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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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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