Former ISD detainee Wong Souk Yee’s novel is an absorbing read. The draw for me though is not so much the mystery surrounding the titular murder?/suicide? as the character studies of the four feckless children struggling to cope with their suddenly fallen circumstances. Part of the fun is trying to guess which of the main political characters ¬– from the iron-fisted prime minister (no prizes there) to the Chinese-helicopter sole Opposition leader of 1980s Singapore and even the Perm Sec (shades of Teh Cheang Wan) ¬¬– correspond to which person or amalgam of persons in real life. There are many things this novel offers, but I am particularly impressed by the lyricism of Wong’s pen, for instance, in describing the multiracial love story of one of the daughters and the epiphany of one of the sons on a visit to Hong Kong to look up his father’s mistress.
Wong was one of the so-called Marxists of the late 1980s whose drama group Third Stage’s plays on mistreated maids and other socially-conscious themes landed them in jail. The government has made efforts recently to erase their contribution to Singapore’s theatre history.
Wong was behind bars for 15 months without trial under the Internal Security Act, an experience she mined for her 2013 play Square Moon and which forms a small part of this prose work.
The novel is a much more accomplished work. It was actually completed in 2004 as part of Wong’s PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of New South Wales in Australia. But no publisher wanted it so (the time was perhaps not right then). So it sat in Wong’s drawer until she submitted it for the $20,000 Epigram Book Prize in 201 and it made the short list of final four.
Death of a Perm Sec is now in its second printing. The original less sexy title was “Expelled”. I understand that the authorities do not at all like the new title. (See https://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/wong-souk-yees-death-of-a-perm-sec/ for a full and perceptive review of the book).
Wong’s novel and especially her play add to the slowly growing body of what is probably best termed Singapore’s “scar literature” (used for works dealing with China’s Cultural Revolution.) In our own scar literature I include not just novels and short stories, but also non-fiction, films, poetry, etc, which deal directly or indirectly with the period of the “political ISA”. By this I mean the time up till the late 1980s, during which the government locked up without trial politicians, social activists, and playwrights, journalists and other intellectuals (some for unimaginable years and years.) The government has revealed that between 1959 and 1990, 2,460 people were locked up (though not all were for political reasons) under the ISA and its predecessor law.
Another notable scar literature book of 2010 is Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner, Teo Soh Lung’s moving memoir of her two years and seven months over two periods from 1987 to 1990 in Whitley Detention Centre. She was another so-called Marxist conspirator. A scar book about the earlier ISA swoop, which I have yet to read, is The 1963 Operation Coldstore: Commemorating 50 Years, edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok Fang and Hong Lysa.
Scar films include the documentaries Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love (banned from public showing) and Jason Soo’s Untracing the Conspiracy (which continues to be shown at The Projector). Older works such as Haresh Sharma’s play Gemuk Girls, Russell Heng’s play Half Century and Boo Jun Feng’s feature film Sandcastles also belong to the same genre though their treatment is tangential to actual events, like the even more tangential Death of a Perm Sec. But they are no less powerful.