Epigram Books, 2017
Siew Li leaves her husband and children in Tiong Bahru to fight for freedom in the jungles of Malaya. Decades later, a Malaysian journalist returns to her homeland to uncover the truth of a massacre committed during the Emergency. And in Singapore, Siew Li’s niece Stella finds herself accused of being a Marxist conspirator.
Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel dives into the tumultuous days of leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia. It follows an extended family from the 1940s to the present day as they navigate the choppy political currents of the region. What happens when the things that divide us also bind us together?
Reading Chinese Network Reviews
Reviewed by Paul Woods, 22/2/18
State of Emergency is the powerful story of one extended family across several decades of the post-war period, set against the background of decolonisation, the split between Singapore and the rest of Malaysia, and the consolidation of power of the People’s Action Party in the island republic.
One of the main protagonists – I think it is fair to identify her thus – Siew Li, functions in the story despite being absent for most of it. The dynamic wife of quietly spoken civil servant Jason, she is first a labour activist and later a communist insurgent, who leaves her two young children behind when she flees from Singapore and disappears into the jungle in Malaysia. She eventually becomes one of the leaders of the communist movement.
The other main protagonist is Stella, the daughter of Jason’s sister Mollie, who is killed at the beginning of the story, during the Konfrontasi tension with Indonesia. Stella later gets involved in the so-called Marxist Conspiracy, when Catholic churches spoke out on behalf of foreign domestic helpers in Singapore, and is detained by the security services on her return to Singapore from London.
Revathi, a British journalist whose family originally came from Malaysia, becomes interested in the story of the Emergency and the behaviour of local governments, the British government, and the Malaysian communists, and travels to Malaysia on a fact-finding mission. On her second trip to Malaysia she is accompanied by Henry, the son of Jason and Siew Li, who is an academic in London. Henry heads north into Thailand in search of his mother, only to find that she died of cancer long before his visit. At the end of the book he meets his mother’s second husband and his half-sister.
I am interested in the actions and behaviours of individuals and groups, especially as these might relate to gender roles and the issue of masculinity. The story’s two heroes are the communist Siew Li and the migrant labour advocate Stella; these female characters show leadership, courage, and resolve, attributes traditionally thought of as masculine. Siew Li is the firebrand while her husband is the compliant civil servant. Stella stands her ground when undergoing interrogation over a long period.
Over the course of the period covered by the narrative, the initially dominant British struggle with different political forces on either side of the Straits of Johor, eventually containing the Malaysian Communists but losing out to the PAP in Singapore. In Malaysia the British military and the local government are theoretically dominant, masculine, but the communists are a thorn in their side. Supposed masculine colonial protectiveness becomes military and social oppression as the British place the Chinese into camps. The Malaysian Communists, whose aim is to protect and liberate their fellow Chinese, become the object of fear for many in the Chinese community. In fact, those who would seek power and authority in Malaysia are controlled to some extent by Mainland China. Masculine dominance is thus negotiated over and over again in Malaysia. Singapore’s People’s Action Party was the agent of liberation from the British and the Malaysians, yet is portrayed as acting very heavy-handedly as it rounds up and incarcerates social activists seeking to defend foreign labour. Here again, masculinity is changing and fragmented. What is government actually for?
The novel ends rather abruptly, although it is difficult to see how it might continue beyond Henry’s discovery of his half-sister. It is fitting perhaps that a story that begins in a personal way, with a death, should end with an encounter between two related individuals. It puts all the machinations of political parties and governments into some kind of perspective. Yet resolution is denied to both people and parties: Henry never sees his mother and her story is not heard and the Malaysian Communists fade away without bringing revolution to their country.
Individuals are caught up in and affected by political movements and the currents of history, yet we reminded that those self-same ideological groupings and trends are formed and transmitted by individuals. Tiang is right in invoking the wisdom of Walter Benjamin at the beginning of the book. A state of emergency is the rule rather than the exception, and from their limited perspectives and from within their own perceptions almost all of the major actors in the novel combine a sense of right and wrong with the protection of their own interests and the seeking of the common good as they see it.
Reviewed by Paul Woods
Reviewed by Catherine Shipley, 2/1/18
I should first mention that as I was reading this novel, which is based in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1940s to the present day, I had almost no knowledge of the historical events that had occurred there during that time. It is possible that someone with a better understanding of the region would have a different experience of the book. For me, it was an educational, as well as an engaging, story.
Each chapter is written by a different character, whose fates are intertwined. This is not confusing and instead allows the story to flow well and for the reader to experience the events from different perspectives and with varied emotions.
As the story unwinds we begin to understand the appeal of the Maoist movement to young Siew Li, Nam Teck and others like them. The desire for change, action and a sense of belonging lead them to alienate themselves from their loved ones and to sacrifice their personal lives, both present and future, for their cause. Once they make the choice to head into the jungle, they no longer have the option to return. What they will never know is the affect their passion for the cause has on their loved ones and how far-reaching those affects will be. The way in which the political belief of the characters and the impact it has on others is depicted, leads readers to deliberate whether the protagonists’ actions were justified.
As the reader debates the pros and cons of the protagonists’ actions, the complexity of the situation is made even clearer by the arrival of Revathi, a journalist with Malaysian parents. Having grown up in the UK, she returns to Malaysia to investigate historical events, with a clearcut view of right and wrong. On arrival, however, her convictions begin to falter as she is faced with first-hand accounts of what happened in the past.
Alongside the many extraordinary occurrences recounted in this book are emotive portrayals of ordinary relationships – the love between a mother and her son, the difficulty a father and his children face to express their feelings for each other, a friendship between people with a shared history. These stories help to illuminate the broader historical events.
As I read ‘State of Emergency’ I was eager to turn to the next page, as a sense of suspense was maintained throughout the novel. It was enjoyable and informative yet once I had finished reading it I was filled with a sense of the sadness within it. Most of the characters were leading lonely lives due to the sadness and loss they had experienced. Although times may have changed their worlds had not necessarily moved on. As implied at the beginning of the book, the ‘State of Emergency’ should perhaps not be thought of in isolation as a period of time with a beginning and an end but rather as a series of events whose implications are far-reaching and timeless. I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to others, regardless of their knowledge of Malaysia and Singaporean history.
Reviewed by Catherine Shipley