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Daren Shiau's Heartland delved into social class structures while Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry of Moral Panic questioned accepted norms

Tomes that show us how we live

Jan 2, 2015 5:50 AM

SINGAPORE literature has been critical in showing us how we've lived in the past 50 years, from the nascent nation-building days to the era of unabashed capitalism to today's globalised inter-connected realities.

Here are 10 books first published in English which, among many others, have marked our journey through half a century:

If We Dream Too Long (1972)

By Goh Poh Seng

If We Dream Too Long peers into the soul of young people in the newly independent Singapore to uncover their hopes and frustrations. Though dismissed when it was first published for being too wordy and rambling, it is recognised as the first novel to grapple with the Singapore identity and is now being taught in universities.

Gods Can Die (1977)

By Edwin Thumboo

In the early decades of post-independent Singapore, Thumboo's poetry provided an insight into the unstable psyche of the nation as it struggled to formulate its values and identity. His most famous poem, Ulysses By The Merlion, published just after this collection, articulates this struggle most lyrically.

Little Ironies (1978)

By Catherine Lim

One of the earliest collections of short stories by a local author, Little Ironies was instantly lauded for its keenly observed portraits of ordinary Singaporeans who, in their pragmatic zeal and quest for material success, lose sight of the very things that matter, such as love and forgiveness.

Down The Line (1980)

By Arthur Yap

Still today one of Singapore's most beloved writers, the late Yap wrote poems rife with insight, humour and linguistic panache, an acrobatic blending of Singlish and standard Singapore English that impressed even great writers such as Anthony Burgess.

The Teenage Textbook (1988)

By Adrian Tan

Few books in the 1980s are as beloved at Tan's The Teenage Textbook. It captured accurately and hilariously what it was like growing up and studying your socks off, while trying to find friends and romance. And really, how could you not love jokes such as "Pardon, your result slip is showing"?

Fascist Rock: Stories of Rebellion (1990)

By Claire Tham

Tham's debut story collection, with its cast of middle-class misfits and misanthropes, came as a shock to the system for anyone used to the idea of harmonious, peaceful Singapore. It heralded the "angry, young voice" in local literature, a mantle passed on to younger writers the likes of Alfian Sa'at and Jolene Tan.

The Shrimp People (1991)

By Rex Shelley

Shelley published this debut novel at the age of 61. But it remains today a grand and ambitious work of fiction. At nearly 500 pages, it combines historical details and social commentary to chronicle the lives of Eurasian characters from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Abraham's Promise (1995)

By Philip Jeyaretnam

Jeyaretnam's last novel is ostensibly a story of an old teacher looking back at his life - his early political involvement, marriage and poor relationship with his son. But it could easily be read as an allegory of Singapore and its troubling patriarchal values that tolerate little dissent.

Gone Case (1996) and Heartland (1999)

By Dave Chua and Daren Shiau respectively

While the novels are different in tone and texture, both were among the earliest to use HDB estates as the backdrop for their stories, to explore the sociological implications of growing up in them. In Gone Case, a 12-year-old boy struggles with the turmoil in his family and friendships. In Heartland, a teenage boy from the HDB heartland falls in love with a girl from an affluent family - and quickly comes to realise the shortcomings of his class position. For anyone growing up in modest public housing, these two novels deeply resonate.

Ministry of Moral Panic (2013)

By Amanda Lee Koe

Populated by a diverse and unexpected cast of characters - from maids to Maria Hertogh to the Merlion - Lee Koe's collection of 14 stories questions, changes or expands many accepted notions, myths and memories of Singapore. And it does so in remarkably hip and inventive prose.