Book Review: Son of Singapore, and Man of Malaysia

Book Review: Son of Singapore, and Man of Malaysia

Son of Singapore and Man of Malaysia are two autobiographical books written by Tan Kok Seng. Both titles have been out of print until Epigram books stepped in to continue publishing his work. They are easy reads, delivered straighforward to the readers without any complex ligusitic expressions. Son of Singapore was in fact used as a literature text in Junior Colleges a few decades ago.

The books thread along the narrative of Singapore’s history, and does not pressent itself as a rags to riches story. The story threads along humbly, and does not attempt to overplay the struggles the author has undergone throughout his life as a coolie (in Son of Singapore) and a driver for the British High Comission (in Man of Malaysia). Where history endorsed by the establishment tend to overplay on the transformation of Singapore from a fishing village to a bustling metropolis, Son of Singapore has mentions of the city state that is already a bustling metropolis with villages in suburbia, as expressed by the author’s adventure with his mother to the Singapore immigration office at Empress Place.

Reading from the perspective of living in ultramodern Singapore, Son of Singapore has a thread of melancholy running through the pages. From Punggol being a farmland, to roads being referred to as 1st mile, 2nd mile, 3rd mile, and so on. The book is reflective of what Singapore had been during the twilights of colonialism, to the beginning of self-governance from the British. The ang moh aren’t depicted as colonial overlords, but as people trying to blend into society. There is certainly a sense of mutual respect between the author, and his British counterparts.

Where the first book left off, the second book - Man of Malaysia - continues. The second is where the author ventures to Kuala Lumpur to work as a chaffeur for the British High Comission, and meets the love of his life. Where Son of Singapore was about the author growing up, Man of Malaysia is a coming of age story of how Kok Seng learnt life lessons fron attending Society University. The tone of the sequel is one of bare necessities. There is no allusion to pursue a greater endeavour, which goes against the pursuit of meritocracy in Singapore today. In addition, Malaysia is not perceived to be the weaker state to Singapore as The Straits Times in recent decades have portrayed her to be, but as one rich in culture as compared to the city state.

Amidst all the nostalgia evoked by both titles, we can easily conclude that Kok Seng’s story can be summed up by the song Xiao Ren Wu De Xin Sheng. Where the Xinyao song is just the tip of the iceberg, the books are representative of a Singapore and Malaysia at a transition not as terrifying as depicted by our mainstream media.