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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Chin

Books I Read: A Different Kind of Unease

There are horror stories which force you to keep the lights on all night. And then there are those stories which have you looking over your shoulder during the day. Jolene Tan's novel 'After the Inquiry' and Teo Soh Lung's account 'Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner', both about the exercise of power in an administrative state, are ones that will generate that different kind of unease.

In Jolene Tan's 2021 novel, a senior civil servant tasked with investigating an accidental shooting which has left Police Sergeant Mohammed Hafiz bin Mohamad Zani in a coma, gets more truth than he bargains for.

Told from the viewpoint of Teck, a chillingly self-deluded civil servant who records interviews with the Sergeant's family and colleagues, the author utilizes a range of Singlishes to create an engaging linguistic tapestry that is truly Singaporean, while skillfully revealing the various prejudices and personal interests that lead to Sergeant Hafiz's tragic accident.

You may not be surprised by the rot revealed as this mystery unfolds, but you'll still be upset. As Tan probably intends ...

Teo Soh Lung's 'Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner', was published in 2010, more than a decade earlier than Jolene Tan's novel.

Unlike Tan's book, Teo's account is not a dreamt up story of an opaque bureaucracy whose internal logic breaks a life. This happened.

Teo's confinement was probably par for the course in Singapore. She was not dunked in a shit pool or subjected to electric treatment. Spikes were not inserted under her fingernails. She was not beaten on the soles of her feet. Instead, the relentless efforts to break Teo's spirit consisted of small denials such as the rationing of paper and pencils, confiscations of drawings and poems, censoring of mail, nit-picking obstructions and delays to legal procedures, and a subsequent heart-breaking re-arrest immediately after a court-ordered release on technical grounds.

This is an affecting read, worth the effort, if only to understand the effects of solitary confinement on the human psyche. But there is more. The most chilling part of this book was my discovery that in Singapore, judicial review of administrative action is generally limited to errors of law and not of facts. Whether in reality (as with Teo Soh Lung's story), or in fiction (as in with Jolene Tan's novel), the courts may have little oversight into the merits of an administrative decision.

Once upon a time in my previous life as a corporate steward, I suggested that all board members read fiction to become better risk managers. My rationale was simple, fiction exposes us to the 'maybe's' we assume can never be. It expands our imagination and leads our minds down unexplored avenues. It readies us for the unknown and prepares us to recognize dangers we haven't anticipated, purely by virtue of the fact we read something similar in a story somewhere, sometime ago.

But in situations we've become accustomed to, where we tend to downplay make-believe, reading a factual account may be more effective in waking us to the danger we're in.

As a novelist, you won't find me giving up fiction. But there's a value to reading the factual account and letting the two narratives resonate, as I've discovered recently with the two books reviewed.

Have a go at the two of them.

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