Friday, November 13, 2009

Cover art

One of the benefits of working with the Singapore-based publisher Editions Didier Millet (EDM) is that they really care about the way a book looks.

Another enjoyable aspect of working with them was that they were keen to consult with us (yes, the authors!) on the layout of Singapore: A Biography and especially on its cover. For this, we especially have to thank our editor at EDM, Ibrahim Tahir, whose overall contribution to the book made him effectively its 'third author'.

So how did the cover come about?

A while ago, Intuitive Studios (the exhibition design company I am closely involved with – see earlier post) was approached to design a historically-themed mural for a local museum. It seemed like this was the perfect opportunity to unleash an homage to Sir Peter Blake, the famous pop artist and one of my personal favourites, on the Singapore heritage scene.

For those of you who don't know his work, here's one of his pieces:

And his most famous piece:

Intuitive's historically-themed pop art mural never eventuated. But the idea of a Peter Blake pastiche was thrown into the hat once more when Yu-Mei and I started to discuss the book cover with EDM, partly because it reflected our philosophy when writing our history of Singapore: that it's all about a multitude of colourful personalities.

Most of all, we wanted to get away from the black and white and seemingly 'designed-by-committee' book covers that feature on many works of Singapore history, a typical example of which is found on a book we had both worked on earlier:

So, Ibrahim and EDM's in-house designer Annie Teo went off to work on the cover. Eventually, they came back with these preliminary efforts:

Version A

Version B

I didn't like Version A much (and not just because our names were so small). I found it a bit dull, especially the colours. Yu-Mei had a more extreme reaction to Version B, since it seemed to her like the very worst kind of school textbook cover that we were trying to avoid. I could see her point, but I also hoped EDM would keep trying with the Peter Blake-inspired approach. So I asked my designer friend Claire Fleetwood (who runs Intuitive Studios) to chime in with some further suggestions, while I sent Ibrahim and Annie what were probably rather annoying emails where I attempted to deconstruct why Blake's Sergeant Pepper's cover worked and why our Version B did not.

Yu-Mei, meanwhile, seemed to have resigned herself to her worst fear: a textbook cover! Arghhhh! OMG! (I think she really has spent too long in schools, you know).

Annie and Ibrahim now went back to the drawing board and at this point, Ibrahim later told me, Annie went 'a bit nuts' with the design, and started to spend hour after hour on it trying to perfect it. The eventual result (for which we will always be grateful) ...

Which was ultimately tweaked to become ...

Yet that wasn't the end of it. When it was time to launch our online marketing campaign, Yu-Mei asked her friends at ampulets to tweak the cover one last time for our flyer. And the final outcome ... a radiant, celestial Singapore: A Biography!

Let those cosmic rays bathe you in historical wisdom, people of the little red dot.
(And a big thank you to Ibrahim, Annie, Claire, ampulets and of course to – please don't sue us for copyright – Sir Peter Blake!)


Friday, October 9, 2009

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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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The story behind the book - PS

Just to add to Yu-Mei's last post, the story behind the book was not quite so smooth as that, let's be honest. Even though there was all this wonderful material left on the cutting-room floor from NMS, we didn't actually intend to write a 'new' history of Singapore, originally. As I remember, we proposed to NMS a mere companion volume to the History Gallery that would flesh out the Companion scripts a little and have lots of nice pics – a kind of gallery guide, a bit like an Insight Guide or the Asian Civilisations Museum A-Z Guide.

I remember at the time, illustrious co-author, assuring you we'd be done in six months! Well, then someone gave me Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution for Christmas (the nice two-volume Folio Society edition with lots of nice pics) and having seen how it worked, and fuelled by new ambition, we went back to pitch a quite different book.

I didn't realise then that it would take another two years to write. (Remember, I apologised on more than one occasion about what we'd got ourselves into). But history called and it's all done now – a 450-page blockbuster, which if you don't read it you can always use as a burglar deterrent!


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The story behind the book

When I joined Mark on the National Museum of Singapore project in 2006, one thing that kept hitting us, as we waded through mounds of notes, interviews, audio clips and TV archives, was how there were all these dramatic and gripping stories that didn't seem to have been given due recognition as part of Singapore history. There were intriguing personalities from Munshi Abdullah, the Jawi Peranakan scribe from Melaka who recorded his impressions of early Singapore, to Mrs Seow Peck Leng, one of Singapore's first woman Parliamentarians – yet none of these people had become household names. Singapore history still meant the 'great men of history', such as Sir Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew, who loomed large in the popular imagination, and on the shelves and covers in any Singapore section of a bookstore.

So while we were pleased with what became the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum, we were all too aware that there were numerous pieces of Singapore history left, as it were, on the cutting room floor. What better format, then, than a book – one that could be long enough to give some heft to the Singapore story, yet also punchy enough to keep a modern reader happy? Something, Mark and I envisioned, that would bring out the drama and spirit of the stories that had excited us in the first place – a work of popular history, but most definitely not a textbook.

Thus was born the book project that became Singapore: A Biography, which the National Museum is publishing in Singapore with Editions Didier Millet. Two years of writing, rewriting, additional research and rethinking later, we think we've come up with a narrative that raises a new babble of voices alongside the ones that most people already know. Good scholarship underpins our efforts, but this is a book that packs in much more as well.