Shamini Flint is described as an environmental activist and a best-selling author. It's a tag that has followed the Malaysian-born, Singapore-based lawyer turned author around ever since she turned to writing six years ago. Flint, 40, has penned 15 children's books and created the internationally lauded Inspector Singh crime novels for adults. But while she will happily own up to environmental themes in her books and to being 'vaguely environmentally friendly', she is quick to say: 'In Singapore that just means I refuse shark's fin soup in restaurants with an annoyed expression, and I also bully my children into never being allowed to buy anything.' She is quick, too, to defuse any suggestion of her courage in tackling some of the most pressing issues of Southeast Asian society, together with plain old murder, in her Inspector Singh Investigates novels. This charmed whydunnit series starring the cantankerous, defiantly overweight Sikh detective, who solves crime across Southeast Asia, might rival Alexander McCall Smith's whimsical No1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, but it beguiles with Flint's own savvy brand of irony and humour. 'Somebody asked me recently why I'm going from country to country with Inspector Singh,' quips Flint, who has been in Cambodia to research the fourth novel, 'and I said because it gives me an opportunity to bitch about everywhere. And if somebody is annoying me at the airport anywhere I go, from then on, I'm afraid it just gets ugly.' But there's no denying that it took a certain nerve to place her portly protagonist in Bali in the aftermath of the 2002 terrorist attacks, as she has in A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul. 'If you went to Bali right after the bombings as I did, it was a place in total shock. It had almost gone into a coma. So to use it in fiction and not be exploitative was quite challenging. I was very fearful of upsetting people by writing a book about something that's still very much current in people's memory ... this wound is still very raw. 'But it would be devastating to someone like Singh, whose whole rationale for doing this job is because he can seek out murderers and find justice for the dead person. So to see murder without reason, or without a personal reason, is a huge paradigm shift for him.' Singh also lends an ironic voice to the Singapore-Malaysia rivalry and the racial tensions in both countries. 'When Malaysia and Singapore parted ways in 1963, you just stayed wherever you happened to be geographically ... I have relatives who live in Singapore, who say it is much better than Malaysia, and plenty who remained in Singapore, who insist, with very little evidence, the reverse.' As the peripatetic outsider, Singh can indulge in no-holds-barred honesty. 'He's looking at things with an affinity to Asian cultures, food and people but still with that distance,' the impish Flint says, 'that allows him to be a little bit mean-spirited when called upon.' Most of all, writing Inspector Singh novels enables her to exercise her lawyer's mind. Her crime novels usually stem from her vexation over specific legal issues, the Cambridge-educated Flint says. She will cite you chapter and verse on the anomalies of Malaysia's sharia courts or Singapore's anti-homosexuality laws. Her fourth novel will revolve around the workings of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge war crimes court. Flint was 34 when she began writing picture travel books about Southeast Asia, after her first child was born. Soon after she penned a children's environmental series - on recycled paper - 'because I realised my kids were not going to have a planet, and I panicked ... we have to do our best, not because I will make a difference but because it sets an example for our children. It's also an excuse. When everything really goes to the dogs, I'm planning to look at my children and say, 'I did my best'.' Her fantasy novel for teens, The Seeds of Time, is about animals enlisting the aid of children to fight global warming. Its 11-year-old heroine rebels against her vegetarian parents by buying pink clothes made in China and eating McDonald's. 'I get lots of e-mails from kids. It makes my day, my week and year, because it shows you can communicate with kids, especially.' Her children's books have sold 150,000 copies in the region, including Australia, but her international breakthrough came when British publisher Little, Brown bought the rights to the Inspector Singh books. Plans are afoot for his forays into Myanmar and India. 'I sometimes say the evil bitch in me couldn't keep writing all these happy stories about children saving the planet. I had to let my true colours show,' Flint says. 'I get sick of all these incredibly exotic, set in the colonial past, soothsayer-told-me-I-was-going-to-be-unlucky kind of books about Asia. I want to write contemporary books about modern Asia in all its bizarreness.' She is nothing if not passionate in her belief that fiction is 'an enormous moral force in the world'. She admits to being ambivalent about the crime genre. 'The murders in a lot of crime writing have become nastier, and the people have become crueller. There's no saving grace about society in it, and I don't want to be that sort of crime writer. 'I want to write crime books in which people behave well as well as badly ... It's an excuse to talk about society and I have so much more to say.'