Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Introducing Comrade Shane

This blurry pic, taken in haste at Kinokuniya last weekend, provides the first documentary evidence of a new underground movement in Singapore: the People's Revolutionary Book Display Army.

Comprised of loyal readers of Singapore: A Biography, and led by Comrade Shane (an ex-pat with nothing better to do on his Sunday afternoons), the PRBDA has set out on a mission to liberate the book-buying public of Singapore from its false consciousness.

The PRBDA has announced that it will be infiltrating all major bookstores in the near future to radically subvert their book displays to ensure that the people's will is listened to and Singapore: A Biography gets noticed.

Join Comrade Shane in his revolution now!

(P.S. Comrade Shane will be working hard on his fieldcraft in future so as not to appear so conspicuous.)

They came, they saw, they dissented

At last week's talk at the National Library, a friend – who's a big comics aficionado – asked who we thought were the 'superheroes and supervillains' of our story. That neatly pre-empted Mark's lecture at the National Museum last Saturday, 'Heroes, villains and ordinary citizens: a short history of Singaporean dissent'.

In a darkened room one afternoon

Women, represent!
(Photo credits – Marcus [top], Deanna [bottom])

Nothing like having the word 'dissent' in the title to bring out some of Singapore's current dissenters. They chimed in avidly during the Q&A session that followed, highlighting further examples of dissenting figures in Singapore's history, as well as questioning different modes of or approaches to dissent (and the relative success thereof).

The last question of the session came from (surprise) a geographer, who wondered about about physical spaces of or for dissent in Singapore throughout its history. Our book alludes to these spaces, certainly – Chinatown was always a good place for a riot – but there's more still left to be explored. And then there are the modern-day spaces: not just Hong Lim Park and its government-designated Speaker's Corner, but also places where new behaviours impose themselves on prevailing orthodoxies. Just on Monday, a newspaper report highlighted the discomfort in HDB estates between Singaporeans residents and new immigrants:
Singaporeans' complaints range from the smell of alien cuisines wafting through their flats, the noise levels and the hanging of clothes along the common corridors. [...] When one Chinese national hung his country's flag outside his flat, netizens blasted him for being culturally insensitive.
Of course, a full history of Singaporean dissent would merit a whole other book or two, and as Mark mentioned in his lecture, '[it] would have to answer the question of why repertoires of dissent were not just suppressed, but basically went out of fashion.' Who's itching to write that, now?

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Book preview: The Barisan's downfall

This is the fifth and final book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which was launched in Singapore last week. The first four previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out', 'The education of Singapore girls', 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul' and 'Staging merdeka'.

This preview takes place amidst the politically heady years of the early 1960s. In 1961, members of the People's Action Party (PAP) left to form a new leftist political party, the Barisan Sosialis. The key issue that had prompted their split was the manner in which the Singapore government was then negotiating with Kuala Lumpur to join a new Federation of Malaysia. In September 1962, the people of Singapore voted in favour of the government's Merger proposal in the country's only referendum (so far). In February the following year, key members of the Barisan were detained under the Internal Security Act following Operation Coldstore.

The Barisan's downfall
Meanwhile, in late November 1962, Lee [Kuan Yew] began what became a one-man, 11-month election campaign, the likes of which Singaporeans had never before seen. David Marshall might have held ‘meet the people’ sessions as at his Chief Minister’s office in Empress Place, but no elected leader had ever taken to the road to visit every one of the island’s 51 constituencies (Lee went first to those that had registered the most blank votes in the referendum) nor pushed themselves so far out of their own comfort zone to talk to the people in their own languages. As the Prime Minister toured Singapore, giving speeches in English, Mandarin, Malay and sometimes stumbling Hokkien (occasionally with a few words of Tamil greeting thrown in) he appeared to his supporters a kind of Singapore ‘everyman’. Invariably, his message was simple and direct:
The government’s got to do the job. Homes must be built, clinics must be built, roads must be made, money must be saved – the people must be taken care of.

You’ll get more: better roads, better drains, better schools, and better jobs for your children. But most important of all … whatever our faults – and I don’t say we’ve got no faults – we have never put our fingers in the kitty and put a few gold coins in the pocket.
Looking back, Lee described these 11 months of constituency visits as ‘the most hectic’ in his life. Sometimes he was heckled, on occasions he was shoved, many times he was garlanded (especially when he honoured various temples with his presence); always, he made an impression. As Judy Bloodworth, a sound recordist with the TV crew that followed Lee on his visits, remembered:
[T]he people would cheer and boo and in the middle of all the noise he would be elated, push his way down among them, laugh at the lion dancers around him, careless of the roaring fireworks, never showing fear – he was burned in the face once but took no notice. We really felt like a team, like an army unit; we felt proud of him. You couldn’t help it.
Indeed, television, just as radio had been, proved fundamental to Lee’s success. He later recalled in a speech: ‘People watched on TV the spontaneous response of the crowds to the speeches made. The visits gathered steam;’ and in his memoirs he wrote, ‘I became a kind of political pop star!’ An unscripted, unrehearsed drama of national proportions was taking place and coming soon, to a community centre near you, was its on-screen idol – live in the flesh!

Of course, Lee’s televised encounters were not entirely spontaneous. Concerned with how fierce his rabble-rousing merdeka persona came across on screen, he sought advice from the famous BBC interviewer Hugh Burnett to help him appear more calm, collected and natural. By contrast, television transformed the Barisan’s speakers – still accustomed to projecting themselves from the podium out into the crowd – into demented wild men. When the camera zoomed in for close ups, it picked out their every exaggerated mannerism and contorted facial expression (much as it does today when inexperienced actors bring their theatrical techniques direct from the stage to the screen).

And not long after, those remaining Barisan leaders who had not been detained appeared to live up to their on-screen image. On 22 April 1963, the party marched on City Hall to protest their comrades’ detentions. A confrontation with the police ensued, following which 12 more Barisan leaders were arrested. Their court case began in early August and ended on the 29th, just a few days before Lee announced snap elections. Remembered Dr Lee Siew Choh (who was one of those arrested): ‘And, almost immediately … General Election! You see, we were completely occupied with the trial’.

The Plebian, the Barisan’s newsletter, called these elections ‘the most unfair and undemocratic in the history of Singapore’. The party again had trouble obtaining police permits for its rallies; on nomination day 17 potential Barisan candidates were held for questioning by Special Branch until it was too late for them to file their nomination papers (which then, as now, they had to do in person); three days earlier, three of the largest unions loyal to the Barisan had their bank accounts frozen to prevent their funds being used for political purposes. Finally, on the eve of the vote, Goh [Keng Swee] played on electoral anxieties once more by claiming that a Barisan victory would mean Malaysian troops in Singapore the following day.

However both sides played equally hard, such were the high stakes on offer. Earlier, while canvassing in Hong Lim, Lee Kuan Yew found himself drowned out by music blaring from the offices of a Barisan-loyal trade union located above him. Later, Toh Chin Chye and his colleagues were barracked by opponents who reportedly yelled: ‘Don’t let them get away. You! The day of your death has arrived!’ In areas where Barisan support was strong, PAP canvassers were reportedly insulted, threatened and sometimes physically assaulted.

Importantly, the imprisonment of the Barisan’s ‘first team’ leadership was not the inevitable death knell for the party as it has sometimes been portrayed. As photographs of the Barisan's election campaign reveal, massive portraits of Lim Chin Siong adorned practically every party event. Lim was a hero, a martyr, his unjust incarceration the party’s cause célèbre. Behind bars, he remained a major threat to the PAP’s hold on power.

In the lead-up to what was without doubt the most important election in Singapore’s history thus far, the outcome seemed too close to call. The Australian High Commission told Canberra that the Barisan privately expected to win 35 seats, while the PAP believed it would win 30; British officials in Singapore began to seriously contemplate how to deal with a new Barisan government. However, on 21 September 1963, the PAP won a resounding 37 seats and the Barisan just 13 (the final seat in the Assembly went to the belligerent candidate for Hong Lim, Ong Eng Guan). For the PAP the result was a vindication for its social revolution – the jobs, hospitals, schools and utilities it brought to Singapore – as well its successful negotiation of Merger.

For the Barisan the result was shattering.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography was published in October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore & Editions Didier Millet.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

The week in which we talked (an awful lot) about our book

Getting the reading going
(Photo credit – ampulets)

It's been a hectic week, but Singapore: A Biography is off and running at the bookstores.

On Sunday, Mark and I spoke on 'History as literature: the writing of Singapore: A Biography' at the National Library. There was talk of historiography and Orlando Figes (which Mark has written about before, on this blog), complexity and national narratives, and questions about historians being ironic and the development of national consciousness (Malaya, ho?).

On Orlando Figes and writing history

Fielding questions during the Q&A

Fielding questions during the Q&A
(Photo credit – Sarah Lin)

On Tuesday, we did a reading and discussion at the fabulous indie bookstore Books Actually (now co-located with its non-fiction arm Polymath & Crust at 86 Club Street). It was our first time reading aloud from our book: pirates and frontline soldiers got some airtime, alongside the Singapore Stone and Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan. The audience was curious and enthusiastic, and most unexpectedly, we were invited to predict the future for Singapore.

Our delightful audience

Look at all that cool stuff behind us

Post-reading chitchat
(Photo credit – ampulets)

In between all that, we did some media interviews and figured out more publicity plans.

Tomorrow Mark will be speaking on 'Heroes, villains and ordinary citizens: a short history of Singaporean dissent' at the National Museum of Singapore (registration required). The talk will take place in the Salon on Level 1 (not in the Seminar Room on Level 2 as earlier announced).

Regular blog entries on history, Singapore and the meaning of life will resume next week!

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tune in to 938LIVE on 21 Oct

Heaps of our new book
(Photo credit – Sarah Lin)

Two book events down for this month, two to go. If you missed us at the National Library or Books Actually (pictures forthcoming), you can still catch us at the National Museum and Singapore Writers Festival.

We're also going to be talking about Singapore: A Biography on the Living Room programme on Singapore's MediaCorp radio station 938LIVE. Tune in on Wed, 21 Oct from 10.30 a.m. to 11 a.m., or you can listen to the station online.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Book preview: Staging merdeka

This is the fourth book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which is being launched next week. The first three previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out', 'The education of Singapore girls' and 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

This preview introduces David Marshall, who was elected Singapore's first Chief Minister in 1955.

Staging merdeka
On 21 March 1956, a tall, Mediterranean-looking man, who carried a pipe and whose bushy eyebrows seemed to attempt an escape from his forehead each time he emphasised a point, spoke into a microphone in front of a crowd of supporters. He was standing underneath the 'apple tree' at Empress Place (next to what is today Old Parliament House) from where his words were broadcast live by Radio Malaya. In a present age, in which politicians try hard to appear natural and approachable, his performance serves as something of a master class:
Merdeka! People of Singapore! Last year, this time, in the month of March: a time of agony. I came before you, day after day at lunchtime, to speak to you of the dangers that the future held and to put before you a blueprint for a miracle. I did not dream, I did not dare believe, that you would give us an opportunity to make that miracle possible.
The man was David Marshall, a brilliant lawyer, a Sephardic Jew and one of the most colourful personalities Singapore politics has ever known. Then in his late 30s, Marshall had served for the previous year as the island’s first elected Chief Minister. He now appeared before his supporters to declare his government’s achievements, to relate the hurdles that it had overcome, and to explain the dangers that it faced in the future:
I think you know, when I was first elected and appointed Chief Minister, I was told I had no office, no clerk, no thambi [a boy or male servant]. And oh they couldn’t give me any office – it took a long time – government offices were extremely overloaded – and there was a lot of difficulty. I had to threaten to bring a desk here and set it up here or in my flat [laughter] before I could get an office!

I was told that, of course, the heaven-born, including the Chief Secretary, was the man who would coordinate government policy; that I was just the, the sort of the – the senior thambi among the thambis! [more laughter] I made it very clear and very soon that I was either Chief Minister or not. Finally, they accepted the position that I could coordinate policy.
Superior colonial officials were not the only obstacle Marshall and his government faced. Recalling another source of opposition, the Chief Minister felt clearly in his element:
To read the English press, we are a group of baboons who are trying to impose independence on you against your will. The Standard came out on Sunday with an article – not written by a Malayan, thank god. Well, he said, please don’t give us independence: we want Papa and Mama colonialism! [loud laughter, then Marshall imitates a child] Mama colonialism! Mama! A lost boy!
Finally, Marshall laid the jokes aside to conclude with a more serious message:
The communists are the ultimate danger to this country. And whether it is today or it is tomorrow, whatever the threat to my own personal safety may be and to my friends and to my colleagues, we intend to act with all the firmness possible against those disruptive elements that call themselves communists.

You don’t want, I don’t want, the people of Singapore don’t want a yanko merdeka. We want a Malayan merdeka! [Loud applause] And we will get it!
For all these fine words three months later Marshall was to resign, his dreams of steering Singapore to independence in tatters. His rapid rise and then equally sudden demise tell us much about the high drama (and sometimes high farce) of what was then a new style of politics on the island. But his story is equally important because of the leading players who shared his stage. For it was these other rising stars in the political firmament – the young Hakka Chinese lawyer Lee Kuan Yew and the even younger Hokkien Chinese bus worker Lim Chin Siong – who not only matched Marshall for charisma, but who ultimately presented him with far greater challenges than the British.

The outsider comes in
Looking back over his career in an oral history interview, Marshall claimed that the main motivation that drove him to enter politics was anger: ‘Anger at the leprous concept of racial superiority and it had been mounting in my belly since my schooldays’. He explained that he was never ‘anti-British’; rather, he wanted to ‘break through the sonic barrier against Asians and especially Jews’. Nor, he admitted, was he especially ideological. Though he moved in Singapore’s socialist circles during the early 1950s he never became especially grounded in socialist dogma. His personal understanding of socialism was that it simply meant ‘an effort to create the foundations of the opportunity of all our people to attain conditions of living compatible with human dignity’.

Marshall received his clarion call when in mid-1953 the British governor John Nicoll, in an effort to speed up Singapore’s progress towards self-government, announced the formation of a new constitutional commission. The outcome of the 1954 Rendel Commission (named after its chief convener Sir John Rendel) was that popular elections would be held the following year for a newly constituted Legislative Assembly made up of 32 members, 25 of whom would be elected. For Marshall, the political dawn that beckoned was so exciting as to be almost palpable:
‘Hey we are human beings! Hey, we’ve got the right to vote! Hey, we’ve got a right to elect our own representative! We’ve got a right to a voice in how we are to live.’ Now that is something you don’t understand today. But that was very, very radical at that time. You know it’s like the four-legged animal suddenly finding himself standing straight and looking upwards instead of looking to the ground. It really was a radical change of psychological atmosphere … ‘Hey we are standing on two legs!’
© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography was published in October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore & Editions Didier Millet.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Hot off the press

Hot off the press

The book is in from the printer's! (Pictured here with my MacBook for scale.)

Mark and I got our first copies today, and we're ecstatic. As you can imagine, we spent a fair bit of time this afternoon flipping through them.

The book will be available in Singapore bookstores from next week, so look out for it. It'll also be on sale at our upcoming events:
Click here for more info on our events. If you've enjoyed our ramblings on this website, please come for the events and say hello!

For those of you who placed pre-orders, the books will be delivered to me next week. I'll get in touch with you then.

Wondering how the book reads? Check out our book previews and look out for a new one next Monday.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

My top three history lit. idols

Yu-Mei and I had discussed writing some serious pieces about literary influences, but I think we've done quite enough of that kind of stuff already. Instead, and in the glorious cause of dumbing down wherever and whenever possible, here are (in no particular order) MY ALL TIME TOP THREE HISTORY LIT. IDOLS!

(My apologies now to all those concerned.)

1. SIMON SCHAMA: or simply 'The Schama' as he is known in my house (Sunday nights are reserved for his highly recommended Power of Art documentary series).

With his sassy delivery, cool jackets and his increasingly camp asides ('Well, he would say that wouldn't he?' seems a current favourite), 'The Schama' has emerged as the new Truman Capote of the TV dons world. His books aren't half bad either, and his personal philosophy when writing about the past, itself taken from his old Cambridge supervisor, is one with which I fully concur: to write history 'with the play of the imagination' and to 'bring a world to life, rather than entomb it in erudite discourse'.

Schama takes a bit of flak these days for being so popular (see the grilling he got in the American Historical Review recently for his hugely successful TV series A History of Britain). But although he might often cut to the chase, he rarely dumbs down and is never less than interesting.

Schama, we salute thee! (And yes, that was me hanging around Columbia last fall trying to get an autograph. The campus security are fascists!).

For more on Simon Schama see his bio on the PBS website.


Dear Jung Chang,

I adored Wild Swans, even if one eminent historian I used to work with did dismiss it as merely 'a good beginner's guide to 20th-century Chinese history'. He's just jealous, of course, just like those other academics who got so upset when your Mao: The Unknown Story came out – especially those sentimental lefties who had preferred to think of Mao as an idealistic poet who had been lured to the dark side and were then made to look a bit foolish by all your new research. So what did these academics do? They attacked you for ... for your endnotes.

(Well, sister, we're behind you on that one – Singapore: A Biography has similarly un-academic endnotes.)

Next time you are passing through Hong Kong do drop by HKU and perhaps we can go for a coffee. My office is in the old quadrangle of the old building – you know, the one where Ang Lee filmed those romantic scenes of innocence about to be lost in Lust, Caution?

Not that I mean anything by that, of course.

For more on Jung Chang see this profile in the Guardian.


(Oh damn, I've used up my Truman Capote analogy already).

Well, in that case, Peter Ackroyd is like the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-playing-Truman-Capote of the history lit. world - a camp old darling who, when he isn't working himself into another heart attack by writing too hard, can be found propping up the bar in one of his favourite East London pubs or wine bars.

Ackroyd has a special place in the genesis of Singapore: A Biography for being the root cause of not one but two cases of severe writer's block. The first instance was when my sister lent me his London: The Biography while I was staying with her in Cape Town and trying to work on our own Singapore: A Biography.

You see, Ackroyd is particularly known for his almost mystical belief in what he calls the 'territorial imperative', whereby a patch of ground, a house or even a city, influences the behaviour of its inhabitants, sometimes over several centuries. Inspired by the man, I tried playing with this idea for weeks before chucking it in when I finally conceded that the only territorial imperative in Singapore seemed to be to ceaselessly demolish, upgrade and develop.

Anyway, my sister then gave me his Shakespeare: The Biography as a birthday present, which I then lent to Yu-Mei. This led to the second instance of apparently Ackroyd-induced writer's block, Yu-Mei's account of which can be found on her blog.

All the same, I still love Ackroyd's work even though there is no point trying to emulate him.

P.S. Ackroyd has just written a book about Venice, the first time he's ventured beyond London and Britain for ages. What next? Surely not another book on another Renaissance City? Surely not ... Singapore: The Biography? (No, he wouldn't, he couldn't).


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Follow those footnotes! (er... endnotes, actually)

It's inevitable that some things had to be left out of Singapore: A Biography, for the sake of brevity, readability and to keep at least one of our publishers in Singapore from choking on their morning coffee and brioche. That is why we place such emphasis on the references in this book – which, if they are followed through with, ought to lead eager readers ever deeper down the path of that extraordinary thing called the 'Singapore Story'.

Here are a couple of the value-added extras which anyone can locate if they go through our endnotes (some of the sources are only just a mouse-click away).

(WARNING: The following assumes that the reader has some prior acquaintance with certain aspects of Singapore's post-war history. For those not yet familiar with this period, why not buy our book?)

1. If Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew were ousted

OUR TEXT (from page 397):
Any glance through Colonial Office reports from this period [the late 1950s and early 1960s] will certainly confirm that dealings between the British and Singaporean governments were devious.
For more on such deviousness see the chapters by Tim Harper and Greg Poulgrain in Tan and Jomo (eds.), pp. 3-55, 114-124; see also Stockwell (ed.).
What does the 'more' in this case mean?

Tan and Jomo (eds.) refers to the groundbreaking collection of revisionist essays and personal reminiscences, Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History. For instance, Tim Harper's essay in this collection recounts a plan allegedly aired by Lee Kuan Yew in the middle of 1961 to deal with the looming split within the People's Action Party. The root of the crisis: Lee's failure to secure the release of those leftists (28 in all) still detained in prison after 1959. According to a senior British official, Lee had 'lived a lie about the detainees for too long, giving the Party the impression that he was pressing for their release while, in fact, agreeing in the ISC [Internal Security Council] that they should remain in detention'.

By July 1961, the PAP had lost the Hong Lim by-election and was now facing the prospect of another defeat in the Anson by-election of that same month. Thus, when Lee went for dinner with Goh Keng Swee, Lord Selkirk (the British Commissioner) and Philip Moore (the senior British official quoted above) he was a deeply troubled man. As Harper continues, again citing Colonial Office records, Lee at this meeting proposed,
... a more desperate scenario: he would order the release of detainees whilst requiring the British to block it through the ISC; he would then prorogue parliament for three weeks, and announce a plebiscite on Merger. When opposition was provoked, he would expel Fong, Woodhull, Dominic Puthucheary and Jamit Singh to the Federation. This 'would force Lim Chin Siong to reveal his hand completely and resort to direct action, in which event the Singapore Government would relinquish power and allow the British or the Federation to take over Singapore'. Selkirk, however, would have nothing to do with this 'unsavoury' scheme.
Unsavoury? Necessary? Inevitable? Immoral?

Well, it all depends on your personal point of view (and, as we've said earlier, we prefer readers to make up their own minds on such matters). But the interesting thing is, you don't have to search very far to find more stories like this. Stockwell (ed.) refers to A. J. Stockwell (ed.), Malaysia: British Documents on the End of Empire, parts of which are available at Google Books. Go to page 374 of that volume, for instance, and you'll discover why we've claimed in our book that Operation Cold Store 'had been planned for some time'. It seems a major round-up was first discussed in late July 1962 by Lee, Tun Razak and the Tunku, during a visit to London – between rounds of golf and tea at the Ritz.

2. Lim and Fong are suddenly lost for words

Of course, Colonial Office records have an equal amount to say about Lee's opponents during this same period. So, in the interests of 'balance', here's another passage from our book where the endnotes reveal some value-added extras once more. Again, our story comes from the middle of 1961, but this time the spotlight is on the radical leftists – Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, Sandra Woodhull and James Puthucheary – and on what would later become known as the 'Eden Hall Tea Party'.

OUR TEXT (from page 396):
Still mulling over their response to the merger discussions, Lim, Fong, Woodhull and Puthucheary (following a phone enquiry from the latter) went to see Lord Selkirk ... at his Eden Hall Residence. They asked him point-blank whether the British would arrest them and suspend Singapore's constitution should Lee Kuan Yew be voted out of office. Selkirk replied that the constitution was a fair one which the British would respect, as long as any new party stuck to constitutional means and refrained from violence.
See Stockwell (ed.), pp. 145-147. Often the second part of this conversation is overlooked. Apparently, Selkirk then told his guests that for Singapore to survive it would need economic stability and he asked Lim and Fong whether they were communists. The Colonial Office report of the meeting reads: 'They [Lim and Fong] seemed to be embarrassed by this question and failed to give a clear reply. Mr Woodhull, on the other hand, stated categorically that he was not a communist.'
I've long been intrigued by why Lim and Fong, at this critical moment, 'failed to give a clear reply' to Selkirk's question and why they suddenly 'seemed to be embarrassed'. Only a little while later, Lim would make a categorical statement in front of the press that he was 'not a communist, or a communist front-man, or for that matter anybody's front-man'. So why were he and Fong so tongue-tied when talking to Selkirk back at Eden Hall?

Were both men at that time still concerned about how such a disavowal of communism might go down with some of their supporters? Were they simply put on the spot by the question and lost for words – not sure how to articulate what might have been a very complex answer? Or are we giving the eyewitness testimony of British officials too much credence and forgetting that Lim and Fong might simply have been struggling with their English?

Ah, the multiple joys of endnotes and sources.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Book preview: Captain Mohan Singh’s dark night of the soul

This is the third book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which will be launched next week. The first two previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out' and 'The education of Singapore girls'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

This preview is from the World War II section, where we recount the Battle of Malaya through the eyes of soldiers in the field. The following story begins just three days after the
Japanese launched their ground-based assault on the Malay Peninsula, after the fall of Jitra.

Captain Mohan Singh’s dark night of the soul
For Captain Mohan Singh, a Sikh officer with the 14th Punjab regiment in Malaya, the defeat at Jitra proved to be the major turning point in his life. In his memoirs, he recalled that on 11 December the heavy Japanese bombardment and the withdrawal of his regiment’s transport sowed immediate confusion. ‘Some men jumped into the trucks to escape. I lost my temper, got hold of a stick and used it freely on any man trying to slip away’. Shortly afterwards, Japanese tanks burst into sight, tanks which Mohan Singh’s British commanding officer had assured him the enemy did not possess. The defenders dispersed ‘in utter confusion’ in a case of ‘everyone for himself’. By the time night fell,
Blind firing had started from all directions. Panic and chaos spread like wild fire … The morning of the 12th found British and Japanese troops terribly mixed up all over the place … So fell Jitra, the Maginot line of Malaya …
Over the next three days, tired and demoralised, Mohan Singh and his men staggered through jungle, padi field and leech-infested swamp as they tried to rejoin the main force of the retreating Allied army. For the Sikh captain personally, the circumstances of the defeat triggered an additional ‘intense inner struggle’. It was clear that while the Japanese ‘had come fully prepared and were ready to pay the price for their objective, a definite mission to do or die’, British-led forces ‘had no patriotic motives to fight with their backs to the wall’. But this realisation merely brought to mind an even deeper concern:
Throughout night, a panorama of those four days’ fighting was repeatedly appearing before my eyes … The horrible scenes of the drama of death and destruction witnessed during those few days deeply distressed my soul. I began to ponder over the real worth of life. Within a second or two, one could be no more. Like a bubble, the life of an individual could be pricked in a moment and it would vanish forever …

… If life could be abruptly snapped in a split second, as seen on the battlefield, would it not be better to direct and dedicate it to something better and nobler?
When Japanese planes dropped leaflets, ‘expressing their war aims in pithy slogans, assuring the coloured races of their immediate liberation and beseeching them to join hands in that mighty undertaking’, Mohan Singh felt ‘violently shaken’:
In a normal situation, no one would have given any serious heed to the shibboleths [sic] of the invading hordes, but at that moment their effect on me was tremendous. I felt as if they were voicing my inner feelings …
He emerged from three days in the swamp-filled jungle with a mission. He intended to approach the Japanese to obtain their help ‘to start a movement for Indian independence’, one that would ‘cut deep at the roots of the British policy of exploiting Indians for their wars all over the world.’ On the 14th, having drawn other Indian stragglers to his cause, he sent a local Indian to make contact with the Japanese on his behalf.

Mohan Singh admitted that his decision was not an easy one: ‘It was, indeed, a long drawn-out struggle between two loyalties—one to my own Commission, which meant allegiance to the British Crown, and the other, unwritten yet much more biding—my duty to my beloved country.’ In the end he joined the enemy ‘simply because, as an Indian, I felt that it was my duty to contribute my humble share to the service of my country’. On 15 December, he met with Japanese military officials at Alor Star and a few days later with Yamashita himself, who assured him that the Japanese had no territorial ambitions in India.

‘I was now going to raise an army for India’s liberation,’ wrote Mohan Singh. ‘In the very first week of our joining the Japanese side, I had decided that the name of this force would be ‘THE INDIAN NATIONAL ARMY’.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Writing without authority - PS

I should just add to my last post that the actual reason I was invited to South Africa was to speak on the wider theme of cosmopolitanism in the Indian Ocean world (a subject on which I've published a bit) and on where South Africa fits into this story. In particular, is South Africa able to draw parallels, comparisons and even lessons from the experience of other post-colonial states in the region, states that have tried and often failed to build inclusive, multi-ethnic democracies, i.e. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India and even Singapore?

(It was, nonetheless, still a surprise to be invited to Jo'burg, as well as a great privilege. When the invite came through over email, the subject read 'A fan letter and an invitation' - which I took to be from some nice and extremely polite Nigerian man about to ask me to invest in his intercontinental chicken farm.)

Singapore's own dream of a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic utopia is a major theme that we also explore in Singapore: A Biography. Singificantly, it's a story that begins well before the creation of the PAP in 1954, with a history going back to the late 1920s.

Writing without authority

Back in early 2008, literally half-way through the writing of Singapore: A Biography, I was asked to give a lecture at a conference in Johannesburg entitled 'South African democracy at the crossroads'. Anyone who knows me will know that when it comes to Africa (past or present) I'm not exactly an authority, so the immediate question was 'why me?'

The conference, held at the University of the Witwatersrand, was a bold and timely affair which sought to bring together academics, journalists, filmmakers, artists and activists, all concerned that Mandela's utopian dream of an inclusive South African democracy was being wrecked by his successors. It became quite a controversial affair in other ways too. One journalist, feeling slighted that she did not get the interview she had wanted during our party on the first night, complained in the national press of those academics who still live in a world of 'chardonnay and char-grilled prawns', notwithstanding their professed desire to step down from the ivory tower and mingle with the people. (The chardonnay and char-grilled prawns were, by the way, delicious!).

But for me this conference was special for two other reasons. Firstly, before I gave my address, I was introduced – by one of South Africa's most eminent living scholars, no less – as a 'leading public intellectual in Singapore', which almost caused me to fall off my seat! You see, to be a 'public intellectual' you kinda need a 'public', and in early 2008 I didn't even have a proper job let alone an audience in Singapore beyond my immediate family.

More importantly, the discussion at the conference turned eventually (and quite aptly, in my case) to the whole notion of 'writing without authority'.

The idea of 'writing without authority' comes from a self-reflective meditation on his work by the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and academic J. M. Coetzee (see Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews), and some critics have subsequently used it to describe his entire oeuvre. In his novels, so I'm told (I've so far only read a few of his essays), Coetzee makes a self-conscious attempt to dismantle his own authority writing as a white, South African male. To escape all the authoritarian connotations that such a status represents, his fiction embraces the narrative voices of the marginalised – the blind, the disabled and, in several instances, women.

Some people might think that this project sounds like yet more of that indulgent, intellectual navel-gazing for which white, liberal academics are so famed. (For though they might get all angsty and guilt-ridden about their privileged status, they still know where to find the best char-grilled prawns and chardonnay when it really counts.) Certainly, the irony of Coetzee's own effort to write without authority is that the more he does so, the more prizes he seems to win, and the more his international authority as a white, male, South African writer seems to grow.

Yet for those white South African liberals at the conference – who felt compelled to voice their concerns over the challenges facing their country's young democracy, while being acutely aware of how their voices might come across (given nearly half a century of apartheid) – their dilemma remained a real one. Writing without authority might ultimately be an impossibility, but it still appeared to be worth the attempt.

So what has all this got to do with Singapore: A Biography?

At first, the idea that historians ought to have a go at writing without authority might seem faintly ridiculous. Who's going to listen to a historian who consciously tries to marginalise his/her own voice, or who implicitly raises the question 'Who am I to speak?' (before other people raise it for them)? Generally, the historians I know enjoy speaking and writing as authorities, and their readers and listeners expect them to do so.

Which is why the British historian Orlando Figes is such an interesting exception.

Like Coetzee, Figes is a multi-award winning author, and also like Coetzee, Figes likes to withdraw himself from his own narratives. In mid-2008, during an interview with the Guardian about his new book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, he had this to say:
Look, the days have – or should have – long passed when the historian stands in his Olympian position and tells you: this is what happened, this is what it means, this is what you should think about. I structure my history in a literary way in which different readers can get different responses out of it. [...] I'm not the sort of historian who says, bluntly, this is the meaning of these experiences. I've tried to convey those experiences in a way that allows people to engage with them, and imagine themselves in those situations, and come up with their own meaning.
'Russian revelations'
in the Guardian (14 July 2008)

Naturally, the way Figes structures his narratives ought to give us a hint as to how he hopes they will be read. Nonetheless, he remains quite unperturbed in the face of the criticism that he never really tells us what he thinks, or that he fails to provide an over-arching political narrative or moral interpretation that might better hold the multiple stories featured in his work together. Instead, as the Guardian's interviewer puts it, Figes's work represents a new kind of democratic history where readers are expected 'to do their bit, to forge their own critical relation to, and emotional engagement with, his subject, rather than swallow a narrative and set of judgements whole'.

The attempt by Figes to write history without authority – or perhaps, to be more precise, to write history with multiple authorities (leaving readers to form their own intepretations) – proved a great inspiration when it came to the writing of the post-war sections of Singapore: A Biography. In these chapters, we used the device of placing the stories and testimonies of multiple (often opposed) historical actors side by side to explore what remains a still hotly contested period from Singapore's political past. We didn't completely remove the authoritative voice of the historian from these chapters, but we did try to restrict ourselves from the kind of over-arching moral and political judgements that might have got in the way of readers making up their own minds for themselves.

Were we successful? A veteran of the Barisan Sosialis to whom I showed these chapters wrote to me to say that such is the continued dominance of PAP-sponsored narratives of post-war Singapore (the recent volume Men in White being, in his mind, no exception) that the only real 'alternative' history that can be written at this time has to be an explicitly partisan one. Perhaps he is right. But perhaps, also, Singapore: A Biography will say something about this period that will encourage further thought as well – even as its authors appear on the surface to keep their own thoughts to themselves.

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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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Monday, October 5, 2009

Book preview: The education of Singapore girls

This is the second book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which will be launched in mid-Oct 2009. Last week's preview was 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

The education of Singapore girls
Modern female education in Singapore had begun in 1887, when an Australian Methodist missionary by the name of Sophia Blackmore opened the Methodist Girls’ School in a shop-house on Short Street. Two and a half years later, Blackmore joined forces with the American Methodist Mission to target the Nonya daughters of the Straits Chinese. She herself went door-to-door in Straits Chinese neighbourhoods to recruit new students. As she later recalled:
One mother would say, ‘We do not want our girls to ‘makan gaji’ (earn their livelihood). Another woman told me that if her daughter studied from the same book as her son, the girl would get all the learning out of it; there would be none for the boy, and he would be ‘bodoh’ (stupid). The girl might be stupid—that did not matter, but the boy must be clever.
Certain Nonya were even suspicious that Blackmore might be a government spy sent to investigate household gambling (still, at that time, illegal). Others, once her identity as a missionary had been established, were more concerned that she was unmarried when she was already a woman in her 30s. Such attitudes were typical of the cloistered, tradition-governed world that Blackmore and other educationalists sought to enter and overturn.

Impressed by their efforts, Straits Chinese progressives led a campaign for female education themselves. In 1899, Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang established the Straits Chinese Girls’ School (later called the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School), to ‘encourage and provide every facility for a suitable education for the Chinese girls … under the direction and control of their own people.’ ‘Direction’ and ‘control’ were the operative words here since such ‘suitable’ education had little to do with female empowerment – the objective was to make Straits Chinese girls into better wives and mothers. As an article in the Straits Chinese Magazine made clear:
[The mother’s] duty is to see that the children do not play the truant; to help them with their lessons so that they may not lag behind in the class; to instill into them the truths of morality and religion; and to inculcate the duty due to the family, to the State and to mankind. … As a wife, if she is well educated, the husband will always find in her a delightful companion who is ever ready to give him her advice, persuasion or warning with intelligence and reason …
Partly, the Straits Chinese Girls’ School was founded because of the embarrassment felt by progressive young Baba at the public impression made by their womenfolk. While letters to the Straits Times characterised as ‘reprehensible’ the penchant many Nonya had for popular forms of gambling such as chap-ji-ki and che-ki, articles in the Straits Chinese Magazine castigated them for their general ignorance (even though the latter was largely a result of their domestic confinement). The clearly exasperated outpouring of the colonial Director of Public Instruction in 1906 was typical of such criticism:
There is no more absolutely ignorant, prejudiced and superstitious class of people in the world than the Straits-born Chinese women. It is about hopeless to expect to be able really satisfactorily to educate the boys while their mothers remain stumbling blocks to real enlightenment.
Lim and Song’s remedy for such ignorance and superstition was a curriculum that included basic mathematics, reading and writing (in both English and Mandarin), as well as what we would today call ‘domestic science’: sewing, cooking, hygiene and childcare skills. Lim hoped that the educated Nonya would emerge from school having ‘learnt the importance of cleanliness and the proper way to conduct herself in the different spheres of life she will eventually enter—as daughter-in-law, wife and mother.’ Echoing the concern of the Director of Public Instruction, he also wanted students at the Straits Chinese Girls’ School to raise enlightened Chinese sons who would ultimately (as we saw him exhort earlier) reap their rewards as both ‘sons of Han’ and British imperial subjects.

Not everyone in the Straits Chinese community was supportive of this new direction. Lim noted that ‘with a few honourable exceptions’ elder Baba refused to give their patronage to the Straits Chinese Girls’ School, and that even the fathers and grandfathers of those girls already enrolled at the school adhered to the same ‘conservative and unreasonably prejudiced policy’. Yet a generation later, the efforts of Lim, Song and other female educators had largely vanquished such conservatism. The Methodist Girls’ School, the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and a host of other English and Chinese-language girls’ schools were all flourishing. In 1935, Sophia Blackmore could affirm that the days when women ‘were kept behind closed doors and only saw what was going on outside through a “peep hole”’ had well and truly passed.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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