Tag Archives: social history

Young Singaporeans Reading History and the Politics of Age

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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CFP Conference on Historical Fragments in Southeast Asia 23-24 June 2010

Conference on Historical Fragments in Southeast Asia:
At the Interfaces of Oral History, Memory and Heritage

Organised by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Singapore Heritage Society
23-24 June 2010

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, together with the Singapore Heritage Society, is revisiting oral history in Southeast Asia two decades since it co-organised the first conference. Historical Fragments in Southeast Asia will bring together the latest oral history and ethnographic research on the region and explore its links with two exciting fields which investigate the same content in different ways, namely, memory and heritage studies.

Historical Fragments in Southeast Asia serves as an important platform to explore the interfaces between oral history, memory and heritage and formulate new ways of approaching Southeast Asia’s fragmented pasts. Traditional oral history work in the region, which seeks to retrieve what Paul Thompson called ‘the voices of the past’ to complete or contest historical narratives, has largely been concerned with questions of objectivity and reliability. Memory studies, by contrast, has attempted to analyse the deeper politics and subjective meanings of the fragments that people remember or forget. Both oral testimonies and memories are also closely connected with the emerging and topical field of heritage in its intangible, cultural and everyday forms.

Important note: Proposals should make an attempt at this preliminary stage to consider oral history’s convergences with memory and/or heritage and not merely situate the discussion within the originating discipline or methodology. Proposals should be centered around oral history or ethnographic work. We welcome submissions from, among others, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, architects, public officials, activists, and social workers, as well as approaches from academic and advocacy perspectives.

The conference organisers are pleased to be able to offer partial financial support to participants, although they are also encouraged to seek funding from their home institutions. Selected papers from the conference will further explore the interfaces between the three fields and will be published in what we hope to be a path-breaking edited volume.

Submission of Proposal
Those interested in presenting a paper at the conference are invited to submit a proposal which includes a working title, 500-word abstract, CV, and an indication of your funding requirements by 14 December 2009 to Dr Loh Kah Seng kahseng@iseas.edu.sg.

Suggested Themes
Crisis of Memory. What and how Southeast Asians remember or forget are often narrowly channeled into narratives of loss or nostalgia. What are the influences of major historical and contemporary forces on oral history such as colonialism, developmentalism, urbanism, architectural modernism, cosmopolitanism, and globalisation? What will these developments mean for the forms of heritage that Southeast Asians can adopt? What is the impact of Internet technologies in rendering oral histories and individual memories public?

Politics of Memory. Oral history remains a deeply contested field in an era of Southeast Asian nationalism. What are the influences of the official mass media and the prerogatives of nation-building and social engineering on memory? What are the silences or social rumours of the past? What is the role and impact of the political biography and the official myth in the region? Does oral history affirm or contest dominant narratives? Does it accentuate historical agency and empower the informants?

‘Difficult’ Heritage and Identity. The nation-state remains the primary organising actor in Southeast Asia. Yet, there are important forms of memory, heritage and identity which exist outside or even in direct opposition to the national paradigm, along the divides of locality, gender, ethnicity, class, age, among others. How can communities and oral historians attempt to recover these interstitial, everyday or local forms of heritage and memories that exist ‘between the cracks’ or ‘out of sight’ of the dominant paradigm? How should we negotiate between national, transnational, community, and local identities?

Trauma and Reconstruction. Since World War Two and the subsequent decolonisation which has transformed Southeast Asia, political conflict, economic crisis, natural disasters, epidemics, and social upheaval have been marked features of everyday life in the region. How have memory and heritage been affected by these developments and does oral history help redress the personal and social traumas experienced in the process?

Contact Details
Dr Loh Kah Seng
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

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book out!

Loh Kah Seng. Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaysia. Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2009. Pp. 189. ISBN: 9789833782765. Product ID: 434.

Making and Unmaking the Asylum is a book which tells of two entangled stories – one of the misapplication of modern medicine – and the other of the resilience and resourcefulness of those who suffered from the disease and its terrible consequences….

Order with SIRD:


‘An outstanding and timely contribution to the historiography of Malaysia and Singapore: well-written, comprehensive, compelling, and poignantly illustrated. The stories present a striking and moving narrative of life on the margins of society. Highly recommended reading on the social history of Malaysia and Singapore’. Dr Ernest Koh, Lecturer, School of Historical Studies, Monash University

‘This book awakens us to the final remaining agendum for people affected by leprosy: a challenge to society, and to each of us as members; how we chose to respond is a measure of our conscience and sense of justice’. Kay Yamaguchi, Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation

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I am an independent scholar in Singapore.  My work investigates little-studied subjects in the urban social history of Singapore and Malaysia and explores the linkages between past and present in contemporary Singapore, such as the official use of history, oral history, memory, heritage, and archival access. I have published two books, Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaysia (SIRD 2009) and The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History (co-edited, Ethos & SHS 2010), in addition to numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals. My manuscripts on the Bukit Ho Swee fire and the University of Malaya Socialist Club are also under review for publication. I am currently working on a book project on the British military withdrawal from Singapore in the late 1960s. I was previously a history teacher and still speak to students about the challenges of researching the past.

Research interests:
Singapore and Malayan history (postwar, colonial)
Urban social history
Squatters and slum dwellers
History of medicine (leprosy)
Fires in history
Oral history and memory
Student activism
Archival access

Teaching areas:
Singapore history and studies
Southeast Asia
Urban history
Modern international history


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