Debut novel unstitches Malaysian society


Ong (left) speaking about his novel’s diverse characters with the moderator Shazmin Shamsuddin at Eslite Spectrum in Kuala Lumpur. — Photos: AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

IMAGINE stepping foot into a 90s style condominium in Malaysia, where you meet a variety of people who are not what they present themselves to be.

And the question raised is what lies behind their closed doors?

Fashion stylist and TV host Ong Chin Huat takes readers along as he uncovers the truth of a bourgeois society living in a Malaysian condo in a forgotten part of town through his debut novel, Harmony Heights.

Harmony Heights delves into the themes of privilege and hypocrisy, exposing the disparities between public personas and private realities, said the publisher, Penguin Random House Southeast Asia, in a press statement.

During the book launch and signing event at Eslite Spectrum bookstore in Starhill Gallery, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, Ong highlighted that the novel features diverse characters to reflect the multicultural world that we live in.

“I took inspiration for my characters from the people whom I have met throughout my career in Malaysia and from all over the world.

“I took some striking personality traits from them, used my imagination, mixed them up in a salad bowl like rojak and created completely new characters,” he said.

Ong shared that he was very conscious of wanting to make the characters believable.

“As a writer or author, you are given poetic licence but I wanted to make my characters realistic.

“So, I embedded flaws in each of them because, like all of us, they have imperfections,” he explained.

Ong signing a copy of Harmony Heights for a reader.Ong signing a copy of Harmony Heights for a reader.

Ong’s portrayal of the public versus private persona in the novel is based on a course he took on the shadow self, a concept expounded by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

“The shadow self, which can also be termed as the dark side, are undesirable traits that we suppress in ourselves, and if left suppressed, would be projected to other people.

“Drawing from this concept, the premise of my novel is to show that everybody has flaws, and that you should strive to be a whole person and not a perfect person, by embracing your dark and light side.

“Because once you do so, the rejected traits would not trouble you anymore,” he explained.

The event, attended by Ong’s circle of friends and bolstered by an enthusiastic audience, concluded with a book signing session.

Speaking to StarMetro after the event, Ong said that he would have never written Harmony Heights if not for the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I wrote Harmony Heights during one of the lockdown periods in 2021, where everything was closed and there was nowhere to go.

“My busy schedule usually leaves little to no room for writing.

“So, the pandemic presented the perfect opportunity for me to write the book,” he said.

Ong started off with a rough outline and a list of characters he wanted to include.

“As I wrote the novel and developed the characters, the themes emerged organically.

“Some parts and issues in the book are left unresolved because I want to leave it to the readers’ imagination.

“Also, not every issue in real life must come to a conclusion.

“I wanted to reflect real life, to make Harmony Heights as realistic as possible.”

Ong said he felt proud to be able to highlight Malaysian stories and be included in the lineup of local writers.

“We have great and rich stories to tell, and people are interested in these stories.

“I am glad that I have this platform, which is my book, to show Malaysia,” he said.

Ong hopes readers would pause before forming conclusions or passing judgments on individuals, circumstances or events in the book.

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