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Death of a Perm Sec - Book Review

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Published August 13th 2016
Was it suicide or was it murder?
Singaporean author Wong Souk Yee dishes up a thriller that would put some of her Nordic counterparts to shame in Death of a Perm Sec.

Wong, who wrote the controversial play Square Moon several years ago, explores the theme of political corruption in the novel Death of a Perm Sec. The likely inspiration for her most likely came from the apparent suicide of Singapore's former National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan in the 1980s, when his department was subjected to a corruption investigation. Many speculated that Teh's death smelt fishy and was possibly an inside job to stop him from giving away too much, hence implicating his superiors.

In the novel, Chow Sze Teck, the deceased Permanent Secretary for the Housing Ministry is clearly modelled on Teh. Prime Minister Edward Wee looks to be a close parody of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The story opens with Chow's death, then explores his troubled past as a left-wing unionist in pre-Independence Singapore. Perspectives from Chow's four children are also interspersed, as well as entries from PM Wee's secret diary chronicling events leading to Singapore's independence in 1965.

Death of a Perm Sec pretty much covers ground from the period of Singapore's self government to the arrests of Operations Spectrum in 1987. Wong weaves a smooth narrative covering the events set 30 years apart from each other, giving an element of suspense found in most political thrillers. At the heart of the story is Wee's diary and the dark secret it contains, which may be the key to Chow's death.

A finalist for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, this book would be of interest to those who are keen on Singapore's recent history. It is also noteworthy that Wong herself had been among the detainees of Operations Spectrum even though she had done nothing wrong to begin with.

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