It’s ok to be ordinary in success-driven Singapore.
When I read Sebastian Sim’s The Riot Act and Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao!, there was no denying that the Epigram Fiction Prize-winning author was deserving of his accolades, having penned two novels that encapsulated the Singaporean experience with wry, laugh out loud humour that touched on all the right political notes, and made light of how absurd life could be. So it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to his new novel And The Award Goes To Sally Bong!
Intended as the companion novel to Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao! (and taking place in the same version of Singapore, with similar characters and events), Sally Bong turns our attention away from the high flying politician protagonist of his previous novel, and instead, focuses on an ordinary Singaporean who just wants to do good. That person is of course, Sally Bong, a principled, middle class Chinese woman whose life’s motto seems to be to leave a place better than when when she found it.
In typical Sebastian Sim style, Sally Bong begins with an absurd yet quintessentially Singaporean event, with Sally posing for a photo with the Prime Minister thanks to the great optics of her teaching an Indian schoolmate Mandarin. The remainder of her childhood is meteoric to say the least, as she emerges a top student, academically-inclined while also constantly striving to raise her bright ideas to the school (only to be cruelly shut down time and time again by the system). It’s not hard to root for her; from her love for Enid Blyton novels, to helping her father choose an English name, to her unexpected rivalry at school, Sebastian plasters her backstory with enough detail to fully flesh her out as a complex, richly layered character.
It is this same sense of justice and the need to go out of her way to do something that guides Sally through the ups and downs of her life. She is an ordinary woman, yet extraordinary in that she dares to do things when other Singaporeans would simply accept the status quo, carving her into a relatable, everyday heroine.
While the story does seem to be about Sally, Sebastian Sim’s books really, are about the marginalised and forgotten members of our society, and in Sally Bong, these members appear as a swathe of characters who continually expand Sally’s world view and turn her from an empathetic do-gooder, into a worldly, understanding force for the better. From single mothers to ex-offenders, the beauty of this novel is how it is seen through Sally’s perspective as an ‘ordinary’ Singaporean, and allows readers to understand just how much privilege she has compared to them, and how so many policies have left them on the sidelines for years.
In particular, much like how Gimme Lao! made the LGBTQ community a key part of the plot, so does Sally Bong, with Sally unwittingly befriending lesbians and gay men, and encountering gay men forcing themselves into the closet for the sake of religion and their families, suppressing their ‘same-sex attraction’. Sally may have unwittingly committed Atonement (Ian McEwan) levels of betrayal in her youth when she accidentally outs a colleague, but over the years, has probably done enough in her own right to become a true ally to the community.
But mostly, Sally Bong ends up being a joyous read for all the recognizable Singaporean elements, and how Sebastian cleverly weaves in all these issues with the major events that our country has faced over the years. Flip to any given chapter, and you might be reading about audio bloggers making it big, or tortured artists recovering from the trauma of childhood sexual exploitation, or corporate bigwigs embezzling funds. Some of the explanations and inserts do come across as hamfisted or forced, but by the very fact that Sim manages to insert them all in, is itself remarkable. For those who’ve read Gimme Lao, there’s even an entire segment about bubble tea stalls that overlaps, and one can only hope Sim continues to add on to this literary universe with future novels.
Sally Bong ends on a note of uncertainty, as its characters face the oncoming threat of COVID-19 in 2020. It’s a bit of an odd place to end off, considering how it hits a little too close to our present circumstances and feels inconclusive as a result. But perhaps rather than focusing on the challenges ahead, we see how in its final chapter, the now middle-aged Sally continues to influence the next generation of children one at a time. In spite of all the struggles experienced by the entire range of characters, the future is still full of hope, and Sally Bong assures us that change can happen, one person at a time.
Recommended for: Readers who want more of Sebastian Sim and love to see Singaporean life reflected in a funhouse mirror, funny yet oddly sad.
And The Award Goes To Sally Bong! is published by Epigram and available here