GRAZIA Game Changers: Madeleine Lee On Publishing Poetry And Gaining Self-Confidence

"If you do not put your work out there, you would not know what people think of it."
An investment manager by day, Madeleine Lee is the first Singaporean appointed Writer-in-Residence at The Raffles Hotel Singapore for 2023
Madeleine Lee wears a dress, trousers, shoes, and a ring, all from COS, and her own accessories

The GRAZIA Game Changers initiative recognises the people who have been creating meaningful impact in Singapore and throughout Asia. This year, in celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we invited the honorees from our inaugural edition to pass the torch to a new class of talented and spirited individuals. Meet Madeleine Lee, an investment manager by day, a published poet, and the first Singaporean writer to be appointed Writer-in-Residence at The Raffles Hotel Singapore for 2023.

What does the term “game changer” mean to you?
Madeleine Lee (ML):
A disruptor of existing norms/way of doing things.

How did you discover your purpose in life?
ML: Not sure I have….

What are the qualities that you most value in people?
ML: Awareness, honesty and compassion.

How do you embody them yourself?
ML: By reducing the “I” in each situation, we learn to become aware that we are part of and not at the centre of a big universe.

How would you say you’ve played your part to be a game changer in the industry you’re in?
ML: I came to the literature scene in Singapore quite late in my life. Although I have been writing since my school days, I only became a published poet at 40. It was a bit strange, an old new writer on the scene. I had no pedigree, no literature degree and no professors to back me. It is a cliquey scene, to say the least. Still, I simply put out what intrigued me about the natural world. It wasn’t a thing then, but this established me, 21 years ago, as an “eco poet”, not because I started from the point of a tree-hugger, but because I felt sad and sometimes indignant about the disappearing landscape and the lack of care human beings have for the environment. More observations followed, which resulted in a 20-year body of work with the environment as the core subject in each poem. I also love to weave history and human nature around the core. Nowadays everyone is an “eco poet”, so it looks like I was decades early.

Next, leaving a historical record or an archive of Singapore writing was another thing off the top of my head, so in 2003 I proposed to the National Library Board a project called NORA (National Library Online Repository of Artistic Works), starting at collecting Singapore writing that were unpublished or had become out-of-print, like manuscripts of produced plays, poetry and so on. That seems standard today, but it turns out we were way ahead of the curve—again! NORA has gone on to include videos, music and choreography.

Plus, I like to think I redefined writing residencies. Starting with my residency at Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2015 (which resulted in the published collection of poems flinging the triplets), I found my own way of writing in and about a place. [The residency with] Singapore Botanic Gardens also overlapped with my core [subjects,] nature and humans, so I proposed to the National Gallery to do a stint to reset the way we look at the art collections. The book regarding (2019) was the result of this stint. During the pandemic, I managed to put out a book random walk (2021) on the quiet and the birds that emerged, through collaborating with amateur birders. Then in 2022 I was selected as the first Singaporean writer to Raffles Hotel’s Writer-in-Residence programme—and the first poet ever. This resulted in the launch of how to build a lux hotel in July 2023. 

What have been the highlights and major challenges of your journey? 
ML: I don’t take myself too seriously (although I take poetry writing very seriously.) My publisher says I write with “no baggage,” meaning I am not bound to a format or tradition. I simply say what I want to say, but I try to say it well. It seems easy but can be quite a task sometimes. We can have the craft, but do we know what we want to say? [I experienced] lots of imposter syndrome at the start, but that eventually gave way to being confident in my work, my style and my voice. Over time I found, to my surprise, a following for my work and even some scholarly discourse of it.

What are some changes you’d like to see in your industry?
ML: Collaboration between languages, artforms and mediums, and more respect for intellectual property [rights] of the creative talent.

What keeps you motivated and passionate about what you do?
ML: I try to retain a sense of awe. There is so much to be delighted about. There is poetry in everything around us—we just need to be more aware. Poetry does not always need to be angsty; there is truth and beauty in very simple things. It is important also for me that creativity has longevity. We can discover one big piece in us, but can we persevere over time and still show growth in our creative selves? This is the toughest, so this motivates me and keeps me passionate about writing.

What is the most valuable piece of advice or life lesson that you’ve learned?
ML: In publishing, if you do not put your work out there, you would not know what people think of it. In life, in addition to the above, have the conviction to carry on, even after you know what people think—good work and good intentions will find their place eventually.

What do you hope people take away from your journey as a game changer?
ML: Be observant. Push the envelope. Keep writing.