By Abigail Ang (18S06B)
When can history be truly left in the past? For some, never.
State of Emergency explores the effects of the leftists movements and government detentions in Malaya on the lives of various characters from the 1950s to the present day, who are often forced to reckon with difficult choices and moral dilemmas.
A state of emergency refers to a situation in which the rights and procedures guaranteed by a country’s constitution or law are temporarily lifted during a national crisis. The title of the book refers to the historical state of emergency in Malaya which was declared in 1948 in response to an armed insurgency by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The Emergency lasted until 1955 in Singapore and until 1960 in Malaysia.
One might note, however, that the book also deals with events after the end of the Emergency. A state of emergency may be used to rationalise suspension of rights and freedoms, as international organisations such as Amnesty International have criticised the recent state of emergency in Turkey of doing. In this context, and with the word ‘state’ also meaning a nation or territory, the title may also be a commentary on what has become the normal state of affairs in Singapore.
Tiang’s prose is simple and direct, and does not care to be bogged down by too many historical details, at least not to the expense of its readability. But the book’s greatest strength is the relatability of its characters.
One of the first characters we are introduced to is Siew Li, whom we follow as she matures from a student at Nanyang Girls’ High to an adult. Her involvement in the 1950s Chinese-school student movements begins when she is approached by a senior at her school, Lina, at the Happy World amusement park. Persuaded by Lina and flattered to be singled out by the older girl, whom she admires, Siew Li directs her writing abilities to writing pamphlets and materials for the movement, and begins paying attention to the speeches she only attended in the past “because all her classmates were going”.
“Now she was listening for it, she could hear there was also something in the air, the possibility that this was a crucible, and everything the nation could become was here in this moment. War had levelled everything, and here was a chance to blaze through the world and make it fair again.”
“War had levelled everything, and here was a chance to blaze through the world and make it fair again.”
By reminding us that all historical actors are (or once were) living, breathing people, State of Emergency and other historical fiction serve not only as entertainment, but as a useful tool in understanding history, and in so doing, interrogate the assumptions in historical narratives. In here, Siew Li’s motivations are to help create what envisions a fairer world. At the same time, she is looking for purpose and perhaps she is swept up by the excitement, but that can be said of the participants of many political movements past and present. This challenged the perspective I learnt when studying about the 1950s in secondary school history lessons, which attributed the students’ actions to immaturity, recklessness, or their youthful susceptibility to the influence of “instigators” (ironically, school teachers).
While it may seem that a book written from the perspective of political detainees and those involved in the Leftist movements will inevitably be biased, at no point did I find State of Emergency to be pushing an agenda of any sorts. State of Emergency does not shy away from topics seen as taboo, but neither does it glorify those who participated in the Leftist movements. No one would come away from this book thinking the Communists did not also commit atrocities. Tiang is also not averse to a hearty dose of despair; towards the end of the book on character set in the present day observes that those who were detained or are unable to return home are unknown or forgotten.
While some may opine that some sensitive topics should be tread carefully for the sake of social stability – a view I do not entirely disagree with – I contest that an ill-informed populace that is averse from controversy, even when it is meaningful or needed, is just as dangerous. Indeed, In an IPS survey conducted in 2015, events such as Operation Coldstore and the “Marxist Conspiracy” were the least remembered out of the 50 events chosen by researchers, with only 16.6% and 18.5% of respondents aware of the events respectively.
When history is forgotten, it is rewritten. This is even commented on in the book. In one scene, when one of the characters informs the officer interrogating her that the PAP used to be a socialist party, he reacts with surprise, before trotting out the narrative that the PAP only worked with the Communists to bring them “under control”. When she continues that the party called themselves socialist up until the 1970s, when they had to leave Socialist Internationale, his response was to ask her how she knew that. It is implied in the book that this works against her.
When only one ‘correct’ narrative is allowed, simply holding a point of view that veers away from the official narrative identifies one as a non-conformist and possible threat. An environment in where people constantly need to ensure they are on the right side of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not is one environment of self-censorship and fear, rather than one conducive to open discussion and debate. This in turn breeds mistrust of, and even blind opposition to the narrative presented and the merits of its argument.
When we allow more than one narrative to be heard, we acknowledge complexity of historical events and diversity of experiences of those who lived through it. Challenging the official narrative should not be seen as a hostile attack, but a means to gaining a more holistic understanding. At worst, it prevents so-called facts from becoming dead dogmas (beliefs that are held to be true but the believer does not know why).
Finally, perhaps we owe it to those whose stories are untold, not just those who choose to fight for their beliefs, but also those who were caught up in some of the most turbulent periods of Singapore’s history against their will. Their stories are ones of hope and survival in the face of oppression and a hostile world. Stories that do not deserve to be erased.