IT seems like a good year to rediscover Singapore through its fiction so I am reading 10 books that describe the city-state in different decades.
I began by putting together books by local authors that I remembered encountering in the last two years, some new releases, others English translations or reprints of decades-old novels.
Some of these books were on loan to friends or colleagues so I went to local libraries to borrow the rest. The Singapore fiction shelves in local libraries appear to be the least frequented, which is a crying shame.
Running my fingers over well-worn spines with intriguing half-remembered titles, I pulled out over a dozen to read the first chapter and ended up with twice the reading list I had originally planned.
These are the books I have started the year with, in chronological order of the times they describe. The first and among the funniest is The Singapore Grip (1978) by the late British author J.G. Farrell. A savage comedy, it is set during the fall of Singapore to Japanese forces in World War II. Neatly weaving in snappy, comic summaries of Singapore history as well as the commercial and cultural forces that shaped the trajectory of World War II in South-East Asia and China, The Singapore Grip is also a powerful cure for post-colonial malaise with its details of the British elite’s snobbery towards people of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Eurasian and American descent.
To be reminded that history should be understood via multiple perspectives, move on to the excellent Confrontation by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, the 2013 translation of his novel Batas Langit, which was awarded a consolation prize in the 1999 Malay Literary Award given by the Malay Language Council of Singapore.
An account of kampung (village) life in the 1960s in Singapore, Confrontation is an eye-opening account of life from the minority perspective.
Another young lad whose search for identity mirrors the confusion in the country at the time is Kwang Meng of If We Dream Too Long, written and self-published by the late Goh Poh Seng in 1968. Widely considered as the first true Singaporean novel, it should be enjoyed for the lightness of its prose and the insight of the author.
More doses of laughter might have cured Kwang Meng, but the 1970s and 1980s seem to have inspired more sombre stories. Take, for instance, the novel Rawa by Isa Kamari, translated in late 2013. It is a powerful, poetic elegy to the fishing communities who made their home on the waters in and around Singapore, but who were shunted into landlocked HDB flats by the 1980s.
Catherine Lim’s early short, sharp fiction describes the results of such social engineering: a Singapore growing more cosmopolitan and Singaporeans losing touch with their roots. Little Ironies (1978) spotlights ordinary people at their best and worst, such as The Taximan’s Story, in which a cab driver is happy to make money off sex workers while looking down on them.
The gorgeously detailed A Fistful Of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim covers art and women’s fight for equal rights over 80 years of Singaporean history. The winner of the first Singapore Literature Prize in 1992, it is a fist to the gut with its relentless portrayal of female struggles for power in a patriarchal society that strips women of any right to their sexuality or dignity.
It is interesting to contrast A Fistful Of Colours with another award-winning book, Art Studio by Yeng Pway Ngon, which also covers the travails of artists in Singapore in the 1980s.
Published as Hua Shi in 2011, last year’s translation of Yeng’s novel is broad-minded in its attitude towards women’s rights and interracial relations, nicely detailing some characters’ slow awakening to the lessons one can learn in art and life outside a narrow circle.
One of the darkest and most funny books I am reading about the struggle for freedom of artistic expression is Baratham’s brilliant novel, A Candle Or The Sun (1991), in which a budding author must decide between political support for his writing career and betraying the woman he loves more than his wife.
Nothing is sacred to the self-centered protagonist: the slogans and axioms that might have inspired an older generation are mercilessly mangled while the middle-class morals of his parents are equated to trite and sappy 1950s movies. Even the author’s own profession is ridiculed — doctors are long-winded pedagogues, too secure in their elite status to comfort patients.
A more poignant slice-of-life is Gone Case by Dave Chua, first published in 1997. It reveals a Singapore of the powerless, with a 12-year-old protagonist only able to witness the breaking of his family over financial woes.
This leads nicely into The Inlet by Claire Tham (2013), which moves between mystery and social commentary on the tensions reshaping Singapore today. The death of a karaoke lounge hostess in a private pool belonging to a man of extreme wealth affects a multitude of characters, from the policeman on the case to the journalist reporting the story and the property agent tasked with selling the house afterwards.
It is a portrait of the new elite landowners, the increasingly angry middle-class unable to achieve this level of wealth and taking their anger out on new immigrants desperate to create a better life for themselves.
—By arrangement with The Straits Times-Asia News Network
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2015