwek said, “We are still figuring it out” even today. Given that the world is ever-changing and ever-adapting, a theme that Mr. Wong also covered in his speech, perhaps that is something we must remember to do.

After the panel discussion, a few contributors of the book were invited to read their pieces and it felt as if it was a reunion of Rafflesians – alumni, teachers and staff members – as the authors inspired and entertained the audience with their wit and nostalgic reflections.

Dr. Aaron Maniam reads “White Poems”. Credit: RPAC

It is fitting then for us to end off with a line from Dr. Aaron Maniam’s piece, “White Poems”, a line that calls us to “discover the wondrously new in the crucible of the familiar”. In this age of change, history and stories, let us look into the past and discover wondrous new things that shall carry on in the legacy of this school for many generations to come.

Auspicium Melioris Aevi.

Some Dreams from Now:
135 Years of Rafflesian Writing

Edited by Theophilus Kwek

When Sir Stamford Raffles envisioned the creation of Raffles Institution, he intended it to be the Eton of Singapore. And so, like Eton, RI has become an established independent school, and between RI and Eton, there is a similarity: a longstanding writing culture.

With that, Some Dreams from Now was born, compiling 70 defining pieces of Rafflesian writings over the past one and a half centuries. Edited by Singaporean poet and editor, Mr. Theophilus Kwek, the anthology showcases the history of Singapore from a uniquely Rafflesian perspective, bringing readers on an immersive journey through life under colonial rule and our struggle for independence in the ‘60s to a flourishing and developed first-world Singapore today.

This book is not just any compilation of Rafflesian writings, it is a treasure trove of unique perspectives, bearing the authentic views and memories of young Rafflesians over 135 years of history.

Here are three pieces from the anthology that you might enjoy.

“Charge of the Fruiterers” by Anonymous, published in The Rafflesian (16 August, 1888)
Reviewed by Elijah Chew

To most people, modern Singapore was born when the British came to this island and took it for their own, spreading their language and culture to the people here. Rafflesians of that era were living on the fine line between imperial and local cultures, using their playful literary faculties to express a little of both. Take a look, for instance, at the poem from the 1888 edition of The Rafflesian, titled “Charge of the Fruiterers”: a tongue-in-cheek rewriting of a poem by the then-Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson, “Charge of the Light Brigade”. The poem features famous lines from Tennyson’s poem such as “Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward”, but also familiar local portraits such as “In for the mangosteens,/In for the rambusteens,/Went many hundred.”

This poem is witty and plays around with Singaporean motifs like the ubiquitous fruit stall, but it is also a poem responding to the way the British constructed their literature, adopting their ideas and structures and applying creative license to reveal their own lives.

One may try to imagine a Rafflesian student of that day, so distant and faraway from our sight, as though a museum exhibit. But here we see how a Rafflesian of that day truly thought with all the liveliness and humour of a present-day schoolboy. This poem, like the other pieces in this part of the anthology, is sure to bring a smile to the reader’s face as the bustling scenes of old Singapore meet the finest of British literature.

“Gone is A Friend” by S Dhana (1962)
Reviewed by Gregory Ng

On 8 September 2022, Great Britain’s Late Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom, and a friend to many nations, died peacefully at the age of 96 years old. Seventy years prior, her father – King George VI – had too passed on, and the reactions to his passing are captured in S Dhana’s short story, “Gone is a Friend”.

Published in 1962, one year after the passing of King George VI, S Dhana, a Rafflesian of class Standard 9B, recollects his experience on the fateful night that his family and neighbours found out about the passing of King George VI. The story recounts the characters’ shock, then denial, and finally acceptance over the death of the King. Though short, the story reflects the complex relationship and perhaps ironic admiration Singaporeans had for the monarchy despite our colonial past.

This story might perhaps resonate with readers here as we mourned the loss of Queen Elizabeth II just last year, who, in S Dhana’s time and story, was “the woman… certain to be Queen.” Just as King George was a figure and symbol well-loved by the people for bearing up the Empire in its dark hours of World War II, Queen Elizabeth was similarly respected for being the Lady who projected warmth and hope through the tumultuous times of the Cold War, and more recently, the COVID-19 Pandemic. Both monarchs were pioneers in their own ways; and the news of their deaths created ripples in the global arena.

With the Late King’s death heard “over the wireless”, Dhana’s story is a subtle reminder of the passage of time for it was through social media that most of us learnt of his daughter’s passing instead. Yet, reading this piece might also reveal surprising parallels between our reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth II with those of S Dhana and his contemporaries in 1952. This piece, alongside many others in Some Dreams From Now, will serve as windows into the past and yet also reflections of our current times.

“Festival” by Kenneth Wee, published in Expressions (1994)
Reviewed by Chen Ruilin

What does it mean to be Rafflesian? Singaporean? Human? With the move to Grange Road in 1972, Rafflesians had to navigate a significantly different world, one where the pace of change left little room to breathe, where the fervour for westernisation undermined a uniquely Singaporean culture and identity. Many feared globalisation would be the death of Singaporeans, all in pursuit of the Western hype of economic development.

The pieces published in Some Dreams From Now from the late 20th century onwards appear quieter and more pensive. As the world around Rafflesians turned itself upside down, Rafflesians sought to examine the intangibles within themselves: the role of culture in society, and the identities that defined us. In his introduction to Part Three of the anthology, Mr. Kwek perfectly encapsulates this worry of losing the Singaporean identity. Contemporary Rafflesians, he writes, used their literary pieces as an expression for their “soul-searching around the perceived loss of identity, tradition and soul”.

“Festival”, by Kenneth Wee, is one of these stronger examples. It celebrates a time when the economy is booming, yet illustrates modernity’s lamentable side-effects. The poem captures the power of writing harnessed by Rafflesians of our time. It was not simply a form of expression any more. It was a wider commentary on society and a form of advocacy.

With the lines “Not knowing the meaning of the lotus seeds / we unseeingly eat / They are just more candy to us,” the poem poses two main questions: what have we given up in exchange for economic development? And is what we have lost worth it? The issues tackled by “Festivals” have only become more relevant. With the inevitable rise of social media, we are spending more time on our devices, and less on appreciating the world around us. So perhaps as you read “Festival” and pour through the other thought-provoking pieces in Some Dreams From Now, ask yourself: Why do we eat lotus seeds?

Some Dreams From Now is now available online and in-store at Books Kinokuniya.
Price: $25
Mr. Theophilus Kwek and “Some Dreams From Now: 135 Years of Rafflesian Writing”