Friday, November 27, 2009

Setting the record straight (the not so mystical 'Chinatown walkabout')

Yu-Mei's previous post about our appearance in the Straits Times prompts me to write a further clarification, largely because my 'mystical Chinatown walkabout' was anything but (which in itself is quite revealing).

However, before anyone leaps in to slam the ST for yet another feeble attempt at 'responsible' journalism, let's be fair. Yu-Mei and I had arranged to meet the paper's very nice journalist at a cafe off Club Street, where the music was a bit loud and the ambiance not exactly conducive to conversation. Both of us were probably also a bit psyched, as we were about to give our first ever book reading. And so as the interview got underway and we started to talk over each other a bit (and at speed), I sensed our friendly reporter was struggling to take it all in, and that what she was getting might not be enough for her story.

Given this, I was grateful we got any coverage at all, even if some of what we were quoted as saying bore only a tangential relationship to what we had actually said or had written.

Which brings me to that 'Chinatown walkabout', during which I mysteriously morphed into Yu-Mei and began to feel the district's 'ancient history' bursting into life around me.

Well, not exactly. As I recall, what I actually tried to get across in our interview was how hard it is to get any sense of Singapore's physical past today.

I'd set off on a solo heritage walk to try and recreate the route of the 'Kreta Ayer martyrs' (see Chapter 18 of Singapore: A Biography) who in 1927 had marched angrily from the Happy Valley amusement park on Anson Road and then attacked the Kreta Ayer police station, where policemen shot them dead in the street. Thanks to road diversions, the destruction of the old Kreta Ayer police station and the lack of accessible period maps, my attempt was a total failure. Yet luckily, I met a friendly old Chinese man selling prints and his own heritage booklets outside the Chinatown Heritage Centre. As he explained to me how the streets had once been laid out and where the old police station had once stood, he seemed pretty gobsmacked that anyone should care about the 'Kreta Ayer martyrs' or want to retrace their route.

The confusion in the ST piece originated with my effort to describe the one time during the writing of Singapore: A Biography when I did feel a very strong sense of the island's past returning to life. This happened, completely to my surprise, when I joined my two year-old daughter's playschool excursion to a fish farm in Chua Chu Kong (in the island's north). I'd tagged along to help out, but on the way over I noticed a sign pointing to the site of the Japanese landings on Singapore during the night of the 9 February 1942. Leaving the little ones to harass the koi, I slipped away for a closer look.

Wandering through the mangroves, I had my first, so far only, and at the time extremely visceral, sense of walking with historical ghosts: the soldiers who had fought on both sides as the whole area went up in flames during the Mandai inferno. I'm not saying I saw actual ghosts, nor heard phantom explosions, shouts of anguish or the like; what I felt, instead, was a powerful inkling that the area still retained a memory of the events that had once defined it. It also stuck me just how close Johor is to Singapore, how little distance the Japanese had to come, and how badly Percival (the British Commander in charge of the defence of Singapore) had got things wrong.

One has to be careful not to become too nostalgic for bygone streets and pathways that one has never walked down, smelled or got mugged in, places that in most cases now exist only in the historical imagination. And, of course, the rational explanation of my experience that morning was that my historical imagination had got the better of me.

Nonetheless, when people complain about the lack of rootedness they feel in Singapore today, not to say the lack of a collective Singaporean identity, I often think that what they are expressing is their deep lack of a sense of place. Obviously, economic development involves urban transformation - in Singapore's case, ceaseless urban transformation. But at the same time, historical buildings and landscapes remain the very essence of what makes a place distinctive and of what, over time, generates a sense of civic pride.

Modern spaces can do this as well, provided they are interesting (or even unintentionally humorous): a big tick for the Esplanade in this respect, a big cross next to the derivative 'woo, please look at us, we're a global metropolis' Singapore Flyer. In a weird way, the sheer 'in your face-ness' of ION Orchard currently does it for me too.

Yet nothing beats walking down a street or along a pathway that still somehow retains a continuity with what made the island distinctive in earlier days and still makes it so today. (Nothing, perhaps, save meeting a helpful old Chinese man for whom the memory of that place is still alive and vivid.)

For me, physical heritage is to a city what the face is to an individual's personality. Wrinkles will appear, the face will inevitably change, and on occasion a facelift and even reconstructive surgery might be deemed necessary to keep things in place or return them to their rightful place. But to destroy this face in an effort to reinvent it, as Singapore's Urban Renewal Authority explicitly set out to do from the mid-1960s (see page 430 of our book), seems to me the civic equivalent of doing a late Michael Jackson.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Book preview: Captain Mohan Singh’s dark night of the soul

This is the third book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which will be launched next week. The first two previews were 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out' and 'The education of Singapore girls'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

This preview is from the World War II section, where we recount the Battle of Malaya through the eyes of soldiers in the field. The following story begins just three days after the
Japanese launched their ground-based assault on the Malay Peninsula, after the fall of Jitra.

Captain Mohan Singh’s dark night of the soul
For Captain Mohan Singh, a Sikh officer with the 14th Punjab regiment in Malaya, the defeat at Jitra proved to be the major turning point in his life. In his memoirs, he recalled that on 11 December the heavy Japanese bombardment and the withdrawal of his regiment’s transport sowed immediate confusion. ‘Some men jumped into the trucks to escape. I lost my temper, got hold of a stick and used it freely on any man trying to slip away’. Shortly afterwards, Japanese tanks burst into sight, tanks which Mohan Singh’s British commanding officer had assured him the enemy did not possess. The defenders dispersed ‘in utter confusion’ in a case of ‘everyone for himself’. By the time night fell,
Blind firing had started from all directions. Panic and chaos spread like wild fire … The morning of the 12th found British and Japanese troops terribly mixed up all over the place … So fell Jitra, the Maginot line of Malaya …
Over the next three days, tired and demoralised, Mohan Singh and his men staggered through jungle, padi field and leech-infested swamp as they tried to rejoin the main force of the retreating Allied army. For the Sikh captain personally, the circumstances of the defeat triggered an additional ‘intense inner struggle’. It was clear that while the Japanese ‘had come fully prepared and were ready to pay the price for their objective, a definite mission to do or die’, British-led forces ‘had no patriotic motives to fight with their backs to the wall’. But this realisation merely brought to mind an even deeper concern:
Throughout night, a panorama of those four days’ fighting was repeatedly appearing before my eyes … The horrible scenes of the drama of death and destruction witnessed during those few days deeply distressed my soul. I began to ponder over the real worth of life. Within a second or two, one could be no more. Like a bubble, the life of an individual could be pricked in a moment and it would vanish forever …

… If life could be abruptly snapped in a split second, as seen on the battlefield, would it not be better to direct and dedicate it to something better and nobler?
When Japanese planes dropped leaflets, ‘expressing their war aims in pithy slogans, assuring the coloured races of their immediate liberation and beseeching them to join hands in that mighty undertaking’, Mohan Singh felt ‘violently shaken’:
In a normal situation, no one would have given any serious heed to the shibboleths [sic] of the invading hordes, but at that moment their effect on me was tremendous. I felt as if they were voicing my inner feelings …
He emerged from three days in the swamp-filled jungle with a mission. He intended to approach the Japanese to obtain their help ‘to start a movement for Indian independence’, one that would ‘cut deep at the roots of the British policy of exploiting Indians for their wars all over the world.’ On the 14th, having drawn other Indian stragglers to his cause, he sent a local Indian to make contact with the Japanese on his behalf.

Mohan Singh admitted that his decision was not an easy one: ‘It was, indeed, a long drawn-out struggle between two loyalties—one to my own Commission, which meant allegiance to the British Crown, and the other, unwritten yet much more biding—my duty to my beloved country.’ In the end he joined the enemy ‘simply because, as an Indian, I felt that it was my duty to contribute my humble share to the service of my country’. On 15 December, he met with Japanese military officials at Alor Star and a few days later with Yamashita himself, who assured him that the Japanese had no territorial ambitions in India.

‘I was now going to raise an army for India’s liberation,’ wrote Mohan Singh. ‘In the very first week of our joining the Japanese side, I had decided that the name of this force would be ‘THE INDIAN NATIONAL ARMY’.

© 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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