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What to read in Singapore: Great books about the area

Raffles and The British Invasion of Java

Tim Hannigan

Monsoon | 364 pages

For five years, in a period known as the British Interregnum (1811-1816), Britain and not Holland was the colonial master of Java. And our own celebrated Thomas Stamford Raffles – before the establishment of Singapore and before the prefix “Sir”  – ruled over the huge Indonesian island as its Lieutenant Governor. A year earlier, he’d been a clerk at the British East India Company’s Penang office; now, aged just 30, he was in charge of an island with a population of five million.

Cornish freelance writer and photographer Tim Hannigan has an ongoing love affair with Indonesia. In the archives of the British Library, he waded through the “reams of paperwork” churned out over the centuries by the British East India Company to unearth the truth about Raffles in Java. It’s fascinating stuff, but what kept me reading was the lyrical force and energy of Tim’s writing.

The Raffles he reveals is anything but the idealistic visionary that various biographers have conjured; certainly, he was neither respected by his colonial peers nor adored by the natives. The evidence shows that: “Far from being a paragon of virtue, Thomas Stanford Raffles was a very bad man indeed.”

Arrogance personified, he crushed any dissent from his fellow-colonials: To be part of his team, the author discovers, you had to be either “a committed collaborator or a sycophantic drone”.

That alone may not be enough to make Raffles “a bad man”; but inciting a native uprising to wipe out a small and remote group of remaining Dutch colonials is; so are the events surrounding the 1812 sacking and looting of Yogyakarta; horribly so is the shipping of hundreds of young women to the crazed and infamously debauched English merchant, harem-keeper and slave-trader Alexander Hare at Banjarmasin – Borneo’s own Heart of Darkness. The enslaved women included “those of loose morals”, and “pre-emptive criminals”, meaning those who it was thought might commit a crime!

Even allowing for a degree of bias on the part of the author, I’ll never be able to look at that statue in the same way again.

Verne Maree

An Essential Guide to Singlish

Gartbooks | 169

Available from Popular, Times, Kinokuniya and other local bookstores; $9.80

First published (by expatriates) in 2003 and now into its fourth edition, this is a hilarious little book. Singlish, of course, is the colloquial English that is peculiar to Singapore, its vocabulary an amalgam of English, Malay, Tamil and various Chinese dialects. In the authors’ words, it’s “a form of national heritage and a linguistic treasure in its own right”.

The idea is to join in and have some fun. From the most basic “okay, lah”, you’ll soon be agreeing with your taxi-driver that the driver is “blur like sotong” (as confused or stupid as a squid); exclaiming “Wah! So ex one, meh!” (Wow, so expensive!) at the price of durian; and asking the way to the hawker centre washroom with “Accuse me. Toy-lert?”

There’s also some basic information on shopping, bargaining, eating out and local customs and festivals. Best of all, it’s illustrated by Miel, the hugely popular Straits Times cartoonist.

Verne Maree

A Crowd of Twisted Things

Dawn Farnham

Monsoon | 326 pages

This is the fictional story of Annie Collins, a young Eurasian woman who returns to Singapore after World War II to search for her lost daughter – the child her husband gave away in the chaos of the Japanese Occupation.

Told in parallel with the true story of the custody battle over the Dutch girl Maria Hertogh in the early fifties, the racial tensions it exposed and the riots that ensued, Dawn’s accomplished novel is a study of the brutality of war, with special regard to the experience of women, mixed race and racism, suppressed memory and more.

You’ll appreciate Dawn’s evocation of a desperate Singapore under occupation, as well as what the country was like in those early post-war years, all brought to vivid life by the “immaculate research” she is known for. Too many questions are left unanswered, however – there has to be a sequel!

Verne Maree

Just for Kids

Extraordinary Losers

Jessica Alejandro

Bubbly Books | 142 pages

Written by Singaporean author Jessica Alejandro, this book series is a special treat for pre-teen kids like me living in Singapore. They give a sense of belonging and I can really relate to them, because they are set in Singapore.

The four characters in the books are adventurous, and a little weird too. My favourite is Darryl, who is obsessed with poetry and has a creative touch. I absolutely loved the way all the main characters found out about each others’ powers and used them to unravel mysteries and tackle their issues. The way the characters become best of friends and solve their first big mystery was by far my favourite part.

These books are great for kids aged nine to 13; they are sure to make readers laugh out loud. I particularly enjoyed the second book, as it was the funnier of the two, but both of the books are thoroughly enjoyable and very absorbing.

Siona Mitra (12) 

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Retold by Anna Milbourne, Gillian Doherty and Ruth Brocklehurst; illustrated by Fran Parreno

Usborne Illustrated | 280 pages

This hardcover book holds 12 wonderful Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, from The Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina to more obscure tales that adults will delight in either rereading or – as in my case – reading for the first time.

It’s one thing sharing a story with your children that you practically know off by heart from your childhood, but quite another magical experience reading a fairy tale for the first time yourself. The Flying Trunk, The Brave Tin Soldier and The Little Fir Tree are just a few of the many stories that entertained the whole family.

Beautiful illustrations, a small chapter on Mr Andersen himself and a ribbon marker complete this lovely gift book.

Maria Smart