SINGAPORE – In need of new books to pass the time while you stay home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic? In this monthly feature, The Straits Times lines up six hot-off-the-press home-grown books for readers to dive into.
AIR-CONDITIONED NATION REVISITED
By Cherian George
Ethos Books/Paperback/319 pages/$26.75/Available at bit.ly/ACNation
Twenty years ago, journalist Cherian George coined the now-iconic metaphor “air-conditioned nation” to describe Singapore in his essay collection that used the same title. Drawing on founding premier Lee Kuan Yew’s choice of the air-conditioner as the most influential invention of the millennium, the metaphor illustrates the politics of comfort and control particular to Singaporeans.
For years, the 54-year-old, who is professor of media studies and acting dean of Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, avoided rereading his 2000 book. “More than any other book I’ve done, people still refer to it,” he says over Skype from Hong Kong. “It’s like this thing on my back that I just haven’t been able to shake off. But I now realise I shouldn’t deny it like some unwanted first child.”
The new book pairs a number of his 2000 political essays with more recent ones, some taken from his 2017 collection Singapore, Incomplete.
It also contains two essays published for the first time: 4G And The Two Shans, an analysis of the 4G Government, as well as the roles played by two key figures, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam; and The Dogma Behind Pofma, about the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act.
Several drastic developments occurred in between his finishing the book and it hitting shelves, most notably the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is not something anyone will be able to meaningfully comment on for a few years, he says. “But even with the limited knowledge that we have now, there are some things we can say with certainty.
“One is that neoliberalism got it wrong – we can’t let markets rule us. Libertarians and anarchists, unless they are content to live in small, self-sufficient communities of under 50 people, are also clearly wrong. We’re not going to survive or achieve anything if we do not do it collectively. And that includes doing it through good, strong government.
“It’s also clear that what started out as a health crisis and has turned into an economic crisis, is going to become a moral crisis. The model of progress that we’ve had for 200 years or more has involved a great degree of moral blindness. A lot of what the world’s rich think of as progress is extremely unequal. It’s easy to look away when the victims are far away in the Global South, or if we don’t identify with them, like migrant workers.”
He returns once more to the metaphor of the air-conditioned nation. “The air-conditioner is at its heart a selfish technology. It cools your own home while raising the temperature outside. But we avoid thinking about the social cost of our way of life by privatising our lives even more.”
Not so any more, what with the mass unemployment in developed countries arising from the pandemic. “As a result of this crisis, people in rich societies are going to see that those who are poor and suffering are just like them.”
As to how the General Election will unfold in the shadow of Covid-19, he thinks it should still go ahead. “It is quite a serious thing to delay an election. But if we carry on with necessary adjustments, how do we preserve its legitimacy? We wouldn’t want a situation where the opposition, with or without basis, is able to claim the PAP opportunistically used this crisis to give itself an unfair advantage in the elections.
“So any solution needs to involve consultation with all political parties. And since intense mass rallies are not going to be viable, they may agree on much more low-key, less intensive campaigning. It might be reasonable then to have a much longer campaign period – instead of the minimum nine days, it could be a month or two months, so that parties have time to spread their message without feeling they need to do it to a crowd of 10,000.”
TOWARDS A NEW MALAYSIA?: THE 2018 ELECTION AND ITS AFTERMATH
Edited by Meredith L. Weiss and Faisal S. Hazis
NUS Press/Paperback/288 pages/$38.52/Available at bit.ly/TowardsNewMsia
As the political drama across the Causeway continues with twists and turns, this volume of essays examines Malaysia’s historic 2018 election, which brought down a ruling party that had been in power since independence in 1957.
From an analysis of voting data to discussions of the political ideas, identities and behaviours that continue to shape the country’s destiny, the book’s authors argue that the election should not be seen as a clear harbinger of full-on liberalisation in Malaysia.
Instead, they call for more critical and comparative research on its politics and also point to the broader insights that its experience can provide for the study of elections and political change in one-party dominant states around the world.
THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN
By Cyril Wong
Epigram Books/Paperback/174 pages/$20.22/Available at bit.ly/TSideofHeaven
In this afterlife novel by Singapore Literature Prize-winner Wong, several people find themselves after their deaths in a garden where an orchestra is playing, though each person hears something different in the music – their national anthem, the greatest hits of American singer Whitney Houston or even nothing at all.
The dead come from all walks of life, from a reality television celebrity to a survivor of a nuclear cataclysm; a pianist, a poet, a Peranakan matriarch and more. In this liminal space, they are haunted by inexplicable horrors and offered the chance to fulfil the desires they were forbidden on earth.
By Daryl Whetter
Penguin Random House SEA/Paperback/390 pages/$27.71/Available at bit.ly/OurSandsDW
Whetter, who leads the creative writing Master’s at Lasalle College of the Arts, turns to his native Canada for this eco-conscious Romeo And Juliet tale that unfolds against the backdrop of Alberta’s tar sands, one of the world’s most destructive oil operations.
Ocean Janak, 17, the daughter of a wealthy oil executive, falls for Rory McAllister, a bike courier who secretly scans the oil contracts he is paid to deliver, inspiring her to turn against the industry responsible for her privileged lifestyle – one which poisons Alberta’s land, water and indigenous First Nations peoples.
MY BFF IS AN ALIEN
By Vivian Teo
Epigram Books/Paperback/184 pages/$13.80/Available at bit.ly/MyBFFAlien
Abriana Yeo is 13 years old, friendless and not at all keen on the new girl at school. Except Octavia is no ordinary teenage girl, but an alien refugee whose home planet is being ravaged by another species.
The two must navigate secondary school drama while searching for a missing artefact that will allow Octavia’s family to return home to help with the war effort.
LANG LIEU: THE PRINCE AND THE PRECIOUS RICE CAKES
By Catherine Khoo, illustrated by Tran Dac Trung
Epigram Books/Paperback/32 pages/$15.94/Available at bit.ly/LLPPRC
In this retelling of a Vietnamese folk tale for Epigram’s Asia’s Lost Legends series, an ageing king decides to choose his successor from among his three sons by setting them the task of coming up with a dish fit for a king. The elder two princes set off to hunt down the most exotic ingredients, but the youngest, Lang Lieu, stays behind and tends to his rice fields.