Book Review: Doing Good Vs Looking Good in Sebastian Sim’s Comedy Novel, Arts News & Top Stories
And the prize goes to Sally Bong!
By SÃ©bastien Sim
Fiction / Epigram Books / Paperback / 303 pages / $ 26.64 / Available here
4 out of 5
And the prize goes to Sebastian Sim – given that this comedic tale of an ordinary Singaporean woman earned him his second Epigram Books Fiction award, which he drew earlier this year with Meihan Boey.
It follows the eponymous Sally Bong from 1977 to the present day, stopping just before the Covid-19 outbreak.
At the age of 10, Sally trains her Tamil classmate Anand Babu to read Chinese classics in an empty deck when the Prime Minister’s entourage discovers them – the perfect photo opportunity for a multicultural Singapore.
The two are chosen as the poster children for the inaugural Racial Harmony campaign, along with a Malay girl and a Eurasian boy.
This is the first of many spotlights from Sally, through terms of three prime ministers and Singapore’s changing public policy, as she grapples with what it means to look good rather than do good. .
And the prize goes to Sally Bong! parallels Sim’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao! (available here), which was shortlisted for the Epigram Prize in 2015.
Gimme Lao’s story spans 50 years, from Singapore’s independence to the present day, told through the eyes of the high-performing but unhappy protagonist.
While the two novels can stand on their own, they inform each other – Gimme and his calculating and insurance-selling mother, Mary Lao, continue to appear in Sally’s life – and are best read in tandem.
Sally Bong is the foil of Gimme Lao: where he pursues the Singaporean dream, she is without ambition. She gives up her nursing career to help in her family’s traditional Chinese medicine room. She responds to a surprise proposal from her boyfriend, whom she finds unattractive, with “Ok”.
Yet Sally’s driving force in life is that she wants to do good for others, that she tries to give a voice to the housekeepers at her hospital, or that she pushes for a friend with Down’s syndrome to get it. full pay at his next job.
She often fails, thwarted by bureaucracy, cynicism and her own ignorance – but she keeps asking why the system isn’t doing better.
It’s neither Sim’s sharpest satire, nor the funniest comedy. It delivers a soft ribbing at best and tends to moralize.
Yet it is perhaps the darkest of his novels. Above it hangs the specter of inequality, as illustrated by the divergent destinies of Sally and her comrades in the Racial Harmony campaign, among others. It explores the various cracks in the polished varnish of Singapore’s success, from the struggles of single mothers to the occasional racism rampant in society.
One particularly disturbing chapter deals with sexual grooming, although it may be far too carefully wrapped and the story unfolds fairly quickly from there.
Yet this insightful portrayal of a Singapore that contains multitudes has much to recommend, especially in how it challenges what it really means to be inclusive.
If you like it, read: Impractical Uses of Cake by Yeoh Jo-Ann (Epigram Books, 2019, $ 26.64, Available here), a former Epigram Books Fiction award winner in which a teacher going through a midlife crisis reconnects with an old flame who now lives on the streets under a pile of cardboard boxes.