Sophomore novel carries the sweep of history.
By Theophilus Kwek
The Great Reclamation
Two stories are often told about Singapore's recent past. The first – let's call this the 'Third World to First' narrative – suggests that the island held little more than a sleepy fishing village till the middle of the last century, when the twin forces of decolonisation and development began to summon a metropolis from the tropical mudflats. Another, more circumspect, holds that the foundations of today's prosperous city were already well-established by the time the British withdrew from their 'Gibraltar of the East', if not long before, with Singapore having been a major trading power in pre-colonial times. Shorn of the first story's teleological conviction, the latter leaves more room for us to guess at paths not taken, or make fuller sense of individual lives that conform less easily to the city's outlines.
With the benefit of new evidence and hindsight, it's hard to explain the stubborn sway that the 'Third World to First' story still holds over the imagination. Or so I thought – until a family dinner last month where my cousin and I put ourselves in Grandma's shoes, gawking as the restaurant's sleek Dinerbot sidled up to our table with steaming bowls of orh nee. Rickshaws to robots, in less than a lifetime. Grandma herself had made a dramatic escape from the flames of Bukit Ho Swee with a brood of children, all now broadcasting photos of their dessert on WhatsApp. Who could blame us for wanting to believe that something transformative and unprecedented, even magical, had taken place?
The Great Reclamation begins in a world Grandma would have recognised, an actual sleepy fishing village where the seven-year-old Lee Ah Boon ("Boon", as everyone calls him) lives with his bossy older brother, sickly uncle and industrious parents. So far, so archetypal; until a moonlit discovery – of vanishing offshore islands that reliably provide the kampung's men with an eye-popping catch – catapults Boon and his family to prominence. This fame proves fleeting, and Boon is soon off to primary school, at least until his studies are interrupted by the Jipunlang (Japanese) invasion. From there, it's one thing after another: the Maria Hertogh riots, years of student unrest, merger with Malaysia and other upheavals that pockmark this city-state's unlikely journey towards independence.
Not that these historical contours provide the only, or even the main, scaffolding for the novel. Loss and gain play out through Boon's eyes: his father's abduction by the Kempeitai, his fraying relationship with his uncle, and the arrival of the 'Gah Men' ("emissaries from another world, in their blinding white uniforms, with their red plastic clipboards and sheafs of paper…") in his beloved kampung. And of course, through the two loves of his life: Siok Mei, the schoolyard crush who pulls him into the heady slipstream of the postwar student movement; and Natalie, the civil servant whose pragmatism and ambition are apparent from their first meeting in the new community centre, wearing "the pressed whites of the Gah Men, a pen in her front pocket, and her long black hair in a neat, smooth ponytail". As the years pass, Boon's choices become increasingly pivotal – to the lives of those surrounding him, and seemingly, even to the fate of the islands, real and otherwise, that make up his world.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, this is a plot that might have congealed too easily into allegory, with Boon (a tempting avatar for a fledgling nation) having to decide between Siok Mei's revolutionary zeal and Natalie's technocratic calm. But it is to Rachel Heng's credit – the sophomore novelist who first won us over with her dystopian vision in Suicide Club – that these characters' singular journeys, and the hard-won edge to their personalities, make them far more than convenient cut-outs. Whether it is the "warm hum" of Siok Mei's voice as she stands in the doorway at Boon's Gah Men job, beckoning him to the union rally at Happy World, or the stab of her disappointment when he declines, her sigh "going through him like a cold, hard wind", we immediately grasp the political, emotional and personal stakes that prevent their hard choices from being dismissed as mere metaphors.
Also enjoyable is the keenness of Heng's historical imagination, which never fails to remind us of how quickly we've come to take the weirdness of city life for granted. Take, for instance, how Boon (now a fully-fledged Gah Man) reacts to air-conditioning being installed in the ministry building:
The symbolism of air-conditioning will scarcely be lost on readers familiar with the pronouncements of former PM Lee Kuan Yew (or for that matter, Cherian George). But in this moment, it is less the possibilities for bureaucratic control that are at play, than the ache of a village boy whose own tropical body must adapt to the confines of a life he imagines he wants. "No more would shirts stick uncomfortably to backs during long meetings, no longer would mosquitoes slide maddeningly in and out of earshot…", Heng writes. And indeed, no more would visits to the kampung ever be the same for Boon: "there was everything else that had disappeared, that was disappearing".
With a story as sprawling as this, there are occasions when Heng's otherwise beguiling narrative seems to wander down some puzzling paths. For one, we haven't quite spent enough time with Swee Hong (the kampung's stalwart storekeeper) to warrant several pages on his apprehension towards the state's relocation policies; when he decides that he will "accept the inevitable, and […] go", it somehow feels less hard-earned than the choices of the characters we have come to care about. As we’ve learned, it’s a fine line to tread between comprehensively excavating the stories buried in the island’s sand, and allowing individual plotlines – with all their doubts and omissions – to emerge from the crowd. Forest, trees. Or perhaps in the context of this novel: the way an island emerges from the sea.
Towards the end of the book, there is a scene that best captures how Heng tries to balance these elements. Boon takes Natalie out in his father's old boat to see the mysterious islands of his childhood, imagining this as "baring his soul" to the woman he plans to marry. As they sputter across the waves, one version of the future flashes before his eyes: "They would apply for a flat of their own. With Natalie's help, he would climb the ranks of the Gah Men […] There would be children, three, perhaps four. As Ma got older, she would come live with them, to help with the children and keep Natalie company."
It's as close as the novel gets to a canonical depiction of the Singapore Dream. But even here, that familiar vision is unsettled by choppy waters: a ship ferrying heaps of earth to the reclamation site nearby hovers into view, "like a slow mountain range", and the boat that once fed Boon's family "rocks in its shadow". This poignant moment – and all it represents to Boon, of one form of stability sacrificed for another – is lost on Natalie, for whom the mounds stacked on the deck are nothing more than plain, inanimate "sand". With painful clarity, we see how the currents of both characters' lives, so briefly aligned, diverge again in the wake of a history that's larger than them both.
The Great Reclamation is a novel about many things: the pathos of individual lives swept up by time, the arrival of the bureaucratic state among those shifting, fickle lives, and how – by accident or sheer audacity – we became one kind of city and not another. But ultimately it's a novel that examines how history itself comes to take shape, under Heng's forensic, storytelling eye; how history is made or more often made up, and how the stuff of history is only everything we've given up.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023