Singapore-born writer tackles immigrant issues in third novel

The Last Immigrant is the third novel written by Lau Siew Mei.
The Last Immigrant is the third novel written by Lau Siew Mei.ST PHOTO: LEE JIA WEN

Ex-ST journalist Lau Siew Mei, now an Australian citizen, tackles current issues of xenophobia and immigration in her new novel

"They said the last immigrant was someone who desired to slam the door behind him, once he was within, once he was safe," writes author Lau Siew Mei in her third novel, The Last Immigrant.

In it, a Singaporean living in Australia must balance his own identity as an immigrant with his job of deciding if asylum-seekers get to stay in the country.

In a sense, Lau herself has been an immigrant for nearly half her life. Born and raised in Singapore, she moved to Australia in 1994 and has become a citizen there.

Australia has always had problems with illegal immigrants, notes Lau, who is in her 40s, but now, similar tensions are escalating across the world, with more countries swinging towards the xenophobia of far right movements that want the next immigrant to be the last.

Speaking to The Straits Times on a visit here, she says: "People are increasingly afraid and tribalistic. Because of terrorist attacks, they fear the unknown."

She first made waves 18 years ago with her acclaimed debut novel Playing Madame Mao (2000), a provocative assay into magical realism.

I'm not saying every illegal immigrant is a good immigrant. But I hope readers can begin to see people of a different skin colour, race or culture, not as a mass, but as individuals.

AUTHOR LAU SIEW MEI

It takes on the 1987 Marxist conspiracy, when 22 people were arrested and detained without trial, through the story of actress Chiang Ching, who is playing the role of Chairman Mao's wife in a local stage production and whose husband is arrested and brutally interrogated by government agents.

Lau, a former Straits Times journalist, emigrated to Australia because she found the Singapore political system stifling.

"I felt that if I moved, I could expand and grow. Sometimes you want to put yourself in a new place to test yourself."

She juggled her work as a public servant with being a single mother to two children, now in their 20s.

In pursuit of a long-held dream, she will soon be graduating with a law degree from Griffith University and will take up a legal counsel job in the Czech Republic in October.

Her latest novel, which she began in 2009 and which was longlisted for the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, tackles xenophobia through the eyes of Ismael, who was born in Singapore and is of Iranian and Peranakan descent.

Now living in suburban Brisbane, he must contend with losing his neighbour to suicide, his wife to cancer, his daughter to the United States and his Siamese cat to forces unknown.

His workplace, which he dubs Fortress Australia, handles immigration. Though his colleagues mostly see him as one of them, he is constantly aware that at any moment, he could be cast as a foreigner.

"When are you going home?" a colleague asks him and he is about to reply "At six" when she adds, "To your country", meaning Singapore.

Since moving to Australia, Lau has witnessed immigrant controversies, from the Children Overboard affair in 2001 - in which government ministers spread allegations that seafaring refugees had thrown their children overboard in a ploy to gain asylum - to asylum-seekers at detention camp Nauru sewing their lips shut in protest against their treatment and visa denials.

When she first arrived, the right-wing politician Pauline Hanson had just come into prominence in Queensland and had made an anti-Asian speech in Parliament, saying that they did not fit into Australian society and formed ghettos.

Ms Hanson and her party Pauline Hanson's One Nation have, in recent years, had a resurgence of popularity. Last year, she drew flak for a stunt in which she wore a burqa into the Senate to drum up support for banning the garment.

"What does it reflect of the Australian psyche that they would vote for someone like that?" asks Lau. She is especially baffled by Asian immigrants who support Ms Hanson. "Do they understand what they're saying? Have they become so brainwashed that they think they have to adopt this culture's values to fit in because they don't want to stand out and be hammered?"

She hopes readers of her books will find it in themselves to open their hearts to the unknown.

"I'm not saying every illegal immigrant is a good immigrant. But I hope readers can begin to see people of a different skin colour, race or culture, not as a mass, but as individuals.

"Instead of demonising people you don't even know, put yourself in their shoes and see them as human beings."

• The Last Immigrant ($26.64) is available at major bookstores as well as shop.epigrambooks.sg and localbooks.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline 'Casting a different light on immigrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe