Political myth is in no short supply in modern Singapore. In our most familiar histories, material progress and political quiescence are the natural products of visionary—if at times heavy-handed—leadership. Episodes of subversion and suppression are no longer swept entirely under the carpet, but seen as the inevitable growing pains of today’s glitteringly successful neoliberal city-state.
Enter State of Emergency, a debut novel from the award-winning writer and translator Jeremy Tiang, which sets out to unsettle this half-remembered narrative and its sense of teleological necessity. From a dying man’s bedside in present-day Singapore, through the heady days of the 1955 Hock Lee Bus Strikes and the long shadow of the Malayan Emergency, Tiang traces a history of left-wing political activism through several generations of an extended family. In the process, he brilliantly humanizes those whose causes and companions have been repeatedly, and often ruthlessly, side-lined.
The novel’s success turns ultimately on his precise, almost melancholic prose
Informed by years of painstaking research and brought to life with naturalistic, context-sensitive dialogue, Tiang’s characters speak not only with the authority, but also the tenderness, of truth. Gone are the uncompromising, two-dimensional class warriors of conventional narrative; Tiang’s men and women on the left negotiate daily crises of love, regret, and distance—from the young activist Siew Li who finds “ideologically correct men off-putting […] with their strangled voices and tendency to lecture” compared to the easy company of her “solid and unthinking” English-educated albeit Singaporean boyfriend; to Stella, a detained teacher and social worker who, when eventually forced to sign a false confession, does so “as if she were back in school, writing an English composition”, cognizant of the rules.
Some are drawn more directly from history: those familiar with the era might recognize former left-wing MP Loh Miaw Gong in Tiang’s character of Lay Kuan, for example, who also wins a seat in Singapore’s Legislative Assembly in 1963 but is detained under the Internal Security Act before she can occupy it. These move easily alongside the composite and original figures in the plot, reminding us that it is precisely the author’s task to re-imagine and re-instate those whose lives have been erased from public memory, especially where these erasures are intentionally produced by the public record.
At the same time, all of Tiang’s lifelike characters eschew easy distinctions of left and right; in his Singapore, there is neither a singular “establishment”, nor its antithesis. When Siew Li asks Nam Teck, a Malaysian youth whom she recruits to the Communist front, “what else are you living for?”, she calls into the ambit of that question all of Nam Teck’s dreams and desires: political, emotional, material, and otherwise. And when he follows her into the “dark heart of the jungle”, throwing in his lot unawares on one side of the burgeoning Cold War sweeping Southeast Asia, it is less a cause that he has chosen than a “new, aware way of living”—one suffused with beauty and comradeship, under a “vast overhead canopy”; so natural to the young man that it is “easy to forget there’d ever been any other way.”
But nuanced characters alone do not a make novel. Tiang’s story is narrated from multiple points of view; its success turns ultimately on his precise, almost melancholic prose, as well as a sense of pacing that is sufficiently confident and elastic to make the time-travel convincing. At critical junctures, he slows just enough to allow room for careful introspection. When Lina comes to warn Siew Li about her impending arrest, for example, which Siew Li later remembers as the “moment her life cracked, actually broke wide open”, we hear only a mother’s swallowed pain:
‘I didn’t say goodbye,’ said Siew Li woodenly, not as a protest, just a statement of fact. She tried to remember if she’d kissed the twins […] Had she ruffled Janet’s hair just before going?
Moments of such honest clarity are to be found especially in the penultimate chapter, told from Stella’s point of view, where Tiang expertly illuminates her frustration and isolation through each encounter with her interrogators. “Nobody wants to spend the rest of their life in a dusty cell, not even a martyr,” Stella realizes, “what principle are you proving, when everyone’s forgotten you?” In the end, it is not only the violence she endures but the assault of time itself that takes effect on her:
The nature of time seemed to change. When she was in the questioning room, it seemed to stand still or jump at random. Sometimes she was surprised to get back to her cell and find it was dark. Other times, she’d ask how long she’d been there and it was only a couple of hours.
This, and the incessant questioning, become “a further prison in the mind”— so much so that the story she finally produces, incriminating herself and her colleagues, feels “etched in her”.
In the end, State of Emergency speaks as much to a world rocked by division and inequality as a country grappling with its own biography. It persuades us that there is always another layer to the truth, that one’s security and prosperity is ever, for another, a perpetual and bruising state of emergency. Like Revathi, the journalist who finds that her exposé of the Batang Kali massacre will never bring the victims justice, we are left with the sense of “something heavy settling onto [us]”, an awareness “that the world [is] aslant and [we are] on the higher end.” Our question, like hers, is: what can we do?