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.

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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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Monday, October 19, 2009

Book preview: Staging merdeka

This is the fourth book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which is being launched next week. The first three previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out', 'The education of Singapore girls' and 'Captain Mohan Singh's dark night of the soul'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

This preview introduces David Marshall, who was elected Singapore's first Chief Minister in 1955.

Staging merdeka
On 21 March 1956, a tall, Mediterranean-looking man, who carried a pipe and whose bushy eyebrows seemed to attempt an escape from his forehead each time he emphasised a point, spoke into a microphone in front of a crowd of supporters. He was standing underneath the 'apple tree' at Empress Place (next to what is today Old Parliament House) from where his words were broadcast live by Radio Malaya. In a present age, in which politicians try hard to appear natural and approachable, his performance serves as something of a master class:
Merdeka! People of Singapore! Last year, this time, in the month of March: a time of agony. I came before you, day after day at lunchtime, to speak to you of the dangers that the future held and to put before you a blueprint for a miracle. I did not dream, I did not dare believe, that you would give us an opportunity to make that miracle possible.
The man was David Marshall, a brilliant lawyer, a Sephardic Jew and one of the most colourful personalities Singapore politics has ever known. Then in his late 30s, Marshall had served for the previous year as the island’s first elected Chief Minister. He now appeared before his supporters to declare his government’s achievements, to relate the hurdles that it had overcome, and to explain the dangers that it faced in the future:
I think you know, when I was first elected and appointed Chief Minister, I was told I had no office, no clerk, no thambi [a boy or male servant]. And oh they couldn’t give me any office – it took a long time – government offices were extremely overloaded – and there was a lot of difficulty. I had to threaten to bring a desk here and set it up here or in my flat [laughter] before I could get an office!

I was told that, of course, the heaven-born, including the Chief Secretary, was the man who would coordinate government policy; that I was just the, the sort of the – the senior thambi among the thambis! [more laughter] I made it very clear and very soon that I was either Chief Minister or not. Finally, they accepted the position that I could coordinate policy.
Superior colonial officials were not the only obstacle Marshall and his government faced. Recalling another source of opposition, the Chief Minister felt clearly in his element:
To read the English press, we are a group of baboons who are trying to impose independence on you against your will. The Standard came out on Sunday with an article – not written by a Malayan, thank god. Well, he said, please don’t give us independence: we want Papa and Mama colonialism! [loud laughter, then Marshall imitates a child] Mama colonialism! Mama! A lost boy!
Finally, Marshall laid the jokes aside to conclude with a more serious message:
The communists are the ultimate danger to this country. And whether it is today or it is tomorrow, whatever the threat to my own personal safety may be and to my friends and to my colleagues, we intend to act with all the firmness possible against those disruptive elements that call themselves communists.

You don’t want, I don’t want, the people of Singapore don’t want a yanko merdeka. We want a Malayan merdeka! [Loud applause] And we will get it!
For all these fine words three months later Marshall was to resign, his dreams of steering Singapore to independence in tatters. His rapid rise and then equally sudden demise tell us much about the high drama (and sometimes high farce) of what was then a new style of politics on the island. But his story is equally important because of the leading players who shared his stage. For it was these other rising stars in the political firmament – the young Hakka Chinese lawyer Lee Kuan Yew and the even younger Hokkien Chinese bus worker Lim Chin Siong – who not only matched Marshall for charisma, but who ultimately presented him with far greater challenges than the British.

The outsider comes in
Looking back over his career in an oral history interview, Marshall claimed that the main motivation that drove him to enter politics was anger: ‘Anger at the leprous concept of racial superiority and it had been mounting in my belly since my schooldays’. He explained that he was never ‘anti-British’; rather, he wanted to ‘break through the sonic barrier against Asians and especially Jews’. Nor, he admitted, was he especially ideological. Though he moved in Singapore’s socialist circles during the early 1950s he never became especially grounded in socialist dogma. His personal understanding of socialism was that it simply meant ‘an effort to create the foundations of the opportunity of all our people to attain conditions of living compatible with human dignity’.

Marshall received his clarion call when in mid-1953 the British governor John Nicoll, in an effort to speed up Singapore’s progress towards self-government, announced the formation of a new constitutional commission. The outcome of the 1954 Rendel Commission (named after its chief convener Sir John Rendel) was that popular elections would be held the following year for a newly constituted Legislative Assembly made up of 32 members, 25 of whom would be elected. For Marshall, the political dawn that beckoned was so exciting as to be almost palpable:
‘Hey we are human beings! Hey, we’ve got the right to vote! Hey, we’ve got a right to elect our own representative! We’ve got a right to a voice in how we are to live.’ Now that is something you don’t understand today. But that was very, very radical at that time. You know it’s like the four-legged animal suddenly finding himself standing straight and looking upwards instead of looking to the ground. It really was a radical change of psychological atmosphere … ‘Hey we are standing on two legs!’
© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography was published in October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore & Editions Didier Millet.

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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.
OUR ENDNOTE:
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.
OUR ENDNOTE:
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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