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In the early 1950s, two young Malayan undergraduates, Wang Gungwu and Beda Lim, bonded over their shared love for English poetry. They spent hours poring over the classic literary works of Shakespeare, W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot, and in the process were inspired to create their own unique brand of literature. Just 19 years old at the time, Wang was inspired to create literary works that were distinctly Malayan in character. Pulse, the first known collection of English poems by a Malayan, was the culmination of his early literary efforts. Lim helped Wang publish his maiden poetry collection, and the year of its publication, 1950, has been hailed by prominent Singaporean writers like Edwin Thumboo as the defining moment Singaporean/Malayan poetry took root. Reflecting its origins as an amateur varsity production, Pulse – a modest 16-page booklet – is stapled together with a cover that is adorned with a hand-drawn illustration of the first poem, “To Tigerland”. The cover design depicts a floral wreath lying on the ground beside sheaves of lallang and…

The early Indian Muslims who settled in Singapore in the 1800s brought with them a varied heritage: their skills as shopkeepers and office workers, their unique customs and beliefs, and a tradition of devout poetry. Indeed, their religious faith was a key source of solace for these transplanted Muslims from the southern part of India, who often expressed their piety in the form of verse. One particularly notable poet among them was Muhammad Abdul Kadir Pulavar, whose Islamic religious poetry collection, Munajathu Thirattu, is the oldest Tamil book held by the National Library. Published by J. Paton, Government Printer, in 1872, the book comprises a total of 55 poems and songs in praise of Muslim saints and the Prophet Muhammad. The verses are written in simple Tamil, richly overlaid with Persian and Arabic words, and are appended with tunes and rhythms. They are divided into six genres: introductory poems in praise of the author (four poems); Munajathu Pathikam (four songs); Thanippaakkal (12 poems); Thanippathangal (30 songs); Sindhu, a lyrical form of Tamil (two poems); and Chitirak…

An Indian migrant brings his wife to Singapore in the late 19th century to watch the island’s horse races. As the couple travel around the British colony, the husband,N. V. Rengasamy Dasan, describes each building and street they pass to his wife, painting a verbal picture of turn-of-the century Singapore. The travelogue, written in the form of a poem, is the first non-religious Tamil book to be printed in Singapore and notable for breaking new ground in the Tamil literature scene – using colloquialisms such as kampong (village), pasar (market) and kopi (coffee) at a time when most Tamil literature was written in classical Tamil. Published in 1893, Athivinotha Kuthirai Panthaiya Lavani (which translates into English as An Anthology on Horse Racing), the title of the book is misleading as only a small section of its contents is devoted to the sport of horseracing. For the most part the book reads like a travelogue of Singapore. Penned by the husband, N. V. Rengasamy Dasan, the anthology is divided into two broad sections.…