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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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

10 quick questions: Yu-Mei asks, Mark answers

1. Who was your favourite author when you were growing up, and why?

I am most definitely still growing up, and during this process there have been many favourites. When I was about 16 I discovered the Russian 'greats' - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev and Chekhov. The drama of their sometimes manic narratives definitely left a deep impression.

As I grew up a bit more, I began to enjoy a cooler, more controlled prose style. In my late 20s I got hooked on Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Now, in my late 30s, I like reading works that provide some meditative calm (it must be the contrast with the bustle of family life and work). I read far more popular non-fiction than I used to (in addition to what I have to read as an academic), and I am even considering starting on Proust.

Nonetheless, the narrative intensity of the Russian 'greats' probably still influences what I write the most, even when it comes to popular history. Nabokov might have described Dostoevsky as an outrageous 'hack'(and to some extent he was) but he remains a genius 'hack' all the same.

2. What is the most common assumption people make about historians that really annoys you?

It's an assumption that is so annoying because it can be true - that historians are dusty and boring. The problem is we train ourselves to be walking repositories of the past, which no matter how you try to project yourself is not exactly sexy. Even within academia, I think history has an image problem. Compare us with other experts in the humanities and social sciences with their greater penchant for theory and we appear like party-poopers who have turned up at the fancy dress ball in plain clothes. (Indeed, many of us secretly hold that this is our role in life - to puncture grand social and economic theories through our deeper acquaintance with historical detail).

Things are, of course, changing. Many historians have embraced theory. At the same time, narrative history is now back with a bang (and selling fast) while big-name historians are all over the box.

All the same, I will never forget the first time I met my (now) wife in Singapore. It was at a family dinner where her parents were so interested in the fact that I was interested in Singapore history that they didn't give me a chance to talk about anything else. Wife-to-be thought I was boring and dusty, and I had to spend a lot of effort convincing her that I wasn't.

3. Of all the personalities in Singapore: A Biography, who would you invite to dinner and why?

Hardly original, but for a good old gossip and bitch over several bottles of wine (and provided he was not in a bad mood) it would have to be David Marshall.

4. What would you talk about?

Well, first up, did he enjoy jazz? When we did the Companion Guide episode in the National Museum, I lobbied to have his 'Under the Apple Tree' speech mixed over Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five'. I still wonder if he would have enjoyed this or hated it. (Perhaps he'd have preferred a more momentous soundtrack like Beethoven or Wagner.)

I'd also ask him about the best post-war bars in Singapore - especially, what he recalled of the Liberty Cabaret on South Bridge Road. The other important stuff about politics is all in his oral history interview at the National Archives so there would be no need to go back over it.

5. If someone made a film about 1950s Singapore politics, which actors would you like to see cast as David Marshall and Lee Kuan Yew?

(Ha, is this revenge for my WWF historical smackdown question?)

I think with modern SFX, Lee could be played by a digitally slimmed-down and youthful looking combination of two actors: Glen Goei and Sir Anthony Hopkins. After Nixon, Hopkins could play any major leader (given the right prosthetics) and since both actors have worked together they could probably each "inhabit one another's space" and "really get inside each other" to create Lee on the big screen. Hopkins could give Goei a few Hannibal Lecter tips on ruthlessness and Goei could teach Hopkins how to be ... more Chinese?

Marshall would have to be played by Singapore-based Malaysian actor and playwright Huzir Sulaiman - who has written a play about Marshall and must be just waiting for the call.

6. Which two personalities from different time periods in Singapore: A Biography could have been best mates, and why?

Best mates for how long? Like anywhere else, Singapore's political history is so fraught with big egos and break-ups. Remember Raffles and Farquhar, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong?

Okay, then, probably Dr Goh Keng Swee (self-governing Singapore's first Finance Minister) and Dr John Crawfurd (Singapore's second British Resident). They'd be able to spend hours together discussing domestic growth figures, moaning about the expensive and unrealistic idealism of some of their associates, and comparing who could go longer without wasting money by washing his underpants.

7. One of our reviewers said we seemed to have a lot of fun writing this book. What was you favourite part?

It was also the most difficult: weaving the various sources and individual life-stories into a flowing narrative through effective transitions.

When these transitions worked, it was very satisfying. I especially enjoyed the Chettiar/Little India section that comes just before the outbreak of World War II (Yu-Mei's original idea to place it here) and the filmic indulgences (cut tos, freeze-frames, rewinds etc.) that are employed at crucial moments in the 1950s Merdeka chapters. These were meant to evoke the new mass media that dominated this period (and I know that you at least, illustrious co-author, really liked them).

For more on these, go buy the book.

8. If you hadn't elected to read history when you were an undergraduate, what do you think you would be doing now?

Very simple - English Lit. My family is like an English Lit. mafia.

I was tossing up between English and History, and it was simply the encouraging words of my history teacher (the revered Charles Malyon, regarded by many - me included - as during his career the best history teacher in the UK) that sealed it for me. At the time, my parents thought English Lit. as a subject was going down the plughole anyway, what with the death of the author.

I'd like to say that an alternative life-choice would have meant I'd now be writing great novels and making great films. But, in reality, I'd probably still be sitting here in Hong Kong University, only just a few offices down the corridor, dreaming of the big break-out from the English Department.

9. After living in Singapore for over six years and writing Singapore: A Biography, what is the one thing about Singapore that you still can't get enough of?

Strangely enough, it's not the food. I have a sense Singaporeans are getting a bit short-changed these days when it comes to their culinary delights. A quick trip to Penang might make more people realise something is amiss.

No, for me the answer to that question (sentimental as it may sound) is definitely the people. Beyond the government, the 'system' and the cleanliness, Singapore is defined for me by an extraordinarily diverse range of wonderful people, past and present. This was the main motivation for writing a 'biography' of the island.

And btw, though there are all these courtesy campaigns and repeated self-criticisms in the press about the lack of graciousness in Singapore society, my own experience is that Singapore is a far less aggressive and unfriendly place than many others I have lived in.

10. Please explain your name?

It's partly thanks to Google again.

Mark Frost is a well-known historian, novelist and screenwriter, especially in the US, who is perhaps best known for collaborating with filmmaker David Lynch.

One day, while working on the National Museum project, a curator called me up to congratulate me on my new novel The Six Messiahs (though on the phone I heard him say 'The Sex Messiah' - which took a while to work out and was all rather embarrassing). So I started adding my Indian name Ravinder to become Mark R. Frost or, in the case of our book, Mark Ravinder Frost (so Yu-Mei does not feel so alone with her own epic name).

My mother is from South India (my father from South London) and she gave me the Tamil name Ravinder after her favourite Indian poet, the Bengali Rabindranath Tagore.

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