‘The British Military Withdrawal from Singapore and the Anatomy of a Catalyst’, paper in preparation.
That there is a serious disconnect between imperial and nationalist historiographies is manifest in the case of the accelerated British military withdrawal from Singapore. As a defining event in most narratives of the ‘ends of empire’, Britain’s decision in 1968 to bring to a close the ‘East of Suez’ policy and run down its military presence in Singapore is often held to demonstrate the city-state’s tangled place in imperial world history. In contrast, the British pullout has become a ‘blessing in disguise’ in nationalist tellings of newly independent Singapore’s meteoric rise to an economic ‘Asian Tiger’ under the enlightened leadership of the PAP government in the 1970s. This paper seeks to bridge the imperial and nationalist perspectives by approaching the withdrawal as a catalyst within the historical frame of change and continuity. The pullout was not merely a crisis but an event which enhanced the development of Singapore’s industrial economy and social mobilisation of its people. Yet, the efforts to convert the military bases, develop the industries, house the citizens, discipline labour, and socialise the young, which were part of the PAP’s response to the rundown, had their crucial precedents in measures introduced by the late colonial government after the Pacific War. This earlier group of development policies was part of Britain’s worldwide programme of decolonisation, which sought to transform former colonies into viable nation-states. Added to this colonial legacy inherited by the PAP government was the substantial assistance rendered by the British to ensure the withdrawal’s success. Indeed, the postwar decolonisation and the postcolonial pullout, as two sides of a historical process, locate the remarkable birth of modern Singapore in the overlap between nationalist and imperial world history.
‘The Interstices of Nostalgia in Contemporary Singapore’, article under review.
Nostalgia towards housing in contemporary Singapore has diffused into three strands over kampong, emergency and standard public housing and among elderly, middle-age and young Singaporeans. The shared sentiment in all three forms is a deep sense of loss over the continuous frames of housing development. They co-exist with the official discourse which targets the value of a ‘kampong spirit’ at young Singaporeans. None of the three groups of Singaporeans in mythologising the past possess any desire to challenge the policy of development or the government’s political hegemony either. However, it is significant that the nostalgia over emergency and standard public housing exists at the interstices of social memory. Here, they undermine the official notion of a ‘national’ experience of housing, which privileges the memories of elderly Singaporeans. The two interstitial forms of nostalgia, expressed by elderly, middle-age and young Singaporeans alike, are capable of rendering the official discourse untenable.
Seminar, ‘”Squatters”, Colonial Subjects and Model Citizens: Informal Housing in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong after World War Two’, at the Department of History, National University of Singapore, 11 March 2009.
Informal housing communities of semi-autonomous urban migrants emerged rapidly at the margins of Southeast Asian cities and Hong Kong after World War Two. Their development constituted an important moment in postwar social history: the dwellers eked out a livelihood on land which initially lay beyond official control, relying on family, kinship and community ties to cope with the challenges of employment, environmental disaster and eviction. What was also historic was the response of the colonial and postcolonial states to the informal housing. Influenced partly by the advice of international experts on the need for controlled development, the region’s governments criminalised the informal housing as illegal, represented their dwellers as socially inert and warned of the dire impact such unplanned settlement, like a contagion, would have on the character and future of the society and nation. To varying degrees, they also undertook to either resettle the dwellers in emergency public housing or reorganise social life in the settlements through aided self-help. In only the former British-ruled city-states, Singapore and Hong Kong, did the authorities succeed in transforming the face and character of the city; elsewhere, the pressure of patronage politics and the preference for ‘prestige projects’ greatly limited the scope of the actual reorganisation. Drawing upon James Scott’s concept of ‘high modernist’ planning and social governance, this paper examines the origins and development of informal housing settlements in urban Southeast Asia and Hong Kong and the different outcomes of state efforts to transform their residents into ‘squatters’, colonial subjects and, finally, model citizens of new nation-states.
‘Of Landscapes, Memories and Modernity: Bukit Ho Swee in Singapore’. Paper prepared for the forum Constructed Landscapes: Post-Colonial and Contemporary Singapore, organised by NUS Museum, 7 March 2009.
Housing landscapes changed radically in postwar Singapore from unauthorized kampong housing to emergency, standard and subsequently upgraded forms of public housing. Yet, while developmental in form, these physical changes have shaped the residents’ memories in an uneven fashion. This paper examines the relationship between physical landscapes and social memories in the case of Bukit Ho Swee, an urban kampong in the 1950s. In 1961, the greatest inferno in Singapore’s history swept away the kampong within seven hours, after which, in a year, emergency public housing was quickly built over the fire site. In subsequent decades, the physical landscape of Bukit Ho Swee estate was continually transformed, as both the emergency flats and the standard public housing which replaced them were in turn demolished or upgraded. Drawing from interviews with current and former residents of Bukit Ho Swee, this paper examines several significant characteristics of their mental landscapes of home, community and nation in contemporary Singapore. While the housing has developed progressively, the residents’ memories are more complex: they both affirm and contest the state’s representations of housing. The memories also reveal sentiments of loss and nostalgia to co-exist with a sense of pride in the development of the estate and nation, while underlining, too, a remarkable consistency in the residents’ warm attitudes towards kampong, emergency and standard housing. As the paper argues, such basic ambivalence in the constructed memories of former kampong dwellers highlights the deep impact of continual change in the physical landscapes of a high modernist state.
The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History symposium, ARI, NUS, and Singapore Heritage Society, 10 November 2008.
The close relationship between the makers and gatekeepers of history is a defining landmark which researchers delving into the Singapore past will invariably encounter. It is also an association which has not been adequately explored. This conference examines the individual, social and political aspects of encountering the makers and keepers of the island’s history. The presenters will speak on their personal forays into key moments of this past, and the accompanying tribulations and tensions, and joys and frustrations. On a broader canvas, the conference takes an earnest, self-reflective look at the basic questions of what history means for the quintessentially forward-looking and rationally-managed city-state and the relationship between history, society and power.
The makers of Singapore history are an obvious subject of inquiry: specifically, how they viewed their world, acted upon it and their underlying motivations. The research is, in practice, a pursuit of sources, which includes both archival records and personal memories. Researchers know the sources they need and attempt to obtain them. What is less clear, however, is the role of the makers themselves in determining this crucial access to the archives or oral history. In holding the keys to the past, the makers are then able to preside over two new makings of history: those of the present and of the future.
The terms ‘makers’ and ‘keepers’ are defined loosely here; this is a deliberate choice. Both apply to the political elites who dominate the usual historical narratives. They are not only movers of history but also powerful managers of the present and future, whose influence over access to the local archives shapes what is socially remembered as the nation’s history. As victors of history, they stand in marked contrast to their defeated rivals, who may either choose to remember or to be silent. Ordinary Singaporeans who lived through the recent past are also involved in making, and keeping, history. Like the elites, they can determine what and how much of their personal memory to reveal to an interviewer. When personal experiences encroach upon what is considered politically acceptable in contemporary Singapore and are withheld, ordinary people in effect become gatekeepers of their own pasts. Finally, no less involved in making and keeping the past are those who speak on behalf of the abovementioned groups. This includes the researchers themselves and reveals the multiple individual and social roles they occupy.
Encounters with the makers and gatekeepers become particularly acute at the frontiers of knowledge, where academic, social and political imperatives may coincide. The frontiers of Singapore history are also social and political boundaries. They are the margins of The Singapore Story, the official narrative of the island’s history which has been consciously scripted, and rescripted, in pragmatic pursuit of national goals. But the past is also becoming of deep interest to a new, younger generation of researchers who approach it with fresh visions and methods. They are attempting to outflank the official restrictions on access to local archives by venturing into the ‘side gates’ of history – the foreign archives as well as other historical sources. They are also seeking to gain deeper access to individual and social memory by engaging both ordinary and elite makers who once stood at the margins of society, economy and politics and have for a long time been forgotten. This symposium highlights how researchers are striving to negotiate between the imperatives of the past and present, and the complex, dynamic relationship between history, society and power in modern Singapore.
‘Kampong, Fire, Nation: Towards a Social History of Postwar Singapore’. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 40 (3), October 2009: 613-43.
An important but little-studied act in the history of postwar Singapore was being played out at the margins of the city. Here, the state was involved in a major campaign to socialise the ‘squatters’ of urban kampongs into citizens of a high modernist state. The fire hazard in these settlements also contributed significantly to the process, as the residents were mobilised into fire-fighting squads and politicians acted on behalf of the victims of infernos by rehousing them in emergency public housing. This paper proposes a new approach to postwar Singapore historiography at the interface between politics and social developments. It underlines the social agents, spatial dimension and historical continuity uncovered in the venture.
‘Change and Conflict at the Margins: Emergency Kampong Clearance and the Making of Modern Singapore’. Asian Studies Review, 33 (2), June 2009: 139-59.
The margins of Singapore City were lit up by a extensive contestation between the residents of kampongs (‘villages’) and the state following the end of the Pacific War. As public housing authorities and private developers sought to clear and develop the lands on which these unauthorised settlements stood in both the late colonial and PAP periods, the largely low-income, Chinese and semi-autonomous residents frequently opposed the eviction and resettlement. The occupants’ resistance was at times spontaneous, often supported by secret societies based in the kampongs, and at other times organised by political rural activists. By using Singapore Improvement Trust records and oral history interviews, this seminar examines the role of emergency kampong clearance in the making of modern Singapore. The urban planners envisaged the establishment of what James Scott terms a ‘high modernist’ city-state, characterised by ‘the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws’. The seminar argues that the social conflict and change which consequently occurred on the urban periphery were as important as the constitutional politics in the transformation of the island-city in the 1950s and 1960s. This social-political approach also suggests that we rethink the issues of historical continuity between the British and PAP periods of Singapore history and the customary ideological divides which have characterised the usual narratives.
‘The Politics of Fires in Post-1950s Singapore and the Making of a High Modernist Nation-State’. Book chapter in Derek Heng & Syed Khairudin eds. Reframing Singapore: Memory, Identity and Trans-Regionalism (Selected Papers from the 5th International Conference of Asian Scholars). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009: 89-108.
Only after slightly more than a decade of self-government conferred in 1959, and less than a decade since independence from British rule in 1963 and separation from Malaysia in 1965, the urban landscape of the newly-independent Singapore state was dominated, by the end of the 1960s, by high-rise blocks of modern flats clustered in planned public housing estates built by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government. Only a decade earlier, the margins of Singapore City had been filled with settlements of unauthorised wooden housing called kampongs (villages), home to semi-autonomous communities of low-income families that shunned contact with officialdom, where the subletting, renting, building and rebuilding of wooden houses took place freely. This chapter examines how states of emergency created by fires in such kampongs contributed to the making of a planned, modern nation-state in Singapore. By studying several key kampong blazes, the chapter argues that the emergency responses of the British, Labour Front and PAP governments to the threat and outbreak of fires helped transform the balance of state-society relations. The PAP’s efforts in the late-1950s to organise volunteer fire-fighting squads in the kampongs represented an important step towards social mobilisation. Conversely, the increasingly well-organised rehousing operations following the fires progressively integrated families en masse into the social fabric of the nation-state. Their swift relocation to emergency public housing meant that the families now could obtain their accommodation only on the terms of the state. At a strategic level, the fire site became a vital springboard for the authorities to effect the clearance of nearby kampongs. Finally, the fires left a lasting historical legacy on the collective memory of modern Singapore: they gave rise both to a persistent association of fires and kampong clearance and consequently an uneasy, ambivalent relationship between the PAP government and the population over which they have established hegemony.
‘From Living under Attap to Residing in the Sky: Imagination and Empathy in Source-Based Studies in Secondary-Level History’. Paper co-authored with Lee Si Wei for the New Dimensions in Humanities Education, 2008 Conference, 18-19 November 2008, Humanities & Social Studies Education Academic Group, National Institute of Education.
Housing was the first major facet of social change which Singaporeans experienced in the making of a modern nation-state. Between the 1950s and 1970s, large numbers of middle- and low-income families moved from the unauthorised wooden housing of kampongs to the modern, usually multi-storey flats of public housing estates. This paper explores ways to cultivate the key historical skills of imagination and empathy in source-based studies in the secondary-level History curriculum. The paper argues that examining a range of historical sources which offer differing perspectives, including official documents, oral history interviews and photographs, can help students understand and analytically appraise older Singaporeans’ experiences of a momentous social transformation in our recent past. By drawing from a small-size study in a local secondary school, the paper discusses the use of sources on two main themes: official and residents’ views of kampong life; and former kampong dwellers’ responses and adjustment to public housing.
‘History, Memory and Identity in Modern Singapore: Testimonies from the Urban Margins’. Oral History Review, 36 (9), 2009: 1-24.
In 2006-2007, I interviewed elderly Singaporeans on their experiences of resettlement from an urban kampong (“village”) to emergency public housing after a great fire in 1961. I learnt much about the lives of semi-autonomous dwellers in an unauthorised settlement and the individual and social transformation following their rehousing. But my informants also highlighted what the experiences meant to them and their identity in a modern city-state. This paper treats the testimonies as both source and social memory and seeks to avoid the essentialism into which many social historians, oral history practitioners and memory scholars have fallen in their approach towards the craft. As a source of social history, when used in conjunction with other historical sources, the reminiscences are patently useful for understanding the role of public housing in transforming a marginal population into an integrated citizenry. This enables the writing of a new social history of postwar Singapore which departs from the discursive official accounts of urban kampong life and of the 1961 inferno. At the same time, the oral history also underlined powerful social and political influences on individual memory, being marked by nostalgia for the kampong and ambivalence towards the imagined character of younger Singaporeans. Statements on the rumours of government-inspired arson in the 1961 calamity, however, constitute a significant counter-myth in contemporary society, revealing a more critical side to the social memory.
‘“Our lives are bad but our luck is good”: A Social History of Leprosy in Singapore’. Social History of Medicine, 21 (2), 2008: 291-309.
This paper examines the social history of individuals with leprosy living in Singapore under the law of compulsory segregation. Using official sources and oral history interviews, the paper explores both the colonial and postcolonial states’ motivations behind the policy and its effects on leprosy sufferers and the public at large in a cosmopolitan, progressive country. First, by tracing the continuity of the colonial policy into the postcolonial period, segregation, it is argued, stemmed not only from British anxieties towards the Asian ‘races’, which appeared to be the case in the earlier era, but from a deeper ‘high modernist’ resolve, shared by both the British and the postcolonial People’s Action Party governments, to mould individuals into model subjects and citizens using the principles and techniques of modern science and administration. This paper also presents patient experiences of and responses to segregation and the social stigma against leprosy. It contends that official social control over the leprosarium was never completely hegemonic but was continually contested, individually and collectively, and overtly and covertly, by the residents, giving form in the long run to semi-autonomous ways of everyday life in the institution.
‘Black Areas: The Urban Kampongs and Power Relations in Postwar Singapore Historiography’. SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 22 (1), April 2007: 1-29.
By analysing a collection of key texts, this paper examines state-society relations in post-war Singapore in social and spatial terms. It traces the history of state regulation of urban space and a parallel story of resistance by the Chinese population. This paper analyses the making of modern Singapore as a contestation over urban space in the post-war years. A strategic theatre of this struggle was the autonomous Chinese kampongs on the urban periphery. A controlling discourse, representing the urban kampongs as sites of social pollution, made possible the state’s efforts to eradicate them by relocating their dwellers in public housing.
‘Beyond Rubber Prices: Negotiating the Great Depression in Singapore’. South East Asia Research. 14 (1), 2006: 5-31.
This paper looks at life in Singapore during the Great Depression in the early 1930s from the perspectives of the ordinary people who lived through it. Besides discussing the slump’s impact on businesses, wages and employment, it examines how effectively people responded to the crisis. Their distress was alleviated by immigration controls and a fall in the cost of living at the societal level, and also by mutual help, based on family and kinship ties, at the individual level. It appears that life for many people was not as difficult as might be supposed. The quality of life, reflected in indices such as mortality and crime, seemed generally satisfactory after 1930, while the island was also spared serious social and political upheaval.
‘Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore’. Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 12 (2), 1998: 1-21.
Political groups rarely embrace history for altruistic reasons. In Singapore, the past is an important legitimizing instrument in sustaining the hegemony of the governing People’s Action Party. The PAP government has abandoned its initial hostility to history and embarked on the creation of an authoritative “Singapore Story” of the nation’s past. Official initiatives like National Education, introduced in 1997, draw selectively from Singapore’s history to formulate sustained themes like the country’s “vulnerability” and the need for “communitarian values.” The object lessons drawn from the past are directed toward young Singaporeans, whose supposed individualism and preference for parliamentary opposition are perceived by the PAP as proof of a dangerous disregard for such lessons. The most compelling chapter of the “Singapore Story,” that dealing with the 1950s and 1960s, has been authorized primarily by the personal experiences of the PAP Old Guard, whose privileged positions as leaders of government during that period have allowed them to pre-empt alternative interpretations of contemporary events.