A murder mystery set in a Singapore roiled by political corruption and power politics, Wong Souk Yee’s “Death of a Perm Sec” is centred around the demise and death of Chow Sze Teck, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing, and the circumstances surrounding these events. In this vein an understanding of Singapore’s politics and history – Operations Coldstore and Spectrum, the Internal Security Act, and the politicians or leaders involved in these periods, for instance – adds richness, in an otherwise straightforward plot. With his fall from grace, suspicions that the deceased Chow was embroiled in a broader conspiracy are hinted at early on, and thus the rest of the book traces how his family deals with ensuing trials and tribulations.
In particular, the experiences of interrogation and detention – penned by a writer who was detained in the Whitley Road Detention Centre in 1987, for allegedly taking part in a Marxist conspiracy – are fleshed out in great, personal detail in the book. But Wong related these experiences to a wider context. In the words of a character who has spent some in detention, seemingly echoing the thoughts of many Singaporeans today about individuals and events of the past, “I’m afraid history will not remember the victors’ crimes, just as it has long forgotten about my brother. Nobody wants to tear open an old wound. People believe that a few have to be sacrificed to make way for society to progress. Besides … we are ultimately responsible for the things we do. It’s easy to blame it on a higher authority and excuse ourselves”.
Beyond the historico-political discourse, the lives of Chow’s four sons and daughters provide an interesting socio-economic commentary of the lives of (affluent or privileged) Singaporeans. Each – with their own quirks and baggage – trudge along different trajectories before and after the death of their father, and yet the themes or tropes about education and family expectations may seem familiar.
Both the climax and the conclusion, however, felt rushed and incomplete, though the effects of perpetuity and endlessness (without giving too much away) could be intentional. Treatment and development of the different characters, as engaging as they were for some, was uneven, and towards the end the reader is also forced to ponder what the future holds for each character. Still the book – which I finished in one sitting – is nevertheless thrilling, and it highlighted important themes from the past and for the future which need to be discussed.