Review

Book review: Jeremy Tiang's debut novel a compelling look at Singapore's history

State Of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang's masterfully written debut novel, concerns itself with the leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1940s to the present day.

This sensitive, intricately patterned piece of work takes us from the jungles of Malaya to a warren-like prison in Singapore, from detention cells to a hospital ward. It is told from the perspectives of six characters - fiery communists, dutiful civil servants and an intrepid journalist - who are in various states of incarceration and exile.

The narrative unfolds against a backdrop of key moments in Singapore's history such as the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, the MacDonald House bombing on March 10, 1965, and the "Marxist conspiracy" of 1987, where 16 people were arrested and detained without trial.

Those were turbulent times, but Tiang describes them with clear- eyed restraint, almost a step away from his subject matter.

Although he suggests that history as we know it is a "national mythology", he does not claim to offer a definitive account of what happened, nor do we discover where his sympathies lie.

Tiang has that rare talent for capturing some of the more unpleasant, eminently relatable aspects of Singapore society - from pious bureaucrats to sadistic authority figures - without cloying his art with sentimentalism or bitterness.

  • FICTION

  • STATE OF EMERGENCY

    By Jeremy Tiang

    Epigram Books/ Paperback/ 245 pages/ $24.90/Epigram Books

    4/5 stars

 

And his wry humour is spot-on - a favourite example of mine being his reference to "some ghastly Singapore Chinese New Year event" in London, awful emcee and all.

Tiang's prose, like in his short stories, is elegant and measured, offering some lovely turns of phrase: retiree Jason Low, lying in a Class C hospital ward, finds his Medisave running out after years of "lavish disease".

Tiang has translated more than 10 books from Chinese and is acutely aware of the imaginative potential to be exploited in the threshold between languages. In the aftermath of the MacDonald House explosion, the crowd swells to monstrous proportions - "human mountains, human oceans", Tiang's literal translation breathing new life into a Chinese idiom.

Some readers might wish Tiang had taken more liberties with his subject matter. Perhaps he could have been more subversive and more inventive. Indeed, anyone looking for something similar to the bold reimaginings of history in The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015) or the hip flashiness of Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry Of Moral Panic (2013), may well be disappointed.

Yet this is Tiang doing what he does best. More so than provoke, his novel makes an admirably human attempt to translate lived experience into fiction and nudge its way towards a sympathetic understanding.

State Of Emergency is a compelling, important piece of work from one of Singapore's finest living authors.

If you like this, read: It Never Rains On National Day by Jeremy Tiang (Epigram Books, 2015, $18.90), a collection of short stories exploring Singaporeans' uneasy relationship with their country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'A look at Singapore's history'. Print Edition | Subscribe