Book review – Was there hara kiri at the Ministry of Housing?

5254
Death Of A Perm Sec (image - Howard Lee)

By Howard Lee

If you are looking for a read that mixes good doses of intrigue, crime suspense and drama, Death of a Perm Sec, a finalist in the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, would leave you with both a taste of satisfaction and regret.

Author Wong Souk Yee opens the book with the supposed suicide of Chow Sze Teck, the fictional Minister of Housing who was under investigation for corruption, detailing it with deliberate tranquillity, almost eerily clinical. But the reader was then swept immediately into a fast paced political tussle in Parliament over the cause of Chow’s death, which led to the eventual “fixing” and downfall of the lone opposition Member of Parliament.

Wong was equally brutal in her treatment of the ensuring investigation, where police investigators and Internal Security Department officers – and at times elusively unclear which was which – barged into the lives of the Chow family and turned it upside down.

Death Of A Perm Sec (image - Epigram Books)
Death Of A Perm Sec (image – Epigram Books)

The investigation into Chow’s cause of death took a sinister twist when the ISD tried desperately to hunt down a journal of Prime Minister Edward Wee, in Chow’s possession from his time as ISD director, that documented the turbulence of Singapore’s independence and entwined Chow and Wee in a web of deceit that suggested Chow has been murdered by Wee.

But the pace slowed considerably when Wong turned her attention to how the four Chow siblings were left to pick up the pieces of their lives after their father’s fall from grace.  While the oldest and youngest saw the breakdown of their rich and connected lives, the other two were jolted out of their near-vagabond existence to clear their father’s name.

Through the unique experiences of the four siblings, Wong painted a picture of shallowness and betrayal among those seduced by power and wealth, yet also a feeling of helplessness when one is excommunicated from those same trappings of prestige. The Chow siblings were symbolic of a time in Singapore’s real history where we might believe the boom of progress led to a decay of human values.

The fallen Chows were left longing for the simpler existence of their other two siblings, as they saw their world crumbling around them and understood the importance of love and faithfulness. Wong’s writing slowed to a pleasant crawl as the Chows sought to escape from their troubled past, sinking into normality with the simple pleasures in life and the value of wealth for toil. For a moment, the reader longs for this normality, even if it is only fleeting escapism.

Unfortunately, the twist in the ending jolts us out of the Chows’ pastoral existence as the reader is plunged back into the parallel plot of murder and betrayal and come to terms with the final tragedy that befell one of the siblings. The tale is left bitterly hanging with a feeling of near desperation at the end of the roller-coaster ride.

Wong Souk Yee (image - Epigram Books Youtube channel)
Wong Souk Yee (image – Epigram Books Youtube channel)

But Death of a Perm Sec is more than a fictional tale. Wong, who was a political detainee under the Internal Security Act that she referenced in the book, drew extensively from the alternative history of Singapore – that is, the one you will never read in today’s school history books but from the voices of those who witnessed it first-hand.

The story crossed the narratives of the suicide of former Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan, Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum, and brought together identifiable caricatures of Lee Kuan Yew, Lim Chin Siong and Phey Yew Kok. Thrust into the fray of the political wrangling was the lone opposition character who seem to embody a mix of Chiam See Tong and JB Jeyaretnam. This wonderful mix of political figures is at once hilarious and sobering, as it also pointed to how sheer political dominance can undo justice and fairness, where the one who shouts the loudest controls the reality that we know.

Death of a Perm Sec is a tale about political betrayal and personal sacrifice for one beliefs, but at the same time a commentary about human hope and what really matters in life. Wong adequately draws from her own experience to focus on the most human elements of what would have been external political turmoil, and probes us to question our understanding of dignity, loyalty and principles.

 

Death of a Per Sec is available for sale online at Epigram Books and at The Agora. There will also be a meet-the-author session and book signing event with Wong Souk Yee at The Agora on 15 July, 7.30pm.

The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is once again open for submissions. The closing date is 31 August 2016. Authors who wish to take part can find out more at Epigram Books’ microsite for the prize.