The first thing which struck me was how unconventional the themes in Amanda Lee Koe’s “Ministry of Moral Panic” were, compared to the older short-story collections by other Singaporean writers. Whereas Catherine Lim’s “Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore” and Simon Tay’s “Stand Alone”, for example – texts which I read in high school – centred on the familiar concerns of the education system, the “Singapore Dream”, as well as family expectations and environments, Lee Koe’s 14 short stories not only go beyond to depict concerns of a new generation of Singaporeans, but they are also provocative, even stretching the boundaries of public morality.
Times, they are a-changin’.
When “Ministry of Moral Panic” was awarded the Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction in 2014, the judges said that it “was a unanimous choice, a highly original voice in Singapore writing that we wish to acknowledge and encourage”. In this vein it is both provocative and original, because the characters and the issues they confront can be uncomfortable for some, and these issues have rarely been explored in the past: sex, death, and unconventional relationships. There are familiar tropes amidst the vivid characterisation and bold narratives, often presented in different formats – the relationship between a Singaporean women and a Chinese national (“Pawn”), the experiences of a domestic worker (“Two Ways to Do This”), and reflections from a loveless marriage (“Love is No Big Truth”) – and in most instances there are no happy endings.
To what extent Singaporean readers may identify with these stories, I am not so sure, even if some historical or cultural references seem familiar. These are references to pop yeh-yeh (Malaysian or Malayan pop music in the 1960s, influenced by Western bands), Maria Hertogh (central to riots in Singapore, in 1950), and Caldecott Hill (the location of Singapore’s television and broadcasting industry), yet these are not necessarily every-day stories. And hence if these are tales beyond the mainstream, then perhaps Lee Koe’s riveting book is a reminder that these characters and their struggles – while not often spoken of – deserve to be heard too.