Rachel Heng’s second novel, The Great Reclamation, takes on a slice of the twentieth century history of Singapore. Starting the middle of World War II and moving only into the 1960s, Heng charts the rise of Singapore as a modern state. In particular, she exposes the philosophy and the sacrifice that underpinned its startling modernity.
The Great Reclamation starts in 1941, six year old Ah Boon lives in a small fishing village, known as a kampong, on the island of Singapore. On his first journey to sea with his father and older brother Ah Boon helps to discover a mysterious island and with it bounteous fishing grounds. But Ah Boon does not want to be a fisherman like his father, he goes to school where he meets Siok Mei with whom he will have a lifetime connection. Ah Boon’s life is disrupted by the capture of Singapore by the Japanese, an event which has tragic consequences for his family.
Heng follows Ah Boon as grows up and finds his way into the growing public service. He becomes a Gah Man (Government Man), working on a nation building project that will see swathes of coastline and adjoining mangrove wetlands dredged, filled and reclaimed to be covered with new apartment buildings. This will by necessity destroy the kampong way of life – displacing the residents and ruining the ecosystem that they depended on for their livelihood. In doing so he moves away from Siok Mei who joined an anti-government group as a student, her dedication to that cause estranging her from Ah Boon.
The Great Reclamation is a fascinating story compassionately told. Heng is not trying to demonise the nascent government of Singapore. Rather she wants to show that there were true believers on both sides of this issue, all bringing their histories with them, and explore the impact of the clash of those philosophies. Heng captures the excitement of the push towards modernity in the 1950s and 60s which sweeps up the villagers, enticed by modern conveniences like fridges and air conditioning. But she is keen to also show the cost – to culture and to public freedoms – that came with pursuing this agenda. Heng manages to do this at the macro level but also, through Ah Boon and Siok Mei and their relationship, at the very personal level. It is a timely reminder that even in the late twentieth century, much of what we consider to be progress had irreversible consequences on traditional cultures.