Lee Tzu Pheng

by Nureza Ahmad

Lee Tzu Pheng (b. 13 May 1946, Singapore–) is one of Singapore’s distinguished poets.1 A retired university lecturer, she has published in anthologies and journals internationally.2 Her three volumes of poetry, Prospect of a Drowning (1980), Against the Next Wave (1988) and The Brink of an Amen (1991), have won awards from the National Book Development Council of Singapore.3 She is also a recipient of the Cultural Medallion for literature in 1985, and other awards such as the Southeast Asia Write Award (1987), Gabriela Mistral Award (Chile, 1995) and the Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award for English poetry (1996).


Early life
Lee studied at Raffles Girls’ School and the University of Singapore (today’s National University of Singapore).4 From the latter, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in 1968 and a PhD in 1972. She went on to become a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s English language and literature department.5


A rather shy person by nature and quite reticent about evaluating her own works when interviewed, Lee had never planned to become a poet. Her first volume of poetry, Prospect of a Drowning, was first written during her undergraduate days, but she had it published eight years later in 1980. Her subsequent works were interspersed with long periods of silence, as she focused on her career and family.6

Contributions and accomplishments
Lee’s poetry is meditative and lyrical in nature, with themes such as the individual’s search for an identity and a larger unifying humanity. These themes are reflected in her poetry collections Against the New Wave (1988) and The Brink of an Amen (1991).For Lee, more often than not, poetry is an expression of the poet’s experiences in life.8 Her most anthologised work to date is an early poem, My Country and My People (1976), which expresses her ambivalent attitude towards patriotism and nationhood.9

Although less than prolific (four slim volumes of poetry spanning 17 years), Lee’s literary output has been honoured with both local and international awards.10 She won awards by the National Book Development Council of Singapore for poetry in 1980, 1988 and 1991, and she received the Cultural Medallion for literature in 1985.11 In 1987, she clinched the Southeast Asia Write Award for English poetry.12

In 1995, Lee was conferred the Gabriela Mistral Award by the Chilean government. The award was given to 50 outstanding writers worldwide to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral winning the Nobel Prize for literature. Lee was the only Singaporean and one of six writers from Asia-Pacific to receive the award.13 In recognition of her literary success and contribution to Singapore literature, Lee was one of two English-language writers who received the newly inaugurated Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award in 1996.14

Over the years, Lee has given numerous public readings and participated in seminars for the arts.15 Her work has also been read over the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1999, her poems were recorded and distributed in a compact disk album entitled Singapore Poetry in English, as part of a compilation of readings by senior Singapore poets.16 Her poetry is studied in university courses in Australia, Canada and the United States.17

Lee is the lyricist of the National Day ceremony song, “My People, My Home”, which has been sung as part of National Day ceremonies in schools since 1998.18 Several of her poems have also been set to music for choral performance by Singapore composer Bernard Tan.19

Lee is well known for promoting reading and literature among the young, and she commits herself to nurturing talent in young writers.20 Launched in 2002, the biannual Lee Tzu Pheng Poetry Award is given to aspiring young poets in secondary schools and junior colleges. The award is funded by the Lee Foundation and the Old Rafflesians’ Association.21

Lee is often uneasy when approached by fans asking for inspirational words of wisdom. She confessed to being extremely uncomfortable with the attention and publicity that comes with winning awards, and spoke of how she had to battle her nerves when she first started lecturing students at the university. Public readings of her poems make her nervous. As she once said of herself: “It’s like that image of the swan – you look at it and it’s very calm on top, but it’s paddling like mad underneath. For me, it’s just like that”.22

Lasting legacy
In 2014, Lee was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, organised by the Singapore Council for Women’s Organisations to honour the women who have made an impact on the nation and shaped society with their humanity, talent and creativity, vision, passion and leadership.23


Lee was honoured with a retrospective exhibition commemorating her works along with an evening of literary talks titled “Celebrating Anne Lee Tzu Pheng” as part of the Singapore Writers Festival Literary Pioneer programme curated by The Arts House in November 2017. She delivered the inaugural Literary Pioneer lecture at the programme in which she shared details of her journey as a poet, a lifelong creative endeavour that she describes as a “vocation”.24

Awards25
1985: Cultural Medallion
1987: Southeast Asia WRITE Award
1995: Gabriela Mistral Award (Chile)
1996: Montblanc-NUS Centre for the Arts Literary Award for English Poetry

Works26
1980: Prospect of a Drowning
1987: Growing Readers
1988: Against the Next Wave
1991: The Brink of an Amen
1997: Lambada by Galilee & Other Surprises
2012: Catching Connections: Poems, Prosexcursions, Crucifictions27
2012: 
Sing a Song of Mankind: A Nursery Sequence for the Sixties28
2014: 
Standing in the Corner: Poems from a Real Childhood29
2014: 
Soul’s Festival: Collected poems 1980–199730
2018: 
Common Life: Drawings and Poems31




Author
Nureza Ahmad



References
1. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2003). Who’s who in Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., pp. 225–226. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); Yap, S. (2008, July 6). Soul searcherThe Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE); Yap, S. (2008, July 6). Soul searcherThe Straits Times, p. 62. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE); Ong, S. F. (1997, September 6). Award-winning poet puts herself between the linesThe Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
5. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2003). Who’s who in Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., pp. 225–226. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); Poet explains her silence and need to write. (1988, August 31). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Ong, S. F. (1997, September 6). Award-winning poet puts herself between the linesThe Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Leow, J. (1998, July 31). Lyricist says bonds today are strongerThe Straits Times, p. 49; Koh, N. (1988, August 31). Poet explains her silence and need to writeThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee T. P. (1991). The brink of an Amen. Singapore: Times Books International, back cover. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
8. Lee T. P. (1988). Against the next wave. Singapore: Times Books International, back cover. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
9. Book honours for two poets. (1982, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Ong, S. F. (1997, September 6). Award-winning poet puts herself between the linesThe Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
12. SEA Write Award past winners. (1991, July 13). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Koh, B. S. (1996, April 12). International award for Lee Tzu PhengThe Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Seah, L. (1996, August 24). Veteran writers win inaugural literary awardsThe Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
16.  Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE); Ong, S. F. (1999, January 5). Singapore poets go on recordThe Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
18. Leow, J. (1998, July 31). Lyricist says bonds today are strongerThe Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2003). Who’s who in Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., pp. 225–226. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO); Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
20. Lee, T. P. (1997). Lambada by Galilee and other surprises. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
21. Hwa Chong student wins top poetry prize. (2002, July 23). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Ong, S. F. (1997, September 6). Award-winning poet puts herself between the linesThe Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO). (2014, March 5). A hall of fame to Honour Singapore’s outstanding women [Press release]. Retrieved from SCWO website: https://www.scwo.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/swhf_media_release_04.03.14final-full.pdf; Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO). (2014). Anne Lee Tzu Pheng: Award-winning and internationally acclaimed poet. Retrieved from the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame website: https://www.swhf.sg/profiles/anne-lee-tzu-pheng/
24. Singapore Writers Festival Literary Pioneer – Celebrating Anne Lee Tzu Pheng. (2017). Retrieved from The Arts House website: https://www.theartshouse.sg/whats-on-details/literary-arts/singapore-writers-festival-literary-pioneer-celebrating-anne-lee-tzu-pheng
25. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2003). Who’s who in Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., pp. 225–226. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
26. Low, K. T. (Ed.). (2003). Who’s who in Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., pp. 225–226. (Call no.: RSING 920.05957 WHO)
27. Lee, T. P. (2012). Catching connections: poems, prosexcursions, crucifictions. Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
28. Lee, T. P. (2012). Sing a song of mankind: A nursery sequence for the sixties. Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
29. Lee, T. P. (2014). Standing in the corner: Poems from a real childhood. Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
30. Lee, T. P. (2014). Soul’s festival: Collected poems 1980–1997. Singapore: Landmark Books. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)
31. Lee, T. P., & Ho, C.L. (2018). Common life: Drawings and poems. Singapore: Ethos Books. (Call no.: RSING S821 LEE)



The information in this article is valid as at August 2020 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Lee, Tzu Pheng, 1946- --Biography
Award winners--Singapore--Biography
Language and literature>>Literatures>>East and Southeast Asian literature>>Singapore literature
Cultural Medallion Recipients (Literature)
Personalities>>Biographies>>Authors>>Cultural Medallion Recipients
Poetry
Arts>>Literature>>English (Singapore) Literature>>Poetry
Women poets--Biography