My Brother in My Arms

Nicole Law offers a poetical analysis of inequalities in her native Singapore.

Nicole writes: I envisioned inequality across lines of race and socio-economic status as not two disparate issues but ones that are intrinsically intertwined. Issues of inequality pervade society, including my own society in Singapore, where the debate has reached a marked level of divisiveness. I conceived of inequality as a clear demarcation between two characters who are remarkably similar to one another though they are separated by their access to resources that allow one to get ahead of the other.

The twin-cinema poem format, which originated in Singapore in 2010, lends itself well to the idea I attempt to convey – that of two discrete columns of text that represent the perspectives of two men who differ in terms of race and socio-economic status. Read as two separate poems, it details the individual’s struggle and triumph against unequal structures which pit one man against the other. Read as one continuous poem from left to right, the meaning shifts, illuminating the fact that there is objectively little difference between the two men, although the division remains in the last few lines:“he cannot see beyond his window but all I see are open skies.” 

The functionality of the twin-cinema format grants different readings and interpretations of the poem and illustrates the multidimensional nature of inequality itself.

It depends on the lens the viewer takes at an individual level; we are reminded that each Singaporean is no different from any other -we have similar hopes and dreams. Yet the dominant narrative starts to crack upon the realisation that the structures that assist one group of persons may also artificially place limits on the ambitions of the other.

The start of the poem refers to the compulsory national service that applies to all male Singaporeans and forms a vital shared experience which seemingly leaves little room for division across the lines of race and socio-economic status. 

The spectre of the sleeping dragon appears towards the middle of the poem as an omen that inequality still lurks even in an objectively ‘equal’ society – usually an undercurrent in daily conversation or choices. The thing I’ve observed about inequality and our inherent bias is that it underlies offhand remarks we make and wreaks damage on social cohesion, as evident from recent debates and incidents in Singapore involving racism and classism. The inclusion of the ‘I’ perspective on both the left- and right-hand sides of the poem weaves in the perspective of the proverbial self who insists there is ‘no difference’ although reality may paint a different picture. It also points to the reluctance of the younger generation to admit that sometimes there is still a residue of intrinsic bias which has been passed down through generations of misunderstanding. 

The poem concludes with a contrast between one character’s relentless striving which results in scant progress and only a limited realisation of the ‘Singapore dream’ and that of the other character’s steady assisted ascent to the point that his ‘I’ can no longer empathise with the other.

This poem and accompanying description (the latter very slightly edited for Adamah) were originally published here on Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

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Nicole Law is a writer for Adamah Media, who writes a column entitled 'Stroll with Nicole'. She is an educator based in sunny Singapore. Her calling is not only to mould young minds, but also to nourish souls through her faith-based podcast. She has a soft spot for burnt cheesecake, Dean Martin and swing dance. When she’s not engaging with her listeners, she’s planning new conversations for her podcast - she believes in the power of conversations and the beauty of our relationships.

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