The Planners

 Overview

Another poem about planning! An obvious comparison with ‘The City Planners’, Boey Cheng feels similarly distraught by the onslaught of planners and their need for ‘perfection’, which resembles conformity and uniformity. However, he seems to lack the anger and fight of Atwood, but to be in a melancholy state of acceptance of the changes to the world.

They plan. They build. All spaces are gridded,
filled with permutations of possibilities.
The buildings are in alignment with the roads
which meet at desired points
linked by bridges all hang
in the grace of mathematics.
They build and will not stop.
Even the sea draws back
and the skies surrender.

They erase the flaws,
the blemishes of the past, knock off
useless blocks with dental dexterity.
All gaps are plugged
with gleaming gold.
The country wears perfect rows
of shining teeth.
Anaesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis.
They have the means.
They have it all so it will not hurt,
so history is new again.
The piling will not stop.
The drilling goes right through 
the fossils of last century.

But my heart would not bleed
poetry. Not a single drop
to stain the blueprint 
of our past’s tomorrow.

Kim Boey Cheng (1965-Present)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.

ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Kim Boey Cheng is a Singaporean-Australian poet and now professor of creative writing at an Australian university. He’s relatively young when compared to some of the poets in our list and the meaning of this poem is located in his youth as a boy growing up in a quickly modernising Singaporean society.

If you know nothing about Singapore, have a quick glance at this picture below:

The Planners - in postIt is a very small country that has become very rich and dominated by huge high rise towers, typically linked with the finance industry. A former British colony, Singapore gained independence after World War II and a nasty period of Japanese occupation and a brief fling with being part of Malaysia.  After some nifty tax policies designed to attract business to the country, the economy exploded in the 1960s and 70s and has continued to be very strong ever since. This wealth and growth of population coupled with the limited land available meant that much of the country was flattened so huge skyscapers could be built. Today these home 80-90% of the population! There is a good little article about this that was on the BBC recently, if you fancy finding out a little more.

‘The Planners’ reflects this dramatic change and how Singapore’s past was destroyed to make way for the new skyscrapers and the country in modernity. You can imagine how difficult this would be for local Singaporeans to take, particularly the older generation.

Another interesting fact – my father was born in Singapore in the 1950s (my grandad was a military man) and that means that I am eligible to represent them in any sport. Unfortunately I am rubbish at most sport and quite a few Brits have beaten me to the same idea. Boo!

 Themes

This poem confronts the conflict between preserving our history and nature with the relentless desire to improve and modernise. The idea of conflict is shared with Atwood, but here it is our history rather than nature that are seen as being important to protect.

Content

There is loads of really interesting stuff going on with the language and structure in this poem, so I’m going to be pretty brief with my explanation of the meaning across the whole poem – to be honest, it is relatively straight forward once you understand the context.

The first stanza demonstrates the relentless nature of the planners and their desire to create cities governed by mathematics – perfect angles, spacing and organisation. So much so that the vast natural power of the skies and the seas are subdued by it and nature seems lost to the city.

Next we move onto a sarcastic presentation of what the planners are doing as being about improving upon the flaws of the city. Really Boey Cheng thinks they are destroying its beauty, but in a sense they really are replacing the old with the new and shiny. You might think that’s a good thing, but remember that if everything is shiny and new then it is going to quickly become a boring city with no trace of its history and the way we used to live. He also claims that as a population we are being drugged by the planners so that we don’t feel the pain of losing our past.

The final stanza is particularly poignant. He reveals how this new city has left him without inspiration and unable to draw creativity from his country’s and family’s history and heritage.

Language and techniques

The first line is extremely powerful. Look at the two short and definitive statements: ‘They plan. They build’. There is no argument or disagreement as he is presenting this as a certainty and something that is impossible to change. Notice also how his planners are referred to as ‘they’ – this positions them as being apart from him and apart from us, as readers. He does this to communicate how this relentless change is out of the hands of the normal people on the street and done against our wishes.

As the first stanza continues, Boey Cheng positions the new Singapore as being limited by its heavily planned designed. Cities tend to grow haphazardly and you find little quirks and oddities that tell something of their history in their structure. However, he is talking about Singapore being plotted with the ‘grace of mathematics’. In this context ‘grace’ is used to mean beauty, but he doesn’t mean this. Mathematics is very rarely linked with aesthetic beauty and he is actually complaining about this overly structured designed where everything is ‘gridded’, in ‘alignment’ and ‘meets at desired points’. Notice how he says spaces are filled with ‘permutations of possibilities’. A permutation is another mathematical word meaning an option. If there are ‘permutations of possibilities’ this means there are a number of options, but this also hints that there are a limited number of options rather than limitless opportunity. Just to make this clear – there are not unlimited permutations, but just a number. However many this is, it hints at limitation.

At the end of the stanza we have some beautiful natural imagery through the personification of the sea and skies. Now, first of all, consider the scale and power of these two elements of nature – one covers 71% of the Earth and another surrounds us completely; both have the power to wreck whole cities. However, the wall of skyscrapers conquering Singapore lead them to ‘draw back’ and ‘surrender’. Both these words have connotations linked to warfare and that should connect us the Boey Cheng’s feelings – that the planners are fighting and destroying nature and Singapore’s history.

You could comment on the fact that he uses positive language and analogy in the second stanza in the same ironic way as Atwood (although it is presented in a less confrontational manner). They are seen as ‘eras[ing] the flaws, the blemishes’, which should be a good thing.

This continues in his analogy with teeth being treated by a dentist. Imagine having a crooked smile and gaps in your teeth; not nice, but a fair reflection of you and your life in many ways. If you go to the dentist and then your gaps are ‘plugged with gleaming gold’ and you have ‘perfect rows of shining teeth’ you probably look a whole lot better. However, there is a certain element of superficiality in this and you have disguised yourself or at the very least your past. I’m obviously in a visual mood, but observe this American dentistry to help me make my point:

The Planners - in post 2

She’s stunningly beautiful, isn’t she? I think I love… Anyway try not to be distracted by anything other than her teeth. They are perfectly white, perfectly straight, perfectly even, but completely fake. She looks great, but those teeth are 100% not natural (I’ll wager my reputation on it). This is the message of the poem – Singapore might look fantastic, but it has lost its truth and covered its flawed and cracked history with shiny newness.

We might all want that smile, but we don’t often want to suffer the drilling and the decade of wearing braces. However, the poet uses rule of three when explaining how the planners have managed to force this change on the population: ‘Anaesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis’. (1) Anaesthetic dulls the pain or feelings, (2) amnesia makes us forget and (3) hypnosis manipulates our thoughts. How have the planners achieved this? ‘They have the means.’ This line at first struck me as quite confusing, but I think it anchors the ‘they’ to the government and politicians. They are in a position to present information to the public to (1) distract them from the transformation, (2) move on from the topic and (3) present change as a positive through their influence on the press.

I’m not completely confident about this, but there is definitely a suggestion in ‘They have the means.’ Alternatively, this could just be the way the population as a whole has reacted – dulling their emotions, trying to forget the past and convincing themselves that the change is for the better.

Boey Cheng’s feelings about the change are made completely clear in his expressions ‘so history is new again’ and ‘drilling right through the fossils of last century.’ The prior is an oxymoron – how can history be new again? This really means that he feels the past is being erased. The latter indicates his bitterness at the way the city is transforming, without sensitive to Singapore’s past, but as a force of relentless destruction in the form of a drill as opposed to the excavationists/archaeologists trowel and brush.

In the final stanza it all gets a bit poetic and complicated. The line ‘my heart would not bleed poetry’ is difficult to associate with the rest of the poem initially, but becomes easier if you substitute ‘poetry’ with creativity. He is saying that the city no longer allows him to be creative or inspired. The monotony of the shiny newness has left him without anything to really engage him, like the majesty of nature or the quirks of Singapore’s history. He calls creativity or his poetry a ‘stain’ on the ‘blueprint of the city’ as anything different, unique or inventive is out of place in a city of uniformity. Of course, from Boey Cheng’s perspective poetry is beautiful and gives life to a place, whereas Singapore is dead as a source of inspiration.

Structure

I mentioned the structure in ‘The City Planners’ as being deliberately shambolic in order to convey Atwood’s sense of rebellion against the uniformity. I’m not sure my comment on the look of ‘The Planners’ is as convincing, but you can be the judge.

Notice how we have two extremely long stanzas and then a short little one (9, 14, 4 lines respectively). Could this represent the skyline of Singapore? Massive skyscrapers taking over with the little stanza representing the past and the historic way of life for the population that is being erased.

One thing you have to mention is the use of short sentences when describing the actions of the planners. Short and definitive statements that demonstrate the power and authority of those making the changes as they are not open to argument or contention. This also reflects Boey Cheng’s attitude towards the relentless change, which is of defeat and melancholy acceptance as opposed to pure anger or aggression.

Tone

A contrast with ‘The City Planners’ in that they are recognising the same negative trend, destroying something they love; but Boey Cheng thinks the uniformity is inevitable and unstoppable, while Atwood is lashing out and challenging her city planners. I make this poem melancholy and defeatist rather than aggressive and angry.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

7 thoughts on “The Planners”

  1. From the point of view of a third generation Singaporean, I see this also as a commentary on the politics of the ruling party, particularly the second stanza. “They” would of course refer to the ruling party, the People’s Action Party, which has been in power since Singapore’s independence in 1965.

    “Anaesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis.
    They have the means.”

    Yes, they have the means. These are just a few areas in which they have the means:

    1. Media
    The media was/is heavily linked to the government, and was used as a tool in the “redesigning” of Singapore. It was especially effective in the early days of independence, given the low level of education of most of the populace. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_of_Singapore and https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09SINGAPORE61_a.html for more information. Even today, we have astonishingly low levels of press freedom – we rank 153 (out of 180) in the world!

    2. Education / Language
    There are 4 official languages in Singapore today. One of these languages is Chinese, specifically Mandarin Chinese. The ethnic Chinese who lived in Singapore before independence spoke a wide variety of Chinese dialects, including Hokkien, Cantonese, and Teochew, as they had come from different provinces in China. However, in the 1960s, schools taught students Mandarin Chinese and English, and people were discouraged from using dialects as it was thought to interfere with their learning of these 2 state-approved languages. Needless to say (see point 1 above), “they” succeeded. While I do see the benefits of uniting the ethnic Chinese population, this has killed off a lot of intra-cultural diversity, and it’s also led to a language barrier between the pre- and post-independence ethnic Chinese citizens. I can barely communicate with both my paternal grandparents (they speak mainly Cantonese) and my maternal ones (they speak Hokkien). Cultural “amnesia” indeed.
    See more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speak_Mandarin_Campaign.

    3. Political muscle
    Lots of examples but here are a couple of notable incidents:
    – defamation suits against opposition politicians, often ending in the opposing party becoming bankrupt/destitute. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._B._Jeyaretnam#Defamation_suits
    – the detention of opposition political activists without trial(!) during and before the early years of Singapore’s independence, which was (and still is) legal under Singapore’s Internal Security Act. The detainees were largely alleged to have been pro-Communist/Marxist. These days the act is used much less frequently, and mainly on suspected terrorists.
    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_Security_Act_(Singapore)#Instances_of_the_application_of_the_PPSO_and_ISA

    Indeed, “they” were “(erasing) the flaws, the blemishes of the past, (knocking) off useless blocks with dental dexterity”. We’ve gained a lot as a little country, but at an immeasurable expense.

    Thought you’d like a bit more insight into the history of Singapore and how this poem quietly alludes to the less savoury sides of it, given your background in history!

    Sorry if I’m a bit rusty, haven’t done literature since my secondary school days years ago. Wanted to do it for A levels but there were not many lit classes in high school, and they all clashed with my other A level classes. It is not a popular subject in this country – see poet’s last stanza.

    1. Wow! This is a great bit of insider knowledge. It definitely sounds like you’ve added an extra layer of meaning to the poem.

      I’ll add this comment into the post so no one misses it.

      Thanks for contributing,

      Mr Sir

  2. I’m not quite sure I agree with you on what you said about the line ‘But my heart won’t bleed poetry’. I think what he means is that his poems won’t encourage the planners, that’s if you read the next line following this one.

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