Monday, November 2, 2009

At the Singapore Writers Festival

The book and one of its authors
(Photo credit – greyworks)

The thing about getting the first time-slot for the day at a writers festival is that the whole place is a little sleepy, and even the brave souls who turn up (thank you, all!) probably could use a jolt of caffeine to get their system going. Hearing me read about the Singapore Stone isn't quite the same ...

Nevertheless, after I made several hopefully not-too-convoluted points about "Finding the Singapore Story", people chimed in with both salient and surprising questions (and sometimes a combination of the two), and we ended up talking about Singapore and identity and citizenship and history. While citizenship is not a topic we really get into in Singapore: A Biography, with a book title like that and the perennial debates about what it means to 'be' Singaporean, it's a natural progression of ideas, perhaps.

A cosy crowd
(Photo credit – greyworks)

This was the last of our initial wave of book events in Singapore. Thanks to everyone who's come by an event, bought a book, spread the word and/or otherwise helped us out. It was great to see new faces and old.

We now return to our regularly scheduled blog programming ...

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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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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.

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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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Friday, September 18, 2009

The Singapore NDP: A National Day or 'Naughty Diva' Parade?

By now, I think I can claim to be a bit of a Singapore National Day Parade (NDP) connoisseur. The NDP features right at the conclusion of the Singapore History Gallery of NMS in a video installation using that old favourite of exhibition designers ('they're simple and never fail') – mirrors. For a while, the curatorial team, the designers and myself had been stuck for an ending to this gallery and then a friend showed me a documentary called A State of Mind about North Korea's Mass Games. The idea for a visual tour through 40 years of NDPs stuck and we took the treatment – which I'd entitled 'Rites of the Nation' – to local filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, who agreed to make it.

Eventually, Pin Pin's film explored a much broader emotional range than I'd expected and it also brought out how much has remained the same in the NDP as well as how much has changed over time. (Although, for an example of Singapore's transition from state-led socialism to state-led consumerism, compare the earlier massed industrial workers carrying hammers and other tools to the later floats featuring bodybuilders modelling the latest lime-green Lycra.)

In my work with Yu-Mei on Singapore: A Biography, the NDP also crops up: it features in the Epilogue to the book and we also trace some of its historical antecedents back to the Japanese Occupation and even earlier to the Royal Visit of 1901 (for more on this, go buy the book!).

The point is, after the former NMS curator Cheryl-Ann Low and Pin Pin herself, I've probably watched footage of more NDPs than anyone I know. And what has struck me about the last decade of NDPs is how gloriously CAMP they've become. In particular, Glen Goei's efforts as Creative Director seemed to fully explore Singapore as a 'Rainbow Nation' in every way.

But surely this year's NDP – a disco-diva celebration of nationhood – took the biscuit! Sure, I tuned in after all the macho, military display (which itself can always be given an alternative reading). All the same, wasn't this NDP rather subversive? I can't have been the only one who clocked the Big Brother eye looking down us at all. But did I really hear, in a nation that still ranks 151st out of 195 nations in terms of press freedom, a small girl vowing to defend Singapore's 'freedom of expression'? Moreover, in a country where (unlike Albania) homosexual sex remains illegal, were those really inflatable pink hearts that the Cabinet and Prime Minister were waving?

My mother-in-law felt I was reading too much into things, but then when the credits rolled I discovered that both Ivan Heng and Alfian Sa'at were the creative minds behind this camp masterpiece. (If you don't know who either is, try Googling them - they both have extensive resumes as dissident voices.) Anyway, this got me thinking about the whole question of dissent in Singapore and whether the brains behind this year's NDP could be seen as belonging to a longer historical tradition of what I call embedded Singaporean dissent.

If you'd like to hear me waffle on some more about this topic then do come to a talk I'm giving at the National Museum of Singapore on 24 October at 2 pm, entitled 'Heroes, Villains and Ordinary Citizens: A short history of Singaporean dissent'.


For further details and registration info, see the National Museum website (or click on the image above).

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