Sunday 1 October 2023

AN AFTERNOON WELL SPENT @ ORANGE AND TEAL / Book Talk by Wong Souk Yee & Sudhir Vadaketh

Available at Books Kinokuniya at $29.05

Orange & Teal, Rochester Mall
Saturday (30 September 2023)

Alright, I must admit that I do not go for many book talks. I instead attend far many concerts when I should be catching up on reading. This time was an exception: a book talk and discussion on writing held on a leisurely Saturday afternoon not too far from home. Orange & Teal at Rochester Mall is an informal eating place owned by opposition politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. This cosy corner aims to be a venue for intellectual discourse, much Viennese coffee houses and certain reading rooms of The British Library. I've been there several times for a meal but never met the man himself in the flesh. This time was different. 

The event was a talk by Wong Souk Yee on her latest book Gardens At Phoenix Park, published by Epigram Books and recently released. I have not read it yet but understand it is political fiction set in contemporary Singapore with the author identifying with one of its protagonists. She read a short excerpt, which is not dissimilar to her own experience as a political prisoner during the infamous 1987 government purge of supposed Marxists known as Operation Spectrum. Most of us remember that event as the "Marxist Conspiracy", except that nobody nabbed and locked up for many months was formally charged in court. That is the legacy of Singapore's Internal Security Act.

The account was chilling, about the protagonist being physically assaulted by a government goon in the presence of faceless strangers. The idea that this happened in Singapore is almost unthinkable. North Korea, East Germany, Soviet Union, PRC - yes. But Singapore? I cannot imagine that civil servant going home to his family and thinking he was just doing his job. That person, in my eyes, would be little different from Rudolf Hoess, Adolf Eichmann or Comrade Duch, just doing their jobs. Ah, the banality of evil, and it definitely exists in Singapore.

The story does touch on the present, and readers will identify certain characters and their "West Coast Plan". More importantly, the author and moderator Sudhir Vadaketh discussed on the climate of writing such stories in Singapore. Will one get censured, sued or POFMA'd? Wong has chosen the medium of fiction to tell her story, which is less likely to be as contentious although its characters are thinly-veiled versions of real persons. 

Singapore Democratic Party chairperson Dr Paul Ananth Tambyah also joined the discussion, having been POFMA'd during the last general election. All agreed that receiving a POFMA (Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act) is less odious than getting a civil suit. Such is the present culture of "calibrated coercion" practised by the ruling party and its minions, something all writers will have to live with.

Finally, I did get to meet Dr Chee himself, who is totally personable and a far cry from the feisty and bumbling political persona often portrayed by mainstream media. He is totally at home and quietly confident as the restaurant's proprietor of the restaurant and struck me as optimistic and hopeful for the future despite the very stiff odds. Singapore needs more gadflies like him, and the persons who will be invited for the coming Saturday's book talk, the anti-death penalty activist Kirsten Han and smiley-face poster protester Jolovan Wham.

Why do I attend these events? If for a few hours a week, the rose-tinted lenses I wear are put aside, I will have a better idea of what happens in the real Singapore and the world at large. It ain't pretty but one perseveres nonetheless.

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