Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.
Nor is Singapore widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.
The novel Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon does two things splendidly to disabuse these notions. First, the novel is a much-needed corrective to the usual stereotypes. The author, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Southeast Asian Writers Award as well as a prolific poetic, utilizes his work to critique the technocratic veneer of the island nation.
Second, the book employs a theme of the human condition as it intersects with modernity. Big words often used to describe Singapore’s experience of modernity—industrialization, modernization, legalization, and now financialization—do not tell us much about the personal level. Rather, this novel is about one man’s struggle with a breakneck world of change. Though the color is local, the story is global.
The author’s interpretation of the Singaporean dilemma is funneled through the protagonist Ah-hui and his struggle with the ‘Self’. This Self is a voice in Ah-hui’s head that represents one aspect of his ego. Ah-hui speaks to the Self, as if the Self were a separate being. Ah-hui and the Self argue and disagree. Sometimes Ah-hui is the victor. In these instances, an ethic of material profit and consumption wins. Sometimes the Self is the champion. This is meant to represent traditional values. In Ah-hui’s case, the Self will often prefer the exegesis of classical Chinese literature or the righteousness found in the defense of those who have been left behind in Singapore’s expanding economy.
The confrontation between Ah-hui and the Self is reflected on two levels. In as much as the Singaporean city-state moves away from Confucianism, so too does Ah-hui move away from the Self. The plot is driven by both the struggle inside Ah-hui’s mind and by the stress of Singaporean society to embrace fast-paced development.
When young, Ah-hui and the Self share the same mind. Their values coincide:
When I started working, Myself was still in student mode and placed righteousness above profits in everything we did. He seemed unaware that we live in a society where money counts more than anything.
Later Ah-hui—and Singaporean society—decide that they must break with the traditional values advocated by the Self:
Poverty is not merely a shame, but is the greatest evil, the origin of all sins. One needs to be obsessed with money in order to be free of penury.
Ah-hui struggles at his newspaper job. His Self wishes Ah-hui to pursue journalistic integrity, while Ah-hui wants only to please the newspaper’s board for career advancement. This disagreement comes to a head one day at work. The separation between Ah-hui and the Self becomes a medical issue. When Ah-hui feels overwhelmed with the burden of his ethically-stricken Self, he visits the newspaper’s in-house doctor. He dismisses Ah-hui’s concerns and reassures him that this is the normal plight of the contemporary Singaporean:
In these modern times, the self disappears after one grows up, but yours is still around, and that is the source of your problems. The doctor looked soberly at me. The only solution is to get rid of the self… The average, normal person gets rid of the self when he is in his thirties, he went on. If you still need your self in your forties, that means you are refusing to grow up.
Alongside this strife between Ah-hui and the Self, the story also recounts the boom times of the late 1980s and early 1990s as vividly as it does the race riots of the 1960s. A sense of place is evoked as much by these events in Singapore as it is by the kinship terms between Ah-hui and the other characters of the novel. The last part of the book ends with the events of the SARS epidemic and the protagonist’s failing prospects in business as well as in love. The old-age neurosis that besets Ah-hui toward the end is reflected in society’s moral descent as a whole.
Many of the scenes in the novel are picturesque, the imagery of which also reflects the skill of translator Howard Goldblatt. Of the nearly-fifty translations completed for writers from the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—including noteworthies like Mo Yan, Jiang Rong, and others—this is only Goldblatt’s third foray into Southeast Asia. This serves as a reminder that Chinese literature extends to the greater diaspora.
Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon is as a memorable novel of one individual’s struggle to overcome the challenges of material society. Though it is set in Singapore—and debunks common stereotypes of the island nation—the story projects an inventive use of the travails found in a fast-changing world.
*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; watercolor image credit for this re-post goes to Khor Seow Hooi at The Colours of Heritage. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.