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The best books on Singapore

recommended by Sharlene Teo

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

by Sharlene Teo


If your impression of Singapore is based entirely on Crazy Rich Asians, here are some books to read to get a sense of what the country is really like. Singapore's huge economic achievements since it became an independent state in 1965 have not come without consequences, not least nostalgia for the past.  Here novelist Sharlene Teo recommends five books to get a feel for the city-state of Singapore, her homeland. We also recommend reading her novel, Ponti. 

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Ponti by Sharlene Teo

by Sharlene Teo

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Your novel, Ponti, is set in Singapore. It’s a really nice book to read if you’re travelling to Singapore, to get a feel for what it’s like there. Ponti was shortlisted for a travel-writing award for fiction ‘with a sense of place’ and it’s had some very nice comments from the novelist Ian McEwan. Can you tell me a bit about Singapore, for people who maybe don’t know it as well as you do?

Singapore is a southeast Asian city that is one of only three city-states in the world and occupies a particular political and territorial position in that regard. The other two modern city-states are Monaco and the Vatican. I like the term city-state because, to me, it encompasses issues like governance, sovereignty and also an element of self-sufficiency. It feels like a microcosm when something is described that way.

Tell me a bit about your connection with Singapore, particularly in the context of the feel for the place that you are trying to convey in your novel.

I grew up there, by and large, for the first 19 years of my life, but it’s interesting to me, having been away now for something close to 13 years. My impression of Singapore is very much stamped in time. Ponti is a portrayal of, and a love letter to, the country that I grew up in. But it’s a complicated relationship I have with Singapore, with such a sentimentally saturated place, especially when its face keeps on changing.

It’s a novel preoccupied with how human subjects feel betrayed by urban progress. Things like rapid development and modernization are essential to improving infrastructure of a country and giving people more opportunities. But on a micro level and on a personal level, what results is a sense of nostalgia because of the erasure of the landmarks and familiar conditions that inform your memory, that tell you, ‘This is the place where I grew up; this is the place that was witness to significant events in my life or significant passages of emotional development.’ That’s very much the role that the city plays in Ponti.

Let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen to better understand Singapore. The first explores the history of Singapore: Singapore: A Biography by Mark Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow. Tell me a bit about this book and why you like it.

In terms of the really extensive historical accounts of Singapore, quite a few of the canonical ones are pretty old now. There’s one by CM Turnbull, for example, that dates from 1977, and of course these historical accounts are always inflected by the politics of the writers. Obviously colonial accounts of Singapore tell a particular, subjective story, as do most texts of history-making.

Singapore: A Biography came out a few years ago, in 2013. It’s a balanced book and it takes us through the development and history of Singapore. A lot of it is compilations of oral histories, because that’s where the rich, documentary material lies. I like the way it’s both a deeply academic book, written in a very clear and straightforward manner, and also written quite lyrically. One of the authors, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, is a novelist and a short story writer, and you can really tell that influence. There’s a kind of writerly eye to it. It’s just a fascinating and very, very useful overview of the dynamic, multi-layered essence of Singapore in history.

It covers quite a big period, starting in the 14th century and going right up to 1965. The research was done with the National Museum of Singapore, so there are also quite a lot of nice illustrations and pictures of artefacts.

Yes, it’s a colossal undertaking. For most people my age, I would say it’s a very, very good resource. It’s quite approachable as well.

The next on your list of Singapore books is This is What Inequality Looks Like. This is by a sociologist, Teo You Yenn, but it’s also beautifully written, isn’t it? And it became a bestseller in Singapore.

Everyone now assumes Singapore is all about Crazy Rich Asians, a film that has eclipsed everything else as the dominant pop cultural reference point, particularly from the Western perspective. This book is a good starting point for people who are unfamiliar with Singaporean society or who perhaps have a less complex, more cursory impression of the country.

Also, it’s a good book to approach in light of the hyper-emergence of China as a significant world power. The fact is a lot of Singaporean Chinese are descended from China. There’s an interesting power relation there, a connection to China, but not quite.

“Ponti is a portrayal of, and a love letter to, the country that I grew up in.”

People who are curious about what it is that makes contemporary Singapore society pretty singular could look to this book. It sheds light on basic class differences and social inequality. These are issues which most Singaporeans have always been aware of. Frankly, Singapore is quite a classist society and fairly materialistic.

The book is very, very illuminating because there is a massive difference between low income, mid-income and very affluent Singaporeans. Of course, these income differences and brackets affect everyone in every society, but this book is incredibly nuanced. To look at these detailed case studies of that and to read more thoroughly about it gives you a better understanding of the economic and social conditions that affect everyday Singaporeans.

Yes, because in terms of per capita income, Singapore is one of the ten richest countries in the world. I loved one of the opening comments in the book. Teo You Yenn says that, as a sociologist, she cannot really begin with the question, ‘Is there poverty in contemporary Singapore?’ because the answer to that question, based on what she knows about the world, has to be ‘Yes.’ But as a Singaporean, she can hear the question and think, ‘Hmm. I’m not sure.’

It’s true. That’s why it’s so interesting. In terms of Singapore as a society, some things are very accessible and there’s the widely-held knowledge that, for example, the cost of food is pretty good. It’s kept quite low. On the other hand, there are other things, like associated living costs, that make life quite difficult—though obviously not difficult in a way that you could transpose to some other countries and economic models.

Next on your list of your Singapore books is How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, a novel. Tell me about this book and why you like it.

How We Disappeared is a historical novel about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. It’s a sweeping epic and tells the tragic story of a young girl who gets taken as a comfort woman. This is an essential read. It’s a wonderful introduction to Singaporean literature and where Singaporean literature is headed. It’s incredibly beautifully written and very understated.

It narrates a very painful and formative period of Singaporean history which doesn’t get talked about that much. There’s the whole social group of the comfort women. These are women that have been marginalised and not even acknowledged, historically, until fairly recently. It is a necessary narrative that people need to engage with more, about the costs of the war.

That’s why, as a work of fiction, it’s a great introduction to Singapore, especially for readers who might not be aware of this period of time or these historical occurrences.

Basically, during World War II, these women had a horrible time, forced to be comfort women to Japanese soldiers. But then, after the war, they also have a terrible time, because they become marginalized for having been comfort women.

They’re treated as traitors. It’s just terrible. It’s a horrible experience that has parallels throughout Asia. Women had to undergo this and it was deeply traumatic.

How comfortable is Singapore with its history, in general? Is there a lot that gets swept under the carpet?

I don’t think so. We are educated fairly comprehensively in school about the traumas of the Second World War. It also gets drummed into us by local television series. For example, Channel 8, the Chinese/Mandarin TV station, has quite a lot of war genre series. It’s something that growing up I was always aware of, but it’s positive that now books like How We Disappeared are reaching a wider audience outside of Singapore as well.

The fourth on your list of books is Singapore Disrupted by Chua Mui Hoong, a political columnist and opinion editor at The Straits Times, which is Singapore’s main broadsheet, English language newspaper. This is a series of her articles.

Yes, she’s a political columnist. This book is a compilation of articles she has written over the years under a couple of broad categories. So she’s got one about the class divide, which This is What Inequality Looks Like touches on as well. Then there’s “Brave New World Disruption,” local politics, partly politics and the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away a couple of years ago. He was basically the founding father of Singapore.

And his son is now in power, is that right?

Yes, that’s true.

Hasn’t the population of Singapore nearly doubled since 1990? Is that the kind of disruption she’s writing about?

There’s the age-old complaint everyone makes about overcrowding and competition for jobs and opportunities, about gentrification. There’s a huge and constant influx of expats, both white collar as well as blue collar. Every time there’s a huge influx of immigration—just as you see in the United Kingdom—that generates a certain amount of friction and hostility. So, there is that.

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There’s also the space aspect. Having to queue for ages for everything is quite a Singaporean thing to talk about, but now even moreso.

The book is useful, especially as a Singaporean that doesn’t live in Singapore anymore. It’s very, very Illuminating for me. It’s basically a compilation of the ongoing hot-button debates. Singaporeans love to debate and argue.

The last of the Singapore books you’ve chosen is Nimita’s Place by Akshita Nanda. This is again a novel, and it’s by a journalist who I think also writes for The Straits Times. She was born in India, but has been living in Singapore since 1995. Tell me about this novel and what you like about it.

What I like about it is, firstly, that it’s told from the much-welcomed perspective of a Singaporean Indian. In Singapore, other cultures do not tend to get as much space as the majority, which is the Singaporean Chinese perspective. It’s a wonderfully written, witty work of fiction that looks at parallel narratives. It’s a story of migration, firstly about a woman who moved to Singapore from India at a particular time in the 40s. Then it fast-forwards to pretty much the present day, to 2014, and you get some wonderfully incisive depictions of contemporary living—things like office politics or just what it’s like to live in the city. There’s wonderful evocation of detail there. It’s quite understated, and handled really well.

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I read the beginning, where she loses her job because it now has to go to either a Singapore passport holder or a permanent resident. Is that what it’s like for non-residents in Singapore—can that really happen?

It’s an ongoing social issue which I’ve heard about from people firsthand. Preference is given to people who hold a Singapore passport, and it’s unfair, as all draconian immigration laws are in the UK as well. When people try to impose a cap on immigration numbers and people have to earn above a certain income bracket—no matter how long they’ve established their lives in a particular place—that’s unfair.

Does the book pursue that issue?

It’s very much about the treatment of women and looking at issues of migration, borders, citizenship and belonging. How do we claim where we belong? How long do you have to live somewhere, how do you earn that right?

I liked another bit of the book, where her Dad is worried about her. She’s like, ‘I’m fine. Nothing ever happens in Singapore. That’s why I moved here. It’s the safest city in the world. No one even honks in a traffic jam.’ Is that true?

It is very safe, that is absolutely true. That’s another thing that I really liked reading this book: none of the details ring false. It does really incisively describe the kind of claustrophobia and complacency that comes with living in such a safe, really well-developed city.

Singapore has many different ethnic groups and more than one official language . . .

Yes, it’s multilingual.

Does it feel like a melting pot or do different groups live quite separate lives?

It’s not completely segregated at all. You do get the sense that it’s pretty cosmopolitan and multicultural.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

July 29, 2019

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Sharlene Teo

Sharlene Teo

Sharlene Teo was born in Singapore in 1987. She has an LLB in Law from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and the David TK Wong Creative Writing award. She was shortlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize and holds fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the University of Iowa International Writing Program. In 2016, she won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award for Ponti, her first novel.

Sharlene Teo

Sharlene Teo

Sharlene Teo was born in Singapore in 1987. She has an LLB in Law from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and the David TK Wong Creative Writing award. She was shortlisted for the Berlin Writing Prize and holds fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the University of Iowa International Writing Program. In 2016, she won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award for Ponti, her first novel.