Malaysian writer Joshua Kam, 23, on Thursday became the youngest winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which opened submissions to Asean writers for the first time.
The $25,000 prize, which was given out during a gala dinner at the Conrad Centennial Singapore hotel, was previously restricted to Singapore citizens and permanent residents.
Epigram Books founder Edmund Wee said he wanted to extend the prize to writers from other Asean countries as a way to reach out to more people.
"If we do not read one another, how will we develop any sense of understanding between us?" he said.
"We should not have to wait for the West to discover the next (Malaysian writer) Tan Twan Eng or (Indonesian writer) Eka Kurniawan. We should do it ourselves."
The 2018 winner, Yeoh Jo-Ann, was born in Malaysia, but is a Singapore permanent resident.
The award, often referred to as Singapore's richest literary prize, is an advance on royalties from book sales.
Kam won for his debut manuscript How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, in which two characters, Gabriel and Lydia, go on a cross-country race against time in an attempt to prevent the end of the world, meeting historical and mystical figures from folklore along the way. It will be published in the second half of the year.
He said he was "shell-shocked" by the win. "I thought it would be like Moonlight at the Oscars. I was waiting for them to come out and say they'd called the wrong name."
Kam was born in Montana in the United States, where his parents studied economics, and later returned to Kuala Lumpur, where he lived for 15 years.
He is pursuing a masters in South-east Asian studies at the University of Michigan.
While researching the Hikayat Hang Tuah, a Malay epic about the legendary warrior Hang Tuah and his friends, he became fascinated by the figure of al-Khidr, the Green Prophet, who appears in numerous texts throughout South-east Asian Muslim literature and is said to show up in times of crisis to bring about peace through miracles.
In the wake of Malaysia's shock general election of 2018, Kam was passing through Masjid Jamek LRT station, which is named after one of the oldest mosques in Kuala Lumpur. He was seized suddenly by the idea of the Green Prophet appearing in turn-of-the-election Malaysia.
"What would happen if our national heroes from 400 or 500 years ago came back from the dead and walked into this Malaysia which had just changed its government for the first time in its history? What would they change? How would they change it?"
He wrote the first draft of his novel in five months. The story, he says, is filled with "rebel Malaysians" whose perspectives challenge the linear narrative of his country's history.
The novel deals with the Communist emergency and also with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) communities in Malaysia, some of whom existed before British colonisation and who Kam says "have been in history for a very long time, if not in the history books".
The winner was chosen by a panel of judges comprising Mr Wee, author Balli Kaur Jaswal, film-maker Tan Pin Pin, Mekong Review literary quarterly chief Minh Bui Jones and Professor Rajeev S. Patke, director of the division of humanities at Yale-NUS College.
Prof Patke called Kam's manuscript "the most exuberant of the four novels".
He added: "It is filled with energy, cheerfulness and a linguistic panache that is a bit rough, but altogether charming."
Kam beat three other finalists - Singaporean Erni Salleh, 31, who manages the National Library Board's Mobile Library Services; California-based Thai writer Sunisa Manning, 34; and Universiti Brunei Darussalam assistant professor Kathrina Mohd Daud, 35.
The three received $5,000 each and will also have their manuscripts published by Epigram in the second half of the year.
This year's prize received 62 submissions from eight countries.