1. The marvels of short stories. Collections of short stories are perfect for individuals who do not have the luxury of large pockets of time; and hence would be able to do some on-the-go reading and enjoy an assortment of literary texts. Such stories need to seek a balance between the narrative and descriptive elements, given the obvious limitations in length and room for character development. General collections prescribe an overarching theme or area of interest, with the respective expositions falling into place with specific focuses expounded in greater detail.
2. Simon Tay’s “Stand Alone” collection. The entire book is a wondrous potpourri of short stories; stories that explore a multitude of themes that concern Singaporeans, from education to family values to class divisions. Even though the book was penned two decades ago, many of the cultural and social references remain vividly relevant and applicable to our current status quo.
3. The “Singaporean Dream”. The traditional route to success has always been defined by a steady progression through the education system, getting a stable and safe career, and eventually starting a family: before achieving the five Cs (Car, Condominium, Credit Card, Country Club, Cash) as a symbol of “making it” in life. Simon Tay constantly challenges such beliefs, and highlights the conflicts youths might have between chasing their dreams and fulfilling the hopes of their parents. As seen in “My Cousin Tim” and “Noel’s Gift”, he also makes the consistent criticism of overt pragmatism and materialism demonstrated by Singaporeans, chasing aimlessly for wealth and gains.
4. “My Cousin Tim”. This has to be my favourite story in the entire collection; it perfectly – and succinctly – shows that it is impossible to enjoy the best of both worlds. Simon Tay also presents some perspectives on the effects of having a Western education and exposure. Ek Teng might have had a smoother path in his education, career and life in general; but the risk-taking and adventurous Tim eventually makes it in terms of wealth, albeit at the expense of his family relationships and much time spent exploring and trying his hand in an assortment of endeavours.
5. My favourite quote from Tim. “When you’re young and people ask you what you want to be, they mean do you want to be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a pilot or what. If you say you want to be kinder, more knowledgeable, nicer, they think you’re crazy”.
6. Is our education system overly rigid? Simon Tay seems to make the assertion that our rigid education system makes our students negatively risk-adverse, and probably stifling. He draws comparisons with individuals who have gone overseas in Western institutions to study (“My Cousin Tim”), and scorns graduates who think the world of themselves, who are inadvertently sucked into a vortex of material pursuits and senseless competition (“Drive”). Education levels are closely associated with wealth and class divisions throughout the Singapore society.
7. The pressure from parents and the family. Given the traditional Confucian beliefs on the importance of the family, as aforementioned, there are instances when youths find themselves sandwiched between their own ambitions and their family’s expectations.
8. The Singaporean cultural references. “A History Of Tea”, “Iris’s Rice Bowl” and “Stand Alone” make fantastic references to a multitude of Asian and Singaporean traditions. Their subtle inclusions make the plots and characters more accessible and much easier to relate to; sometimes drawing smiles and laughter whilst reading.
9. Infidelity. A variety of Simon Tay’s characters deal with the issue of infidelity (“Catherine” and “Noel’s Gift”). The stories within the collection provide an excellent distinction against a background of plots that emphasise how the family has significant influences on the individual’s decisions and actions. Perhaps with greater liberty given the trend of modernisation, temptations – in this case, lust – the characters find it more convenient to engage in such commitments outside of their homes.
10. The intense personal touch. Many of the stories have an additional dimension of the personal touch. Simon Tay had taken great effort in making the characters more approachable and the plots close to our hearts; which makes it feel as if we had experienced one of these episodes before in our lives. The overall reading experience was very enjoyable, at least from a Singaporean’s point of view.