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Poems, Gwee Li Sui


Poems, Gwee Li Sui

Maria S. Mendes


Gwee Li Sui’s uses Singlish to modify rhymes and rhythmic patterns, making the foreign reader play with intonation in order to hear rhymes. Some of his books, like Death Wish,have a philosophical tone, while others, such as Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Edition of a Book of Poems? or Merlion and Friends, are erroneously considered light or playful. Gwee Li Sui’s humorous lines conceal serious topics, such as censorship, multiracialism and state authority but the irony in them is often misread. Maybe this is the reason why his poetry is often read to Singaporean children without people realizing how profoundly subversive are poems such as ‘Good Laws and Good People.’ In this issue, we spoke with Gwee Li Sui (22 August 1970)about Singapore and its hidden poverty, about Fernando Pessoa’s influence, kiasu-ism and Singlish.


How to Learn Nothing, Gwee Li Sui


Someone says in church
that the recession is a time of trial,
but I have heard before
that the good times were a time of trial.
Surely only those who are in need of trials
go on about trials
since only those who survive on fear
go on about fear
like those who are adrift
babble about directions.

Gwee Li Sui, Death Wish. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2017. Buy here:


Good Laws and Good People.jpg

Good Laws and Good People


Good laws don’t
make good people,
but good people can make
good laws.

Good people who do so
do so because they think
that good laws make
good people,

 which they don’t.


In fact, good people
don’t need good laws;
it is not-so-good people
who need them
and, yes,
need them more
than good people
need them.

But some not-so-good people
can make laws as good
as some good people can
although the good laws made
may not make them good.

But, if good laws don’t
make good people
and they are not always made
by good people, 

then why bother with
good laws
if not-so-good laws
serve as well
or, rather, as badly? 

Good laws for both good
and not-so-good people
are bad laws for
making good ones. 

On the other hand,

good laws for good people
and not-so-good ones
for not-so-good people
are all not-so-good laws

because it is
not-so-good people
who need good laws
more than good people
need them, 

 as I have said. 


This does not mean,
that good laws
for not-so-good people
and not-so-good ones
for good people
is a good idea

since some good people
under not-so-good laws
will be tempted to become
not-so-good people 

(although this is
a good law
for making good laws
since with fewer good people
and eventually none at all,
there will be no more need
for not-so-good laws
with everyone living
under good laws alone).

It seems then that
not-so-good laws,
if given some time,
will become good laws,
but good people,
given time,
will strangely become
not-so-good ones.

So always remember:
if you want good laws,
don’t expect to find
good people around for long
and, if you want good people,
perhaps you should not think
about good laws,
not-so-good ones
and how to make
either of them

because good laws
or not-so-good ones
do not make good people.


From The Other Merlion and Friends. Singapore: Landmark Books, 2015. Buy here



Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. His works of verse include Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems? (1998), One Thousand and One Nights (2014), Who Wants to Buy an Expanded Edition of a Book of Poems? (2015), The Other Merlion and Friends (2015), Haikuku (2017), and Death Wish (2017). He wrote Singapore’s first long-form graphic novel in English Myth of the Stone back in 1993, which was re-released in an expanded twentieth-anniversary edition in 2013. A familiar name in Singapore’s cultural scene, Gwee has further edited acclaimed literary anthologies and written and lectured on a range of subjects. He also wrote FEAR NO POETRY!: An Essential Guide to Close Reading (2014) and Spiaking Singlish: A Companion to How Singaporeans Communicate (2017).