The twin anniversaries of SG50 and the Singapore Bicentennial have stoked intense interest in Singapore’s history. Well-worn narratives have been questioned, dissidents have published books telling their side of the story, overseas archives have declassified material on Singapore’s past, and ministers have clashed with academics for allegedly dabbling in “revisionist” history.
The history of left wing activism and its suppression casts a long and often unspoken shadow over Singapore’s state approved rags to riches story. Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel, State of Emergency, is a bold attempt to explore this unwieldy chunk of the past through the streamlined perspectives of six family members.
Beginning in the heady days of left wing agitation in the 1950s, the characters grapple with the chaos of the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, the mass arrests of leftists in 1963, Operation Coldstore, the terror of 1965’s Macdonald House bombing, hushed memories of the New Villages built by the British to stifle communist influence, and the chilling arbitrariness of the alleged Marxist Conspiracy in 1987.
Some of the characters draw inspiration from real life personalities. For example, renegade politician Lay Kuan’s story mirrors that of Barisan Sosialis MP Loh Miaw Gong, who won a seat in the 1963 elections but was detained under the Internal Security Act before she could take her oath. Church volunteer Stella is clearly a composite character of those accused in 1987 of using the Catholic Church as cover to engage in leftist activism.
In explaining his inspiration for the novel, Jeremy told the Straits Times, “We know historically that one point of view prevailed and Singapore became a certain way, and nobody can say it was for better or worse. But I wanted to show that at one point, it really was up for grabs.”
Indeed, the book shined such an uncomfortable light on unspoken history that the National Arts Council withdrew its grant after seeing his initial draft (cementing its reputation as a legit piece of “subversive” work). The novel also won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018.
State of Emergency is a superbly researched work that marries fiction so effortlessly with fact that the reader often has to pause to contemplate each chapter’s nuances before continuing. It will delight any fan of local fiction and history.
Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★