Book Review on Death of a Perm Sec - Book Cover of Death of a Perm Sec

Book Review – Death of a Perm Sec

While Death of a Perm Sec did not win the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, the fact that it was shortlisted for the prize is perhaps significant enough; up until then, no publisher had been willing to put the story into print, which is not altogether surprising given the political nature of the plot. As author Dr Wong Souk Yee puts it in her acknowledgements, the book “finally gets to see the light of day”, and that is certainly an endeavour to be applauded for.


The story is set in 1980s Singapore, and begins with the death of Chow Tze Teck, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing, who is under investigation for corruption. (Death of a Perm Sec, interestingly, is written in present tense.) At first glance, it would seem that the Perm Sec has committed suicide, but an examination of the facts quickly raises many unanswered questions. The Chow family – Tze Teck’s widow and his four children – find their lives thrown into turmoil by sinister forces that inevitably manifest themselves in situations which prove to be of great political significance. The family members then go through their respective periods of catharsis and try to pick themselves up again, with varying degrees of success.


Death of a Perm Sec is an undeniably interesting read. Dr Wong writes crisply and articulately, and by heavily borrowing elements from real-life events which happened in Singapore, such as the suicide of former Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan, Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum, she has weaved an intriguing and suspenseful plot. However, this becomes slightly diffuse as the story goes on; like the actual events that Death of a Perm Sec draws inspiration from, there is no satisfying conclusion to the political suspense, only equivocal allusions. The focus is instead shifted to the four Chow siblings, who become the literary representatives of the author’s social commentary. This is not in itself a bad idea; it provides more depth and character development to the story. One suspects, however, that a reader’s enjoyment of this largely depends on where his views reside on the sociopolitical spectrum.


The level of cynicism displayed by Dr Wong in her depiction of Singapore is potentially disconcerting. Thinly veiled attacks on the government, the political culture, and on Singaporean society and its values (or lack thereof) can be found on every other page. The ruling party, in its near complete dominance of Parliament, is shown to be full of belligerent and dishonourable lapdogs who only serve as bootlickers to their political master. The master himself is a conniving and arrogant man who wields power with an intransigence that can only come from the absolute belief in one’s authority, but ostensibly has a prickly conscience that needs to be absolved. Singapore’s landscape is bleakly described, with an obvious frown of disapproval directed at places which have been “invaded by the seriously rich” while public housing areas are urban slums.


Book Review of Death of a Perm Sec - Book over Tea


Across the board, all the characters embody every conceivable stereotype. A man who studied law only because of financial ambition and whose successful career is largely down to ‘connections’. A woman whose sole ambition is to marry into a good family, because the patriarchal society has conditioned her to do so. None of the Chow siblings privately mourn their father’s death, but there is much discussion about the funeral arrangements for the sake of ‘face’. There is seemingly no end to the fractious cliches. (Meanwhile, escape can only be found in calm and beautiful Australia, and arguably the only Samaritan in the story – a mystery that really warrants more explanation – resides in Hong Kong.)


Perhaps that is Dr Wong’s intention, to be an artist who does not express herself through subtlety and nuance, but through caricatures whose features are wryly exaggerated for the purposes of emphasis. Or perhaps Wong’s depictions are more accurate than this writer gives her credit for; as a former political detainee and the chairman of a political opposition party, she admittedly is no stranger to the dark side of Singapore. In any case, Death of a Perm Sec exudes a distinctly dystopian slant, and whether one appreciates that is the key to truly enjoying this novel.


Death of a Perm Sec can be bought at the Popular Bookshop. It was nominated for the POPULAR’s Readers Choice Awards 2016.