From the guerilla war of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960, to the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots and the left-wing MP Loh Miaw Gong being detained after winning a parliamentary seat in the 1963 elections, the backdrop to State of Emergency is very much the city-state’s political history. And while the narrative thread is also woven around Singapore’s history, the power of Tiang’s novel lies in the intimate portrayal of an extended family whose members straddle Singapore’s political divide. The book begins with the death of one of the family members, Mollie, in the MacDonald House bombing of 1965.
The story then unfolds through the eyes of six family members, shifting perspective and location in a way Tiang makes seem effortless, from kampung to jungle to Changi airport to cheap KL restaurants in 1970. Not only is the personal the political but the political is intensely personal. Through Tiang’s lens, characters can teeter towards being ridiculous or mockable, but in his capable hands the readers always reserve some empathy for them. Take Stella, who feels terribly guilty about having domestic help: “Stella asked [the helper] to come to church, but she said she preferred to spend her rare days off with her fellow countrywomen. When Gregory at church asked Stella to serve on the maid welfare committee, she answered yes immediately. It felt like the least she could do.”
Then there’s Nam Teck, who moves from his village to Kuala Lumpur, and becomes emblematic of anyone leaving their family to make a life elsewhere. On a return visit, he realises his mother “was asking him to come back, even through she must know there was no future there… He let her speak, he couldn’t stop her even if he had the heart, these words had been stored up all the time he was gone.” Then he has trouble sleeping. “It took him a while to drop off, because his head ached from how badly he wanted to come back here, and how badly he wanted to escape.”
Marxist Siew Li, who is forced to leave her family and children when the authorities are set to pounce on her, discovers at one point that the patriarchy infuses even Marxist ranks: “As often as she could, she brought the children to work with her. Some of the men frowned and said this was supposed to be an office, not a nursery, but she didn’t want to make her mother take care of them every day, and anyway, weren’t men and women supposed to be equal in this new world? Chairman Mao said that women hold up half the sky. That wasn’t going to happen if they had a baby in their arms the whole time.”
Given a thread that seems downright subversive, being stridently critical of the government (even years ago… it’s effectively the same one-party government today), we were pleasantly surprised to learn State of Emergency won the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize (last month), issued by the Singapore Book Council. Like The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, the book had its funding pulled from it by Singapore’s National Arts Council. When it received its first draft from Tiang, they reportedly claimed it did not meet “the funding requirements mutually agreed upon as the content in the book deviated from the original proposal”.
Tiang told The Straits Times that he wrote State of Emergency “because I felt there were narratives that had been left out of the Singapore story. I hope this novel draws attention to them... and, in a small way, helps us as a country to broaden our understanding of what it means to be Singaporean.”
Through his characters and their individual collisions with history, Tiang does indeed help his readers expand their view of what happened to so many people in order for the Singapore of today to shimmer into view as a modern, gleaming metropolis.
At once deeply researched and genuinely human, State of Emergency is one of the best historical novels we’ve read about anywhere in Southeast Asia.
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