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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Sunday, September 20, 2009

10 quick questions: Mark asks, Yu-Mei answers

1. Why did you take on a job as a researcher with the National Museum of Singapore project?

Because it was the most interesting job offer I had at the time. One of my friends calls me an 'accidental historian' as a result. It's a catchy label and the 'accidental' part is true, but I wouldn't call myself a historian. More a writer who appreciates history, a good story and a confluence of the two.

2. Why the sudden interest everywhere in Singapore history? Is it media-led or a genuine popular interest?

A lot of the current interest seems to be in the post-war period and Singapore's initial years of independence. A whole generation is getting nostalgic, I think – specifically, the generation that was told in the 1960s and 1970s that certain things had to go in the name of progress and development. Now that generation is reaching retirement age, maybe starting to think about their choices, their experiences and their legacy. There is a profound sense of loss in some quarters, or a feeling of urgency to claim or "reclaim" the recent past before all the actors pass away. Plus the fact that our physical landscape keeps changing – the recent accelerated developments in the Marina Bay area and Orchard Road, to say nothing of the constant "upgrading" of HDB estates – is a relentless reminder of how quickly and thoroughly things can be erased or replaced.

So some of the interest is in nostalgia, and some of it is in history. And this interest in digging up or rehabilitating the past has its spillover effects. I think more people now are curious about the past, where Singapore "came" from, and some want to question or hear alternatives to the official narrative. And on the official side, government money is flowing into museums and the "heritage" sector.

3. Of all the personalities featured in Singapore: A Biography who would you invite for dinner and why?
4. What would you talk about?

Oooh, tough one. Right off the bat I'd say Munshi Abdullah, who was Raffles's scribe. He was impressively multilingual – in Malay, Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and English – and very curious about what the colonials were bringing into his world. I imagine he'd be a sparkling raconteur and I'd love to buttonhole him and find out if he really thought the British were all that.

If I could have a second guest, I'd sneak in Constance Goh, the charismatic and tireless family planning pioneer from the post-war period. If she had the chutzpah in the 1950s to convince an English supplier to halve the price of contraceptives for her family planning clinics, I'm sure she'd waltz in to dinner with even more incredible stories. Also, I'd be very curious to hear her response to Singapore's population policies of today.

5. Singapore appears (to a non-Singaporean like me) to be a highly status-conscious place. What is your response to people who say 'Hey, you are not a PhD! How can you write my nation's history?'

I think there are different types of books that can be written about a nation's history. Singapore: A Biography tells one kind of story – reviving eyewitness accounts, piecing together interesting and complementary experiences, revealing some of the different faces of Singapore over the centuries. You could say I write for a reader such as myself: a non-specialist who's nonetheless curious about history and interested to unravel some of the complexities behind it.

6. Who would win in a historical smack-down between Yamashita and Lee Kuan Yew (and why)?

Yamashita would press Lee Kuan Yew into a corner, kiromoni sakuren-style, at which point Lee might seem outmatched, outgunned – but wait, the British referee calls a time-out, or rather, summarily dismisses from the ring those armies standing to the left of Yamashita. Now Yamashita is the one outnumbered, and Lee charges back with his party, pummelling Yamashita with a renewed, unfaltering one-two rhythm (the radio commentator seems to be on his side, too). Yamashita falls hard and loud. The round – and match – go to Lee.

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

I'm big on social history, so I liked writing about aspects of Singapore life that let me step away from the political and the economic, to take a peek at people's inner lives. Moments like recreating from James Warren's books the daily 19th-century routine of rickshaw coolies or karayuki-san (a euphemism for Japanese prostitutes), or looking at contending notions of education for girls in the early 20th century. I suppose you could say my favourite part is putting the people back into the history.

8. Imagine you had to pitch this book to a Hollywood executive.

It's a historical epic, retold Paris, Je T'aime-style, but with much more action-packed sequences. Imagine nine vignettes, with nine different directors, each dramatising the story of a particularly vivid eyewitness to Singapore's history. There's the magic realism of the 14th-century Sejarah Melayu world, the rough-and-tumble derring-do of the 19th-century port-city, the fierce frontline action of World War II and the sly political manoeuvrings of the post-war era. Our protagonists will run the gamut from swashbuckling colonials and intrepid pirates, to baby-faced soldiers and ingenious women from all levels of society. Nine surprising stories, and they all happen to take place on one small island called Singapore.

9. What are you going to do next?

I'm going to continue doing some travel writing, which is great for gaining some perspective on what's going on in Singapore, but from outside Singapore. I also have a couple of non-fiction and fiction ideas at the back of my head, which I'll need a bit of time to disentangle and prioritise.

10. Please explain your surname (family name).

My surname Balasingamchow (or, in its original formulation, Balasingam-Chow) combines names from my father's Sri Lankan heritage and my mother's Cantonese one. My parents, it appears, were prescient about what would be useful in the Internet age: a readily Google-able name.

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