young singaporeans reading history 2009

Presented at the forum on 2009 Year in Review, organised by The Online Citizen, 29 December 2009

2009 was a return to history. Men in White, written by three Straits Times journalists, appeared noisily in September, purporting to tell the ‘untold story’ of the PAP, including that of the ‘losers’. It was, however, one of the ‘victors’ who made an eye-catching critique of the book the following month. Yoong Siew Wah, former Director of CPIB and ISD, complained on his blog, Singapore Recalcitrant, that the authors had taken at face value a statement by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Yoong’s alleged mishandling of an investigation into lawyer Francis Seow in 1971. The authors hastily apologised and promised to withdraw the offending point from subsequent prints of the book. For Yoong, now 82, reading Men In White was about restoring his reputation.

Younger Singaporeans have also been reading Men in White for political errors and suspicious silences, although for quite a different purpose. Before the book’s official launch, film-maker Martyn See posted an entry on his blog, responding to a preliminary news report on the book. Martyn raised two questions on the book’s credibility: that the report made no mention of Operation Coldstore, in which over a hundred leading leftists in Singapore were detained in 1963, and that the authors had not contacted two of the PAP’s main opponents in the early 1960s: Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai. In responding to Martyn’s queries, the authors, well, defended their work, stating that they did approach Dr Lim but he refused to be interviewed. They of course used his oral history interview at the National Archives of Singapore which many researchers are aware of, but this, I think, was not Martyn’s point. And there were many other instances of ‘history watching’. In a subsequent column in the Straits Times, one of the authors, Sonny Yap, lamented that the numerous salvoes, many in cyberspace, fired in their direction were ‘factually off the mark’.

Regardless of whether the allegations were true, I believe Sonny Yap missed the point. He should have been happy, rather than flabbergasted, that so many netizens, especially young Singaporeans, responded so acutely to a book on Singapore history. This is a country where Singaporeans born after the 1950s and 1960s are periodically reprimanded by the state for not showing interest in the country’s past. The responses to Men In White demonstrate that this is not entirely true. What is important is not whether the allegations were accurate, but that they were allegations. They revealed what histories, and whose histories, mattered to the Singaporeans born after independence. In comparison to the former ISD Director, their concerns have greater import.

I wish to talk about the possibilities and pitfalls of young Singaporeans reading our country’s history today. This is an enterprise which is crucially important but also perilous, both academically and socially. Writers of history, whether it is historians or the participants, inevitably select their facts, interpret their data and make their claims. The readers likewise: how they read will be largely determined by their views and values, by the social and political context, by their age.

There is a tendency for young Singaporeans to read our past for inspiration and vilification. This is not surprising and is part of the enduring appeal of history. Inspiration because the past provides positive precedents, or heroes, of an earlier generation of Singaporeans (also young and idealistic then) struggling to make Singapore a better, fairer and more open society. Vilification because history also provides what appears to be proof of what some present day young Singaporeans want to believe – that the government is repressive, manipulative and narrowly neo-liberal. In short, we read Singapore history for Lim Chin Siong and Operation Coldstore.

This is to some extent unavoidable. I have had my own ‘honeymoon’ with Lim Chin Siong, this formidable, yet humble, political and labour activist who could bring 40,000 people to their feet with a few choice words of Hokkien, whose work was destroyed in the making of Malaysia. Lim Chin Siong has passed into legend in Singapore’s cultural imagination, which makes writing and reading about him doubly difficult.

One of the first living leftists I met in 2005 left a lasting impression. Walking up to him in Toa Payoh MRT station, he looked no different from many other ah peh in the graying estate. He firmly grasped my hand and lowered his head in greeting. I never forgot that sense of humanity he conveyed in that single moment. He was Lee Tee Tong, a labour unionist in the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union, who in 1963 stood and won in Bukit Timah (the old constituency of Lim Chin Siong), but never took his seat as he was arrested and detained without trial shortly after for 16 years. I interviewed Lee Tee Tong on a later occasion for over five hours about his life, work and politics.

Writing history for me is about getting ‘inside’ the past, achieving empathy and then crafting an independent narrative and analysis. I have researched on different facets of the Singapore left: trade unions, university political clubs and rural associations. I find a good number of possibilities for writing the subject. We can frame the left as offering the alternative ‘paths not taken’ to a different (maybe better?) Singapore. Or as pathbreakers whose work made possible the PAP’s success, visionaries whose ideas enabled the making of modern Singapore. Or as nationalists who were outmaneuvered in the geopolitics of the Cold War and then forgotten. Still, I am concerned with what the left did for Singapore and how that contribution has for so long been ignored.

The possibilities are closely related to the pitfalls. The left’s history is far richer than the themes of inspiration and vilification. The left fought for a union of Singapore and Malaya – in fact, this belief was unquestioned to a point which most young Singaporeans born into a sovereign state would have difficulty imagining. The left’s ideology was socialist, although that some radicals were less doctrinaire than others. Socialism as a doctrine entails a belief in radical change and transformation, of both nature and human nature, no less radical than the development pursued by the government since the 1960s. Will Singapore be necessarily better, fairer and more open under a socialist regime? I believe deeply in the need for greater social justice in Singapore; much of my research has been on marginalised groups in Singapore history. But I doubt the road of socialism leads to a just society any more than the highway of neo-liberalism.

These are aspects of the history of the left which we should also read and consider. I recognise the complete history is yet to be written, but at the same time, we have a moral duty to be more creative, more rigorous in the ways we explore our history. Above all, we need to ask new questions. Lee Kuan Yew gave a grudging stamp of approval to Men In White but still deemed it necessary to repeat his charge that Lim Chin Siong was a communist. I think most of us here have no interest in reviving that question, much less the answer. Each generation writes its own history but this cannot begin until we first ask new questions, questions for a new era, for a new purpose. And young Singaporeans cannot simply inherit the perspectives of the older generation.

That generation of leftists is already writing its own histories. Men In White was quickly followed by The Fajar Generation, a book by former members of the University Socialist Club in the 1950s and 1960s (a subject which I have also been working on separately). The Fajar Generation is a collective biography, a classic example of a generation writing its own history. But it also significantly blurs the line between biography and history because, as far as I know, it is the first instance where the participants have relied not just on their own memories, but also the colonial archives, to establish their views. Young Singaporeans who seek only inspiration and vilification in history will find much of both in The Fajar Generation. My suggestion is we read the book as a collective biography, and then ask ourselves, why are the former leftists now writing their histories, and what else do we want to know?

The politics of age lies between generations of Singaporeans. Another plane of the divide is on social history. In my interviews with leprosy sufferers, kampong dwellers, fire victims, and British base workers, I have come to sense something of the collective psyche of ordinary elderly Singaporeans – what they feel about the breaking events of our recent history; about politics under the PAP government; about the regimen of life and work in a ferociously developmental state.

I bring up social history because it provides new insights into the past, because it allows us to explore ‘politics’ more broadly, but also simply because we really haven’t spoken enough to our elders about the past. Our nation’s history is not simply about the struggle between the left and the Lee Kuan Yew group. One thing which struck me in my interviews with elderly people is the ambivalence in their memories of life, housing, family, work, and change in Singapore. Leprosy sufferers tell me that ‘our lives are bad but our luck is good’; they have been forcibly segregated from society and relocated from their homes several times in their lives. One victim of the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire wanted to find a new attap house to live in and did not want to move to an emergency HDB flat, yet recalls Lee Kuan Yew as very hiong as the prime minister in tackling the country’s challenges at the time; young Singaporeans, she insists, have had it much easier. Many elderly Singaporeans firmly support the development of Singapore and the authoritarian government which has made it possible, but are also aware of the personal and social price that they – we – have had to pay in the process. They are also the keepers of memories of events and people which can serve as a valuable counterpoint to the Singapore Story, which will help us to bridge not only generational, but also mental, divides. In listening to them, we realise that history is not painted in black and white, that there are many more ‘untold stories’ to uncover. We will find new ways to look at our history in the last 50 years which will enable us to re-imagine the future.

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