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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Monday, September 28, 2009

Book preview: Farquhar and Raffles fall out

In the run-up to the launch of our book Singapore: A Biography in mid-October 2009, we'll be releasing a short book preview on this website every Monday. Today's preview is from the 'Settlement' section, which covers the years 1819 to 1824.

In 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded a British port in Singapore. But ‘like a man who sets a house on fire and then runs away’ (as one contemporary observed, but read our book for more details), Raffles returned to his post in Bencoolen, Sumatra, leaving the settlement to its first Resident Major William Farquhar. Farquhar was Raffles's trusted aide, but things didn't quite work out smoothly. Our story picks up in 1823, on Raffles's last visit to Singapore.

Farquhar and Raffles fall out
Within a year of Raffles’s return, relations had soured between both men to the extent that not even Farquhar’s near-fatal stabbing at the hands of Sayid Yassin could salvage them. In January 1823, Raffles wrote a letter to his East India Company (EIC) superiors in which he felt compelled to tell them that he considered Farquhar ‘totally unequal to the charge of so important and peculiar a charge as that of Singapore has now become’. He then struck out at Farquhar’s undesirably close involvement with the locals. In a thinly-veiled reference to Farquhar’s Melakan wife Nonio Clement, Raffles argued that the Resident’s ‘Malay connexion’ afforded ‘an opening for such an undue combination of peculiar interests as not only to impede the progress of order and regularity but may lay the foundation of future inconvenience which may hereafter be difficult to overcome’.

The growing distaste that Raffles felt towards Farquhar even extended to the Resident’s appearance. In March 1823, Raffles commented to Farquhar on his ‘departure from the usual etiquette in dispensing with the Military Dress of his rank’. The next month, he told Farquhar that he had written to Calcutta on the matter and was awaiting the Company’s judgment. Farquhar’s response was to claim that he was only required to wear his uniform when he acted in his capacity as military Commandant. Presumably, he felt that when acting as Resident he should be allowed to forego clothes that made him uncomfortable in the local humidity. However, the matter of the Resident’s dress was perhaps symptomatic in Raffles's mind of a general lack of discipline. By the end of the month, Raffles had Farquhar informed (by proxy!) that he was to be relieved from his official duties.

The way Raffles treated Farquhar certainly invites condemnation. But to be fair to Raffles, he returned to Singapore in 1822 practically a broken man, worn down by his grief and seemingly subject to the onset of brain disease. To find his ‘almost only child’, as he called Singapore during his final visit, in a less than ideal state, bustling with activity, yet unkempt and vice-ridden – apparently through the decisions of a colleague who seemed to have let himself go a little too ‘native’ – was an added pressure on an overwrought mind. And, in one respect, Raffles was justified in his condemnation of Farquhar. The Scot had chosen to turn a blind eye to slave-trading and thus to a practice outlawed across the British Empire. One slave-trader had been so delighted to carry out his business undisturbed in Farquhar’s Singapore that he sent both Raffles and Farquhar the gift of a couple of slaves as a mark of gratitude.

The acrimony between both men continued after they returned to Britain – and in Farquhar’s case even went on after Raffles’s death. Though the EIC formally decided in Raffles’s favour over Raffles’s assertion that he was the sole founder of the settlement at Singapore, Farquhar continued to fight for equal recognition, publicly criticising Sophia Raffles’s Memoir for the way it accorded Raffles ‘exclusive merit’ for Singapore’s establishment. Indeed, Farquhar might be said to have literally carried his case to the grave. When he died in Scotland in 1839, his tombstone read:
During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Melaka and afterwards at Singapore which latter settlement he founded…
Unfortunately for Farquhar, it took at least another century for historians to sit up and take notice. Sophia Raffles’s heroic narrative, combined with the prevailing ‘great man’ theory of history (in which, with his untidy appearance and Eurasian mistress, Farquhar must have appeared a raggedy misfit) ensured that Raffles continued to receive the sole credit as modern Singapore’s founder. Today, the island city-state bears no street or place or edifice which remembers Farquhar, whereas those dedicated to Raffles are numerous. Ironically, the one street that did bear Farquhar’s name used to lie in the Malay suburb of Kampong Glam, but it was demolished by the inheritors of Raffles’s urban legacy – Singapore’s modern town-planners.

Yet modern scholars have begun to re-appraise Farquhar’s contributions. If Raffles was the founding father of the Singapore settlement then, as historian Ernest Chew puts it, ‘it was really Farquhar who had to play the role of mother and nurse to the infant during its first four years’. Or as another scholar Karl Hack argues, it was Farquhar’s knowledge of the Malay rulers and their dynastic disputes that provided Raffles with his vital ‘entry-point’. Though Raffles was brilliant he was also ‘utterly impractical’ and it would have been ‘a disaster’ if he had set about the establishment of the modern entrepôt by himself. Indeed, the trust that local people had in the Raja Melaka was what brought many of them to Singapore in the first place, and ensured the settlement’s survival.

We perhaps gain a glimpse into the judgment of the time when we compare what we know about both men’s departures from the island. Munshi Abdullah tells us that Raffles departed Singapore on 9 June 1823 with tears in his eyes, sent on his way by ‘hundreds’. Mr Farquhar eventually left six months later and in Abdullah’s account was bade adieu with much greater fanfare. Thousands came to say farewell, bearing different kinds of gifts, including ‘some who did not have a dry eye for the whole of those two days’. As Farquhar’s ship pulled out of harbour ‘people of all races put out in their boats’, gaily decorated with ‘flags flying’ and with ‘bands playing’, trying to follow him as he set sail for the horizon.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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