What happens when the things that bind families together also divide them? That’s the question Singaporean author Jeremy Tiang asks in his remarkable novel, State of Emergency (Epigram Books), which dives into Singapore’s and Malaysia’s tumultuous days of leftist movements and political detentions.

Tiang’s narrative follows an extended family from the 1940s to the present day as they navigate the choppy political currents of the region. The story unfolds against a backdrop of some of Singapore’s most politically tense moments, such as the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955 and the ‘Marxist conspiracy’ of 1987 in which 16 people were arrested and detained without trial.

We see these events from the perspectives of six different characters, beginning with the marriage of an English-educated civil servant and a Chinese-educated activist, who disagree on the path Singapore should take.

A turning point comes when activist Siew Li leaves her husband and children in Singapore to fight for freedom against British rule in the jungles of Malaya. Decades later, Siew Li’s niece, Stella, finds herself accused of being a Marxist conspirator.

“When you look around Singapore now, it’s very polished and unruffled — but … that hides a lot of turbulence below the surface. I wanted to dig for what there was below the historical narrative,” Tiang told The Straits Times in an interview.

By taking on periods in Singapore’s history that aren’t often discussed as part of the public discourse, State of Emergency shines a light on a country still grappling with its own biography.

That complexity was reflected in the book’s development. A grant Tiang was awarded from Singapore’s National Arts Council to create the work was suddenly withdrawn after he sent the council his first draft. Undeterred, he kept writing, and the book went on to win the prestigious Singapore Literary Prize in 2018.

By Melissa de Villiers


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