Noel Barber, 1981, 736 pages
Barber’s novel (adapted for television in the 1980s) begins in the middle of the 20th century and explores the period before, during and after World War II.
The title refers to the house built by a wealthy British businessman (tanamera in Malay means red earth) whose family settles permanently in Singapore. The novel examines questions of cultural divide through the means of a relationship between a son of this family and the daughter of a grand established Chinese dynasty.
The portrayal of a ‘mixed’ relationship (largely unheard of at the time) is perhaps the most interesting element of the book, although there are also some lively and detailed descriptions of an historic Singapore cityscape.
The Malaya Trilogy
Anthony Burgess, 1956-1959, 591 pages
Burgess’ three books—Time for a Tiger (1956), The Enemy in the Blanket (1958) and Beds in the East (1959)—explore the dynamics of multiracial 1950s Malaya (which then included Singapore), while at the same time providing (as is to be expected) a critique of the circumstances and attitudes that led to the end of British influence in Southeast Asia.
The works can perhaps be classified as ‘colonial literature’ (other practitioners include Kipling, Conrad, Maugham and Greene) in that Burgess was explicit in his desire to write the ‘definitive’ Malayan novel. Burgess was fluent in both written and spoken Malay and the genuine understanding he gained of the people through his engagement with the language is evident throughout this epic work.
As is to expected from Burgess, the view of humanity on display—both western and eastern—is somewhat jaded, but he is always engaging and brutally honest.
Colin Cheong, 1997, 156 pages
Tangerine won the Singapore Literature Prize in 1996, one of several awards Cheong has garnered throughout his career.
Nick, a photographer from Singapore, journeys through Vietnam on the way to meet up with old friends. Unmarried and unsuccessful in his relationships, he feels his isolation grow on his unaccompanied travels. However, this sense of loneliness forces him to examine himself more closely, and we have the opportunity to follow the changes Nick undergoes through the novel’s diary/travelogue form.
Much of the focus of the book is on the people Nick encounters rather than descriptions or explorations of the natural world, although there is some interesting discussion on the rebuilding process Vietnam had to endure in the post-war years.
James Clavell, 1962, 480 pages
Clavell’s first novel is a masterpiece of war literature and one of the best examples of POW writing (he also wrote the screenplay for the film The Great Escape). Set in the brutal world of Singapore’s Changi Prison (where Clavell himself had been imprisoned), the novel is about survival and explores the depths to which people can go when driven by extreme circumstances.
The horror of the regime means that the prisoners have to endure endless physical and moral degradation, and yet at the same time we witness extraordinary accounts of survival. This is accompanied by an engaging and challenging exploration of ideas of conventional morality, in that the titular King Rat, a thief and black marketeer, is presented by Clavell in an equivocal light. The novel challenges us to consider whether he is following society’s rules or obeying the (sometimes contradictory) innate survival instinct.
Joseph Conrad, 1900, 352 pages
Singapore figures prominently in Conrad’s epic novel, which is based on a true story. The book is a masterpiece of both English and colonial literature.
The crew of a sinking ship abandons its passengers. Jim, one of the crew, who as the ship went down made a split-second decision to join the fleeing captain and officers, is the only person called to account. The ship was in fact rescued and the passengers saved, but Jim’s overwhelming sense of guilt and shame drive him to spend the rest of his life seeking redemption.
Few people have written about the darkness in humanity’s soul as well as Conrad. In Lord Jim, he also vividly paints a picture of colonial life in Southeast Asia, a world he knew well. Some modern sensibilities might find the depiction of the reality of colonialism confronting, but this is integral to the novel’s power. Conrad challenges the reader to question whether Jim’s desire for atonement causes him to act in ways that are any ‘better’ than his original cowardice.
The Singapore Grip
JG Farrell, 1978, 584 pages
Farrell’s wonderful book is to Singapore what JG Ballard’s masterpiece Empire of the Sun is to Shanghai.
The sun is setting on British dominance in Southeast Asia, but the expatriate community in Singapore is blissfully unaware of the power shift that is taking place around them and carry on with their life of selfish excess. Farrell wonderfully satirizes the ‘expat bubble’ of the day as the Japanese invasion looms.
The novel is also memorable for its depiction of the lives of the disenfranchised and dispossessed who were the victims not only of the war, but also of the commercial interests of the colonizers.
The Singapore Grip is the final book in Farrell’s “Empire Trilogy,” the others being Troubles and the Booker prize-winning Siege of Krishnapur.
Raffles Place Ragtime
Philip Jeyaretnam, 1988, 125 pages
Philip Jeyaretnam’s satirical novel about life in money-obsessed ’80s Singapore is interesting both for the instantly recognizable portrait it paints of contemporary Singapore alongside its engagement with the question of the true cost of rampant materialism.
Vincent and Connie are engaged; they are Singaporean yuppies who have it all but still want more. Ambition and acquisition are their only concerns and indeed this shared desire for advancement before all else is the basis of their entire relationship.
The relationship inevitably falls apart and Jeyaretnam seems to offer this as a metaphor for what he sees as a hole in the heart of middle-class Singaporean life. In this world, there is nothing as important as material gain and social standing and ultimately, Jeyaretnam suggests, this is not sufficient for a country aspiring to maturity and a leadership role in the region.
The novel is challenging with well-constructed characters and a vivid evocation of the now frequently reviled 1980s.
Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore
Catherine Lim, 1978, 97 pages
Catherine Lim is perhaps Singapore’s most well-known contemporary writer and her 1978 collection of short stories is a quintessential work in the nation’s literary canon.
The book consists of 17 stories, all of which feature everyday characters living in ostensibly ordinary and even mundane circumstances. However, on closer examination, her characters confront extraordinary challenges with a never-ending sense of determination and stoicism. The portrait she paints does not shy away from examining some of the less glamorous elements of Singaporean life and its citizens, but at the same time she does so with great warmth and compassion.
The stories are also interesting for the way in which they present Singapore’s straddling of east and west and the difficulties some of its citizens face in reconciling tradition and modernity. Similarly, Lim casts a highly critical eye over the country’s obsession with educational achievement at the expense of emotional well-being. A further recommendation is that the stories contain some of the best literary renderings of Singlish you will ever find.
Lions in Winter
Wena Poon, 2007, 152 pages
Lions in Winter is a collection of 11 short stories exploring the experiences of the Singapore Chinese diaspora. Set in different parts of the world the stories all feature Singaporeans who are trying to understand both their new environment and their home country’s identity.
Many of the characters and situations are seemingly recognizable and everyday (much in the style of Catherine Lim), although the wide variety of experiences described are ultimately shown to be much more than this.
The tone is at times gritty, at times confrontational, but there is nevertheless a surprising poetic quality to Poon’s writing in that there are deep layers of meaning and great attention to detail, which at the same time manage to convey the essence of her characters’ experiences in a seemingly familiar way. The characters themselves remain at the heart of the stories and although their shortcomings and failings are ruthlessly exposed, there is nonetheless a pervading sense of compassion coupled with a real fondness for the people she portrays.
Playing Madame Mao
Lau Siew Mai, 2000, 320 pages
Playing Madam Mao by Singapore-born Australian writer Lau Siew Mai examines the politics of Singapore in the 1980s and more specifically the ramifications of Singapore’s infamous Internal Security Act that allows for the detention without trial of citizens considered a threat to national security.
The central figure is Chiang Ching, an actress who portrays Madame Mao on stage. Her husband, Tang, is imprisoned seemingly without cause and without being charged. As she struggles to come to terms with this while continuing to perform every night, she becomes more and more detached from reality and her narrative assumes a dreamlike, somewhat surreal quality. Lau seems to be suggesting that Singapore itself has similar difficulties understanding its own identity.
The novel has a variety of narrators and voices, and this contributes to the feeling of uncertainty that pervades the work. It is a significant piece of writing in its complex exploration of the trappings of power and the endless clash between the personal and the political. It is highly recommended for what it has to say about the modern Singaporean sense of identity.
The Shrimp People
Rex Shelley, 1991, 478 pages
Shelley only became a published writer in his 60s, but achieved immediate success with his first novel The Shrimp People, which won the National Book Prize.
The book (and indeed, Shelley’s canon) is unusual in that it explores Singapore’s Eurasian community. His examination is at once both personal and political and his works examine a much-neglected consequence of western colonization in Southeast Asia, namely children born to European fathers and Asian mothers. Shelley’s is the leading literary voice of this distinctive group.
What is most engaging about the novel is the vivid and joyful portrayal of the Singaporean Eurasian community. Although they are seen as outsiders, the characters in The Shrimp People nevertheless play their own distinctive role in the shaping of modern Singapore. The fact that the novel relocates to Australia adds to the thematic unity of the work in that some of the characters’ older selves once again find themselves in a new and developing country and are uncertain about the future and their role in it.
Hwee Hwee Tan, 1997, 304 pages
Foreign Bodies’ fast-moving narrative is part detective story, part musing on contemporary Singapore and part religious text.
Andy, an Englishman working in Singapore as a teacher, is arrested and charged with involvement in an international betting ring. He turns to his girlfriend Mei, a Singaporean lawyer, and together they have only nine days to prove his innocence. They are assisted in this by Andy’s friend Eugene, a Singaporean now living in Holland.
During this quest, secrets of the past are revealed and the characters’ moral, ethical and spiritual beliefs are all challenged. The novel also explores the conflict between traditional Chinese values and ever-increasing western material influences, while also exploring the emptiness that some perceive to be at the heart of contemporary Singaporean culture. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a religious element to the novel, with the characters seeking what might be called a conventional spiritual meaning to life. The novel is interesting primarily for its insights into the thinking of Singapore’s own Generation X.
Simon Tay, 1991, 268 pages
Simon Tay is a leading figure in Singapore public life and has served as a Nominated Member of Parliament. His collection of short stories Stand Alone was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize.
There are 12 stories in the collection and they are concerned with, among other themes, family relationships and the influence the past has on our behavior in the present, the value of education, the pursuit of material wealth and the influence of class on Singaporean society.
The use of language throughout the stories is engaging and energetic in that there is much colloquial speech that represents the way in which Singapore English is used by many in the population. Perhaps the most interesting element of this collection is the way that Tay’s writing manages to combine a uniquely Singaporean perspective of the world with an outlook that still manages somehow to be universal.
John Malathronas, 2007, 320 pages
Malathronas’ witty and engaging book seeks to delve beneath the surface of Singaporean stereotypes and manages to cast a light on many hitherto neglected corners of island life.
The book is part history, part sociological exploration, part tourist guide, and this eclectic approach is its very strength. It means that Malathronas has no particular agenda and so is something of a partner with the reader in this exploration of Singapore.
What shines through is that Malathronas clearly has a great affection for Singapore. Yes, it is tempered at times by frustration and confusion, but overall this is a most enjoyable book and one that will enhance your understanding of Singapore.
The Lands of Charm and Cruelty
Stan Sesser, 1994, 306 pages
This book began life as a magazine feature and describes Sesser’s travels through Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar (then Burma) and Sarawak. The book is particularly strong in its analysis of the region’s politics and political personalities, and its understanding of the lives of its citizens.
Sesser is also very good on the way the region has been portrayed in the media and in literature throughout history, and the interviews he conducts with a variety of people are a real highlight. In the Singapore section, he is especially interesting in his analysis of the way life on the island is controlled and monitored.
The contrasts that he manages to paint between the different countries is also fascinating, in that it prompts us to ask ourselves about how these close neighbors may develop in the future.
Snake Wine: A Singapore Episode
Patrick Anderson, 1955, 288 pages
Canadian journalist Anderson draws a vivid picture of the melting pot that was Singaporean society in the 1950s.
Anderson’s book captures his experiences as lecturer at the University of Singapore from 1950 to 1952. What makes the book so engaging is that the world he describes is almost impossible to recognize today. He was writing at a time when Singapore was on the cusp of modernity and taking its first, tentative steps towards becoming an economic powerhouse of Asia. As such, the book is perhaps the most interesting account of Singapore life in the pre-industrial era, and captures vividly the variety of people and cultures that constituted life on the island at the time.
The book continues to be popular today and locals tend to find it as fascinating as visitors do.
Tales from the South China Seas
Charles Allen, 1988, 320 pages
This work explores the lives of the men and women who were the last generation of British colonists in Singapore.
The book is particularly engaging for its (somewhat surprising) sense of drama and excitement, as well as the way contrasting moral and cultural beliefs are explored. This may be because the book had its origins as a BBC radio series in which colonists told their own stories.
The book is not a critique of colonialism but nor does it set out to be. It treats its subjects with affection and empathy and attempts to find out how generally unremarkable people responded to the challenges of finding themselves relocated halfway around the world in a strange and exotic environment.
Gedung Kuning: Memories of a Malay Childhood
Hidayah Amin, 2010, 227 pages
Using the history of a famous Singapore landmark, the Yellow Mansion on Kandahar Street, Hidayah Amin takes us on a journey through her life growing up in Gedung Kuning, recalling a host of stories handed down from generation to generation. The book’s 28 short stories detail the lives of Malays in Singapore from the 1850s up until the end of the 20th century, providing a fascinating insight into the social life of this often-neglected section of society.
The account of the author’s family’s eviction by the Singapore government from the Yellow Mansion in 1999 is particularly moving. However, the positive news is that although the building is no longer a family home, it is nevertheless preserved as part of the Malay Heritage Centre.
The Eagle in the Lion City
Jim Baker, 2005, 336 pages
Baker’s book explores the rise in dominance of US culture in Singapore in the years after World War II. In so doing, he casts a thoughtful eye back over US-Singapore relations over the last two centuries, and thus is able to place the current relationship in its proper historical context.
The book explores the lives and careers of notable personalities from the earliest interactions between the two cultures, up to expats living in Singapore today.
Noel Barber, 1968, 288 pages
Barber’s book is still considered one of the most authoritative accounts of the fall of Singapore. The book has such immediacy because Barber was able to interview and speak with many of the senior officers and soldiers who participated in the doomed attempt to defend the island.
Barber explores in particular Britain and Singapore’s unpreparedness for the Japanese invasion as well as the underlying arrogance of many of its defenders.
The descriptions of the confusion in the days after the invasion that ultimately led to Singapore’s collapse and surrender is vividly captured and although the major political players of the day loom large in the background, the book is notable for the way in which this famous and oft-told story is seen through the eyes of those who were there on the ground.
The Duke of Puddle Dock Stamford Raffles: Travels in the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles
Nigel Barley, 2009, 312 pages
Barley is a director at the British Museum and his eclectic account of the life and journeys of the founder of Singapore is both scholarly and accessible.
Barley attempts to separate fact from fiction and the locations and people change swiftly and deftly, from Georgian times to the present day, and one of the book’s great charms is Barley’s commentary on the people and places he encountered during its writing. His eye for the smallest detail is meticulous and the book is enthralling as much for Barley’s observations on contemporary society as its historical excavations.
Ultimately, you may come away from the book not entirely certain as to what made Raffles tick—apart, perhaps, for an unquenchable thirst for knowledge—but nevertheless the journey is an engaging and enjoyable one.
The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of our Forefathers
Lee Geok Boi, 2002, 111 pages
This is a beautiful book and a must for anyone with an interest in religious architecture and history.
Singapore’s religious monuments—both the well-known and the obscure—are stunningly reproduced in photographic form, accompanied by an array of maps, plans and other historical detail that enhance the reader’s understanding and appreciation of these important buildings.
There is also valuable cultural information about the festivals and ceremonies that take place at each site to enable an enhanced appreciation of these buildings’ continued role and importance in contemporary Singapore society.
The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither
Isabella Bird, 1883
Bird was perhaps the most well-known Victorian female explorer and her adventures in Malaysia and Singapore in the 1870s are a classic of the genre.
The Golden Chersonese is the ancient name for the Malay Peninsula and we accompany Miss Bird as she rides an elephant through the jungle, or strolls the streets of late 19th-century Singapore.
The book takes the form of a series of letters to her sister Henny and includes a number of vividly written and well-observed descriptions of the people she met and the places she explored. Bird writes particularly evocative descriptions of flora and fauna and the book is enhanced by some beautiful illustrations.
The Naked Island
Russell Braddon, 1953
Braddon is one of a number of Australian authors who have written powerfully and evocatively about the POW camps of Southeast Asia during the Japanese occupation.
His scope is not limited to his time as a prisoner, however, as he also writes eloquently about the mistakes made by the defenders of Singapore both before and during the invasion.
A graduate of Sydney University, Braddon suffered much deprivation during his time in custody, falling ill to beri-beri, malaria and dysentery. However, an indomitable spirit ensured his survival and he emerged from Changi at the end of the war a broken man but nevertheless determined to move forward with humor and dignity of which this exceptionally moving piece of writing is a testament.
Black and White: The Singapore House 1898-1941
Julian Davison, 2007, 147 pages
This book details the history and decline of the black-and-white colonial bungalow, once ubiquitous in expat areas of Singapore but now almost entirely vanished.
There is a fascinating discussion of the architects and firms that designed many of these attractive family homes, as well as a survey of those that have been put to new and varied uses today. The book describes the unique qualities of the black-and-white house and how it has come to be seen as one of Singapore’s most notable contributions to early 20th-century architecture.
The book is both scholarly and eminently readable while the photography, by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni, is stunning.
Heritage Places of Singapore
Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, 2009, 228 pages
The most valuable aspect of this book is the way that it is organized—it is grouped by geographical location which means that you can conveniently explore the buildings and other sites that share a location and context and in so doing really come to an understanding of the history of a particular area.
There is also useful information on cultural and social history accompanying the sites and there is enough variety in the locations to interest almost any reader.
The informative text is illustrated with over 200 color photographs and maps and is an excellent primer on the history and architecture of your neighborhood.
Complete Notes from Singapore: The Omnibus Edition
Neil Humphreys, 2007, 271 pages
Humphreys is an expat Brit who lived in Singapore for 10 years, but is now living in Australia. This omnibus edition contains the three books published about his time in Singapore: Notes from an even Smaller Island, Scribbles from the Same Island and Final Notes from a Great Island.
The most recent of these marks Humphreys’ farewell to Singapore and he takes us with him as he says goodbye by revisiting places he knows well, examining how his understanding, perception and appreciation of them has changed (or not) over the years. The journey is undertaken largely on foot (although he does at times cycle and hitchhike) and Humphreys leads us to many offbeat and surprising locations and introduces us to wide array of fascinating people.
Humphreys’ real love and affection for Singapore is perhaps these books’ most infectious quality and is what makes them a must-read for anyone who plans to come to the country for any length of time.
Patrick Keith, 2005, 200 pages
The great value of this book is that it is written by an insider. Keith’s account of the events of 1965 that led to the end of the short-lived union between Singapore and Malaysia is compelling, as is his analysis of how the events of almost 50 years ago continue to shape much of the political thinking in both countries today.
Keith was an advisor to the Malaysian government and so his account is first hand and packed with contemporary detail and analysis of the main figures. The intense emotions that were stirred up on both sides—and Keith would argue are still largely present today—are described with great understanding, and we are able to read intimate portraits of Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malayan Chinese leader Tan Siew Sin.
This delicate material is handled with great honesty and integrity and is without doubt the best book on the subject yet produced.
Nick Leeson, 1996, 272 pages
Leeson is probably Singapore’s most infamous expat. His story is of course well known—his covert trading losses of over a US$1 billion brought down Barings Bank, one of the oldest financial institutions in the world, in 1995.
In this book, written after he had served four years in Changi prison, Leeson tells his own story. He does so with a reasonable degree of candor and without too much self-pity or self-justification. Essentially, like all traders, Leeson was a gambler, but unfortunately he was a gambler who tried to chase his losses—and failed spectacularly.
In the book, Leeson recounts his family background, his rise up the corporate ladder, the hedonistic life of Singapore traders outside work and some very intriguing details about the way he attempted to conceal his losses.
The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, 680 pages
Although a memoir, it is hard to get a firm grasp of LKY the man in this volume, although some might argue that that is indeed the point—he is Singapore, Singapore is him. Nevertheless, what does emerge is a sense of how the Japanese occupation of the island shaped his political identity, and in turn how he envisioned Singapore’s place in the post-war world.
It is hard to argue against the widely-accepted view of LKY as a true political visionary and perhaps Asia’s most successful leader; for instance, his aim of making Singapore a multi-racial, multi-cultural multi-faith society was unquestionably ahead of its time, and its success can be judged by the fact that this principle is still very much at the heart of contemporary society.
The book is also fascinating both for its narrative account of the break from the Malaysian Federation and the early days of independence, as well as the more theoretical sections on political philosophy. To understand Singapore, some might say that it’s necessary to understand LKY, and so the words of the man himself are a good place to start.
Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation (Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew)
Tom Plate, 2010, 216 pages
This book makes a useful companion piece to LKY’s memoirs, as here his views are seen through the lens of a western journalist, who is nevertheless an Asia expert and well-steeped in the history of the region, which contributes to the book’s accessibility for non-Asian readers.
Divided into 24 short-ish chapters, LKY is at times extremely candid in explaining his views, and the discussions regarding the widespread perception of him as an authoritarian are one of the many highlights, although for some the revelations about his family life might actually make the most interesting reading.
The subject has subsequently said that while he felt that Plate didn’t get everything exactly right, LKY nevertheless considered that the book was a fair representation of him and his viewpoint, and so this volume has sense of authenticity about it that few books about politicians can match.