Shamini Flint — lawyer, writer and iconoclast — tells how she started out writing children’s books after giving up a high-paying job, what made her turn a Sikh policeman into a hero in her Inspector Singh novels and the issues close to her heart.

Shamini Flint, like her most well-known protagonist, Inspector Singh, is a woman to be reckoned with. As with her rotund, chain-smoking, curry-loving Singaporean detective, there is more to her than meets the eye.

Anyone who reads her novels will quickly realise that one, as the old adage goes, should never judge a book by its cover.

Yes, murder most foul has been committed and Singapore’s finest usually happens to be on the scene. But just as the reader gets all ready to sink his teeth into a juicy murder mystery, Flint will take him off at a tangent. Apart from a gripping read, one also gets to learn about the said country, its politics, its environmental issues — the sensitive matters that no one wants to talk about.

All these require tremendous research and attention to detail, and Flint’s books, while entertaining, are not quite entertainment fiction.

Flint, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to care for her father who is ill in hospital, is Malaysian. She married Englishman Simon Flint and, thereafter, moved to Singapore, where they both held down high-paying jobs.

“I worked for about five years in Singapore for [global law firm] Linklaters, travelled a lot and then quit when my daughter was born,” Flint says.

She jokes that she resigned from her job because of a hormonal surge. “I thought I wanted to spend time with my children, but I can assure you that didn’t last long.”

A series of jobs followed in quick succession. “I taught company law and equity and trust at a university for a while. I was an associate professor, my biggest title to date. I developed ethics. I tried to teach company law and equity and trust from an ethical standpoint,” Flint says.

But what she was really trying to do was change the world: “You can only change the world in a couple of ways. You can change it from the outside or you can change it from the inside. In those days, I strongly believed it was better for someone like me to try and incorporate an ethical component into one’s teachings and understanding of company law.”

Flint says she had always believed in trying to provoke or promote change from within. “I may have changed my mind on that watching Malaysia over the last couple of decades,” she jokes.

Books for children
Flint started writing books when she could not find a suitable title that was relevant from a cultural context to read to her daughter. She muses, “I remember the sense of dislocation reading Enid Blyton in Kuantan and wondering why we didn’t run away from home or have boats or eat trifles or have midnight feasts. None of these things actually made sense in the context of my life.”

Being young, she assumed that the books she read were right and this was the ideal way to live. “I thought I was just functioning around the fringes of what proper life should be. And I didn’t want my daughter, especially because she’s half white, to have that sense of dislocation and grow up imagining that Western culture is superior or that its lifestyle is superior.”

Basically, Flint says, this was a very complex way of explaining how she came to write a book as simple as Sasha Visits the Botanic Gardens. “I wrote and published it myself. I didn’t bother to look for a publisher because it was such a niche product.”

It turned out to be incredibly successful. “Clearly, there was a whole bunch of parents out there sick to death of having to explain what the little red engine was before they could explain what it could or couldn’t do. So, now there are 17 Sasha books, which have sold well over half a million copies,” says Flint.

After the Sasha books, she wrote more picture books. “I wrote environmentally themed picture books like Jungle Blues, about a tiger; and Panda Packs Her Bags, about a panda bear; and Turtle Takes a Trip, about a leatherback turtle.”

As her children, Sasha and Spencer, grew older, she began to feel more comfortable about writing books for bigger children. At this point, she did not have a career so much as a bunch of sporadic ideas. But her books became successful and suddenly, she was doing lots of school visits and talking to children.

“I’m a lawyer, so I’m good at entertaining. I know how to talk to children. And I try and incorporate an interesting talk about books with the idea that we can all take personal responsibility for stuff,” Flint says.

She believes that if you catch a child young enough, you can change his mind about things. “Children are all waiting to be told that there’s a better way to do things. Yes, I try and light some environmental and ethical fires while hiding my message in humour and sports anecdotes. It’s much better than trying to persuade adults to suddenly develop a conscience.”

But after a while, she became tired of writing for children. “I wondered what I was doing with my education because, at heart, I am a lawyer and this whole business of having children and writing children’s books had distracted me from my core personality. And, as interested as I am in environmental, poverty and ethical issues, I was remembering that I used to be more interested in human rights and legal issues. I wondered how I could manifest that in my writing because by this time, I was actually, I suppose, a writer.”

The Inspector Singh series
Flint decided that she had neither the talent nor inclination to write the Great Malaysian Novel. “There were all these writers who had already done a fairly good job of covering that and I didn’t want to because I don’t like being pigeonholed.”

Also, she did not see why Asian writers feel so compelled to write in this vein. “I don’t see why our novels have to be historical. I don’t see why they have to be high drama with three generations and unlucky births and ill luck and fate and all these sorts of things.”

Flint started the Inspector Singh novels hoping that Malaysians would read them. “But, of course, I’m a lawyer, writing in English about high politics and who is going to read them beyond the people who already pretty much agree with me?”

Although A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder was the first Inspector Singh book to be published, it was not the first one she wrote. That was actually The Singapore School of Villainy, the third to be released in the series.

When she was writing the first book, the main character was supposed to be the female lawyer while Inspector Singh played a relatively minor role. “When I wrote the first draft, she was the main character, but her character became so tedious that in the second draft, I bumped Singh up. That’s why it’s structurally not as smooth. It was my first novel and I was going to write from the point of view of a 30-something lawyer. But it was devastatingly boring. It needed a far more quirky character and, after I’d gone through it again, I realised Singh was actually my main character,” she says.

In A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, the second book in the series, she ventured from crime to terrorism. “I read books on terrorism and terrorists, looked up terrorist websites and propaganda. I read all the research that had been connected to the actual Bali bombing. Most of my characters are parallel characters to the original bombers.”

It is this evidence of extensive research that separates Flint’s books from the generality of genre or entertainment fiction. She believes that issues need to be explored rather than glossed over.

Take, for example, terrorists: “They’re all motivated by different reasons, whether it’s a youth feeling frustrated or a religious nut. Everybody has what they see as a credible motivation. That’s what makes them dangerous. If it’s just some idiot wandering around with a suicide vest, you’ll see him coming,” she says.

“So, it’s no use saying, ‘Let’s watch out for the one guy.’ It’s endemic in society, that sense of alienation, and doesn’t change the outcome or the pointlessness of random violence.”

Flint says her books are meant to raise awareness of the issues she cares about. “And, obviously, demonstrate the superiority of my point of view through crafty storytelling because I’m a sort of liberal lawyer who doesn’t think homosexuality should be illegal or custody should be about religion, or [that] organ-harvesting should be encouraged.”

Has there been any backlash? “All the time. I’m scared wherever I go. I’m scared when I come here. I just thank God that nobody in the government reads my novels. I was scared in China. I went to the Shanghai literary festival, but again, in China, they don’t care about an obscure foreigner. If I wrote a bestseller, it would be a different story. But I write steady sellers, not bestsellers,” Flint says.

Having said that, she did receive nasty emails from India about A Curious Indian Cadaver. “Well, I get two sorts of emails from there. The ‘You do realise that we have rich people too, right?’ kind of emails. And letters saying that it’s an extremely negative perspective to talk about poverty and corruption, rather than India as a booming success story.

Feedback from readers
“Asians are so defensive. When you read about New York serial killers, I suspect the New Yorkers are not writing to the authors saying, ‘How dare you suggest we have killers on our streets! It’s only one, it happened last year and nobody knows who did it and it was probably the Russians,’” she laughs.

Flint says she is not denying the progress in any of the countries she writes about. “I’m just saying, ‘Let’s take everybody with us and not rape and pillage as we go on.’”

The Straits Times of Singapore did a nasty review of her Singapore book, saying that she did not focus on issues that were important to the country, such as prices of HDB flats. At this point, she bursts into peals of laughter.

But like Inspector Singh, Flint prefers to decide for herself. It goes without saying that Singh is her alter ego in these stories. But why did a half-Sri Lankan Tamil, half-Malayalee choose a Punjabi Sikh inspector to represent her?

Itu lah!” she exclaims. “I wonder to this day. Why did Agatha Christie choose a Belgian? Because she didn’t expect to write 45 books and I didn’t expect to write seven.”

Flint wanted her main character to be Indian so she could bring in the wider family structure that she both grew up with and rebelled against. “From my discussions, I gathered it is pretty much the same for Sikhs. And I wanted someone who was physically noticeable. We all have an image in our mind, whether it’s the guy sitting outside the jewellery shop with a shotgun across his lap or that Sikh cop. We all know what he looks like, so I don’t have to overwrite to get the point across.”

There was another bonus in making her hero a Sikh. “The whole thing about being a Sikh and being mistaken for a Muslim suddenly became a complication I am sure they didn’t envisage 500 years ago when they started wearing turbans.

“This comes up in Bali, where he’s mistaken for being a Muslim. So, you get a sense of what it must be like to be yelled at randomly for your religion, even if it’s not really your religion. Hopefully, it gives people an idea of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of this sort of non-specific abuse,” Flint says.

Then, there’s Mrs Singh, the only person who can effectively cow the great inspector. Where he is Flint’s alter ego, his wife is effectively her enemy. “She and I literally quarrel our way through a book. She’s the counterpoint to my belief system. A character like Mrs Singh is rather like a terrorist. She has an intrinsic structure that is plausible in her world — conservative, family-oriented, status- conscious,” she says.

Flint is just beginning to reassess the way she sees such people. “Only now when my dad is ill, I suddenly realise what this community I’ve been dismissing all my life means. These people who attend the weddings and funerals and worry about things like house prices... My cousins are stepping up, my aunts are helping; everybody is trying to make this process of dealing with my dad easier.”

And now she realises that all those weddings and funerals she did not want to attend are the reason she has a bond with these people who show up to help in an emergency. “Of course, this should be extremely obvious, but, because I’ve spent my whole life fighting against it, I’ve only discovered in the last three weeks that you need family. I’m late to the party.”

Mrs Singh is much more visible in her latest book, A Frightfully English Execution, where her character is developed further and the real affection that exists between her and her difficult husband is actually brought to the forefront.

Flint found it especially difficult to write this book, having moved out of her comfort zone, which was focusing on the large and small countries in Asia. “For instance, there is the fact that Scotland Yard is competent, so I couldn’t do what I do in Asia, which is pretend that all the cops are not very good.

“I had to get Singh to work in parallel with Scotland Yard, but not make it the story. I actually found it technically quite a difficult book to write,” she admits.

Her next book in this series is set in South Africa. “I love researching and exploring history and politics, so I’m looking forward to doing South Africa. I want to write about apartheid, the slave quarter in Cape Town, the slave immigrants from Asia.

“When you feel a genuine desire to read and research and think and visit and plot a story, you can’t abandon it just yet to write whatever might sell a bit more. Unless I get really greedy, and there is always the possibility. I do like money. I gave up a lot as a lawyer to do this, right?” she laughs.

For now, she will continue writing whodunnits that are a little different. “I don’t want a book in which the bad guys are obvious, because I don’t think that is what life is like. I think people do bad things when they find themselves in unfortunate situations, or small bad things lead up to big bad things,” she says.

Some of her criminals are guilty, first and foremost, of a sense of entitlement, which, as she points out, is not a crime in itself. “But how it can escalate... that’s what I want to capture. I think there should a redemptive element in writing. A suggestion to the reader that if you make better choices, maybe you won’t end up in that place. And, if you do end up there, maybe you can find some way to atone a little bit.”

For Flint, life is not black and white and she wants her characters to embody this ambiguity. So far, people have responded in a positive way. “People who like Singh tend to like him a lot. But every once in a while, there will be a nasty review... I’ve learnt to roll with that. You can’t please everyone,” she says.

Jennifer Jacobs is section editor of Personal Wealth at The Edge Malaysia

 This article appeared in the Options of Issue 754 (Nov 14) of The Edge Singapore.