By Milly Munro
This time last year, I was coming to the end of my first month of what would be an incredible year, my year abroad in Singapore. While I was there, I bought Wong Souk Yee’s Death of a Perm Sec in a little bookshop near Tiong Bahru after reading the rave reviews on the back cover. Death of a Perm Sec is a riveting whodunnit, following the investigation into the suspicious death of Chow Sze Teck, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing. Whilst the main plot of the novel is thoroughly deserving of the acclaim it has received, the most special aspect of it for me is that it’s peppered with small details about Singapore that take me back to my time there.
Death of a Perm Sec has everything I like in a plot: a death in suspicious circumstances, dubious politicians and an exploration into the hearts of a tumultuous family. However, the things that truly make this book a walk down memory lane are the little ones; the details that could easily pass you by if you weren’t looking for them. For example, Wong touches on the simple pleasure of a chilled Tiger beer or an iced tea in the afternoon. This is such a simple yet brilliant way to capture Singaporean life. My friends and I often joked about getting Tiger logo tattoos while we were over there. The reason this small detail is so reminiscent of my time in Singapore is due to one of its most notable features – the weather. At just one degree north of the equator, Singapore doesn’t have traditional seasons and instead you’re treated to 30-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity all year round. With no air conditioning and only a ceiling fan in our student halls, you had to become accustomed to feeling like you’re living in a sauna pretty quickly. It’s a well-known fact that one of the things Brits love to do abroad is to complain about the weather and we proudly lived up to that stereotype – a solid 85 per cent of our conversations started with someone saying “God, it’s bloody hot, isn’t it?”. When we were adjusting to that kind of climate, there were few things better or more satisfying than an ice-cold drink late at night.
Of course, Singapore’s scenery plays an important role in the setting of the novel, and something that immediately struck me when I first landed in Singapore was the greenery. Early on in the book, “a tourist travelling in a taxi…would be forgiven for thinking that Singapore is well and truly a garden city” which pretty accurately describes how I felt gazing out at the city from the back of a taxi for the first time. Changi Airport’s famous Jewel is home to a huge garden with an epic waterfall in the middle, should you find that, much like me, you’ve arrived at the airport hours earlier than you need. The roads are lined with palm trees and it’s this that makes Singapore a gorgeous hybrid between country, city and greenery.
The reader also visits some of Singapore’s many tourist attractions throughout the novel. One of the most memorable places that pops up fairly early on is Orchard Road. Singapore’s Orchard Road is home to some of the flashiest stores around. Need a new Prada handbag? Orchard Road. The latest iPhone is coming out? Orchard Road. Fancy popping into Louis Vuitton? Orchard Road. It’s a shame that our student budgets didn’t quite match the general vibe of Orchard Road, although I like to think my friends and I having a reunion in 10 years’ time, with all of us being filthy rich and ready to live it up in Marina Bay Sands and Raffles.
Death of a Perm Sec is a brilliant political murder mystery, but Wong Souk Yee weaves little Singaporean details through the novel that make it a much of a trip down memory lane for me than a whodunnit. Although my year abroad didn’t end exactly as planned, it’s difficult to complain when you have such amazing memories and reliving them through Death of a Perm Sec made the entire novel a pleasure to read.
Image: Adeline Zhao