Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Getting down to sources

People have begun to ask me what makes Singapore: A Biography different from other histories of Singapore. Notwithstanding the tongue-in-cheek tagline "Pirates! Prostitutes! Secret societies!" (which I slapped onto some email publicity last week), one of the most important elements we like to emphasise is that it is, by and large, an eyewitness history of Singapore. Naturally, some (but not all) of the events it recounts appear in other works, but with our book we make it a point to give prominence to first-person accounts in almost every instance.

This approach came out of our work on the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore. As Mark has already written about this earlier project:
The preoccupation with primary sources was driven as much by artistic considerations as our dedication to historical accuracy. ... What the visitor therefore encounters in most cases in the Singapore History Gallery are the thoughts and actual words of the historical characters featured. When they meet Raffles, they hear what Raffles said and wrote, or what he was reported to have said and written, or what others said and wrote about him, all drawn from a range of primary sources.

Likewise, in writing our book, while we have had to provide an overarching narrative and enough context to stitch all the individual eyewitness accounts together, we've also tried, where possible, to let the historical figures speak for themselves. They don't always sound too musty or archaic either – many have left lively and enthusiastic accounts of life in Singapore, even when they were complaining about the heat (some things just don't change through the centuries).

Of the sources we drew on, many represent the usual suspects: C.E. Wurtzburg's Raffles of the Eastern Isles, which contains letters written by Sir Stamford Raffles, Song Ong Siang's One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (self-explanatory), the first-hand accounts of soldiers and civilians during World War II, and so on. Several of these sources are, in fact, what many people think of today when you say the word 'history': dusty tomes, set out in beautiful serif fonts, with idiosyncratic titles longer than most blurbs featured in the New York Times Book Review (for example, John Crawfurd's Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China: exhibiting a view of the actual state of those kingdoms)

But these weren't the only sources we drew on. For the late 19th and 20th century galleries of the Singapore History Gallery, 'we' (in this case, the National Museum curators, our research team, Mark and myself) frequently went beyond the printed record to delve into a variety of other media sources: oral histories, radio and television broadcasts, as well as grainy news footage, most of which is stored at the National Archives of Singapore. When it came to our book, Mark and I fell back on these sources once again and for obvious reasons. They invoke the personal immediacy of what happened in the past; they also evoke something of the broader zeitgeist – occasionally even the joie de vivre – of the times: the audience clapping and laughing as David Marshall holds forth under 'the old apple tree' during the mid-1950s, or, during Lee Kuan Yew's early 1960s tour of constituencies (on one occasion, at least), answering back.

It's worth remembering that the modern mass media was a tool of persuasion that Singapore's main political actors were highly adept at manipulating from the outset. And this is another aspect of Singapore: A Biography that we believe makes it quite distinctive – its focus on the impact of modern mass media in determining the course of Singapore's post-war history (caveat: I haven't read the new book Men in White, so I cannot vouch for whether it covers this angle of analysis). Listening to and watching recordings of political rallies from the 1950s and 1960s, it's hard not to notice how charged the atmosphere frequently was, and how theatrical the performances of those behind the microphone became. Success hinged not just on who had the better political arguments, but on who had the better delivery.

Take, for example, the People's Action Party's 12 radio talks in the series 'Battle for Merger', broadcast in late 1961. In our account, we note that Lee Kuan Yew's voice was 'calm and collected' and that it resonated as 'the patriarchal voice of reason in deeply troubled times'. (To hear just how patriarchal he sounded in the 1960s, almost like your warm-natured grandfather telling you a bedtime story, check out the Companion audio guide in the 'New Nation' section of the Singapore History Gallery.) Lee was, it was said, a 'master story-teller'. Cheong Yip Seng – then a schoolboy, later the editor of the Straits Times – recalled how 'every broadcast ended with the listener in suspense, and anxious for the next installment, the way ordinary folk at that time lapped up the kung-fu serials broadcast over Rediffusion by Lei Tai Sor in Cantonese.'

For better or for worse, the rival Barisan Sosialis party declined to join 12 subsequent radio forums on the merger issue, and were denied equal airtime to Lee for 12 talks of their own. In 1960, television coverage had aided John F. Kennedy's triumph over his less photogenic and less charismatic opponent Richard Nixon in the US presidential elections; in Singapore, between 1961 and 1963, did not the rapt attentiveness of the microphone or the fawning gaze of the camera have a similar impact? (In our book, and for all the charisma of Lee's opponents, we suggest so).

The above example also reminds us that modern mass media generated new cultural products to which people of the time responded passionately, often more passionately than in their response to the printed word. Historian Timothy Barnard has observed:
If Southeast Asians originally obtained their literature orally, today they consume it both visually and orally through television and cinema. While the average Malay youth has never read Hikayat Hang Tuah, they are undoubtedly familiar with the 1956 film version of the tale, which is constantly shown on television in Malaysia and Singapore and easily available in VCD format in these nations as well as in Indonesia.

Our book doesn't weigh in heavily on either the Hikayat Hang Tuah or its filmic counterpart, but you get the idea. These media products were the means by which people in recent history communicated and/or consumed their ideas. Like printed matter, these media sources can be critiqued, not just quoted from, and woven accordingly into a narrative of history.

So while you'll find us referring to autobiographies and memoirs in Singapore: A Biography, as our story winds its way into the 20th century you'll find more and more references to radio and television broadcasts and more use of oral histories or personal interviews, albeit all in print form (sorry, we can't follow Entertainment Weekly's example and have snazzy embedded video excerpts in our book).

All of which dovetails nicely with a talk I'll be giving at the Singapore Writers Festival, 'Finding the Singapore Story', on Sunday, 31 October, 11 a.m. at Earshot at The Arts House. Come by and hear more about the sources we used, how we used them and what kind of Singapore (hi)story emerged at the end of it. Watch this blog as well: a few of our favourite 'media-focused' excerpts will be featured soon.

Click here for further details on this and our other book events in October.

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