If someone wants you to not say something… an evening with Jeremy Tiang

by Tan Wah Piow

Jeremy Tiang, the award winning Singapore writer, spoke at the London launch of his debut novel “State of Emergency”. His novel spans across seven decades, and through half a dozen key characters, Jeremy explored the lives and thoughts of left wing activists from Singapore and Malaysia.

Having read his novel, I was curious to find out where his ideas came from, and what motivated him to choose a subject which is alien to his generation.

While enjoying the wine, I learnt more about his journey as he answered the questions posed by the moderator at the book launch.

About the historical setting in State of Emergency

…what really happened? And over all these decades, all the things that might have turned out differently to what we learnt in our history textbooks, and what our parents told us, what our teachers told us and what politicians tell us again and again…

So I wanted to not even set the record straight, but just suggest to people that the record might might be susceptible to question.

“You don’t judge them, you gave them chance to talk.”

Political figures are human being first and foremost, it was important for me to create the person before I put on the other attributes… in the fifties it was all up for grabs as to what could have happened to Singapore and which way it could have gone… it could easily have gone a more leftist direction, a more socialist state .. the communists were really very popular, so it’s easy now to look back and say of course communism was doomed to fail… but this was the fifties before a lot of things had happened to make us associate communism with certain attributes … it seemed like an exciting ideology that promised fairness after horrors of war and colonialism; and I wanted to remind people that Singapore once upon a time had elections that we actually didn’t know before hand who was going to win. (first laughter from the audience)

“and the [Singapore] National Arts Council funding was … er..” [laughter]

I didn’t write for money so ([more laughter]

The NAC funding made it easier, enabled me to travel to Malaysia and Thailand for me to do the research I needed, and I am most grateful for that. I never do it for the funding so if anything, losing the funding made me more determined to finish the book because if someone wants you to not say something than it probably really needs to be said.

If the government is trying to suppress certain stories than I think it is vital that the stories are told because the voices that the Singapore government has over the decades pressed down are now bubbling up and I think we need to elevate them whenever possible.

“What’s the reception like?”

In a way the book has become a symbol of resistance, the controversy gets talk about more than the book sometimes… it’s inevitable, but also slightly annoying.

I think generally people are open to hearing that’s another point of view in another story. Comparatively few people have denounced it for going against orthodoxy which I think is encouraging. It passed the point where people accepted the government point of view uncritically so I think people are eager for dissenting voices, and this is brought about by the internet.

“Its your debut novel, you felt it had to be a full length novel”

Yes, well it’s a story that spans what seventy years, and needs to have lots of voices in it. A short story could only really have one point of view. I wrote in this format because I knew that no one point of view could represent the entirety of that period of history because there were so many factions who all wanted different things and saw the country and the politically situation differently and to do this fairly I had to speak from all perspectives, and the only format that would give me enough room for that was enough.

The book, published by Epigram, is available in Waterstones in the UK, and distributed by Epigram in Singapore.