[Review] Multiple Narratives of Truth: Living with Myths in Singapore and State of Emergency

{Written by Mandy Chi Man Lo, this review is part of Issue 41 (September 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

❀ Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency, Epigram Books, 2016. 280 pgs.
❀ Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Meng-Tat Chia (editors), Living with Myths in Singapore, Ethos Books, 2017. 326 pgs.

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Myths are more than just stories. They are narratives with ideologies that are widespread in a society and are accepted at least partly as true. Albeit unconsciously, our beliefs and everyday behaviours constantly make reference to our shared myths. To a certain extent, therefore, what we perceive as truth may not be what it seems while what we consider as fictitious may well reveal reality.

The editors (Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Meng-tat Chia) of Living with Myths in Singapore and the author (Jeremy Tiang) of State of Emergency are interested in such ambiguity between myth and reality. Although the genres of the two books are different—the former being a collection of scholarly essays while the latter is a novel—their complementarity is exceptional. In their distinct ways, both books explore, reveal and deconstruct the ideologies embedded in and the purposes served by the historical, political and social myths which are deeply ingrained in Singaporeans’ cognition.

The collection of essays starts off with a comic story titled “The Merlion and Me,” written and drawn by Mya Gosling, which appears even before the Foreword. This decision reflects the editors’ awareness of the intimate relationship between authoritative texts and creative storytelling. And overall the essays in this collection maintain a critical stance in examining Singapore’s official narratives. Concerning the ubiquity of myths in everyday life in the city-state, Living with Myths divides itself into four sections and consists of essays which reveal the construction of “reality” in the official Singapore story and pose questions to the authority of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government and the legitimacy of its policies. In the first two sections, the book considers the nation-building myth which is used to formulate a coherent national identity. Examining this myth which is naturalised in schools for cultivating “good” citizens to build up and sustain the nation, Mark Baildon and Suhaimi Afandi (Chapter 3) and Christine Han (Chapter 4) interrogate its effectiveness in nurturing students’ independent critical thinking and broadening students’ vision. In Chapter 7, Philip Holden unsettles the founding myth of Singapore having developed from a fishing village to a global hub, and from poverty to prosperity. By exposing the dubious justifications for Singapore’s model of meritocracy and development, the authors in these sections unpack the myths embedded in the historical and national claims of economic success and progress. While most of these topics have well been studied, the authors provide new and unique angles to re-interpret the issues.

The third section disrupts the political myth of Singapore’s vulnerability which is constructed for discouraging political dissent and securing social stability. Gareth Curless (Chapter 12) and Teo Soh Lung (Chapter 13) respectively focus on the leftwing trade unions and the Law Society that have been labelled as harmful to the nation in the twentieth century. In their essays, Curless and Teo introduce another perspective and view that the leftist movements were actually dedicated to “improve workers’ well-being.” Other authors, such as Laavanya Kathiravelu (Chapter 15), Lai Ah Eng (Chapter 16), Wong Chee Meng (Chapter 17) and Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho (Chapter 18), contest Singapore’s model of multiculturalism and the Chinese, Malay, India, Others (CMIO) categorisations which have often been brought into question.

As for the fourth section, it challenges the social myths of Singaporeans’ political apathy and the “generous” treatment of migrant workers in the city-state. Loh Kah Seng (Chapter 20) and Edgar Liao (Chapter 21) dispute the characterisation of Singaporeans as “immature and irrational” and the justification for the city’s strict governance. The last two essays of the entire volume moves the discussion beyond Singaporeans. Teo You Yenn (Chapter 23) and Charanpal S. Bal (Chapter 24) critique the misconceptions of migrant labourers and the ineffectiveness in legislation to prevent these labourers from exploitation.

Overall, Living with Myths in Singapore is a valuable volume which contributes to a profound discussion on topics that cannot often be publicly contested. With language that is easily accessible, the collection provides an opportunity for productive conversations and exchanges between academics from different backgrounds and the general public. As outlined above, its essays draw from a wide range of fields. However, the collection would have benefited from the inclusion of topics of LGBTQ+ issues in relation to the government’s claim of Singapore’s sensitivity to racial and religious matters. Exploration of the “incompatibility” between religion and homosexuality as a political or social myth could have added more colours to the spectrum.

Tiang’s novel, State of Emergency mainly centres on leftwing political movements and detentions in Malaysia and Singapore starting in the 1940s. The book echoes historical events including the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, the massacre in Batang Kali by British troops in 1948, the Hock Lee bus riots in 1955, Operation Coldstore in 1963, the bombing of the MacDonald House in 1965 and the “Marxist Conspiracy” of 1987. Although unlike Living with Myths which presents researched data and academic resources analytically, Tiang’s novel contains authentic and believable details of the historical events. Readers are led to delve into the past political turmoil through the different perspectives of vivid characters who do not lack the tone of authority. With his compelling characterisation plus his emphatic and convincing plot, Tiang’s novel drives readers to reflect upon and question the authoritativeness of Singapore’s official historical narrative which has demonised leftist movements.

The opening up of viewpoints is perhaps the most salient in the character Revathi who originally calls the communists bandits and later changes her attitude and shows her empathy after listening to the personal stories of a communist sympathiser and a leftwing activist. When Revathi is provided with the background stories of the Emergency, she remarks on the selectiveness of the official historical records and exclaims that there are “too many strands [of stories], all the threads of history [while] … [t]he settled story was only one version.”

Tiang is meticulous about crafting multiple perspectives from different parties, including Jason who is a civil servant and believes in Singapore’s political system, Siew Li and Nam Teck who become communists in the pursuit of justice and a better world and Stella who is suspected to have taken part in communist activities due to her participation in the social work for foreign domestic helpers in Singapore. Tiang’s narrative dives into the mentalities of different characters without taking sides. His range of characters is not lopsided, suggesting that neither the official historical narrative nor any one individual’s version of the story makes up the single true narrative, and demonstrating that the uncovering of more stories will hopefully get us closer to the truth. In this way, Tiang troubles Singapore’s historical narrative without rendering the government’s version untrue.

This is different from the tone and the approach that Living with Myths adopts to make its claims due to its specific genre as an academic collection of essays. Tiang’s novel unravels historical stories with an open attitude which attempts to give justice to various interpretations of the political condition. Rather than being assertive, Tiang’s eloquent narrative gives his characters depth and invites readers’ empathy. While both Living with Myths and State of Emergency raise readers’ awareness of the constructiveness of historical and political narratives, the novel is stronger at provoking readers’ emotional involvement which induces sympathy and encourages understanding of people with different (political) opinions. The emotional involvement takes place especially when Siew Li and Stella are both detained “merely for their beliefs.” Through the characters’ affective self-reflections, readers can feel Siew Li’s helplessness in the confrontation against the government in power, and Stella’s despair and frustration in face of political violence. The resemblance in the predicaments of Siew Li and Stella, a communist and an ordinary school teacher, propels readers to acknowledge the ambiguity between “right” and “wrong” and the complexity of historical and political happenings.

Both books display a deep understanding of the overarching theme of Singapore history, and its relation to storytelling. History, myth and fiction are all stories, narratives, that contain their specific objectives and ideologies which, in this sense, are not necessarily dangerous and destructive unless they lose their multiplicity and people start to consume the dominant narrative uncritically. Ideologies can be true. Apart from enhancing their knowledge of Singapore, what readers can get from these two books is not so much an ability to discern whether certain news or information is a myth or a piece of truth, but the realisation of the multiple stories that have not yet been told.

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Mandy Chi Man Lo is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at the National University of Singapore. She was a Visiting Student Researcher of the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley in 2012/13. Mandy’s MA thesis works on the identity issue in the Indian Canadian author Rohinton Mistry’s novels. Her broader research interests include cosmopolitanism and globalisation theories and fiction, and transnational studies with a focus on Asia. She has some of her poems and short stories published on EWCC Review. She also likes to play ukulele in her spare time.

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