Provocative political fantasy
Eastern Economic Review
December 14, 2000
Book Review by David Plott
PERHAPS MORE THAN any other two countries in the modern era, Singapore and Malaysia are bound by a history and geography that have made them ambivalent, and at times bitter, bedfellows. Both are an ethnic mixture of Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians. Both are former British colonies. And both have strutted onto the world stage as economic peacocks. And yet, like irritable spinsters at a late-night ball, they can't help bickering over who looks more fetching, or who is most worthy of the evening's spoils.
Citizens of both countries have accumulated strong prejudices about each other: Singaporeans are greedy, arrogant, godless and boring; Malaysians are lazy, corrupt, insecure, and backward. These prejudices have fuelled the acrimony that has marked relations over a range of bilateral issues--none more sensitive than water. Yes, water.
Singapore depends on Malaysia for much of its water. That rankles Singaporeans, and fills Malaysians with the mischievous satisfaction of a courtier holding the emperor's clothes. More than once, threats to cut off the water have echoed across the causeway separating the two countries. As recently as November 26, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, in a rancorous outburst at Singapore, suggested Malaysia should, indeed, cut off water to Singapore in response to what he described as the contemptuous view Singapore's leadership had of Malays.
Enter Joshua Parapuram's Once in a Blue Moon--a story of Singapore's invasion of southern Malaysia to secure, at last, the Lion City's water supply.
This provocative first novel is a military and political fantasy that lances a boil in Singapore-Malaysia relations, exposing at once the mutual hostility between Singaporean Chinese and Malaysian Malays and the interdependence between the two countries that would make any military conflict a disaster for both.
Set early in the new millennium, it describes a blitzkrieg operation by Singaporean forces across the northern shores of the republic into Malaysia's southern state of Johor, aimed at seizing the water catchments vital to Singapore's survival. To be sure, the military and managerial superiority of Singapore are showcased, but there are more than a few nasty surprises in store as Malaysia resorts to wile, guile and terrorist bombings in the heart of Singapore to fend off the invaders. Duplicitous Americans, unscrupulous arms traders, and a cagey Malaysian military conspire to rob Singapore of the full fruits of her triumph, forcing her prime minister, Steven Chong--dubbed "the Great Man"--to pay hard cash for land she also paid for in blood. Singapore gets her water, and her slice of Johor Baru, but not without succumbing to the terrors of a wayang kulit, or shadow play, orchestrated by the Malaysians.
For anyone familiar with Singapore and Malaysia, this is a frank and delicious novel--rich, intelligent, clearly written, and pregnant with larger meanings. The 65-year-old Parapuram, who worked for much of his career as a journalist in Singapore and Malaysia and now lives in Sydney, told the REVIEW that he scribbled notes for almost 10 years before finally writing this novel in a burst of activity over three weeks in 1998. He said he wrote the novel in part to give voice to the ethnic and cultural bile that has poisoned relations between the two, and in part to demonstrate that neither can live without the other. "Singapore cannot survive without Malaysia, and Malaysia cannot survive without Singapore," he said. "I think I hit the nail right on the head."
Parapuram is now at work on a psychological crime thriller
based in a seedy part of Sydney.