By Howard Lee
In a country with politicians you either love or hate (and by default vote for or against), would you ever consider a candidate whom you might empathise with just enough to cast a grudging ballot?
Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao!, a novel by Sebastian Sim, relates the life of Dr Gimme Lao, a Singaporean who was brought up to believe that he was destined for great things. Lao lives the very life that would enable this greatness, at times sacrificing personal wishes and morals to achieve his purpose, yet for many reasons struggled to have the perfect life as politician, professional, son, husband and father.
Sim successfully outlined the life of a politician that we are seldom accustomed to. We often see them as larger than life parliamentarians and soapbox heroes, but seldom as individuals with their own frailties, fears and weaknesses.
Lao was a character that embodied all of these, even if in an extremely dramatic and comical way that makes us laugh as much as empathise with him.
The first-born son of independent Singapore, denied his birth-right by a quirk of fate and mischief, appears to have borne a lifetime of struggle towards re-attaining that glory. A model student who manufactured draconian efficiency for his class, earning him the rank of teacher’s pet and the hate of his classmates. A teenager who backstabbed his best friend and her favourite gay teacher, just to curb free thought. A hardworking but scheming medical student, bent on getting himself to the top dog position. A bitter and cornered husband and father who had to deal with an extra-marital affair and a gay son, all while he was trying to get into Parliament.
The drama completely unfolded when what finally killed Lao was not his affair or his son’s sexual orientation, not even his political stumble that bore a direct reference to Lim Wee Kiak’s “dignity” gaffe (Sim has peppered the book with these references, too), but the deceit that allowed him his place in office that finally caught up with him.
The reader is left with a heart-torn moment, unable to revile him for his misdeeds and cunning schemes in his lust for power – which Lao openly demonstrated – or to empathise with him for his human wants and failings.
But what was perhaps the most memorable about Sim’s satirical romp – the author’s first foray into English fiction – were the two characters in Lao’s life who stood out as strong and determined individuals who equalled Lao in his ambition and tenacity: mother Mary Lao and wife Wei Wen.
The two women touched at the heart of a struggle for survival, recognition and independence that mirrored Singapore’s early history, cementing their place in Sim’s novel as dynamic and resourceful individuals, albeit as cunning as Gimme Lao. They saw what they wanted and went after it with gusto for no other reason than to make their dreams a reality.
Gimme Lao is also filled with side stories of characters that added width to Lao’s own narrative. Revolving around Lao was his crossings with the LGBTQ community, the old and terminally ill, the high-strung environment of a hospital during the SARS outbreak, and his own dysfunctional family. Each mini narrative carries a commentary on Singapore’s society and history that deserves to be dug a little deeper into.
These parallel narratives, at first seemingly laborious and unnecessary, came together somewhat to give more volume to Lao’s character, portrayed him as a centre of circumstances, and makes the reader draw closer to him.
The closing page leaves us wondering if we can really like a politician, selfish and manipulative as Lao may be, when we see him as the man, lonely and caring as Lao could be.
Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao! is available for sale online at Epigram Books, The Agora, and Kinokuniya bookstores.
You can also meet author Sebastian Sim, together with fellow Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2015 finalist, Wong Souk Yee, who wrote Death Of A Perm Sec, at a sharing event at Kinokuniya’s Main Store this Saturday, 18 June.
Book review – Gimme Lao, the PAP politician you will hate to love
By Howard Lee