"We need to be on the side of change": After the Inquiry Book Launch
After the Inquiry book launch was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 3 April 2021. You can access the livestream here and the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
Police sergeant Hafiz lies in a coma after a gunshot to the head. The investigation by Internal Affairs uncovered a game of Russian roulette gone wrong, and the case is now closed. But there are rumbles of concern in the Ministry, and middle-aged civil servant Boon Teck—assisted by young colleague Nithya—is dispatched to take another look.
Teo You Yenn (left), Jolene Tan (right)
Arin: Hi everyone, my name is Arin from Ethos Books. Welcome to the launch of After the Inquiry. Before we begin, we would like to thank Huggs x Epigram for supporting us with this venue. We would also like to remind those here at the bookstore that there will be no book signing or intermingling among the guests after this event due to safe distancing measures.
Those of us who are here today, we will be having a 40 min conversation between Jolene and You Yenn, followed by a 20 minute Q&A. Questions will be taken through Slido, please feel free to send your questions via the Slido link Those watching on livestream can find the link to slido in the Facebook comments.
Now I’d like to introduce our two speakers. Jolene Tan is a writer from Singapore, whose fiction includes the novel A Certain Exposure and a children’s picture book: Saturday’s Surprisingly Super Duper Lesson, both published by Epigram Books. She has also written numerous non-fiction articles, principally on equality and human rights, for publications such as New Naratif, The Online Citizen, The F Word, The Birthday Book, CNA and The Straits Times.
We also have Teo You Yenn, who is an Associate Professor and Provost chair in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University. She is the author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like as well as Neoliberal Morality in Singapore: How Family Policies Make State and Society. In 2018, for her contributions to igniting a national conversation on inequality and poverty, with This Is What Inequality Looks Like, she was named a finalist in the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year Award.
Please join me in welcoming Jolene and You Yenn.
I will have to sanitise the mic...
You Yenn: Good afternoon to everyone present here, as well as everyone watching from home. I’m so excited and happy to be here today. This is my first in-person speaking event in more than a year, so this feels extra special. I hope both those who are lucky enough to have tickets to be here today, as well as those watching from home, will feel the energy that comes from the fact that Jolene and I will be speaking to each other in the same space, and that we have other humans in the room to energize the conversation as well.
Thanks to Ethos Books for putting so much effort into making such an event possible during these times, as well as Huggs x Epigram for hosting us in this lovely space. And Jolene, thank you for inviting me to have this conversation with you about your remarkable book, After the Inquiry. I’ll just go right ahead.
One of the things I’ve greatly appreciated from our regular conversations over the past few years is a sense that we are both interested in—perplexed by—big, headline phenomena—capitalism! Meritocracy! Authoritarianism! Elitism!—and how these big headline things live in mundane habits, everyday consciousness, ordinary interactions and taken-for-granted relationships.
Despite very different disciplinary backgrounds, you and I understand each other very well. Perhaps this is a result of my being a strange sociologist, or you being a strange writer, I don't know, but in any case, I’m glad we’ve found ourselves meeting at this overlap.
It is at this meeting point that I’d like to start our conversation today. So here is my first question: what are the big headline phenomena and small habits you’re curious about and explore in After the Inquiry?
Jolene: I won’t repeat all the thanks, although I share them intensely, but obviously no one has thanked you yet, so thank you You Yenn for being here! And I wonder if we get along or synergise because it’s partly being prompted to look at things sociologically at a later stage in my life when it was not yet a habit that has galvanised so much of what I’ve done in recent years of my life. It exploded my old technocratic ways of thinking. So in a way I’m sort of a sociology translator for the uninitiated.
To answer your question - the headline phenomenon that I think After the Inquiry is about is how we sustain myths of our nation, specifically by unseeing the empirical evidence which would call those myths into question.
And in this respect, your book This Is What Inequality Looks Like was very much a seed crystal for me. I had already decided I wanted to write a novel, but I was casting about for what it would say. I was reading your book and flipping back and forth, looking at your footnotes. And I came across this line which I’ve since quoted in the epigraph in this novel, “Once we see, we cannot and must not unsee”.
Your book is in subject matter about poverty and inequality but it’s also about the fact that a national myth has been built that deliberately unsees those things. So it all came to me, as I was looking at this book, the core idea for this novel, the idea of a bureaucrat who is committed to a specious kind of facticity. That they are all about facts and rationality as their brand, but what they do in reality is actually very different from that, so that idea came to me, complete with footnotes.
So that is the headline phenomenon. In terms of small habits, it interested me when you used that phrase because I have thought about this book for a long time as one of miniaturised clarity, with a deliberately restricted cast and a deliberately restricted set of settings and actions in order to have that kind of miniaturised clarity. So the habits I look at are the habits to do with how we unsee things that are convenient for us to see. And how we unsee comes in many forms, and a lot of it depends on how evident or how insistent the glitch in the matrix is. How disturbing to our sense of reality is this blotch. Sometimes you have a fleeting moment, and sometimes you have an elephant that is too large to just blink away.
So for example when you have a huge rupture in our stories about ourselves, let’s say the case of Parti Liyani, right? We have a story about how we have a rule of law and due process and rights are respected, including the rights of migrants. But then something like that case comes along and really disrupts many people’s sense that those things are true. And that is a huge rupture when you have large power centers clashing, in this case, the judiciary making a pronouncement about a prosecution that was brought. But there are also smaller examples of unseeing or inconveniences or inconsistent evidence from moment to moment. So then we have a whole range of habits, right? You have the outright censorship, somehow you have to airbrush out the whole elephant.
But there are also everyday practices of interpretation when we see things happen, when we hear people speak, when we encounter their experiences… have we trained ourselves to interpret them in a way that perhaps is rooted in condescension or contempt? So that we don’t have to take into account the inconvenience of their experiences? Have we cultivated certain habits of inattention or incuriousity or a studiously cultivated lack of understanding? Have we promoted a culture of complicity, of looking away? Sometimes rooted in fear, sometimes consciously acknowledged and accompanied by feelings of discomfort, or perhaps sometimes just routinised? We just turn away, we don’t want to look.
Even amongst those who share similar visions for a better society, say amongst people in the social sector who want to tackle questions of inequality, or people involved in human rights advocacy who want to promote greater human rights, there can also be arguments about effective ways of doing that amount to taking sides with unseeing and effectively promote silence. So I think this book tries to look at a series of little habits and little ways in which we unsee, we bury, we deny the evidence of our censors, because we don’t want to follow the evidence to the conclusions that they will lead to.
You Yenn: After the Inquiry strikes me as a book that requires you to trust the reader quite a bit—to trust them not so much to ‘get it,’ because it’s not like there is a singular and straightforward thing to get, but to trust that they’re willing to work for it, that they’re willing to do some labour as they’re reading to work through its layers and connecting tissues, and to trust that they won’t quickly take sides, because I think once you take sides some of the central tension crumbles. Were you thinking about this when you were writing?
Jolene: Absolutely, 100%. I think that whenever I write anything, I am always wondering, why the heck would anybody read this? There’s so much stuff out there that you could be reading, why… how can I ask you, reader, to indulge me and invest the time in my book? What is the payoff of this text? And in general I have a great desire to frontload the payoff of any text that I write. The very nature of this book is that it doesn’t do that. And so that was difficult and uncomfortable for me. This book takes the form partly of a mystery novel, so it’s a kind of puzzle box. There’s all sorts of small clues that something is not quite right in what we’re looking at, that some characters are paying much more attention to what’s in front of them than others. Little moments of seeming insignificance that only make you go “Oh!” in hindsight. So in a way actually I would say that it requires the reader to enact precisely what we ought to be doing in real life, which is to pay more attention, to check what it is that we think we know, and to ask of both oneself and others not just how do you know, but also why do you talk in this way?
It’s tricky because the book is one where, like I said, a lot of the payoff comes at the end, when all the dominoes fall and then you can look down from the sky and see the pattern that it makes, I think that is much of its satisfaction. It’s not always immediately apparent as you watch the person laying the dominoes that is as enjoyable. That said, as a reader, while I do sometimes want things to be fluid or easy, I also think there is pleasure in difficulty, I think there is pleasure in the suspension of quick conclusions, so I do tend to personally quite like big knotty texts that require some working through, and the satisfaction then of the disparate parts coming together.
I think a further complication in this book is that not only do I ask the reader to do all this work, I also ask them to be patient with a narrator who’s actually quite annoying, and in the specific ways which he’s annoying can overlap with bad writing. So for instance you read Lolita, right, and Humbert Humbert is a horrible, horrible person, but he writes like an angel. So while there is the discomfort of having to inhabit Humbert’s head, there is also the payoff of getting to savour the language.
I think another unsympathetic narrator that also influenced me a lot in writing this was Dr Faraday in Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. He also is a very unsympathetic narrator, but he doesn’t play his unpleasant cards up front. At first you have a sense of compassion and good sense from him. So this is a bit trickier, because that’s not immediately apparent. What I would say is that part of this is also deliberately intended to provoke people to read it differently. One thing that I would say is interesting for me is that Teck is actually wrong from the first page. He’s wrong in his own descriptions of what he’s doing from the very start and he’s actually already revealing what his real interests are at the very start when he immediately starts talking about hierarchies and who’s more important and who’s junior and who’s senior. But it’s not perhaps immediately obvious. So I hope it’s also a book that repays rereading, in that sense.
You Yenn: For sure. Since you mention Teck, who is the main character of the book, I shall ask you this now. What is it like to live with an annoying voice in your head, I presume you’ve had to live with this voice in your head for awhile in order to write the book? So could you tell us specifically about that voice in your head, and then a bit more generally about your process of writing?
Jolene: Yeah sure. In a sense don’t we all live with Teck’s voice in our heads? I mean we do, right?
You Yenn: Some more than others.
Jolene: Okay, some more than others. Those of us who want to make sense of the ways in which our society is presently regulated and ordered, and those of us who want to understand the ideologies of the powerful, I am not sure that we can do that without already having Teck’s voice in our head. In some ways, obviously, he’s a very specific and idiosyncratic character with his own oddities, at the same time one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I’ve had about this book is, “I know Teck,” “I have encountered Teck,” “I have had to deal with Teck.” So I would say that coming up with his voice was not hard. It’s just not hard. I think even without this book, I have thought about Teckism much more than any person should have to!
The trickier thing was threading the needle to use his voice to say the things that he doesn’t want to say. And so I think in a way it’s quite liberating to have written this because there’s a kind of power asserted by fictionalising. Writers are horrible, right, we are utterly horrible. We are like vampires, we take you and we put you in our text and we make you what A. S. Byatt calls “capering word puppets”. We make you the object of our study. We get to assess Teck, he who would like to assess everybody else around him. So in a sense it wasn’t actually as unpleasant as one might imagine, although I apologise to the readers who have experienced this unpleasantness.
You Yenn: I think this links to the next question I want to ask, which is related to the form of the book. So I know that some people have read the book, some people haven’t, so I’ll try to ask the question carefully so that it doesn’t reveal too much. But the form of the book is interesting and I know reviewers of the book have commented on this, that it falls in the format of a report, and there’s presence of footnotes. And they strike me as playful—report-not-report; footnotes-not-footnotes; sorry-not-sorry. Playfulness is a surprising thing in a book with such a serious plot, where the central event is grave and dark. I don’t want to spoil the magic by having you unpack it too much for us, but I wonder if you could say a little about the form of the novel?
Jolene: So I was very attracted to the technical challenge. As I said, sort of by definition, we can only see what the narrator sees, and yet we will and must see more than he sees. So that for me was very interesting in approaching the form of this novel and very different from my first novel, in which I adopted this– I mean I’ve already referred to A.S. Byatt, I’m mildly obsessed with A.S. Byatt— But this sort of A.S. Byatt style of omniscience, I know everything, I will jump from the thoughts in one person’s head to another in the same space. So this is very different, being limited in that way. But I think the form is crucial, and the form and the content came to me at the same time. The book is very much about, partly about the illusions of facticity, the illusions of correctness in a society that tends to treat a certain kind of formal documentation and a certain kind of register or language or certain sort of credentials as the hallmarks of correctness. And in fact, people who can deploy such language have a monopoly on objectivity, on rationality, on definitions of merit. When in fact these tools can also be used in order to obscure and to bully rather than to illuminate and to explain.
At the same time I don’t want to suggest that I have used this in order to be simplistically anti-intellectual or to say that truth is complicated. There is a fact of the matter in this book, it exists. There are rights and wrongs, there are hard-nosed reasons why the people in the book act as they do. I reject the approach of lazily hand-waving things away as being about murky primordial emotions, or things are ineffable, when there is something the investigation clarifies. Which is part of what the book is about, that investigation can clarify. So I’m not saying that there might not be, in some cases, an impenetrable mystery at the core of things, but I want to ask, have we honestly got there yet? Have we got the habit of actually checking before we resort to easy cliches? So if anything can save us, if we can save ourselves, I think what I’m trying to suggest is it’s both skepticism and also connection to one another.
You Yenn: What’s with the footnotes?
Jolene: It is part of that apparatus of evidence and justification. What counts as evidence, what counts as justification? It is also partly that… I think a lot of us in Singapore are accustomed to trying to read tea leaves because things are not transparent, things are not clear. We are not owed reasons for why things are the way they are, and when reasons are given and the reasons are challenged, we are apparently sometimes not owed reasons for why the reasons appear so bad or so inconsistent. And so we spend our time reading tea leaves and investigating subtext. And I wanted to make that a literal thing in the book: you have to read the subtext.
You Yenn: Don’t skip these particular footnotes. Thinking of Singapore studies in the social sciences, I am often struck by a kind of sadness about a central paradox—that we talk a great deal about the state without being able to really talk about the state properly. We circumvent a lot, we speak in circles, trying to avoid offending. And I don’t think it’s just that we censor, but that over time something about our own capacities for thinking and seeing get affected.
So when I think about the social sciences, I think a lot about how no single work can be free of being situated within that broader context, and I wonder when you were writing the book, whether you also thought in terms of how your book situates within Singapore literature, what kinds of constraints of thought did you feel you might be pushing against? How do you work through it? And if it’s not too unfair to ask, did you feel you stopped short in ways?
Jolene: I think the great joy of fiction is that it is a form where you can say many things that you perhaps could not say if you posited it as fact. I am very fond of saying of this book that it is not fake news, it is deliberate falsehood. I mean it’s fiction, right? I can tell as many falsehoods as I want, this is completely false, none of this is true, it’s fine, you get to say it. It’s a kind of play, it makes no pretense to be fact. In a sense, in the kind of headline sense of are you going to get in legal trouble for saying things, one would hope that that doesn’t apply. At the same time, it’s true that there obviously are things that people are uncomfortable about hearing even in fiction.
I’m very grateful to Huggs x Epigram for hosting us today, because actually there was another venue that had accepted the booking and accepted the time and place, then was sent a copy of the book and then declined to continue to host the event. So it’s clear that something about it is troubling to certain people that they regard it as kind of sensitive or disturbing. I would also say that… I used to work at AWARE in communications, and I left in order to write this partly because I felt that the headspace of an organisational spokesperson was not necessarily the best one for writing this book. I was continually thinking about “Is this something that the group can reasonably say? How does this make the group look?” Which is not the sort of question that I want to be asking in fiction. Maybe a more disciplined person than I could compartmentalise. But I found just the need for my brain to be clear of that.
I did feel that I had more freedom in some ways than if one were working in other settings and media. But at the same time when I think about it, I also think that the idea of freedom as an individual is also partly a self-congratulatory fantasy. I am probably not fully conscious of many of my limits. But for instance when I started working at AWARE and I had done civil society work for Singapore but I had been living overseas. So for example for me, protest was normal. For instance when 2014 happened and there was the threat to pulp certain children’s books in the library because they depicted same-sex relationships, my instinct at the time was “let’s just go organise something, let’s just announce it on Facebook. Oh no, hundreds of people have signed up, oh… do I need a permit? No la, go library read books doesn’t need a permit right?” And only when the police called me up and were like you need a permit, then I went “Okay.” Somehow my mentality had changed.
I think partly also the environment has changed. I think Singapore after the death of Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015 was much more inhospitable to certain kinds of civil liberties or exercise of civil liberties than before, so the environment has changed but I had already adopted those changes and made them part of me. So in a sense I can’t really answer your question about where I pull my punches, because it’s already in my brain.
You Yenn: Since you mention these different things that you do write, fiction and non-fiction, I mean you’ve started to answer this a little bit, but I wanted to say a little bit more about how you move back and forth between these genres and how you see the possibilities and limitations in both?
Jolene: I think that for me the demands of non-fiction are more straightforward in that I would have to check that things were correct and make things clear and organised. Partly this is maybe because of the nature of the non-fiction that I write, which has tended to be on fairly discrete topics; I have not tackled a very large work in non-fiction. So there is a greater sense that there is an inherent organisation in the material and I just need to discover it.
photo of Jolene speaking
I think the difficulty of fiction, for me, is the need for the work to be worth it. So this means that overall this needs to be something that I think is worth saying in this format, that is worth somebody struggling through, which took a lot more work to do, I think. In this particular case I think it’s interesting and it’s quite different from my first book. My first book is very much purely driven by relationships. I had certain scenes that I had in mind and certain concerns that I wanted to raise. But to a large extent, my overall concern was with a kind of psychological and emotional authenticity. These had to be things that made sense, that a human being would do.
In this case, everything had to be things that made sense and that a human being could do, but they also needed to serve the overall pattern or dance of the other considerations as well. So this was actually a much more formally-plotted affair, and I did a lot more plotting beforehand of the key incidents and sort of explaining not only what actually happened, how could that be, how would it be revealed, what are the stakes, and for all of these things to plausibly make sense within the constraints of this first-person narration. So that was, to me, a new challenge. But a very satisfying one.
You Yenn: How do you think about the connections between your first novel and this second one?
Jolene: I guess, I don’t know if anybody here is a reader of S. E. Hinton, who is the writer of a very well-known work called “The Outsiders”. My sense of narrative is very shaped by having read S.E Hinton when I was a teenager.
And.. ok I’m just seeing blank faces…
You Yenn: Maybe you could explain?
Jolene: I’ll explain. S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders which is often regarded as one of the most defining works of Us-American Young Adult fiction. She wrote about teenagers I think in the 50s—I think it was the 50s—these rough poor boys called Greasers, and the fights they would get into with one another and with the rich kids in town called the Socs [pronounced Soashes].
She’s got a lot of books about roughly this milieu. The Outsiders is a very vulnerable and idealistic novel, which centers on the relationships between this pack of boys, really.
Although terrible things happen, the defining theme in it, or the defining line is: “Stay gold, Ponyboy”. Because one of the main characters gets really into this poem by Robert Frost about how nothing gold can stay, the idea is that all innocence fades but the book is a strong assertion of the importance of innocence and vulnerability, and openness to beauty, even though terrible things happen.
S.E. Hinton’s second book “That Was Then, This Is Now” and is a book about betrayal. And about a messy movement towards maturity in which people who are open and vulnerable with each other are nevertheless pushed apart by external forces and end up hurting one another. I see a certain similarity of trajectory in my novels as well. A Certain Exposure is a book in which terrible things happen as well but is also a book that is very much about... it’s insistent on putting forward those hopes, and desires, and those feelings and vulnerabilities and idealisms to which terrible things happen.
I think there is more of an interest in the interlocking structures that generate terrible things in After The Inquiry. Although I think none of this makes sense, unless there is also a recognition of those hopes, and desires and feelings and vulnerabilities and idealisms and those things are still there, I think that the focus has shifted slightly to the ways in which those things can come under attack.
You Yenn: I think we have some time for questions.
Q: How do you think we can open up space (if ever) for discussion in SG for moving beyond carceral justice and policing?
Jolene: I think that there is a very good move already. The fact that this question has come out—I’m not sure this question would have been asked at the launch of my first book—I think that the answer to this is similar to the answer for all the questions about how we can have more space in Singapore for everything. There are many existing attempts to try and work on this. Friends from, for example the Transformative Justice Collective (Hi Kirsten, Hi Koki) trying to put forward things like accounts of people’s experiences in prison, drug rehabilitation centres (essentially prisons). People have been working for years on trying to combat the death penalty.
The answer is quite boring—it’s nothing new, we just have to keep doing. We have to not accept the demonisation of people who do and think about how we can support them. Question the ways in which our actions, our own words or narratives may be actually hurting rather than supporting those efforts. There’s a huge array of tools that have been used successfully in other places and that people are attempting to use here (e.g. public interest litigation, to journalism, to community support for those who are on the receiving end of injustices, to protest, etc.)
I’m not saying anything new, we just need to be on the side of change.
Q: With a vague idea of the book, do you think "looking over the shoulder' and trying not to be 'out of line' is something common in our society?
Jolene: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I’m sure that nobody—I think that nobody—I assume that nobody from the highest echelons would have rung up the previous venue who cancelled this event and said, “EH. THIS BOOK AH, VERY BAD. CANNOT. YOU ALL MUST CANCEL THE EVENT!”
It must have been that somebody decided of their own accord that anything that gets too close, we better just play safe. There is no cost to us to stamp down on everything preemptively. But there’s plenty of cost if something becomes a controversy. I think that is one of the mentalities that we need to get rid of. Stop thinking that there’s no cost to you when you clamp down on things. The cost to you is that all the people who would stand up for you, the next time something happens to you…they are disempowered, the mechanisms for helping you when you are in an unfortunate situation, become dismantled. So I think that, definitely, people look over their shoulders.
Q: How do you think your work situates within the recent local, fictive political novels such as State of Emergency, Charlie Chan Hock Chye? Are there common themes
Jolene: I enjoy both of those works immensely. I think they are extremely interesting. Those two works are more, clearly, about history. My book is set in some unspecified era of Singapore. In a kind of more obviously alternate Singapore in that the characters are not in any way analogues. I think it is a more contemporary-focused book in that respect.
You Yenn: Are there any more questions?
Q: In the books to me, Teck and Nithya represent different responses to attractions and deceptions to systems of power and how they respond to the truths and trade-offs as presented by the state. Other than the clearly different positionalities, or where they come from in life, in your mind as you were making sense of it, were there other factors that then informed how they respond? What makes someone be like, “You know what, this is too fucked up, I’m outta here” or like, “Yeah ok, I can see why, even though it’s a bit fucked up, there are benefits so I’ll go along with it.” versus wholly accepting that this is for the greater good… so how did you parse these different issues?
Jolene: I’m going to repeat the question so the home audience can also hear. The question is about the two characters of Teck and Nithya who are both civil servants who respond to the events of the novel and information that they uncover in very different ways. The question from Kokila was: other than their positionalities in life being different, is there anything else that accounts for this difference in the way they respond?
What I was trying to...there is a complicated verbal pun.
The thing about Teck is that he is all over the place. He gives this impression of being very organised and there are… but then you can see that it goes everywhere. He goes into all types of digressions about his personal life, his opinions of people touching cats… All kinds of things also we have to hear.
Somebody had asked me previously, what is it like to be in the head of a character with no empathy at all? My response was actually… I was quite interested by this, because one thing I wanted to write was precisely that Teck does have empathy, it’s just that the empathy is completely uselessly adrift, in a fragmented individual. And it was this notion of fragmentation that I was very interested in. In a way it’s, like I said, a complicated pun, because he’s somebody with no integrity. If you think of integrity as being one thing, that the words that you say, the things that you do, and the feelings that you have are in concert with each other… and I think that is one critical difference between the two characters. That Nithya, at one point when he looks at her, he thinks, with this surprise, that she’s a sincere person. That’s him intuiting that there’s something strangely unitary about her. That her perceptions and her words and her actions are one, whereas with him it’s kind of all over the place.
I have another epigraph here. Other than You Yenn, I quote Peter Pomerantsev, whose book ‘Nothing Is true, Everything Is Possible’ was another major inspiration for me in writing this book. He wrote this account of post Soviet Russia:
“Imagine if you grew up lying. Not a little bit, for convenience, but during every public moment of your life: at school, at work, at social events. You had to lie to survive, because the punishment for telling the truth was the loss of your academic or professional career, or even prison. For Russians who came of age before 1991, this is the only way they know. The mature generation grew up with this behavior during the later years of the Soviet Union: reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and listening to clandestine BBC reports in private while pretending to be good Communist Youth League or party members.
When I went to work as a TV producer in Moscow in the early 2000s, I would ask my peers which of the “selves” they grew up with was the “real” them. How did they locate the difference between truth and lies? “You just end up living in different realities,” they would tell me, “with multiple truths and different ‘yous.' ”
When members of this generation came to power they created a society that was a feast of simulations, with fake elections, a fake free press, a fake free market and fake justice. They are led by religious Russian patriots who curse the decadent West while keeping their children and money in London and informed by television producers who make Putin-worshiping shows during the day, and listen to energetically anti-Putin radio shows the moment they get into their cars after work. It’s almost as if you are encouraged to have one identity one moment and the opposite one the next. So you’re always split into little bits, and can never quite commit to changing things.
But there is comfort in these splits, too. That wasn’t you stealing from that budget, making that propaganda show or bending your knee to the president — just a role you were playing. All cultures split the public and private selves, but in Russia that split is often total…“Everything is P.R.,” my Moscow peers would tell me. This cynicism is useful to the state: When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world. Thus the paradox: the gullible cynic.”
And that’s kind of something that I was trying to explore as well, the idea that everything is PR, I mean he’s an actor, as a hobby.,. you can say anything that needs to be said. And it’s not that they betray the true self, it’s just that the true self ceases to exist.
You Yenn: So fragmentation as amorality? Is that what you’re saying?
Jolene: Ya, yeah I guess.
You Yenn: We have 3 or 4 more questions...
Q: There's a movement of young Singaporean progressives. How can these individuals influence policy when the incumbents tend to self-select ppl like themselves?
Q: In real life, like in After the Inquiry, there are indeed local civil servants that are caught bet. the system & progress, especially the younger/liberal ones. How would one reconcile that?
Q: Would you say that your book is hopeful, despite how terrible things happen because of terrible systems of power?
Two questions broadly speaking about contrast between Singapore and the West. Sorry the question order keeps shifting...
Q: How do you think your time and experience overseas influenced your thoughts and your writing (apart from normalising protests 😂)?
Q: Do you think there is a merit in thinking like a Teck, and could it be something that the West lacks?
Q: How can civil society activists make sure they don’t replicate the culture of unseeing, especially when it comes to uncritically celebrating each other
Jolene: The first question is about how to change policy when the incumbent prioritises reproduction? Good question, I wish we knew... Ok, no, more seriously, not to be facetious. Lots of people are trying to do this. And I think that, when I started working for AWARE and started to get involved in civil society about 6-10 years ago, my feeling was very much that the space for—even within the circumscribed civil liberties that we have—we had not saturated the space for talking about policy. We citizens had not taken the space that was available to us and maximised the use for it. So, my thinking was, just do la. Just say, what’s the big deal? Just say you disagree, just keep saying the things that you think. I think that since the time when I began doing that, and now, we are no longer in that situation. There are many many many people that are saying them loudly and taking the space that is there to say them. The problem now is that we are… The petri dish is full. We are bursting at the seams. The seams need to be let out.
The problem, I think, I have come to the conclusion that it's all very well and good to use the space that’s there, but we need to just push and make the space open. The question is how can we do that when the incumbents blah blah blah...I mean, the incumbents just have to be able to change. That’s it. We have to be able to get rid of the existing incumbents and put in new ones. If there is no hope of getting rid of the incumbents and putting in new ones, then things will not change. Because they like things as they are. They have ideology and particular views. There are limits to the things that they can think. This notion that the PAP can be all things to all people… and it can be this omnipotent.. I can mutate and serve all needs… it’s just false.
I’m not saying that it has to be a different incumbent in power, it has to be possible that a different incumbent could be in power. If not then why would you do things differently? Let these people make noise, they make noise finish, I just go back and make the decisions that I want.
Unless we have greater democratic contestability, unless we push the boundaries of things like freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. Unless more people stop preemptively saying “I cancel the launch because somehow this storybook is very threatening”.. We need to push on the civil liberties front and the democratic change front if you want to to change policy. I don’t think it’s going to happen by continually appealing to the better angels of the PAP’s nature.
You Yenn: Young civil servants caught between the system and progress.
Jolene: I have very presumptuously written a book in which these things purport to be dealt with, but then I also don’t know right. I’m not there. I do not know what the specific constraints faced by them are. I would turn around the question and say, “Why is it on the young civil servants? What about the older civil servants, and the other people who are above the civil servants, and everybody else to civil servants?” If we want to see young civil servants with different ideas make those ideas into more of a reality. What can everybody else do to support what is happening? If people get punished for being contrary to the dominant narrative, what are we going to do to support them for example? I wouldn’t want to presume to say what civil servants should do.
You Yenn: Would you say your book is hopeful despite how terrible things happen because of a terrible system?
Jolene: I always say “Hopeless also must do” and “Sian also must do” On some level, I must be hopeful if not why I do right? Logically speaking, if I was completely hopeless I would just disengage and eat cake all the way (oh wait I do that anyway).
Why would you punish yourself by paying attention and engaging, unless on some level you believe that things could be different? This book is not without—it’s the same with A Certain Exposure—untapped solutions. For me one thing that you can see at the end, Teck’s great fear——spoiler alert... There is a sense in which certain individuals are fragmented, but also individuals are cut off from one another. It’s very clear that that is part of the way in which people can be kept in fear. I think coming together, reassuring one another that we’ve got one another’s backs and that we’re not just all gaslit into forgetting reality. I think that's very important. For me, that’s a key part of any hope we are to have.
You Yenn: The two questions about your time and experience living overseas influenced your writing. Whether there’s something about Teck that indicates...Is there merit in thinking like Teck?
Jolene: I can't say, it’s very difficult to say, how one’s time overseas may affect one because the counterfactual of being here does not exist. As a writer, I'm deeply influenced primarily by other books I've read. I see the book as... if you ask me to explain the book, left to my own devices, without having to be intelligible to other people, I would say oh it’s as if I wrote That Was Then, This is Now after writing “The Outsiders”. So, I would explain it in terms of other books. A lot of these books I read when I was overseas. Maybe I would have read them here as well, who knows? If I were to think about things that were more specific maybe..
It’s that for a while, I was very interested in and paid attention to Singapore but I was not in any way dependent on having a trimmed version of my notion of Singapore in order to make ends meet. It’s not like if I said something or I thought the wrong thing, suddenly my ability to do my job would be in jeopardy. Or suddenly my ability to get housing or to get some kind of immigration status, or to get some other kind of administrative benefit would have been called into question. It’s not as if I expressed the wrong opinion about Singapore, my boss would look at me askance. It’s possible that I just got to play with different ideas in a kind of safe space for some time. It’s possible that that was relevant. It’s hard to say.
You Yenn: Do you think there’s any merit in thinking like Teck?
Jolene: He’s an extremely unsympathetic character. I think this ties back to Kokila’s question. He’s not without his own brand of—at one point—idealism as well right? There’s one scene in which we see him being confronted with something he thinks is wrong. I don’t want to say that the character is wholly without redeeming qualities because that would be very boring and a complete artistic failure on my part. I hope. I’m not entirely sure what this person had in mind when they said ‘thinking like Teck’. You know, he’s occasionally interesting… I guess.
You Yenn: And the question about civil society activists and activists should make sure they’re not replicating the culture of unseeing?
Jolene: That’s a good question. A lot of civil society gets entangled in this. When there’s an application of state force, or influence, then arguments erupt because people feel threatened. So let's say some people hold a protest and they are threatened with legal action. There can be a desire to distance oneself and be like, “Oh why they do that?” “Why their sign so aggressive?” Why do they sound so aggressive?” “Why when he went to this hearing, why did he talk in this way?” “Why don’t they put their case better?” Being self-critical is important to a very large degree in order to improve ourselves. But there’s also a point where it can shade into taking the side of the bully, by victim-blaming. because if I can convince myself the reason why these consequences were visited upon that person, it’s because they have the wrong comportment, or they word themselves wrongly, or they choose the tactic of protest instead of the tactic of writing a position paper… then I am safe.
Actually you are not safe. Once the state has dealt with that lot, they can also come for you later. So, I don’t think it’s true that we’re safe but it can create the illusion of safety. I think we need to unlearn the habit of blaming people for not being smart enough to outwit the system. Actually if something is completely harmless and a legitimate expression of someone’s thoughts and feelings in good faith, then even they didn’t do it in the most supremely strategic, tactical, state-pleasing, society-pleasing way…why should we join in on stamping on them? So that’s something that I hope people who are interested in social and political progress can unlearn.
You Yenn: Thanks very much. Were there other questions… What are you working on now?
Jolene: At the moment nothing, because we’ve been very involved in After the Inquiry. But my feeling about what I want to write next: I said earlier that this was a book of miniaturised clarity. I also said that formally it’s more complicated than the first book. I hope that I've leveled up a bit in terms of *skillz*. I am feeling as though Book #3 or Novel #3, I would like to be big and sprawling in a way that this was not.
You Yenn: Very exciting, so we have a lot to look forward to. Thank you again Jolene, and congratulations, very happy… Now we must perform cleaning the microphone.
Jolene: The year is 2095, no one remembers why the ancient tradition of cleaning the microphone began.
Arin: Can everyone join me in giving You Yenn and Jolene a round of applause? Thank you to everyone for being with us today, those here at Huggs x Epigram, and those watching on the livestream at home.
If you’d like to catch Jolene Tan at another event, she will be on the upcoming panel Meeting in the Middle: The Right to Read with Balli Kaur Jaswal, Lune Loh and moderated by Kokila Annamalai. They will be talking about freedom and access to knowledge, young people’s rights and the extent to which we should control what young people can read, if at all.
Thank you ! :)
Jolene Tan is a writer from Singapore, whose fiction includes the novel A Certain Exposure (Epigram Books, 2014), short fiction published in The Manchester Review, and a children's picture book, Saturday's Surprisingly Super-Duper Lesson (Epigram Books, 2020). She has also written numerous non-fiction articles, principally on equality and human rights, for publications such as New Naratif, The Online Citizen, The F Word, The Birthday Book, CNA and The Straits Times.
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