On 9th August, 2017, the small island country of Singapore had turned 52 years old. There’s a lot the country can be proud of. 2017 was a year of artistic accomplishments. Sonny Liew brought back three Eisner awards for The Art of Charlie Chan. Names like Cyril Wong and Catherine Lim had become more than just names for a niche audience. And Kevin Kway’s Crazy Rich Asians is adapted by Hollywood, meaning Singaporean novels can be profitable film property if publishers try. These achievements had become the hopes and dreams for a new artistic community to emerge in Singapore. It’s a great year for the country known for having no sense of culture because there’s culture brimming everywhere if you take a look.
Nothing of that accord was mentioned by the Prime Minister in the National Day Parade. He was more concerned about making a Founders’ Memorial in the East Bay and a technological future for the country whatever that means.
Everything was about the business of being #OneNationTogether. Singaporeans were subjected to marching bands making formations like the shape of Singapore, a navy performance best described as an inferior version of Waterworld, a display of military power, an abstract musical about mosquitoes and dengue fever, a clip that told the young Singaporeans to get married and make children, rappers rapping about the Asian recession and how Singapore survived it, and drones that lit up in the night sky to form the merlion. Invoking a sense of patriotism and duty was a priority, especially for the ruling party which was steadily losing supporters.
Only the bizarre dullness of patriotic songs remained in my memory as I tried to recollect what actually happened in the parade. I used to sing these songs, attend these parades as a student when I was still in local school, and loved the atmosphere and fireworks. But as I was snarking away with friends and family members in a friend’s HDB complex, I just wondered why I thought of one day becoming Singaporean and serving in the National Service. I instead remained Indonesian, studied abroad in Chicago, and I returned to Singapore, disillusioned and alarmed by the patriotism.
How could a momentous year for the country be so plain, embarrassing, and backwards? I thought very little about the parade going on television and played with the kids.
Until a young boy from an elementary school was on camera and flipped the bird on state media.
This happened right at the end of the National Day Parade. The camera zoomed at some kids and got a clear image of what appeared to be him speaking for every dissenter in Singapore.
This is progress for freedom of expression.
According to the Straits Times, the student had been reprimanded by the principal for the “rude gesture”. It was Singapore’s birthday after all; you had to respect the country. But admirers around the blogosphere said the boy was “the hero we deserve”.
And the reaction — the humor provided by the relief — is worth noting here. A long time ago, citizens and bloggers would all be shocked by such an action. Even sympathizers would have suggested the kid to not do that as much as they loved to do that on state media. Politics wasn’t the most comfortable subject to talk about in the open. But these days, I can talk to friends and family members about misgivings about the state of affairs in the country.
While it is still risky to criticize the government openly, citizens and foreign residents are more encouraged to question policies and politicians. Bloggers and social media users talk about Section 377A of the Penal Code — a ban on homosexual sex between men — and what it means to live under such a code. Censorship and national art grant withdrawals only cause a Streisand effect for the works in question — as is the case for The Art of Charlie Chan. And the writers, the painters, and the playwrights are following Voltaire’s lead to cause an intellectual revolution with pen and paper. The boy who flipped the bird may have gotten his three seconds of fame, but the debate surrounding him would not have existed a few years ago.
Singapore literature is showing that progress and struggle bit by bit. Two books come to mind when such politics are concerned. They paint a picture of Singapore that goes against the official history and the lives ruined by the ebb and flow of politics. But much like the boy flipping the bird in public, they also show that the Singapore discourse is not as elegant as it should be. Admirable, yes, but it too has some controversies and flaw that need to be addressed.
Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao by Sebastian Sim starts rolling with a not-so-subtle cover depicting the titular protagonist in a white shirt and a logo. Gimme Lao is a “man in white”, a member of Singapore’s ruling party, and represents the “ideal” Singaporean: the pragmatic rule-loving overachieving human. But as we begin the book, this Singaporean son isn’t that straightforward and simple as he wishes to be.
“There were three things Gimme Lao did not know himself,” whispers the narration to the reader, “the first occurred at birth. The second happened way before he was born. And the third repeated itself many times over his life.”
The narration dives deeper into the lives of people around Gimme Lao in the first half. Each character supervising his life is an aspect of Singapore itself. His babysitter, Elizabeth, named him “Sidney” after Sidney Poitier, an actor who had a rebellious character she identified with. But no one could make the boy say “Sidney” and he ended up calling himself “Gimme”. Elizabeth’s fascination with anything Western grows disastrous as she begins to distance herself from Singaporean society.
His parents, on the other hand, are cousins who have ran away from their families. They have different ideas on what it means to live a fulfilled life and how to bring up their son. Gimme’s father is a shy man with no ambition while his mother has the passion of an entrepreneur as she intimidates and befriends neighbors into buying insurance policies. The husband gets envious over the wife’s success. Their chapter is a tale of humility versus zealousness.
Gimme Lao learns about life from everyone. He becomes cautious of Western influences thanks to Elizabeth. And he doesn’t want to be his father at all. He wants to be like his mother who tells him to always be independent. But that message never comes through. He listens to what he likes and that means a strong attachment to conformism. When he mimics his mother saying, “I don’t aspire to be nice. I do what is necessary to get what I want,” he doesn’t see what’s wrong with this as his parents stay mum over the incident. Rules are meant to be followed and rules are not always nice. It is the job of a leader to enforce these rules. Gimme Lao is a tattletale in kindergarten. He has no friends, only enemies and rivals. His teacher liked him at first, but she realized it was a mistake to encourage his behavior. Gimme only wants to achieve and excel in what is important, not care about others.
And he follows that creed as he grows up in the book’s second half. But he feels betrayed despite all his “good” actions. Why do people still not admire him like his mother? He is the best leader figure the country can ever hope for.
He can’t think about that as he studies medicine. Gimme has a girlfriend and life seems smooth sailing from now on. He is thinking of a political career because he sees himself as a leader. Someone who can shape the lazy people of Singapore to hardworking people like himself.
But shit happens. He is betrayed. He is mad. He is angry. Singapore ought to cry for him. That’s right, the whole nation should cry for him because the people around him are dragging him down over stupid, sentimental issues that have nothing to do with Singapore’s progress as a up and coming first world nation.
These stupid, sentimental issues are what Gimme Lao is not good at. In the first half of the book, he watches a play about homosexuality and doesn’t understand what is wrong with a “legal system that labels the homosexual alternative lifestyle as a deviant and immoral one”. “Emotional intimacy” is different from “homosexual attraction” and the seducer must be punished. This is shocking for the audience, but Gimme thinks rationally: Why do people stage plays about homosexuality when it is clearly stated in Section 377A in the Penal Code that homosexual sex or sodomy is outlawed? That is a crime. People shouldn’t do that and he thinks of reporting it to the authorities.
It’s the law. That’s the endgame for it. It doesn’t matter what the intention is and Gimme Lao follows the law as literally as possible. But this behavior alienates his loved ones hard. Nobody wants to talk to him and he is left alone on the podium with few people cheering for him. He doesn’t understand what went wrong because the law is always right.
And that’s the moral of Let’s Give it Up for Gimme Lao! in a nutshell. It is the story of Singapore’s law-abiding people and their path to ruin without understanding what went wrong. Sebestian Sim, the writer, points to the law as one example. Section 377A’s huge impact on Gimme Lao’s life, even when he isn’t gay, is seen throughout the book. This little leftover from the benevolent British colonialists has ruined lives around him and he too feels the effects from it.
It’s an important satire for Singaporeans who are beginning to learn what it means to be individualistic in a conformist society. Not everything in the law is right. Authorities need to be questioned. People must learn to seek answers and that can only be achieved in a critique of society. Contemporary events referenced in the book like Pink Dot 2009 bring up great discussion topics for readers and artists. And while the clumsy prose likes to be repetitive with descriptions, it does the job well enough to keep you reading. It was a slow burn for me thanks to awkward sentence fluency, but it seemed I was in the minority; others thought it was a page-turner. It makes sense why this book is a bestseller in Singapore bookstores everywhere.
However, there is one strong caveat and it may show why I believe the discourse is not as elegant as it should be. It is also why I cannot recommend this book and write a glowing review like everyone else. In about fifteen pages in the book, Gimme Lao bullies a boy into crossdressing in public and this boy is traumatized forever. The boy grows up to be a husband with a double life: a masochist who cuts himself to feel and enjoy pain. He likes to buy women’s clothing and crossdresses until one day his mother-in-law finds him in a woman’s dress.
And the man hangs himself.
I am extremely uncomfortable with the depiction of homosexuality and crossdressing in the book. Something about it doesn’t work with me. To be fair, nothing as bizarre as the crossdressing man episode happens again. But it left me with an aftertaste that colored my perception of this book’s attempts to talk about homosexuality.
Most of the scenes are fine in retrospect, but I remember reading the relationships between gay men as machine-like. Crossdressing is mentioned again, but it isn’t explored. It is just a shameful kink. Themes of gender are floating about the book; yet, they are not talked about and I’m not sure if they are even intentional. And that’s kinda what I feel about the focus on homosexuality in the book in general: is this intentional?
It has to be because the plot details are closely connection to Section 377A at the very end. But I never really felt like the structure worked to fit that connection in. It didn’t need homosexuality to work. Besides some gay men, there were no lesbians and certainly no trans people in the book. LGBTQ was just one “issue”. It could have been something else like “freedom to assembly” and the plot might still work fine. There was no need to bring in queer representation except it’s the hot topic today.
And that hurts. A lot.
That’s why, as much as I see it as an important book for Singaporeans, I disliked the book at the end. I hate the idea that queer people are used as a political tool in a book that doesn’t need it. I feel like the book champions a cause that it doesn’t really believe in. The gay men are meant to be pitied for and that’s their only role. And the book has the unintentional hypocrisy Gimme Lao has when he claims he is a leader for the people.
A satire that ends up being the perpetrator of the satirized isn’t a shining example. It is an example regardless. If people are still interested in the book, it remains a good introduction to Singaporean literature. But there are caveats everywhere in the example and I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone.
The more controversial book but less offensive book to me is Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency. A couple stuck in time stares at potential readers and buyers of the book. This arresting image never leaves you once you open up the book and read the epitaph from Walter Benjamin’s The Philosophy of History and translated by Harry Zohn:
“The history of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”
A page after, “Mollie Remedos died in the explosion that tore apart MacDonald House on 10 March 1965.” Jason, Mollie’s brother, swore revenge on the bombers and tasted justice when they were hanged on 17 October 1968. But his “instinct for revenge feels blunted” after fifty years have passed. Nothing has changed and he still feels the loss of his sister.
And he also loses his wife, Siew Li, to the same political turmoil. The married couple and four other people closely connected to them lose their innocence and livelihoods in very similar ways. Jason lives and dies in Singapore without ever meeting his wife again. Siew Li dreams of being a hero for Singapore and joined communist movements before getting separated from her husband and children. Nam Teck remembers his father being dragged to the forest and his mother and him moved about in fenced villages until he had enough and went to the capital city of Malaysia. Revathi’s parents tell her all about the Emergency as she begins to venture to Malaysia for a news scoop that will shock her life. Stella, Siew Li’s cousin, is in detention without trial for activities linked to communism. And Henry, Jason’s and Siew Li’s son, pays his respects to his father before searching for his mother in the outskirts of Malaysia.
All six cannot blame each other or themselves for their problems because their worlds are always in a state of emergency. A new emergency can rise up from nowhere and politicians must find scapegoats and sacrificial lambs to appease their citizens.
Even if the emergency is nonexistent.
These six stories show a Singapore and Malaysia that don’t belong to the official Singapore narrative the government has conjured up. It shows a Singapore paranoid by the first Indonesian president Sukarno’s rise to power and his communist party and a Malaysia torn apart by racism. Despite being set in different periods of time, the two countries are always alarmed by any sudden moves. They do not mind jailing or killing people cold-blooded in the open.
The most powerful chapter in the book has to be Stella’s imprisonment. Based on anecdotes on a real incident, her stories show how easy it is to be gaslighted in the Singapore prisons. Her interrogators questions her intention on helping foreign workers and whether she knows what she is doing is what the communists want. All Stella cares is that it’s not fair for them to be treated poorly, but the interrogators argue their way with the coldest logic that can only be derived from the principles of meritocratic societies:
“Do you want us all to be the same? You think everyone in society should earn the same money? That’s not possible. Some people work harder than others, some people are cleverer. If we did what you people want, then our society will never progress, and soon our women will have to go and be maids in other people’s countries are. Stella, we know who you are, you don’t have to pretend any more. Other people in your ring have already confessed. You want to destroy our society. You want to bring us all down to your level. Stella, we know that you are a communist.”
Any sign of sympathy or empathy is seen as communistic behavior in Singapore. Nobody is born equal and deserve the same rights as others. Singapore is where it is today because it is unfair and unequal according to this logic.
And Cheng Mun, one of the interrogators, believes in that without any sense of shame. In fact, he says to Stella that she shouldn’t be ashamed either. She could do much more as a department head than the lowly position of a teacher:
“We live in a meritocracy if you earn more money then it’s because you’re clever, you work harder than others. Why do you talk about being fair all the time? Do you think some people earn so much?”
“I never said that,” [said Stella.]
“But you complain that these maids, these people you are trying to help, they earn too little. If some people earn too little, then some people must be earning too much. Am I right?”
Her “feeling of helplessness” she feels in every interrogation session makes her wonder if this is “really what she was saying”. Is she indeed helping the Communist cause in the Philippines to overthrow the Singapore government? That line of reasoning “is impossible to argue” in her mind and it is as if “every word that came from her mouth could be turned round to condemn her further.” Maybe she is a card-carrying communist threatening the establishment of Singapore. And she should be ashamed for her actions, for trying to help raise awareness for the maids who are paid low wages or none. Her rallies may be well-intentioned, but the interrogators show that they really are tools for the Communist parties to cause discord in Singaporean society.
That is how the political process of gaslighting worked and you find yourself intertwined with the bizarre doublespeak logic the government has forced upon you. It is the Orwellian nightmare come true but somehow worse. This guilt Stella has is real and needs to be felt by many people.
Because the state of emergency is the history of Singapore and Malaysia in this novel. Whoever the government blames becomes the victims and perpetrators at the same time according to history. Whether it be Siew Li who merely helps out organize perfectly legitimate campaigns or Stella who is doing God’s work for the needy and the poor, everyone is a criminal and a casualty. No one can escape this psychological state of emergencies, which has now been mandated as a statute in the law books.
What can be salvaged can only be done through a rekindling of who has survived this mess. A little bit of hope still exists, but hoping requires willpower and bravery. There are still plenty of stories untold in this lost history of time and it feels like the book is encouraging its readers to seek more of these kinds of tales.
I may be a bit biased in my speculation because this isn’t explicit in the text but in a talk by the writer in a Kinokuniya and Epigram Books panel last month. Together with fellow Epigram Fiction 2016 finalist O Thiam Chin, Jeremy Tiang talks about what it means to write a book about Singapore.
The society of Singapore is often seen in the perspective of English-educated Singaporean Chinese and that is blinding. He wants to write against that. A translator of eclectic Chinese writers like Zhang Yueran, Tiang wants to show what the other sides think of the country. He notices that communism in Singapore is barely talked about in English texts, despite its close ties to the independence of Singapore. So most of his sources according to his talk come from untranslated Chinese books about the communists in Singapore and Malaysia.
He is also a stickler for historical accuracy as he has traveled to all the locations mentioned in his book, even if he admits that “there’s probably nothing since it’s all in the past.” While he does let himself some artistic license, he is very meticulous with his facts which is present in the book. Tiang also gives little care about the controversy from Stella’s chapter, which may have caused the National Art Council to withdraw the grant money; he says that it is all based on accounts left by people who underwent the detention and stands by them and their pain.
And the book really thrives on his passion and empathy for the people who have lost their lives to the various emergencies in Singapore and Malaysia. This isn’t a perfect book at all; there are scenes that go on forever and it doesn’t always read nice aloud. I also feel it may have benefited from some more historical context too since I got lost in the book a couple of times. But there are many strong moments scattered throughout the book and it shows a part of history no one seems to know about.
That often means it will be uncomfortable, grueling, and challenging for anyone reading it. It shows the historical reality of life before us and how we should respect them as we move forward. We can still find some kind of harmony after these tragic events as long as know how to go past them and the lost time can be regained when we learn to hold each other’s hands again.
Sometimes, I wonder if there is a need to express ourselves in Asian societies. You can just blend in the crowd and it makes life easier. As the birthday celebrations for Singapore wrap up and people go back to work, I find myself still unsure what to think of Singapore. I have just borrowed some Singapore books from a public library near here and plan to read them once I have the time.
But I doubt they will ever answer why I care about freedom of expression in a country like Singapore. I’m not a citizen, so I don’t share any regional affinities with it; I just grew up here as an outsider, forever detached from society. It’s not like something I really care about either.
I keep going back to these books however. Most of them aren’t good and there are many reasons I can think of why certain mistakes keep happening. But there’s something in Singaporean literature that makes me want to read more for some reason.
Is it the fact that I know many Gimme Laos in my life? Or is it the state of emergencies I’ve experienced so far? Or maybe is it because I’ve always been a postcolonialist in denial like Singapore is for many years?
We like to think we are independent and can rebuild ourselves with new lives and histories, but we can’t. Instead, we just repress these memories and feelings inside ourselves and try to forget them. That is impossible. You can only run away from the past for so long.
So we crack and find some kind of expression that displays our anger, frustration, and passion bursting from our chests. For Sebastian Sim and Jeremy Tiang, they write novels about the untold histories they want to share. For others like me, it is to search for these books that let us read these emotions aloud and make them flow. And for the elementary school student in the National Day Parade on August 9, 2017, his choice of expression is to flip the bird on state media live.
It may not be the best of gestures, but it does a good hell of a job on expressing what needs to be expressed.
If you like reading this post and others, consider supporting my Patreon which helps put down research costs for content I will like to write about