FEBRUARY 20, 2020
THE LOGIC OF the Malaysian working-class aspirant to becoming middle class runs thus: get a good steady job with a good steady upward trajectory, ultimately culminating in children who themselves have continued the good steady trajectory upward enough to support their parents, perhaps a comfortable retirement using EPF savings if no children, or, best, owning a business that generates income for retirement and the children’s continued success. It may or may not come with variations on studying hard, working hard, saving money, staying off drugs, staying in school, and/or marrying a good steady partner. The logic is similar for the middle-class Malaysian who wants to become wealthy, except it also comes with exhortations to invest in something that will generate income. (Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad was very trendy here for a time, too.)
This is the logic that Tash Aw’s We, the Survivors protagonist, Lee Hock Lye, attempts to navigate and negotiate with, adrift in a world with a bully for a best friend, and no scripts to follow besides a vague ambition to be comfortable enough for a house and family, like other normal people. It is a story complicated by the workings of Malaysian modernization, bringing other kinds of working-class and poor people into the country, enabling the rise of some aspirants over others. It is a narrative disrupted by his sudden crime of passion, the murder of a Malay man, in a dispute about money, “as it always is.”
We, the Survivors considers how we tell our own stories, and how others tell our stories for us, when we are the subjects who are instrumentalized for other people’s ambitions and desires, but nonetheless attempt to speak our own truths. Given the chance to clear his name by a sympathetic liberal writer (“doctorate in sociology — wah, no joke,” says the pastor when Hock Lye asks for help verifying the interview request), Hock Lye remains practical about his motive and events leading up to the murder, even as he is seemingly passive, carried along by the vagaries of luck and circumstance. Even as his lawyer tried to get him off the hook during his trial — he was temporarily insane, he was under a lot of stress — Hock Lye has no compunction admitting his guilt. It is not that he embraces it; it’s just the truth of the matter.
Tash Aw’s brutal simplicity of portraiture lays bare the landscape of human labor and exploitation under capitalism, especially in a country desperate to see itself as “modern” without considering the human costs of the process. Through Ah Hock’s guileless eyes, we witness the pollution of his fishing village, the cholera outbreaks, the environmental breakdown. We recognize the multiple everyman and everywoman: the manual laborer waiting to be promoted to management; the newly minted PhD liberal returning home from abroad full of idealism on how things should be; the ones who talk big but have no game, only enough savvy to play middlemen; the business owner who hires a parade of increasingly cheap labor.
The village, the single mother eking a life on her own farm, the sudden barrier between Ah Hock’s foreign co-workers and himself once he is promoted, the casual courtship with zero romance — all of these details unfold out of chronological order as Tash Aw persuades the reader to understand Hock Lye’s crime of passion. Through Aw’s deft hand we see the buildings that populate Hock Lye’s landscapes: housing areas that were once shiny and new, waiting to be outgrown and replaced in one’s personal ambitions by another housing estate. Selangor, and much of Peninsular Malaysia, is full of towns like that; we still drive past plantation villages and new housing development projects along the Federal Highway. “Don’t think Google cares about Sabak Bernam or Kuala Selangor,” Ah Hock reminds us, as Aw articulates the tiny details one might look for on the highway without the use of a GPS. We learn of some details first, only to understand their importance afterward with others, freshly remembered when another situation comes up that jogs particular memories.
Hock Lye is so full of details, he seems to move through the motions, rather than take responsibility or claim ownership for his actions: one moment he is seeing his to-be-wife for a business meeting; the next they are dating; after a bit he is meeting her father, as if it were a series of natural phenomena and not a set of choices people make. At one point, he looks at his interviewer’s notes, and he finds them full of lists with “the most boring everyday details,” unable to make the connection between these minutiae of everyday life with the larger picture that they paint — for him, as for so many Malaysians I know, these details are stimuli, extraneous, unimportant. They don’t say anything about you. What matters are not the details of your surroundings, we tell ourselves, but your connections to people.
And so it is curious, then, how isolated Hock Lye is. He and his friend Keong are sons of single mothers. They have no community that welcomes them or helps them fit in. They actually distance themselves from their communities: first from family, then from village, hometown, co-workers. In painful strokes, Aw depicts a friendship built upon complicity in violence, made into a pact of silence. Everybody knows a Keong but doesn’t want to admit it; one who is useful at times, talks big but really is just a bully, kept around as a friend out of obligation or pity. When Ah Hock goes to see Keong, he tells himself it is out of “clan ties,” ignoring that they have no clan, ignoring that he just wants to compare himself against the shadow Keong has become. The toxic masculinity of their friendship does not lie in casual misogyny but in the brash boastfulness that guides Keong’s ambition, Hock Lye unable or unwilling to resist.
The racial valences — nothing in Malaysia is complete without mention of race, since our country is built upon institutionalized racism — take on an internationalist scope as Ah Hock meets Chinese business owners with foreign workers. Keong conflates Bangladeshis and Rohingya and seemingly every type of migrant group together since to him, they are all cheap labor — their only difference lies in which group is cheaper than the other. In between chapters, Ah Hock reflects on his encounters with his interviewer. Tan Su-Min is a Chinese middle-class liberal doctorate-holding queer woman, almost a parody of the Malaysian liberal (of any race): quick to be outraged by perfectly everyday corruption; ignorant of the extremities of human suffering; unable to comprehend how her lesbian partner is also a conservative. You should have known, the text seems to tell Su-Min, when she finally reveals the partner’s name: a Malay, probably Muslim, definitely middle class — you should have known gayness does not trump the privilege of the racist status quo. Hock Lye killing a Malay man lands harder when remembering that if you are non-Malay, you are a second-class citizen, no matter how much you wish otherwise, and thus the reader is left wondering if that might have mattered in his sentencing.
Is it a tragedy then, the fall from grace for this sometimes insightful, observant everyman, or is it merely inevitable, the explosion of violence visited on his body through the vagaries of capitalist drudgery? Aw ruthlessly picks apart the promise of social mobility laid against the stark terms for its fulfillment: generally impossible for everyone, only granted to the lucky few. And these lucky few manage to retain a vision for what remains possible because they are not subjected to the continual violence of being at the bottom. Hock Lye tells Su-Min the gory details he has encountered or heard from other foreign workers, not to edify, but to bring her into the fold of knowing the pain, “to make sure that it seeped into […] her clean, happy world” and remind her of what her life insulates her from. Su-Min has a bird’s-eye view of the problems of the country, and she can make sweeping statements of what people “should” do, but Hock Lye is on the ground directly feeling the effects of the problems she sees, and has no such prescriptions. He is the confrontation with what the average middle-class Malaysian often forgets, or keeps at the back of their mind, to be exclaimed over with fervor and outrage at appropriate times.
Which are we, then? Is Ah Hock our everyman, or the rubbish man we pay charity to, and otherwise forget? Are we like Su-Min, vicariously participating in the dirty life of a man to try to understand him, performing the good empathetic liberal with the working-class friend we can trot out for show-and-tell? Are we Keong, disposed to casual violence, only to be appalled by the outright murder that we egg our friend into? Are they our friend, relatives, loved ones? Alas, they are all of us, and this is the discomfiting mirror Tash Aw holds up to the nation, complete with the glare of the stark equatorial sun.