got his dick caught in the window. He blames me, of course."
With an opening line like that, you know this is not going
to be another ho-hum novel about East Vs West. Mammon
Inc., Tan Hwee Hwee's second offering and one of precious
few Singaporean novels to hit the international market,
does not disappoint. On the surface, it is your standard
morality tale about cultural identity, money versus love,
and following the wrong god home. But that is where the
similarity with Catherine Lim's latest romance ends.
Tan, 27, has constructed a smart, restless, effortlessly
cosmopolitan satire -- much more in sync with Gen X sensibilities
than the older Lim's traditional prose sortie.
Mammon's plot is as clean-cut as a Hollywood blockbuster:
Oxford grad girl Chiah Deng toys with the notion of entering
blissful academia with the Yoda-like Prof Ad-oy. But the
filial Singaporean in her genes prompts her towards a glam
corporate post with mega-MNC, Mammon Inc. (think Microsoft
on steroids) as an Adapter -- helping clients blend into
the glitterati across foreign cultures.
First, she has to prove her worth by gate-crashing an ultra-glam
Manhattan party. She then has to play Emma -- transforming
her Ah Lian sister Chiah Chen into an Oxford debutante,
and her Brit flatmate Steve into, well, Phua Chu Kang. Much
frantic jetsetting, Cinderella angst and comedies of manners
It is a fun read. Tan infuses her sharp, snappy prose with
hip urbane wit, pop culture allusions and a perceptive eye
for the soundbite, punctuated by moments of lyrical grace.
And she handles vernacular dialogue smoothly -- switching
comfortably between British lad-speak to Singlish where
Singaporean readers might want to skip the obligatory passages
footnoting key concepts of local living, like scholarships,
the GDP and durians.
Naturally, the novel is also a chance to explore some good
old-fashioned issues: the cultural impact of globalisation,
finding spirituality in a materialistic world, and the dilemma
of identity for those caught in-between unequal value systems
based on culture or creed.
It even ventures a definition of that protean creature,
the "citizen of the world": "Young, creative
geniuses in glamour jobs, with nerd-high levels of education
but a hip sense of humour ... equally at home in a 212 or
0207 area code, equally well versed in the work of George
Lucas and Joseph Campbell to be able to analyse the mythological
archetypes in Star Wars."
Of course, the novel is not uneqivocally at ease with this
glib, faux-sophistication of Gen Vex, a world built entirely
on "bright surfaces" and global lifestyle choices.
The process of cultural "Adaptation" demanded
by Mammon soon begins to take on a more insidious sheen.
It is no surprise that the novel's dark gods, even as they
own the world, have themselves been appropriated by the
uber-cult of corporate capitalism. Old-world demons, from
the Norse Jormugand to the Asian Yama and Kali, now head
regional Mammon offices. Also on the world stage are New-Economy
deities fresh from the popular imagination, particularly
the Star Wars franchise: Sidious, Tarkin, Sith.
Ironically, the allure of the Dark Side is not money but
love. It is the deep-seated Gen X dream: a community which
embraces their hopeless diversity of interests, contradictions
and cultural affliations, without threatening to homogenise
That, and a secured place among the global elite, the promise
of being "somebody" instead of a mere statistic
among the teeming masses.
Yet the alternatives presented to Chiah Deng, such as the
monastic serenity of academia and mystic theology with Jedi
Master Prof Ad-oy -- come across as intellectually compelling,
but somewhat escapist and altogether inadequate options.
Erstwhile boyfriend Tock Seng Edwards -- himself a cultural
hybrid -- is set up as Chiah Deng's bohemian foil and soulmate,
but never quite gets enough airtime to be a fleshed out,
viable get-out clause.
Like the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Mammon Inc.
is a compelling but somewhat inconclusive ride which cries
out for a sequel: a chance for the Rebellion to thwart the
Evil Empire. Then again that is not how the real world works,
If you still believe Singaporean writers have nothing to
offer the world except florid period family dramas in cheongsams
and orchids, it is time to catch up with reality. Mammon
Inc. is a great place to start. Sign up now, but be
warned: The price could be your soul.