Deviance and Singapore


Photograph by Philippe Put

by Hannah Pezzack

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

Ministry of Moral Panic electrified the Singaporean literature scene when it was published four years ago. Her unflinching depiction of life in the Little Red Dot is a love letter to those who don’t conform; whose misfit identities and livelihoods provoke societal unease and distain. The Facebook page for Ministry of Moral Panic quotes from Stanley Cohen’s Moral Panics and Folk Devils, explaining that a ‘moral panic’ refers to a ‘controversy that involves arguments and social tensions in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its centre is taboo.’ Singapore is certainty no stranger to such episodes: the paternalistic People’s Action Party have a penchant for social conservatism, meaning that issues surrounding race, religion, gender and sexuality are provocative and little-explored publicly.

The so-called ‘nanny state’ has been infamous for policing everything from dress codes – these jeans were the sort that the police couldn’t pass a coke bottle through – the test that determined if your pants were too tight. If the coke bottle couldn’t come through your pant leg, you would have to remove your pants – to chewing gum. Controversy was sparked earlier this year with further state restrictions on Pink Dot, Singapore’s answer to LGBTQ pride. Contentious legislation continues to curtail the rights of nonconforming individuals, such as section 377A which criminalises sexual acts between men.

Stanley Cohen’s case study for Folk Devils utilised mod and rocker subculture in late 1960s and ‘70s Britain. A Singaporean equivalent of such a clamorous, underground movement seems farfetched. Koe opens with a section of William Gibson’s banned depiction of Singaporean society ‘Disneyland with a Death Penalty’, ‘… conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply’. Ministry of Moral Panic presents retaliation to Gibson, perhaps inviting him to look harder beyond his own totalising gaze.

In Singapore, most political action is outlawed. Ministry of Moral Panic stands as a subversive, artistic interpretation of how to challenge the homogenising power of a dominant discourse. The uncensored and unquestioned prevalence of the collection is a testament to its success in this venture. The title – topped with an illustration of an aghast mouth and All Seeing Eye of state surveillance – is a coy poke at contemptuous goings on, parodying what Koe describes as the ‘tension between the triangle of paternalistic/bureaucratic puppetry, social norms or “Asian values”’. Ministry of Moral Panic strives to ‘undo, expand and complicate the Singaporean national identity from a narrow, vanilla and “standardized” mould into something that is a lot messier, more diverse, more inclusive, and of all shapes and sorts.’

Ministry of Moral Panic’s characters wander through the colonial docks and old time Chinatown, sparking illicit love affairs (‘Flamingo Valley’) or appear as hermaphrodite, transgender mermaids (‘Siren’). Koe takes her readers on a tour through tourist hotspots and national iconography, up to the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and inside the Flyer – where two women of disproportionate ages share a kiss (‘Alice, You must be the Fulcrum of Your Own Universe’). She captures the perverse, inner thoughts of a promiscuous school girl (‘Chick’) or the secret, covert love of a secret lesbian relationship (‘The Ballard of Arlene and Nelly’). Koe’s devotion to deviance and personal, private acts of rebellion personifies her as a storyteller as Michel De Certeau envisioned: a champignon of subculture who ‘cries out in protest against a saturated universe’. In her poetic narratives Koe poises the question about the construction of morality itself, allowing us to empathise with unlikeable people, and to see a human face behind those who might have previously been known only as stigmatised minorities.

It is arguably when the stories are at their most twisted, exploring the most uncomfortable of subjects that they become most potently regarded as oppositional discourse. Consider the following extract from the story ‘Chick’:

 Your sitting partner’s father was holding on to his daughter tightly even as he railed at you from his seat, and his pants were tight over his large belly and you could see the bulge of his crotch … You pictured him red and naked, the glandular smell of the indecently obese. You pictured your sitting partner with her father’s sluggish penis in her inexperienced hands. Her hands were so small and she was so stupid, she’d wrapped two hands around it. She was so timid and inept she was massaging it side to side rather than rubbing it up and down. He was angry at her; spit was gathering at either side of his mouth.

This story details the moment when two curious school girls have been discovered watching pornography. As the instigator, the main character has no way to protest her innocence. At the moment she realises the shame that her parents will face upon discovering what she has done, she imagines the sordid, incestuous act of her friend masturbating her father. The desire to push boundaries; to confront implicit material, here takes a duel motion. Of course in Singapore, portrayals of sex and sexuality are widely blue-pencilled and pornography is illegal. Yet as Koe reveals, behind closed doors and in private thoughts, dark fantasies are unrestrained. Boundaries imposed by what is ‘acceptable’ rarely do justice to the true complexities of life. As Sam Ng concluded in his review of Ministry of Moral Panic for the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, ‘… anyone who is not willing to accept that such things, like the scene described above, do happen in real life — any prudes, that is — will find it difficult to complete the book. But to read these episodes as mere titillation will be to grossly misinterpret their intentions and methods …’

Ministry of Moral Panic has won numerous awards such as the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction and 2016 Singapore Book Award for Best Fiction. Unanimously amongst critics, she has passed into the Singaporean canon and is listed by The Business Times as one of the Top 10 English Singapore books of 1965-2015. Framing Koe as a ‘voice’ of Singapore is a somewhat difficult task; her stories ardently highlight that no singular, unified portrayal can do justice to the complexities of life. But it is undeniable that Koe has captured something of the hidden realities – the ‘inter/intrapersonal actualisation’ to which she refers. What Koe has achieved is a national text: a piece of art which both replicates and resonates with the cultural context in which it was written.

According to Raymond Williams, ‘national culture’ is a prescribed notion produced to give legitimacy to the state to make political decisions according to a nationalistic discourse. The hegemonic power of ‘national culture’ eliminates marginal/countering voices to create a dominant narrative. Post-colonialist theorist Edward Said was sceptical of ‘national culture’ because of its associations with nationalism. In Culture and Imperialism, he wrote

Culture is a concept that includes a refining and elevating element, each society’s reservoir of the best that has been known and thought… You read Dante or Shakespeare in order to keep up with the best that was thought and known, and also to see yourself, your people, society, and tradition in their best lights. In time, culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation or the state; this differentiates ·”us” from “them,” almost always with some degree of xenophobia. Culture in this sense is a source of identity, and a rather combative one at that, as we see in recent “returns” to culture and tradition. These “returns” accompany rigorous codes of intellectual and moral behaviour that are opposed to the permissiveness associated with such relatively liberal philosophies as multiculturalism and hybridity.

Koe’s navigation of Singapore is primarily an exploration of the hidden and uncomfortable. Ministry of Moral Panic is a national text of a different calibre: it exposes the underbelly of the city state and creates a parody of the traditionalism which Said warns off. ‘Love is No Big Truth’ resonates with this sentiment. The story appears as a snapshot of a typecast Chinese heritage, Singaporean family: shark-fin soup, white weddings and condominium living. But behind the façade is a more convoluted truth; a dysfunctional marriage and a mother estranged from her daughter. The pantomime becomes too much, “I couldn’t stop laughing, I’d never laughed so hard in my whole life. I was always restrained, but something in me just broke … What’s the joke? My daughter’s father-in-law asked affably. He looked from my face to my husband’s. Men, I managed, through my laughter. Women.”

By nature, Koe’s short stories are fragmentary: the narrative structure creates a space for a myriad of different voices and perspectives. Instead of documenting Singaporean sub/culture in a derivative way, Koe’s stories focus on the mediation of identity, space and time. As a storyteller she is elastic; we are never sure of whom to emphasise with. In ‘Every Park on This Island’ sympathies are drawn to both the narrator – an oddball, vintage dress wearing Singaporean university student – and her love interest – an overweight American exchanger. Both are tragic, aggregating characters who personify the ambiguous moral compass underlying the collection.