Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

Thrilling Panic Attacks: Amanda Lee Koe's The Ministry of Moral Panic

by Michael Tsang


Amanda Lee Koe, Ministry of Moral Panic, Epigram Books, 2013. 208 pgs


In an essay titled "The Flash of the Fireflies," the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer comments on the unique craft of short-story writing: If human contact is the transient flash of fireflies, then "[s]hort story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be pure of—the present moment."

The stories in Amanda Lee Koe's marvelous prize-winning debut collection, The Ministry of Moral Panic, are perfect examples of Gordimer's comment, and Koe's mastery of the short story form ensures that the flash gets to shine at its brightest. Considering the quality of its work, to many readers it came as no surprise that the collection won the biennial Singapore Literature Prize 2014 in the English Fiction category.

What Koe does particularly well is to use creative, non-linear narratives to expose precise amounts of information about her characters. She is keen on experimenting, often effectively, with the fragmentation of narrative in various forms—be it a cluster of half-factual, half-imaginative diary entries giving insight into the life of a historical figure ("Fourteen Entries from the Diary of Maria Hertogh"); an imaginary interview transcript about the tragedy of a lesbian couple ("The Ballad of Arlene and Nelly") or a split two-part story of an Indonesian maid's search for love, which bracket a third, wholly unrelated story ("Two Ways to Do This"). The experimentation in this last example is particularly impressive. By sandwiching the full story,  "Love is No Big Truth" (an earlier version of which was published on Cha),  between the two parts of the maid's tale, Koe is able to introduce a time lapse in the woman's story and build up a sense of irresolution and suspense before shocking the reader with a twist at the grand finale.

Many of the other stories in the collection also end in abrupt climaxes. Most of them are tragic and have a nonchalant tone, as if the defects and regrets of life cannot be helped. The story "Carousel & Fort," for example, starts with a dialogue between a has-been couple—she a gallery curator and he a vain, egotistical artist and modern-day Salman Rushdie—and ends with a suicide bomb on the opening night of his latest exhibition, presumably due to his controversial artwork depicting naked Muslim women. In the midst of the gore and pandemonium, the curator contemplates the beauty in the art of destruction and in the destruction of art. The style at this point is dry, impersonal and descriptive, as if the bombing is the most natural and obvious denouement for the artist. It leaves the reader with a feeling of crudity and messiness, and subverts the reminiscence of lost romance previously built up in the narrative.

This is how the collection earns its title—by stirring up moral panic, through advanced technique, to unsettle and challenge what Koe sees as widely accepted moral standards in Singapore. Tensions about ethnicity or sexuality are explored as issues that escape the conventional rhetoric of Singapore's economic prosperity. For instance, extramarital affairs and homoerotic relationships are found throughout the book, and their abundance questions the heavily regulated ethical conservatism often associated with the city-state. But these tropes are not used in a forced, contrived way: for Koe, Singapore is naturally filled with these "unconventional" relationships. It is the firm grounding of these stories in the discursive and social fabric of this young nation—sometimes to the point of demanding that non-Singaporean readers research the city's history and geography—that saves them from becoming denationalised, petty moan-and-groans.

Take the magical realist story "Siren" as a case in point. It crosscuts between two narratives: a Homer-inspired myth about the copulation of a fisherman and a Southeast Asian mermaid and the story of a reunion between a former school bully and his victim, now a transsexual prostitute. Although these stories seem unrelated, the crosscutting hinges upon the Merlion, the mythical lion-headed, fish-bodied creatures that symbolises Singapore. Queerness is ironically used as a trope to remind readers of Singapore's odd historical origins, and to highlight its suppression of some forms of sexuality. For example, the childhood scene in which the bully refrains at the last minute from removing the victim's shorts can be read as the homophobic anxiety of the past. In the same vein, even as the grown-up bully eventually consummates a physical relation with the transsexual prostitute, he deceives himself into imagining that he is having sex with a woman, suggesting that Singapore's antipathy towards sexual diversity still continues.

Another story, "Flamingo Valley," mourns the fleeting nature of Singapore's material and infrastructural development through the chance reunion of two lovers who long ago parted ways due to racial intolerance. As in "Siren," events in the past echo those in the present. The interethnic romance between a music-loving Malay and a Chinese girl in 1960s Singapore has, of course, allegorical reference to the country's political history, and touches on a variety of racial and gender prejudices. Their subsequent breakup due to the cultural expectation that a Chinese girl should marry rich, and the demolition of the National Theatre in 1984, further epitomise the affective price Singapore has paid for its rapid economic growth. Within this context, the fateful reunion in a hospital of the former lovers both now in their seventies, and the miraculous rejuvenation of the old lady's health and memory, are but a placebo effect from the uncorking of memories, the aftermath of which only intensifies the grief for the things, feelings and time sacrificed.

In a globalised world in which no location is completely free from outside influence, it is fashionable to dispel all notions and claims of authenticity. But The Ministry of Moral Panic feels authentically Singapore, because each well-crafted story, although focusing on one "present moment", is based on the unique historical formation of a nation, and because collectively the stories present a series of cathartic reading experiences that critically rethink the stumbling blocks in Singaporean society. For an outstanding debut collection, it is hard to ask for more from Koe.

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