Place of Interest – Singapore River

Singapore River

1Singapore River before the late 1970s where it was highly polluted
(Image taken from

2Singapore River after the clean up from the early 1980s-today
(Image taken from

Singapore River by Lee Tzu Pheng

The operation was massive;

designed to give new life

to the old lady.

We have cleaned out

her arteries, removed

detritus and silt,

created a by-pass

for the old blood.

Now you can hardly tell

her history.

We have become

so health-conscious

the heart

can sometimes be troublesome.

Singapore River by Koh Buck Song

there was a time

it could be said

the old subject

stretched its rule

in the empire

of the easel

now, refreshed,

the lady revels

in another reign,

clear, iridescent

fresh winds have carried

the old tang away

and in this revival

a new mirror

re-projects, rules

the new imagery

Singapore River is definitely a place relevant to Singapore’s literature as it has always been a valued location since the founding of the country. Dubbed as the city’s heart in Singapore, the Singapore River plays a very important role in sea routes contributing to the economic prosperity of the country. Singapore River flourished port city, where its trading ports were crowded with heavy human and sea traffic. However, with increased human flow, Singapore River gradually became a dumping ground to traders, street hawkers and passersby alike. Singapore River was massively polluted till the late 1970s.

In the mid 1970s to early 1980s, the Singapore government decided to take action to remove the litter, curbing the pollution issue and improve the standard of living of the citizens. The government implemented better sewage and drainage system cleaning up the highly polluted waters, refurbished riverbank walls, initiated to conserve surrounding architecture, provide a source of leisure (e.g. dining and water activities) and even as a tourist attraction.

The poems by both Lee and Koh highlights the changes made to the river and the effects of the clean up. Both poets personified the Singapore River as a female; an old lady in Lee’s Poem and a lady in Koh’s poem. The message brought across in both poems by enlarge are also parallel; the movement to clean up the river definitely has its benefits, however the transformed Singapore River would lose the uniqueness and perhaps its former lustre as well.

Mentioned previously, in Lee’s poem, she uses an “old lady” as a personification of the Singapore River, where “her” revamp was done so well and thoroughly that Lee pens “now you can hardly tell her history”. It was hard to imagine or picture the initial state of the river; the dumpsite, dirty and congested yet bustling with diverse activities. The overhaul of the river displayed positive effects, especially to improve Singapore’s standard of living and eliminate health problems associated with polluted waters (such as gastrointestinal diseases and malaria etc). Akin to a heart surgery, Lee describes the clean up as the unplugging of the river’s “arteries”, “creating a by-pass for the old blood”.

Similar in Koh’s poem, where he describes the Singapore River clean up, removing clutter and as “the fresh winds have carried the old tang away” appearing to be “clear and iridescent”. This illustration of the old Singapore River where the new waters are clean and glistening after the facelift given to the river, giving “her” a new image and new-found pride.

With a major reforms and change to the existing infrastructure, there will a wave of fresh perspective but irreversible changes will also be made. Lee mentions, “We have become so health-conscious the heart can sometimes be troublesome” possibly indicating her worry that the extremity of changes might pose a threat to the distinctive society and that could be almost entirely absent in Singapore today. Some features, in this case of the old Singapore River will become a matter of the past such as its dynamic liveliness and spirited area, turned into a sophisticated neighbourhood, prim and pristine. In Koh’s words, “a new mirror re-projects, rules the new imagery” indicates a redefined Singapore River, giving a whole new paradigm shift. Similarly mentioned in Singapore Places, Poems, Paintings, many poets and painters are indeed lamenting the loss of vibrancy, personal touch unique to the local culture.

Following are two paintings of artists illustrating the Singapore River too, at different points of time. Lim Tze Peng’s Bygone Bumboats completed in 1982 is likely to be representation of the Singapore River before the movement to stop pollution and the attempt to clean up the area. Hua Chai Yong’s Skyline completed in 1981 most probably represents the state of Singapore River after the revamp.

Lim Tze Peng, Bygone Bumboats (1982)

(Image taken from ) 
An artist illustration of bumboats, traditionally used to ship goods and supplies. The date of drawing could indicate Lim’s reminiscence of the old bumboats before Singapore River was revamped.

Hua Chai Yong. Skyline (1981)


(Image taken from
Hua’s painting could exemplify Singapore after efforts of the clean up was made; less polluted rivers, more ordered waters and a generally more sophisticated Singapore.

In general, from abundance of material, be it in the form of poems or paintings, it could be seen that Singapore River is definitely a place of interest in the literary circle.

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