Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Fajar Generation

It is quite something to write a book about the history of Singapore. It is quite something else to be in a room full of white-haired men and women who were there for some of that history.

Launch of "The Fajar Generation"

Two Saturdays ago, I was at the book launch of The Fajar Generation. Fajar (which means 'dawn' in Malay) was the title of a publication by the University of Malaya Socialist Club in the 1950s. The British charged some Club members (that is, university students) with sedition because of the anti-colonial sentiments they expressed in the publication. While they were acquitted, the incident was arguably a seminal moment in the nascent development of political consciousness and direction in post-war Singapore.

(If you need a crash course in the Fajar trial, flip to pages 353-354 of our book. There also a handy chronology of events in Lim Cheng Tju's essay in s/pores, 'A Personal Journey In Search Of Fajar'.)

From the blurb on the back cover of The Fajar Generation:
The two decades from 1945 to 1965 was an extraordinary era of political turmoil in the modern histories of Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore. The end of the war unleashed concerted demands for greater political representation, self-rule and eventual independence in the face of British attempts to manage the decolonisation process. The character and direction of this struggle were deeply contested. Different strands of nationalist thinking and competing political formations battled to define and shape the character of the future nation states. The Fajar Generation tells the hitherto neglected story of a remarkable group of men and women who advanced a radical agenda of anti-colonialism, democracy, multiculturalism and social justice through the agency of the University of Malaya Socialist Club. Through personal memoirs and analytical essays the contributors to this collection illuminate their own roles in that struggle – the hopes and despairs, the triumphs and defeats. At the same time they remind us of just how much of that progressive political agenda is still to be won in contemporary Malaysia and Singapore.
The book comprises 13 essays by members of the University of Malaya Socialist Club, as well as Edwin Thumboo's poem 'May 1954', which was written in response to the Fajar trial. The volume was edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew, who were all formerly in leading positions in the Club; Poh and Tan were later detained under the Internal Security Act in Operation Coldstore in 1963.

The Temasek Review has a more thorough account of the book launch and on YouTube there's a video of Dr Lim Hock Siew's speech at the event (he too was detained under Operation Coldstore --- for 19 years). Suffice to say that it's quite moving to hear the Fajar generation speak in person, yet it's difficult to imagine that these first-person accounts of 1950s and 1960s could have been published and/or distributed in Singapore 20 years ago (that would've been just after another Internal Security Department action, Operation Spectrum). Looking around the room at the book launch, it's clear that there's no shortage of eyewitnesses and voices to add to the multiplicity of how we view Singapore's recent history. It's just whether the conditions are right for them to speak (and for what it's worth, The Fajar Generation is published by the Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, an independent publishing house in Malaysia).

The Fajar Generation is available in English or Chinese. Pick it up at Select Books in Singapore, or contact the publisher: sird [at] streamyx.com.

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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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