Earnest warning that terrorism could strike at home

FICTION

9TH OF AUGUST

By Andre Yeo

Epigram Books/Paperback/ 288 pages/$26.64/Major bookstores

3 stars


Ahead of Singapore's 55th National Day, six suicide bombers slip into the country with the mission of setting off explosives around the island.

The New Paper news editor Andre Yeo's debut novel is an earnest, if heavy-handed, warning to those among us for whom terrorism is yet but a distant concern.

It feels like it should have been sponsored by SGSecure, the national movement to involve Singaporeans in responding to terror threats. It is not, but certainly shows itself eager to advance the movement's message.

The events leading up to the attack are told from the perspectives of three fathers: Henry, a single dad caught in one of the blasts; Rahim, an Internal Security Department (ISD) inspector; and Tun, the Afghan who orchestrated the attack.

Tun, who lost his family in a United States drone attack, now helms a new terror group so powerful that even the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fears it.

He sends six Afghans to Singapore to execute bombings in high-traffic areas such as MRT stations and Changi Airport.

Thanks to a source, the workaholic Rahim is made aware that the attacks will occur, although he does not know exactly where.

Blundering into the midst of this intrigue is Henry, an everyman struggling in the wake of sudden retrenchment and gambling debts.

He is at a loss as to how to provide for his 14-year-old daughter, whom he has raised alone since his wife died in childbirth after conveying to him a terrible secret.

Yeo has a newsman's eye for sensational violence: flying heads abound, as do "human torches", or people on fire. Someone even gets his eye gouged out.

Where the novel stumbles most is how it depicts radicalisation. Tun traverses the well-trodden path to villainy of "the man who lost everything", but although much thought has gone into giving him a sympathetic backstory, his volte-face from grieving peasant to massmurdering psychopath is still hard to follow.

The rationale for his choosing Singapore as a target - he reads one too many articles online about couples abusing elderly people at hawker centres or teenagers throwing shared bicycles off buildings - comes off as absurd.

It is easy to displace terror, to show it as coming from an external source one has no control over.

It would have been far more challenging but relevant to try to chart the journey of a selfradicalised Singaporean, in the way that Kamila Shamsie did last year for British youth in Home Fire or Laleh Khadivi for a Californian teenager in A Good Country, and to examine how one's own society might play a part in breeding terror.

Still, the book's central concern of "not if, but when" cannot be ignored. Hopefully, it alarms you into, at the very least, downloading the SGSecure app.

If you like this, read: The Association Of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (Vintage, 2016, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya). When a car bomb goes off in a Delhi market, the young sons of Deepa and Vikas Khurana are among those killed. The novel examines the aftermath of the blast from the perspectives of the Khuranas, survivor Mansoor and the terrorist cell behind the attack.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2018, with the headline 'Earnest warning that terrorism could strike at home'. Print Edition | Subscribe