Book review: State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang
Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245
Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’
Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart. Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.
Through the course of the narrative, attention has been drawn to the fact that the communists in Singapore were mainly a small group of disconsolate students from the Chinese stream of schools who felt deprived and unhappy with the new government policies, which they felt were non inclusive towards the less- educated. Seiw Lee herself was thrown out of Nanyang Girls because of her involvement in the Hock Lee Bus riots. She could not get a job till the communists found one for her at the trade union office. These less-moneyed students resented the Western educated Chinese. Tiang writes, ‘It was one thing to go on dates with the class enemy, but to marry and have his child? Was she (Seiw Lee) turning bourgeois? They were going at her quite hard, past the point of friendly teasing.’ When Siew Lee is on the brink of matrimony with Jason Low, a product of Western education, the communists in her office look ‘sullen’ when told, ‘The English educated are not our enemies… These people are not going to leave with the British.’
The characters in this novel have acted out a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History, placed at the start of the book, ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’ When Jason’s niece, Stella, is convicted at a much later date over her so-called ‘communist’ leanings, one experiences this state of emergency that seems to persist over the years for the Low family. Stella herself has no political affiliations and is caught in a quandary by being kind to the less privileged. The fear of communism imprisons a girl trying to help immigrant blue collared workers. The torture and questioning she is put through is so senseless and pointless that it seems to be straight out of the existentialist world of the Absurd. The readers’ sympathies stay with Stella.
The most interesting part of the narrative is set in the jungles of Malaya where Henry, Seiw Lee and Jason’s son, locates his extended family after his father’s demise with the help of his journalist friend from England, Revathi, who is from a Malaysian family that immigrates to UK. The twist in the narrative makes for an unexpected conclusion. Again we get to see how the whole movement has faded away, how most have forgotten about it except for a few who survived it along with some unexpected revelations which give a zest to the story.
The novel unwinds through the perspectives of different characters– Jason, Seiw Lee, Revathi, Henry and Xiongmin. We have the premise of the communists in Singapore put forth by Siew Lee’s experiences. ‘She (Siew Lee) met them all the time at work, those who saw the progress around them but still felt left out of it.’ Her stories are of the less privileged as are Xiongmin’s; both lose their fathers at a young age in purges against Communism, are less educated and know nothing outside their own little world. At a point, Siew Lee asks her friend Lina if England is smaller than Singapore and Lina, her guide and initiator into the leftist movement, does not have the answer.
The actions of these Communist rebels in the novel bring to mind a sculpture of male and female workers in rebellion at Beijing’s Tianamen square. There is anger etched on the face of the workers in the sculpture – the anger of not having what others have. The same sentiment is brought to the fore by the Communist rebels in the Malayan jungles where anger borne of a sense of deprivation and fear finds expression in violence and intolerance. Xiongmin, an unschooled worker, had been ‘angry before, but now (after indoctrination), his rage had a focus’. This is also where Siew Lee makes her first kill, a Malayan soldier on the lookout for Communist guerrillas.
Interestingly, Jason Low compares the stance taken by Singapore to the imposition of Brexit in UK, home to his son, Henry.
‘Henry complains about the folly of Brexit, a country cutting itself off from the world, and his father points out that Singapore did the same, albeit not voluntarily, but no one could argue with the results. Henry tries to explain that the circumstances were completely different, the population in Singapore didn’t get a real vote, but Jason is already drifting off.’
Quoting this paragraph, Griffin contends that SLP judge Kenny Chan justifiably stated that ‘the novel is epic in scope yet intimate in its depiction of the characters’. This definitely makes the reader ponder on the impact of a ‘real vote’ as opposed to the folly of voting without comprehending the impact of the choice. However, the ‘intimacy’ described by Chan is restricted only to families affected by Communism in Singapore and Malaya and is not as inclusive of all the communities on the island as was the first SLP winning novel, Fistful of Colours by Suchen Christine Lim. The movements are restricted within one community. At a point, the Communist rebels in the Malaysian jungle wonder, ‘Would the non-Chinese have a place in Soviet Malaya?’ By then, they are already outlawed in Singapore.
The novel is only ‘epic’ in terms of the issues it raises and movements it scans – the Konfrontasi, Colonialism, Malaysian communism, Singaporean communism – but not in depicting how the historic events impact the lives of those outside the communist community of Singapore and Malaysia. Considering that the outlawed guerrillas in the Malaysian jungles have been shown as only a handful, they constitute a very small size of the whole population. However, it leaves out the reason why Revathi’s family emigrated from Malaysia to England. In fact, she is the only prominent non-Chinese character in the story. It would have been interesting to know how these movements affected people who were from a non-Communist background in Singapore. Meira Chand has given a broader and a more comprehensive picture of this period in her novel, A Different Sky, but one does not know if that novel has ever been submitted for the SLP.
Jeremy Tiang’s style is smooth and reads well. He is a reputed translator from Chinese to English. He also mentors programmes on translations. Perhaps that is why his debut novel deals with a movement that was intrinsically defined by the language from which he translates. The communists in the camp spoke in and held classes in Mandarin. Like Mao, they tried to unify everyone under the banner of one language.
I would call this novel a must read as it deals with a part of local history that has not been explored much in literature. It also touches upon the links between the histories of different countries, giving it a larger, regional ASEAN perspective.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’ (2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’ (2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.