Singapore writer Felix Cheong wants to know where and why the country has lost its soul.
He said, “We have become this glamour city, full of chrome and glass, tall iconic buildings, but no soul.”
Cheong, author of short stories collection “Vanishing Point”, takes on this issue in his new book, along with hot-button topics like transport, education and economic growth.
Called “Singapore Siu Dai”, which translates to “less sugar” in Hokkien, it is a collection of 50 short stories that satirize life in Singapore.
Having previously written poetry collections and fiction novels, this is Cheong’s ninth book and his first foray into humorous fiction.
The 49-year-old writer feels strongly about the political themes he tackles in his book. Civil servants are satirized in the book, depicted as characters who form the government’s elite but who do not see people as people.
He said, “We have been in this same status quo for far too long. After 50 years, I think it’s time something changes.”
He rejects what he describes as the “siege mentality” of the government, which often warns that “we are under siege all the time, we are a small country, we have no natural resources, and we need to grow by 2 percent, 5 percent.”
While Cheong appreciates that the country needs economic growth, he does not think it should be “at the expense of soft skills, of people skills, of EQ skills.”
Disappointed with the Singapore Conversation dialogue sessions held in 2013, which he felt had “a very top-down approach”, he decided to use his book to ease people into political conversations using ordinary situations they can relate to and laugh about.
“If a writer were to write a ‘Singapore Conversation’, what would it sound like? So it exploded into this series, in which a citizen talks back to the government.”
He quipped, “The regime now is more open, this book would not have seen the light of day 25 years ago.”
His stories also explore some of the different behaviours he observes among Singaporeans. According to Cheong, “we like to be seen as cosmopolitan, yet we have very third-world behaviours like spitting, lack of graciousness, littering and so on.”
He added, “There is this huge disparity in making the jump from third to first world in one generation. We have not caught up in terms of our behavior, like queuing up overnight and fighting over Hello Kitty.”
That’s not to say that Cheong does not indulge in any Singaporean quirks. “Being Singaporean, I am naturally kiasu,” he said. He carries around a collection of vouchers in an envelope, as he never knows when he might get to use them.
Cheong took inspiration for the stories from personal experiences, the discourse among his friends, and from whatever issues that struck him.
A series on matchmakers was inspired by conversations he had with real-life matchmakers about their clients, such as married people who were still looking for dates.
He particularly enjoyed writing the stories about the misadventures of three Ah Bengs. “I had lots of fun writing about them, it came very naturally to me,” he said. “Maybe it’s the HDB Ah Beng in me talking,” he joked.
Published by Ethos Books, the book was launched in February and has received praise from humourist Neil Humphreys and creator of Singapore’s satirical news show “The Noose”, Prem Anand.
Still keen to tackle more issues concerning Singapore, Cheong has a sequel lined up. Due in September this year, it is tentatively titled “Singapore Siu Dai 2: The SG conversation, upsized”.