And The Award Goes To Sally Bong!
By Sebastian Sim
Fiction/Epigram Books/Paperback/303 pages/$26.64/Available here
4 out of 5
And the award goes to Sebastian Sim - given that this comic tale of a Singaporean everywoman scored him his second Epigram Books Fiction Prize, for which he tied earlier this year with Meihan Boey.
It follows the eponymous Sally Bong from 1977 to the present day, stopping just short of the Covid-19 outbreak.
At the age of 10, Sally is coaching her Tamil-speaking classmate Anand Babu in reading Chinese classics in a void deck when the prime minister's entourage chances upon them - the perfect photo opportunity for a multicultural Singapore.
The pair are chosen as the poster children of the inaugural Racial Harmony Campaign, along with a Malay girl and a Eurasian boy.
This is the first of Sally's many brushes with the limelight, through the tenures of three prime ministers and the evolution of Singapore's public policy, as she wrestles with what it means to look good, versus do good.
And The Award Goes To Sally Bong! runs parallel to Sim's Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! (available here), which was shortlisted for the Epigram prize in 2015.
Gimme Lao's story spanned 50 years from Singapore's independence to the present day, told through the eyes of the high-achieving yet hapless protagonist.
While both novels could stand alone, they heavily inform each other - Gimme and his calculating, insurance-selling mother Mary Lao keep popping up in Sally's life - and are best read in tandem.
Sally Bong is Gimme Lao's foil: where he chases the Singapore dream, she is unambitious. She gives up her nursing career to help out at her family's traditional Chinese medical hall. She responds to a surprise proposal from her boyfriend, whom she finds unattractive, with "Okay".
Yet Sally's driving force in life is that she wants to do good for others, from trying to give the cleaners in her hospital a voice, to pushing for a friend with Down syndrome to get full pay at his next job.
She fails often, thwarted by bureaucracy, cynicism and her own ignorance - but she keeps asking why the system does not do better.
This is neither Sim's sharpest satire nor funniest comedy. It delivers at best a gentle ribbing and has a tendency to moralise.
Yet it is perhaps the darkest of his novels. Over it hovers the spectre of inequality, as illustrated by the diverging fates of Sally and her Racial Harmony Campaign mates, among others. It delves into the various cracks in Singapore's polished veneer of success, from the struggles of single mothers to the casual racism endemic in society.
An especially unsettling chapter deals with sexual grooming, though it is perhaps wrapped up far too neatly and the story moves on quite quickly from there.
Still, this keen-eyed portrait of a Singapore that contains multitudes has much to recommend it, not least in the way it questions what it truly means to be inclusive.
If you like this, read: Impractical Uses Of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (Epigram Books, 2019, $26.64, available here), an earlier Epigram Books Fiction Prize-winner in which a teacher going through a mid-life crisis reconnects with an old flame who is now living on the streets under a pile of boxes.