In the same fashion George Orwell used talking farm animals to depict 1917’s Russian Revolution, author Jim Tan used talking birds to illustrate Singapore’s turbulent history and staggering rise to First World status.
An allegory (or a story within a story), Payoh was written by Alphonsus Goh during his incarceration at Changi Prison. He penned the novella as part of a writing workshop conducted by Professor Chan, who finds himself captivated by the fictional tale.
Goh’s story sees the world through the eyes of Lucky, a quick-witted cockatoo with the special ability to communicate with humans. Weary of his vapid life of captivity, he seizes a rare opportunity to escape his owner and flies away to Payoh, a bird sanctuary manned by humans.
As Lucky settles into communal life, the plot thickens when the sanctuary faces threat of demolition. The cockatoo suddenly finds himself compelled by his feathered compatriots to negotiate favourable terms for self-governance and independence from the humans.
While the storyline does sound like fantastical fiction, you can’t ignore the parallels between the events that unfold in Payoh and the significant milestones documented in Singapore’s history.
For example, the separation of the birds from the humans is metaphorical for Singapore’s departure from Malaysia, and the formation of a government based on an electoral system represents the birth of democracy in the state.
To keep things blatant, Payoh isn’t just about recognising symbolisms; it’s also a criticism of unchecked power and the dangers of inequality it spawns. However, before you retract your nationalist claws, do note that the book is not about the demonising of bureaucracy per se.
On the contrary, author Jim Tan goes through great lengths to illustrate how bureaucracy – embodied by the strong-willed character of Robert Heron – is important, even necessary. All it tries to convey is that every system of government, no matter how efficient, has its flaws.
Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but this notion seemingly complements a recent statement by Singapore’s Prime Minister Mr. Lee Hsien Loong about the importance of receptivity to alternative views.
Adding depth to Payoh are the social commentaries by Professor Chan, the retired professor who echoes the innermost feelings of author Jim Tan, or so one imagines. The constant switch between Lucky’s and Professor Chan’s narratives represents the dichotomy between Singapore then and now.
Lucky exists in a turbulent and vulnerable Singapore that was forced to survive; Professor Chan inhabits a more current and prosperous Singapore where citizens are overly engaged in technology and constantly on the move, never making time to appreciate what’s truly important in life or empathise with those who were left behind in the rat race.
Perhaps you might accuse author Jim Tan of being an aged pessimist who’s overly critical of Singapore. Perhaps you might see him as an affectionate grandfather figure who’s seen much in life and cares deeply for his country.
Regardless of where you stand, you’ll be hard-pressed to deny that Payoh makes for an intriguing read. Soulful and beautifully layered, this book will capture your imagination, even if you have no ties to Singapore.
Stripped of its political inclinations, you will find an endearing story of a bird who loved and lost (who knew the human heart could ache for a chicken and a cockatoo?), forged lifelong friendships (you will adore Albert Robin), sung to his heart’s content (get ready to sing along to Di Tanjong Katong), and took a chance to experience true freedom in his search for a place to call home.
Truly, Payoh has the makings of a contemporary classic with themes that are localised enough for liberal discussions in schools, yet universal enough for anyone who’s simply looking for a great body of literature.
Grab your copy from Ethos Books here