State of Emergency

Jeremy Tiang

Epigram, £10

Review by Alastair Mabbott

BEYOND some vague awareness that it used to “belong to us”, the history and politics of Singapore are a bit of a mystery in this country, so Jeremy Tiang’s new novel will most likely inform, enthral and upset its readers in roughly equal measures. The fact that the Singapore National Arts Council withdrew its grant after reading Tiang’s first draft indicates just how uncomfortable the city-state’s authorities were with his take on the events of the last half-century.

To put his novel in context, Singapore became independent from Britain in 1963. After a short-lived federation with Malaysia, which broke up over ideological differences, it became a sovereign city-state two years later. In the space of a generation, Singapore’s economy grew from that of a third-world country to that of an affluent first-world nation, but this dizzying rise was accompanied by authoritarian government and a strict limit on democracy and freedom of speech. The friction between Malaysia and Singapore precipitated more than 40 bombings, and State of Emergency opens with the most notorious of these: the attack on MacDonald House in March 1965, which kills a young woman named Mollie, the sister of Jason Low, whose family seems destined to be caught up in the government’s merciless campaign against leftists.

Through the experiences of members of the Low family, Tiang explores decades of turmoil, prejudice and paranoia, which encompasses not just the fear of Communist agitators but the tension between Chinese- and English-speaking Singaporeans. Jason Low and Siew Li cross these divides when they meet by chance at a demonstration and fall in love, but the committed activist Siew Li continues to campaign for left-wing candidates, and when her twins, Janet and Henry, are only a few months old, she flees to avoid arrest and internment in a government crackdown. She becomes one of those on the “inside”, joining a dedicated and disciplined group of Communists hidden by the protective canopy of the jungle.

While mostly isolated, these Communists like to stay on good terms with the locals, and Tiang depicts the brutal treatment meted out to rural people, whose villages are fenced off and their food intake monitored to prevent them passing food to the Communists (or “bandits”, as they’re generally known). One character, Nam Teck, comes from the village of Batang Kali, where government forces massacre the inhabitants on suspicion of aiding them, and years later a Singaporean-born British journalist, Revathi, will fly there to research the untold story, finding a survivor, a mother living alone with her memories.

Each of State of Emergency’s six sections, focusing on one character and period at a time, is gripping and powerfully emotive. The section dealing with Jason’s wholly innocent niece Stella, detained and interrogated for months because of her church activities helping immigrant workers, is almost unbearable. All Tiang’s characters are well-realised, vulnerable, conflicted and forced to bear the burden of guilt for things which were beyond their control. The scars left on the extended Low family, split apart in so many ways and denied the chance to live normally together, mirror the scars etched deeply into a nation.