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Dr Lee Tzu Pheng is an award-winning poet who is considered one of Singapore's most influential literary figures. She was an Associate Professor at the English Language and Literature Department at the National University of Singapore (NUS) until her retirement in 2001. Three of her poetry collections, Prospect of A Drowning (1980), Against the Next Wave (1988) and The Brink of an Amen (1991), have won the National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for Poetry in English. Three works were released concurrently in 2012, two of which reflect her journey of faith since converting to Catholicism in 1989; and the latest two works in 2014. Lee's achievements include receiving the Cultural Medallion for Literature in 1985, the S.E.A. Write Award in 1987, the Gabriela Mistral Award (from Chile) in 1995, and the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award for Poetry in English in 1996.
Lee Tzu Pheng was born in Singapore in 1946. She studied at Raffles Girls' School and later at the then University of Singapore, where she obtained a First Class Honours degree in English in 1968, followed by a PhD in 1972. After graduation, she took up a position at the university as Lecturer in the English Language and Literature Department.
Lee acknowledges her late elder brother as the biggest influence in her early interest in poetry. When she was eight years old, they worked together to write a poem for her school magazine. She recalls, "In my early years, most of my contact with literature and poetry was extremely enjoyable. My brother was a lover of literature. We used to enjoy reading poems together, learning some by heart and parodying certain ones that we didn't like."
As an undergraduate, Lee was taught by distinguished English poet Professor D.J. Enright who was then in the Chair of English, and later by Professor Edwin Thumboo, who invited the young student to some of his meetings with other poets. She said that at that time, during the early days of Singapore's independence from Malaysia, there was a self-conscious feeling among writers that they were building a new form of Singaporean literature. Other writers she met during this period included Dr Goh Poh Seng, Robert Yeo and Arthur Yap.
Her first poetry collection, Prospect of A Drowning, was written during her undergraduate days. However, she only published it many years after she graduated, at the urging of friends. A rather reticent person, Lee never felt comfortable with her own early work. She hesitated in publishing her early works because of a lack of confidence. She said, "A person's first works are usually lacking in many ways; you are still finding your voice… The batch of poems that came out at that particular period was very early and unformed… Although some of the poems were very well received, I felt very dissatisfied with them. So I just hung on to them and didn’t do anything with them." Later, she recognised that coming to terms with her early work was part of maturing as a writer.
Lee's subsequent works, Against the Next Wave and The Brink of an Amen were published in 1988 and 1991 respectively. The three collections were awarded the National Book Development Council of Singapore Award for Poetry. Lee's poems are meditative and lyrical, often exploring themes such as identity and an individual's position in the greater context of humanity. Her later poetry dealt more deeply with faith and spiritual themes, evident in the volumes, Lambada by Galilee, published in 1997, and Catching Connections, published in 2012.
In 2012, she launched Short Circuits, a collection of prose reflections, and Sing a Song of Mankind, nursery rhyme parodies, a satirical commentary on the 1960s culture of the west. The two books, together with Catching Connections, were published after a gap of 15 years. Lee said in an interview with The Straits Times that the nursery rhymes were written five decades ago but were only collated recently, while the poetry and prose collections were new works. She explained, "I don’t write just for the sake of writing, but when there's a feeling that something needs to be said, needs to come out."
Her most anthologised work is a poem written in 1967, titled My Country and My People, first published in Prospect of A Drowning. Expressing her ambivalent attitude towards patriotism and nationhood, the poem was banned from the air waves for reasons that were never made clear to this day. Lee notes that more often than not, her early poetry is an expression of her experiences in life.
Lee's works often explored critically the identity of a newly independent nation in the 1960s and 1970s. A poem, titled Bukit Timah, Singapore, was at one point included in an international selection of poetry for 'O' Level literature texts. In the poem, Lee describes in some detail people going about their daily business along Bukit Timah Road, and how they seem to represent life in the new and changing republic. The piece lists the various kinds of people coming together at the site, reminding readers of Singapore's diverse cultural as well as physical landscape.
Since becoming a Catholic in 1989 and now including her baptismal name Anne in her publications, Lee has been reflecting on her spiritual journey in her writings. Catching Connections and Short Circuits are examples of this focus. The latter is the most autobiographical of her works. In it, she describes intense spiritual experiences and muses on her faith, as well as the connection between spirituality and creative writing. The prose collection also continues her reflections on life, ranging in subject matter from nationalism to love and cyberspace. Lee is of the view that she is a late bloomer when it comes to finding her voice in writing. She feels that it is only recently, in her 60s, that she has found her vocation.
Her accolades include the Singapore Cultural Medallion for Literature in 1985; the nation's highest arts award; and three awards from the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 1980, 1988 and 1991 for poetry. In 1987 she was named the Singapore winner of the S.E.A. Write Award for her second anthology, Against the Next Wave, and contributions to literature.
In 1995, she was conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award by the Republic of Chile. The award was given to 50 outstanding writers around the world to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral's winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Lee was one of 50 writers worldwide, the only Singaporean and the only woman writer from the Asia-Pacific region to receive the one-time award. A year later, she received the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award for Poetry in English.
In 2014, Lee was on the inaugural list of 108 women inducted into the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame (www.swhf.sg) established to honour the women who had made an impact on the nation and shaped society with their humanity, talent and creativity, vision, passion and leadership.
Lee's creative output was sporadic over three decades while she was caught up with work at NUS and family life. She is famously uncomfortable with public attention and has spoken of how she had to battle her nerves when she first started lecturing at the university. She has also acknowledged that she constantly suffers from a lack of confidence. It is a challenge she has had to overcome in many instances. "I know it’s hard for people to believe that, with what I have achieved, but it has been a struggle, I am never sure I can do something properly."
Lee has also acknowledged that she is her own toughest critic. She said, "Because of my training I have to be objective, although I am to a degree subjective when I write. Writing is a somewhat schizophrenic activity -- you have to be your own reader as well. You impose a discipline on yourself to be critical about what you write."
Over the years, the poet has appeared in numerous public readings and participated in various arts and cultural seminars. Her poetry has been read on the BBC and she has recorded her poems in the CD, Singapore Poetry in English, in 1999 as part of a compilation of readings by Singapore’s most illustrious poets. Several of her poems have been set to music by Singapore composer Prof. Bernard Tan, for choral performance. What is little known is that she wrote the lyrics to the National Day Ceremony song, My People, My Home, which has been sung at all schools’ National Day ceremony since 1998.
As an educator, Lee is committed to nurturing new writing talent. She has mentored many of the younger Singapore writers who are now making a name for themselves. Although retired from her position as Associate Professor at NUS, Lee continues to play a prominent role in developing Singapore’s literary arts. She was on the board of several arts bodies, including the National Arts Council, the Drama Review Committee from 1993 to 1996, the Arts Resource panel from 1994 to 1996, and the grants’ panel of the Singapore International Foundation. She has also served many years in the Creative Arts Programme, and been a judge for various literary competitions including the Singapore Literature Prize.
TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.
In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.