For SP Blog’s 5th Annual Books Round-up, we again asked Singaporean writers, artists, and thinkers, living in Singapore and abroad, for their favorite read of the year. The book does not have to be written by a Singaporean, but if it isn’t, contributors could recommend a second title that is by a Singaporean. Teo You Yenn’s rigorously researched and beautifully written study This Is What Inequality Looks Like received the most number of mentions. A self-reflexive examination of the relation between poverty and inequality in Singapore, Teo’s book has certainly entered mainstream discourse. The question, heard in some quarters, is what can be done to put its insights and recommendations to work. Other book recommendations, including a number of milestone anthologies, revolve around social and political questions too. Poetry makes a strong showing in the list, with new speculative fiction and illustrated books close behind. We hope you enjoy reading all the contributions as much as we’ve enjoyed compiling them. Please support independent publishers and booksellers by ordering from them directly. As always, we are grateful to our contributors. Thank you!
Angus Whitehead, educator. My global choice would have to be Sean Penn’s Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff (USA: Simon and Schuster, 2018). This slim novel was a work so thoroughly denigrated without even reading by literati the world over including Singapore, I knew something must be going on. And indeed there is. Penn’s hilarious, beautiful satire has much to say that’s pertinent to Singapore, notably on that double-edged word “branding” in all its 2018 political-entertainment-media-sport-commerce-based luridness. Penn awesomely articulates the unsayable. Why no one picked up on the nuances of Penn’s over-the-top alliteration probably begs a few questions or is it just plain revealing? The audacity of a one-time movie actor daring, proving, to be wittier, Swiftian, than ‘real’ Writers... it made me laugh and laugh anyway. Like later Wong May and Ali Smith he’s using more democratised-enlightened times (c 1965-75) to critique our very own gentle brush with fascism via corporate, right-wing capitalism. No wonder we can’t like it. My local choice is Call and Response: A Migrant/Local Poetry Anthology (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2018) mainly for the long-awaited chance of seeing a range of migrant writers really hit the mainstream—and even more exciting, the debut of migrant domestic worker poets such as Rea Maac, Rolinda Onates Espanalo, and Nora Grimaldo. But finding these gems in the text is a little like reading Rabelais. May we hear even more from these migrant writers (and editor) even more on their own terms sooner rather than later. Further evidence that Singapore may finally locate simultaneous soul and backbone through the rough energy of gynocentric migrant writing.
Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, poet. The Sound of SCH by Danielle Lim (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016 Second Edition). Among the books that I have read in 2018, Danielle Lim’s The Sound of SCH stood out for me. As a lamentably slow reader trying to cope with several enticing books at the same time, I picked up the 2016 second edition only earlier this year. Its impact was immediate, and I finished it more quickly than I usually do. This is a book which everybody should read, especially today, with our heightened awareness of mental issues worldwide. What I find it has to offer, which factual literature such as case studies usually do not, is a personal and empathetic engagement with the events and characters of this memoir. It has given me an experience that replaces fear of the Other with compassion which enlarges my sense of what makes us more fully human. Mental breakdown is hard to present with sensitive balance in face of resistance and discomfort, the usual response from ‘normal’ people. It must have been a very difficult piece of writing, taken years of reflective living to shape, and a huge challenge for the author to present her story as accurately as she can, with the honesty of her own experiences in coming to terms with her uncle’s illness and its impact on his family. This book richly repays re-reading.
Anthony Koh Waugh, bookseller and writer. My book of the year is The Bicycle by Cheah Sin Ann (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2014). I recommended The Bicycle to my customers even though I had not read it yet. Somehow, I believed that the friendship between a Japanese soldier and a Chinese boy during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore would make a heartwarming story. And I was right. Wars beget cruelties but sufferings also induce compassion. This story chooses to highlight the latter and reminds us that soldiers are human beings too. Though it has a sad ending and the Noir illustrations add pathos to the scene, I was uplifted after I closed the book. I'm a first-time graphic novel reader and so glad that I started with The Bicycle.
Balli Kaur Jaswal, novelist. My book of the year is Severance by Ling Ma, published this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This is a funny and profound novel about so many things—the end of the world, New York, loneliness, materialism, office politics and the immigrant experience. I loved its originality and the narrator's deadpan account of survival in a crumbling world which felt eerily familiar.
Caleb Goh, theater director and educator. My book of 2018 is Michael Ausiello's Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Other Four-Letter Words (USA: Simon & Schuster, 2017). In this beautifully poetic and deeply tragic memoir, famed TV columnist and founder of TVline.com, Michael Ausiello charts the final years of his husband's life after a terminal cancer diagnosis changes their lives forever. The memoir is bittersweet, often humorous and achingly loving in its storytelling. Ausiello spins a deeply personal yet lighthearted account of the love of his life as they battle, cry, fight, live, and love together. I wept and laughed throughout the book. It made me want to cherish my loved ones and tell them how much I love them. You never know when the grim reaper may rip life from your hands.
Cherian George, professor of media studies and author. Even after writing about hateful identity politics in my own 2016 book, Hate Spin, I remained hungry to comprehend the roots of this global problem. No book explains its underlying causes better than Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). Its strength is its effortless global and historical sweep, helping us see that what cable news talking heads describe as unprecedented is actually a symptom of centuries-old historical forces. Mishra makes us feel somewhat silly for not seeing the stark reality that “progress” has left billions behind, in ways that could only have resulted in mass resentment. Speaking of social justice, Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018) is probably the year’s single most valuable intervention in Singapore’s public discourse, in any medium (yes, including politicians’ speeches). It is changing the way mainstream Singapore thinks about our society. Before political leaders dismiss it as idealistic, lefty thinking, they should pay attention to how well the book has been selling. Clearly, Singaporeans are ready to talk about the uncomfortable issue of inequality.
Christine Chia, poet and editor. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (USA: Harper Collins, 2018) is one heck of a ride. You’ll be fascinated by the angry anti-heroine and the sweep of Chinese history and fantasy in the book. It’s a book that compels you to finish it. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (USA: Harper Collins, 2017) has everything you want in a book—ribald humor, slices of life, romantic-comic elements and a twisty plot. I haven’t had that much fun with a book in a while.
Cyril Wong, poet and fictionist. Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book by Shubigi Rao (Singapore: Rock, Paper, Stone, 2018). I consider Shubigi Rao as a renegade and unsung hero for the written word. Pulp II, part of a formidable series, showcases the author as a passionate raconteur and recorder of disappearing stories of heroism that surround the defence and preservation of books, especially when the book is threatened by violent forces of repression, censorship and literal destruction.
Damon Chua, playwright. The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity by Sally Kohn (USA: Workman, 2018). This is a non-fictional examination of what hate is, why it happens, and what can be done, especially in the increasingly fractious world we live in. Her thesis is that the opposite of hate is not love, but something more profound and actionable. I got a lot out of it and I feel it is a must-read for everyone. I'd also like to cite Anima Methodi: The Poetics of Mirroring edited by Desmond Kon & Eric Tinsay Valles (Singapore: Squircle Line Press, 2018). Anima Methodi is a poetic form created by the two editors, and the anthology features a host of Singaporean poets, some of whom, while young, herald the arrival of the next wave. Reading the entries, I'm gratified by the plethora of urgent and cogent voices, and I'm delighted that such a specific form could give rise to such a diverse offering. There is something for everyone here.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, poet and fictionist. John Yau has written some 50 books, and Bijoux in the Dark (USA: Letter Machine Editions, 2018) loses none of Yau’s stunning cleverness and finesse with language. Yau works the long line with such confidence, and the reader is easily won over to follow the various speakers’ impressions and imaginings. Having the pleasure of hosting his reading at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival, I only came away more enamoured of his writing—how prodigious, how unique. In an interview with Anselm Berrigan, Yau says: “We live in different registers of sound… In poetry, there’s this thing called voice: it’s about being sincere or transparency. I’m not interested in that. Whitman embraces multitudes. Shouldn’t it include their voices, not just his superimposed over them all? Can we listen to what they are saying?” Edited by Rolinda Onates Espanola, Zakir Hossain, and Joshup Ip, Call and Response (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2018) remains remarkable simply for the virtue of its project. Featuring over 30 ‘migrant’ writers, published alongside ‘local’ ones, this collection just swells with humanity and good will. Might I also shamelessly plug another exceptional anthology, Anima Methodi: The Poetics of Mirroring (Singapore: Squircle Line Press, 2018), which, ahem, Eric Tinsay Valles and I co-edited. This book features over 75 contributors, all of whom engaged with this new made-in-Singapore poetic form which both of us conceived. Huzzah!!!
Eileen Chong, poet. The Singaporean-Australian poet Boey Kim Cheng’s novel Gull Between Heaven and Earth (Singapore: Epigram 2018) is an evocative, atmospheric imagining of the life of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu. Boey’s original translations of Tang poems by Li Bai, Wang Wei, and of course, of Du Fu himself, are skilfully interwoven into the prose, adding an additional dimension of craft to the work. I highly recommend this book for any lover of Classical Chinese poetry and literary history.
Grace Chia, writer and poet. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (USA: Penguin Random House, 2016). First published in 2007 in South Korea, this English-language translation won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a demure Korean homemaker married to Mr. Cheong, who has a disturbing dream that compels her one day to stop eating meat. I devoured this short three-section book in slightly over a day, riveted by the madness of Yeong-hye’s method that seems hell-bent on confounding those around her, even at the risk of alienating her family who cares for her. There’s poeticism in her spiritualism, with the kind of dogged courage found in the best women warriors. When I finished the last page of The Vegetarian, I found myself shaken up, in a total daze, possessed by rage, grief, then tranquillity. Through the inspired translation by Deborah Smith of Han Kang's masterful storytelling, this is more than just a fictional tale; it is an allegorical manifesto to all complicit women to rise above our physical prisons, our thin-skinned vanities, our desire to please and to pleasure.
Hong-Ling Wee, ceramic artist. Bite Harder: Open Letters and Close Readings by Koh Jee Leong (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018). I enjoyed the combination of essays, poems, and interviews. In addition to the great writing, the interviews allow me to better understand the author.
Ian Chung, writer. Much to my chagrin, I didn't reply in time for the 2017 round-up (sorry Jee!), so I'm making up for it with two picks this year: Call and Response, eds. Joshua Ip, Rolinda Onates Espanola and Zakir Hossain Khokan (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2018) and My Lot is a Sky eds. Melissa Powers and Rena Minegishi (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2018). A pair of poetry anthologies, their respective subtitles—”A Migrant/Local Poetry Anthology” and “An Anthology of Poems by Asian Women”—speak to their importance in carving out spaces for specific voices to be heard. Kudos also to Kenny Leck and the Math Paper Press team for believing in these projects and giving them a platform.
Jason Soo, filmmaker. It's unconscionable that in a wealthy country like Singapore, up to 500,000 residents live in absolute poverty. As former GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong calculated back in 2016, Singapore has a budget surplus of well over SGD20 billion, and to eradicate poverty, all we needed to do is to redistribute 3.9 billion of this surplus to the poor. Bureaucrats will contest these numbers, but even an institutional figure like Chua Beng Huat admits that Singapore has the financial means to eradicate poverty; what's missing is the political will. Which brings us to Teo You Yenn's This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018). You will hardly find any statistics in this book. Its merits are twofold: a self-reflexive account of the sociologist's privilege in relation to her research subjects; and a book that finally shows us what it feels like—smells like, even—to live as a low-income person in Singapore. A second book I should highlight is lawyer G Raman's A Quest For Freedom (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018). In 1977, Raman was imprisoned without trial by the Singapore authorities for 1 year and 15 days. His autobiography—including an account of Judge Sinnathuray's scandalous conduct at the trial of Tan Wah Piow—is an indispensable documentary record that finally fills in some of the missing political history of the 1970s. During his detention, Raman was forced to appear in a television "confession", and his book is a timely reminder that amidst the professed anxiety with fake news, what really needs accounting is the government's role as the biggest producer of fake news, both past and present. And finally, a quick shout out to the forthcoming book launch of Teo Soh Lung's Creatures Big and Small: Poems And Drawings From Behind The Blue Gate (Singapore: Function 8 Ltd, 2018). Like Raman, Soh Lung is a lawyer and a former political detainee. I remember standing in awe many years ago when I attended an exhibition of her prison drawings—lizards, spiders, ants, etc. Her book will make a wonderful Christmas gift.
Jason Wee, artist and writer. This year's a bounty of worthy books, including The Penguin Book of Haiku edited by Adam Kern, which I found useful as I finished up my latest manuscript, and the second volume of Pulp, Shubigi Rao's epic account of book destruction, censorship, bibliophilia and libraries. My highlight this year has been discovering Thea Lim's An Ocean of Minutes (USA: Simon and Schuster, 2018) and its future of corporatized time travel, resort mania, and of a divided North America. Thea, who grew up in Singapore and now lives in Canada, has crafted a world of deep labor inequality familiar to many on the island. Its ending is a portrait of untimely love that rings true.
Jeremy Fernando, reader and writer. Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, Her Name Upon the Strand (Singapore: Delere Press, 2018). Whilst ostensibly a collection of short stories told alongside photographs — both by the maker of the book — what becomes clear, rather quickly, is that Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is not just exploring two media, nor merely bringing them in conversation with each other, but that she is a writer of light. “Not that the tales she tells are flighty./ Far from it.” But that there is an unbearableness to them — “It is not the silence that I dread, but the ultimate disclosure of truth.” Not so much because they weigh on us, but precisely because she reminds us that every moment is fleeting even as it writes itself onto, even into, us. Teo You Yenn, This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore. Ethos Books, 2018). Years ago, when I asked Michel Deguy what poetry was to him, he responded, “Poetry is not about seeing the invisible or the very visible. Poetry, instead, is about seeing the slightly visible.” This is What Inequality Looks Like helps us to see what we should always have seen — and, whether she knows it or not, Teo You Yenn might well be our most important contemporary poet.
Jeremy Tiang, writer and translator. Sharlene Teo's Ponti (UK: Pan Macmillan, 2018) is a gloriously messy fever dream of a book that takes a deep dive into female friendship and rivalry, uncovering the monsters that lurk beneath the surface in all of us. Its over-saturated, maximalist sensibility marks the debut of a distinctive voice, and I look forward to seeing what she does next. I also found a lot to admire in Teo You Yenn's This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018), which shatters the myth of Singaporean meritocracy with precision and hard facts.
Joanne Leow, literary scholar and writer. My book of the year is the Canadian writer David Chariandy's Brother (USA: Bloomsbury, 2018)—a compelling and rich chronicle of life in the ethnic suburbs of Toronto in the late twentieth century. The slim volume is wide-ranging and weaves together the politics of hip hop and turntablism with an account of historical and contemporary racism in Canada. I loved how this slim volume was able to communicate so much about family, representation, and human vulnerability in the face of systemic violence. My Singapore book of the year is The Naysayer's Book Club (Singapore: Epigram, 2018)—what wonderful, bibliophilic counter-discourses Simon Vincent has assembled. A much needed alternate reading list.
Jon Gresham, writer and photographer. I really enjoyed Sharlene Teo’s Ponti (USA: Picador, 2018), Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (USA: William Morrow, 2018) and JY Yang’s The Red Threads of Fortune (Tor.com), but my book of the year is Teju Cole’s eclectic and intelligent Known and Strange Things: Essays (New York, Random House, 2016). I decided to read this before his book of images and text Blind Spot. Highlights include Cole following in the footsteps of James Baldwin in Switzerland, chatting to his cab driver, Jason, in Norfolk while visiting the grave of WG Sebald, and dining with VS Naipaul in New York. Cole also has many clear and perceptive insights on the way ‘others’ are written, and how we produce and look at images. His personal experience of a blind spot is frightening.
Joshua Ip, poet. Guards Gone Wild by Loh Teck Yong, self-published (email@example.com). Normally I would have nominated something like Marylyn Tan's explosive Gaze Back or Ng Yi-Sheng's mind-bending Lion City, but this idiosyncratic self-published account of the life of a career security guard and the dank underbelly of the security industry was a surprising jolt to the system amidst a preponderance of more "literary" offerings.
Yeow Kai Chai, poet. Bijoux in the Dark by the American poet John Yau (USA: Letter Machine Editions, 2018) crystallises the qualities I've loved about his unmistakable poetry: a wildly peripatetic imagination and a cinephile’s romance with filmic qualities. He never once sounds pedantic, preachy or patronising—there’s levity, even if he’s making a political point about “the next President”. A Singaporean poetic title which excites me this year is Gaze Back, the debut by Marylyn Tan (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018). It’s a feminist mash-up of styles and schools—from the Conceptualist to the Language to a magpie, instinctive approach to pidgins and forms. It’s flawed, ridiculous, offensively honest and gets you in the guts.
Gwee Li Sui, poet, graphic artist, literary critic. It's a toss-up between Catherine Lim's Romancing the Language: A Writer's Lasting Love Affair with English (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2018) and Ho Chee Lick and Anne Lee Tzu Pheng's Common Life: Drawings and Poems (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018). I've always enjoyed Catherine Lim's extraordinarily sharp and witty essays, but this new collection reads like her gift to literary writers. She muses on the relationship between culture and language and casually offers several poems. There's even an essay on Singlish that makes timely, if not urgent, points! At the same time, I have nothing but love for Ho Chee Lick and Anne Lee Tzu Pheng's superb collaboration. Their book is full of the everyday expressed in graceful complementary images and words. I discover here again and again profundity in simplicity—in Singapore!—as what is shared reaches into a deep sense of awareness of what being alive means.
Marc Nair, poet and photographer. Creatures of Near Kingdoms by Zedeck Siew, illustrated by Sharon Chin (Malaysia: Maple Comics, 2018). Hailing from Port Dickson, Malaysian writer Zedeck Siew teams up with his partner, visual and performance artist Sharon Chin, to create a fantastic, otherworldly compendium of flora and fauna. He implores the reader to look, observe and imagine as he brings to life dugongs and death elephants. Sharon's tactile linoprint illustrations are the perfect companion to this shadowed, surreal world.
Nazry Bahrawi, literary critic and translator. Growing Up Perempuan edited by Filzah Sumartono and Margaret Thomas (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2018) is my pick for Singapore book of the year. Drawn from mostly harrowing real-life experiences and vivid imagination of minority Muslim women in a Chinese-majority culture, this collection of confessional narratives and short stories offers a refreshing take on traditional notions of what accounts as literary in Singapore. It blends the genres of documentary and creative prose, and has about it a carnivalesque spirit in spite of addressing some serious matters. My international pick is Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (USA: Penguin Random House, 2018), which cleverly resets, and thus rewrites, the myth of a classical Eurocentric monster in contemporary war-torn Iraq. In both instances, the Empire writes back.
Nuraliah Norasid, novelist and researcher. My book of the year is Budi Kritik edited by Mohd Imran Taib and Fadiah Johari (Singapore: The Literary Centre, 2018). Not because I contributed a small silly article to it, but because it is the first step in a long time towards a culture of Malay/Muslim knowledge production and critical inquiry. A much-needed thing in the face of growing religious conservatism and the debates on inequality, race, diversity and representation. This is my book of the year, because it is brave and bold, even as it faced a whole slew of attacks from hardline groups and individuals.
Philip Holden, literary scholar and writer. My Book of 2018 is Teo You Yenn’s This is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos, 2018). This is a rare book that has managed to significantly shift the terms of public discourse in Singapore, to suggest how systemic social policies that promote inequality are linked to private and public stories of human worth. Teo’s writing is personal without being confessional, and implicates readers in a more complex and troubling way than through simply inciting empathy. It’s sociology at its best, reaching out to a broad audience through the quality of its writing, but refusing to compromise on its argument. For readers in North America, it provides a stark contrast to the imagined world of Crazy Rich Asians, and asks unsettling questions about a global politics of representation. For readers in Singapore, the close focus on inequality at Singapore’s recent Institute of Policy Studies 30th anniversary conference indicates just how important the conversations Teo’s book has opened up have become.
Pingtjin Thum, historian. I enjoyed Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (USA: Knopf, 2018), which I found tremendously applicable to Singapore. In sum, it reminds us that an answer to a problem cannot be found within the problem. Elites may seek to help those who are disadvantaged by the system, but they will not make fundamental changes to the market-friendly, "meritocratic" arrangements which keep them on top. We should not expect genuine change from our elites. Genuine change to create more fair and egalitarian institutions can only be accomplished from the bottom up. Along those lines, I will recommend three Singaporean books: This is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn (Singapore: Ethos, 2017); The Naysayers Book Club by Simon Vincent (Singapore: Epigram, 2018), (which features an interview with me); and Singapore, Incomplete by Cherian George (Singapore: Woodsville, 2017). I enjoyed the parts I read of all three, in different ways. But for my book of the year, in tongue-in-cheek fashion I will choose The Authoritarian Rule of Law by Jothie Rajah (UK: Cambridge UP, 2013), for its continuing relevance and impact on Singapore's political discourse.
Pooja Nansi, poet. My book of the year for 2018 is Dan Koh's Jurong, My Love published as part of The Substation's Discipline the City series. It's an achingly beautiful essay that uses the route of the 99 Bus to chart a personal and historical journey. It's also a love letter to a neighbourhood often mocked as industrial and hinterland. Aside from the fact that the writing is stunning and tender, fierce and lilting all at once, it's also a sharp look at how urban planning can affect the body walking in space and how different aspects of our selves are disciplined both culturally and socially.
Sebastian Sim, novelist. The Naysayers Book Club by Simon Vincent (Singapore, Epigram, 2018). Simon Vincent hunted down 26 rebels who have unplugged themselves from the pods of compliance that connect to the Matrix of Singapore. In 26 incisive interviews, these rebels question and challenge the establishment on topics and taboos that range from press freedom, the death penalty, gay activism, to the race-reserved elected presidency. A roller-coaster ride of a book!
Seelan Palay, artist. Being a big of science fiction and not much of a fan of Singapore, I see Ng Yi-Sheng's collection of short stories in Lion City (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2018) as the perfect publication for me. He's done amazingly well at capturing the imagination of this 22nd Century Neo-Taoist!
Sonny Liew, graphic novelist. Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (USA: Hachette, 2018). An account of the 1MDB scandal written with fantastic clarity and verve—I couldn't put it down, and wondered if Najib had read the book and recognised himself in it. The story itself shows the value of brave, critical journalism—as demonstrated by the authors themselves, along with the folks at the Edge and the Sarawak Report. Local book: This is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn (Singapore: Ethos, 2018). To be honest I only read the first couple of chapters, before sending it to a Singaporean student in New Zealand who needed it for his research. It's been a big hit here in Singapore, with Teo's decision to personalise the story clearly striking a chord. The one worry is that reading the book might become an end in itself rather than a spur to actually change things... but hopefully it will become a touchstone for everyone in thinking about the issues involved. A Handbook on Inequality, Poverty and Unmet Social Needs published by the Lien Centre of Social Innovation (Catherine J. Smith, with John Donaldson, Sanushka Mudaliar, Mumtaz Md Kadir and Yeoh Lam Keong) might be a good companion piece as well.
Tania De Rozario, writer and visual artist. Like A Seed With Its Singular Purpose by Cyril Wong (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2nd Edition) is an exercise in grieving, desire, despair and hope. The language and imagery never fail to move me and I discover something new every time I read it. It is one of my favourite collections of poetry, and remains my favourite piece of local literature.
William Phuan, arts administrator. My book is This is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn (Singapore: Ethos, 2018). This is What Inequality Looks Like deserves all the acclaim and bestselling status that it gets. The subject matter is of course very topical and pressing, the writing is evocative, precise and direct. But what stays with you is the writer’s compassion that permeates every page and makes an irrepressible call to action.
Ng Yi-Sheng, poet, playwright, and fictionist. The Infinite Library and Other Stories by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2017). This may be the best collection of spec fic stories I've ever read by a Singapore-based author. The tales are wonderfully baroque, from a steampunk vision of Filipino national hero José Rizal at a naturist colony to a post-apocalyptic tale of a man cultivating crops and a digital transmitter in the world's last library. Ocampo takes risks with form—stories are told with multiple endings, in the form of archaeological surveys and in SMS-speak—but manages to make all his tales share a single universe, with the same immortal characters and references (including the eponymous library) popping up in different plots. (I'm also intrigued by how Ocampo complicates our conceptions of Singaporean literature: he began writing in Singapore and is active in the local literary scene, but his fiction reflects his background as a cosmopolitan citizen of the Philippines. He's got a south-south biculturalism thing going on, and it's awesome.)
Loo Zihan, artist. Teo You Yenn’s This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2017). In a recent New Naratif podcast, Dr Stephanie Chok and Debbie Fordyce were having a conversation with Dr. Thum Pingtjin and Kirsten Han on the “invisible population” of migrant workers in Singapore. Towards the end of the session, they begin to speak about how solutions by well-intentioned Singaporeans often exacerbate the situation by aiming to correct the inevitable outcome instead of questioning systemic forces at work. It is in moments like this that the significance of Dr. Teo You Yenn’s book come to mind. It is a necessary volume that equips us with the language to negotiate our complicit relationship with the infrastructure of power in Singapore. This book is significant because it is written to be read, her rhetoric scaffolded with approachable anecdotes, persuasive in its economy. The middle chapter on “differentiated deservedness” is one of the most cogent dissection of the Singaporean condition that I have encountered. This is my book of the year because it reminds me not only to question, but interrogate how and what these questions are. This book rips off the blindfold with such lucid clarity, and once we know, we can no longer plead ignorance.