Curated Bookshelf: Singapore’s 53rd birthday

Some of my favorite publishing companies and bookstores often curate their bookshelves according to events or themes. Verso books and Haymarket books did a great curation and sale of books during the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the unjust treatment of the protestors as a form of urgent reading for those of us who are not familiar with the crisis. I loved this idea, a simple list of books that would help you understand a situation better and often from the less dominant narrative. Inspired by this, I have decided to create a list of books that I feel should be required reading for every Singaporean. They are not listed in any order. However, they all generally goes against the grain of the standard, dominant narrative.

These books were essential in my own personal education of my own country. Suffice to say, the syllabus I was taught in school is incredibly myopic and serves the purposes of the incumbent. As Orwell once wrote, “he who controls the past, controls the future”. The books recommended or listed as a “must read” in the mainstream market do not represent the Singapore and authoritarian state that I live and grew up in. These top sellers or books that often hit the mainstream bestseller list present a rosy picture of a multiracial country, however, beneath the tolerance there is often injustices, unfair discriminatory practices, and sustained prejudices and stereotypes. Hence, I provide you with books that challenges these myths and state-sanctioned narratives. A list that is radical and uncomfortable. A list that is essential for progress.

The books I have chosen are mostly written by Malay writers, Malay thinkers, Malay academics because I feel that they are more critical in their examination of public policies and social injustices and hardly try to ‘fit in’ into the more dominant and vocal narrative. These books breaks down and confronts the myths that we have grown up to live with and taken as whole and true. They might make you uncomfortable, but radical thought and progress cannot be achieved through the comforts of your couch. For a nation to truly be able to call herself multicultural and multiracial, our citizens should also be open to reading books written by the minorities or people of colour (I do not include Singaporean Chinese in this category because they are the dominant voice and the majority race). This phrase “multicultural and multiracial” comes with impracticality and we should embrace the effort and the time to make everyone feel included and to seek out those whose voices are often marginalised. Too often, the voices of the majority are trumpeted and elevated while the voices of the minorities are silenced or not given enough publicity. So I am here to tell you to read their books! It is time to diversify your bookshelf.

Diverse books empower, vindicate, normalise, and make visible readers who might otherwise feel forgotten, invisible, or like they’re imposters whose stories don’t deserve to be told. Everyone deserves to see themselves in books.

– by 

These books range from a fictional novel, fictional short stories, an anthology of personal essays by marginalized Muslim women, essays challenging the consensus, to a scathing analysis of our colonizer who is ironically and shamefully still revered by the governing powers. I have provided a short excerpt for books that I have not written a proper review for and linked those which I have! I hope these books change the way you view issues as much as it did for me.


The Singapore dilemma: economic and education marginalization of the Malays in Singapore by Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim

This study examines the factors that have contributed to the persisting socio-economic marginality of the Singapore Malay Community. It proposes that this problem requires a national solution as it is organically connected to the social, economic, and political challenges confronting the multiethnic island republic.

You can read a powerful review by Alfian Saat here. It was also one of the first books that detailed how discrimination was present in our public policies and in turn, how they affected the Malays.

Malay Sketches by Alfian Saat

Malay Sketches is a collection of stories that borrows its name from a book of anecdotes by colonial governor Frank Swettenham, describing Malay life on the Peninsula. In Alfian Sa’at’s hands, these sketches are reimagined as flash fictions that record the lives of members of the Malay community in Singapore. With precise and incisive prose, Malay Sketches offers the reader profound insights into the realities of life as an ethnic minority.

Inheritance by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Inheritance is a nation’s coming-of-age story, seen through the sharp lens of a traditional Punjabi family as it gradually unravels.

Set in Singapore between the 1970’s and 1990’s, Inheritance follows the familial fissures that develop after teenaged Amrit disappears in the middle of the night. Although her absence is brief, she returns as a different person.

Over two decades, as Singapore’s political, social and cultural landscapes change, the family’s attempts to cope with the shifts—those coming from outside and from within—lead to some disastrous consequences. With the traditional expectations of their country on the one hand, and their own volition on the other, Amrit’s family must avoid imploding. How do we confront our legacies, and, when necessary, how do we accept change? Inheritance is a universal story of family, identity and belonging.

Hard Choices: Challenging the consensus in Singapore Editted by Donald Low & Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh

Singapore is changing. The consensus that the PAP government has constructed and maintained over five decades is fraying. The assumptions that underpin Singaporean exceptionalism are no longer accepted as easily and readily as before. Among these are the ideas that the country is uniquely vulnerable, that this vulnerability limits its policy and political options, that good governance demands a degree of political consensus that ordinary democratic arrangements cannot produce, and that the country’s success requires a competitive meritocracy accompanied by relatively little income or wealth redistribution. But the policy and political conundrums that Singapore faces today are complex and defy easy answers. Confronted with a political landscape that is likely to become more contested, how should the government respond? What reforms should it pursue? This collection of essays suggests that a far-reaching and radical rethinking of the country’s policies and institutions is necessary, even if it weakens the very consensus that enabled Singapore to succeed in its first fifty years.

I will Survive Editted by Leow Yang-fa

What is it like to be gay and experience bullying in school or National Service? How do you deal with being rejected by your family and religious group because of your sexual orientation? How are women’s experiences different or similar to men’s? What does one go through in an abusive same-sex relationship, or when one loses a partner to suicide? What does a transgender man or woman go through in Singapore? When you have been diagnosed with a life-long illness, how do you continue living?

This collection brings together real-life experiences of love, grace, faith, dignity and courage from 21 ordinary gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Singapore who have survived extraordinary circumstances.

Myth of the lazy native by Syed Hussein Alatas

This was the first book I read that made me throw away all that I had once believed that was inherent within me and myself. I guess when you repeat something ad nauseam you start to believe that it is the truth.  This was the first book that helped me decolonize my mind.

Raffles: Schemer or reformer? by Syed Hussein Alatas

I heard a lecturer mentioning this book since he was complaining about the upcoming 200 year colonial commemoration Singapore intends on holding. I’ve never placed much thought into Raffles nor the twisted ways we admire him and his legacy, but this changed my view on him. He was just a typical colonial master, with zero respect nor regard for his colony.

Budi Kritik Editted by Imran Taib and Fadiah Johari

My instagram review just says it all!

Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak out Editted by Filzah Sumartono and Vivienne Wee

A first of its kind, this anthology really pulled the veil on the Muslim community in Singapore. A group often marginalized and discriminated, yet never given the opportunity to be listened to.

This is what inequality looks like by Teo Yeo Yenn

A book that detailed the most abstract and unsaid myths about poverty in Singapore. The topic of inequality is often discussed in very vague and broad languages, so it is hard to even comprehend the severity of the issue. Teo breaks it down nicely for us, and this book provided me with the vocabulary to debate these issues with others.

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