Payoh – A tale of fairness, freedom and power in society
review by Nidhi Arora
Payoh by Jim KC Tan is the story of a fictional, eponymous bird sanctuary, and the socio-political journey it goes through as it changes hands from management by self-serving humans to self-government by the resident birds. An allegorical tale, it shows that the road to a free and fair society is paved with compromises and that unbridled power is a peril for the system.
When untrustworthy humans decide to shut down the sanctuary to develop an industrial estate, the residents negotiate a deal to continue using the premises, but under their own rule and funding. Reflecting Singapore’s own trajectory, it charts how the newly-elected leadership navigates the many crises and challenges on the way.
Democratically elected Chief Representative Robert Heron promises the citizens a corruption-free government based on meritocracy and compassion. But as circumstances change, so does his leadership style.
With an Orwellian style and setting, the book boldly ventures a commentary on social issues that are particularly relevant today, such as human – (or rather in this case, avian) – rights, freedom of expression, crony capitalism, unbiased press and above all, the contentious relationship between the individual and state.
Payoh is Jim Tan’s first novel. The narrative is punctuated with illustrations by artist Morgan Chua. The writing style is simple and lucid and makes for an easy, if at times simplistic, read of a complex subject. Readers who are familiar with the history and evolution of Singapore will be able to recognize many parallels flying in this bird sanctuary. Released on the heels of the nation’s fiftieth anniversary jubilations, it is a timely reminder of the delicate balance of power that has shaped Singapore’s uphill climb from a small, resourceless island to a first world nation.