Ministry of Moral Panic

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Ministry of Moral Panic makes one hopeful for the future of Singaporean literature, even if it isn’t quite where I’d like it to be yet.

Amanda Lee Koe has here written a short story compendium of vignettes touching on various parts of the Singaporean lived experience, across times, places, and identities. Some are stories in and of themselves, others are vehicles to make a point. But most deal in relationships deemed verboten by our collective cultural mores, told in a way that reveals the interlocking web of unspoken assumptions and prejudices that pervade us as a people.

Flamingo Valley is a tale of how two lovers, separated by racial differences, meet each other decades later in a hospital; she is old senile, and decrepit, yet he is the only one she remembers. Pawn is a meditation on the complex power dynamic between a Singaporean Plain Jane who adopts an attractive PRC noodle-shop assistant as her male companion, in a subversion of the usual transnational phenomenon. Two Ways to do This is a magic realist tale of a domestic helper who crosses oceans to fulfill her destiny of siring the child of her employer. With astonishing frankness, they transgress and upend the cultural orthodoxies that can be found even in this allegedly cosmopolitan state.

The stories are told in Koe’s urbane prose peppered with clever turns of phrase. They are replete with the doodads of the Singaporean lived experience, our cultural and memetic paraphernalia – road names, iconic locations, local foods, references to local history, politics, and people – but not cloyingly or self-consciously so. And yet, she writes with a matter-of-fact worldliness, just as someone who grew up with one foot in both the local and the global is wont to do.

Some stories are better than others. Some try too hard to be avant garde and end up being somewhat opaque. Others suffer from a disjoint between the people she is trying to depict and her narrative voice, dripping constantly with a sophistication that her characters should not otherwise possess. In some of her stories, her desire to make a point about something supersedes her more important task to tell a good yarn, and sometimes characters are depicted as walking stereotypes just to play the roles in the drama she is creating.

But every story in Moral Panic is arresting, punchy and vital.  I still remember randomly picking up a prominently displayed copy of the book in Books Actually and being utterly seized by the first few pages of Pawn. At that moment, I knew I had to read it, even though I had a 30 book backlog to slog through. It’s not often a book has that effect on me.

I think Moral Panic’s primary virtue is in how it so adroitly and so frankly critiques aspects of the Singaporean condition without verging on being apologetic or condemnatory. Reading Moral Panic, I imagine it is how people in other cultures react to a book that captures the zeitgeist of their moment, reflecting them back upon  themselves in a way that both edifies and chastens. I can take pride in how a generation of Singaporean millennials has captured contemporary Singapore in their unique literary language, in a way that is both empathetic and unreserved.

Moral Panic shows that Singaporean literature has almost come into its own. That being said, I still think we are a bit too self-absorbed in our preoccupations. Too many of our seminal works are about Singapore-as-concept, questing for an identity that already exists beneath notice, critiquing our political and social strictures and hypocrisies, struggling to pierce the miasma of “nation-building” and “national education”. We are still caught up in the struggle to find ourselves amidst the noise.

I just hope that one day, when this struggle for identity is over, we can look beyond the things that we imagine cause paroxysms of moral panic in our elders and write for the world, not just for ourselves.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 parks

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