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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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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