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.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,