Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In search of the other Singapore story



There has been a flurry of books on Singapore's left-wing movement of the 1950s and 1960s, ranging from personal memoirs to academic tomes. What sparked this growing interest in alternative history? Why now and does it really matter?

by Clarissa Oon, senior political correspondent, 

Straits Times, 14 August 2010 (source)

THE multimedia extravaganza was targeted at the young, to jolt their senses with the drama of how Singapore under the People's Action Party (PAP) overcame the odds to build a nation. One unintended effect of The Singapore Story exhibition – a lynchpin of the Government's National Education (NE) drive over a decade ago – was that it would eventually trigger an outpouring of books on Singapore's much marginalised left-wing movement.

NE was launched as a subject in schools in 1997. Hot on its heels came The Singapore Story event at Suntec City in 1998, followed later that year by volume one of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs with the same title. Historians say this exposure to official history would lead young Singaporeans to wonder if there was more to it. Not wanting to give the Government the last word on the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s, ageing leftist politicians have also been spurred to tell their stories, and researchers to put them under the microscope.

The slew of books on those defeated by the PAP in those critical years began in 2001 with Comet In Our Sky, a collection of essays on the late Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong by his friends and overseas historians, and the first volume of former leftist leader Said Zahari's memoirs. Now, more academics here are being drawn to a subject that was once avoided either because it was not politically kosher, or because of the lack of primary sources.

A book-length biography of Lim is in the pipeline, commissioned by a Singapore think-tank, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). A manuscript on the University Socialist Club (USC), written by historians Loh Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Lim Cheng Tju and Seng Guo Quan, is also being reviewed by Iseas for publication. Formed in 1953, the club championed the cause of independence for Malaya and Singapore. Its leftist members included James Puthucheary, Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai.

What accounts for the surge of scholarly interest in the left? What are the gaps and challenges that remain in documenting its stories? Historians here weigh in on the issues.

Why now?

THE left was a multiracial alliance of student and labour activists, intellectuals and politicians with strong socialist views, some of whom were linked to communist organisations and the underground. They were once part of the PAP, but broke away to form the Barisan Sosialis in 1961. With a geopolitical Cold War raging at the time, many leftists were suspected of being communists by the British, Malayan and Singaporean governments and considered security threats, leading to a wave of detentions.

NE was started when the Government realised that young Singaporeans knew little of the nation's post-colonial history. However, the prominence of the official "communist versus non-communist" narrative has in turn led other political actors of the time to challenge how they were being portrayed, according to academics. "If you don't write alternatives, you leave the space entirely to the state," says Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society, a non-governmental organisation.

Many of the key political players from the 1950s and 1960s are now in their twilight years, and have the urge to record their stories for posterity, adds Dr Tan, who is now writing the biography of Lim Chin Siong for Iseas. At the same time, the Government has also tacitly acknowledged that alternative accounts can give more depth to Singaporeans' understanding of the past.

(From left, with garlands) Fong Swee Suan, S. Woodhull, Lim Chin Siong and Devan Nair
were among eight leftist detainees released in June 1959 after the People's Action Party won the elections. A book-length biography of Lim, who led the Barisan Socialis, is in the pipeline, commissioned by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Associate Professor Huang Jianli of the National University of Singapore's history department cites MM Lee's letter to this newspaper's Forum page in 2007, commenting on the trend of former PAP MPs penning their memoirs. In it, Mr Lee wrote: "I encourage all MPs, including those who opposed the PAP, to give their accounts of the past. They will give a multi-dimensional view of past events and provide richness and texture to the story." 

On leftist history in particular, Prof Huang says the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War have made it easier to discuss the subject. With the spectre of communism neutralised, questions may be asked about the limits of communism, and whether "the strident anti-communist template could have distorted governance not just in the realm of foreign policy but also in the domestic political arena", he says. The visit of the former chief of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), Chin Peng, here on a three-day special permit in 2004 aroused further interest in the left. Several books on him whetted the public appetite.

'Generational shift'

ON THE other side of the coin are younger Singaporeans trying to come to grips with a crucial period of history that they did not personally live through. "It is in no small part the public hunger for alternative histories, especially among the young, that has given the former political detainees the impetus to write about their past," says Dr Hong Lysa, a historian not affiliated to any university. She believes a 2006 arts forum featuring former detainees and leftists Michael Fernandez and Tan Jing Quee was highly significant, as it was "the first time political detainees identified themselves and addressed the public as such, and they had a compelling narrative to present".

Younger academics and journalists have contributed to the interest. One such bilingual group formed the Tangent civil society group. It produced several journals in both English and Chinese between 2003 and 2005, looking at various aspects of post-colonial Singapore and Malaysia, including the history of the left. Foreign scholars such as Dr T.N. Harper and Dr Michael Barr, who study Singapore politics, have provided critical inputs to the discourse. More recently, several young academics here have started an online journal s/pores, looking at alternative histories. 

One crucial factor is the emergence of new media as it allows video clips, speeches, articles and the archives of various countries to go online and be widely circulated.

So why are young, intellectually engaged Singaporeans delving into varied perspectives of the past? This is part of a "generational shift", says Mr Thum Ping Tjin. He is completing a history of Singapore's decolonisation using Chinese-language sources for his PhD at the University of Oxford. This younger generation "recognises that Singapore must adapt and evolve in order to survive into a new century". "However, before we can understand how we need to change, we need to understand who we are and where we come from. An examination of our past – in particular, the events which shaped the structure of today's society, institutions, politics and culture – is necessary," he says.

Political grey areas

HISTORICAL research into the role played by the left is, however, not trouble-free, as many leftists were detained without trial on security grounds under the Internal Security Act. Many of the books on leftist figures were published in Malaysia, including Comet In Our Sky and the memoirs of Mr Said and the MCP's point man in Singapore, Fang Chuang Pi. However, they can be found in Singapore bookshops and libraries.

With historians "encouraged to feel it is now possible to revisit some of these periods which hitherto were taken as taboo", Iseas director K. Kesavapany says its commissioning of books on key political players of the 1950s and 1960s is timely. "All these accounts will enrich the history of Singapore." But he adds that "the purpose of these accounts must not be to reinterpret history and attempt to vindicate the roles and contributions of certain players, or inject a note of triumphalism".

Last month, the Government banned film-maker Martyn See's video recording of a speech by former political detainee Lim Hock Siew. The former Barisan leader had spoken last November at the launch of a book on the USC, The Fajar Generation. Explaining the film ban, the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts said: "The Singapore Government will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore's interests in the past to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities, give a false portrayal of their previous activities in order to exculpate their guilt, and undermine public confidence in the Government in the process." The video was proscribed under Section 35(1) of the Films Act for being contrary to public interest. The other film banned under that section was Mr See's 2007 interview with Mr Said.

Historians interviewed say they do not expect a cloud of self-censorship to descend on the profession following these bans on film recordings of outspoken former leftists. "I don't expect historians will be deterred, nor do I expect that Dr Lim will not repeat what he said in public, or Martyn See stop filming him and others," says Dr Hong.

Unlocking the archives

IN THE area of historical scholarship, one bugbear of historians here is the restricted access to state records that are at least 25 years old.  Members of the public can access such documents only with the agreement of the respective government agency. By comparison, Britain has a 30-year rule after which official documents must be declassified and made available to the public in the national archives. Australia has a similar 25-year rule. In both countries, exceptions are made in limited cases, say, if national security is compromised.

The difficulty of getting access to the archives here has either turned historians away from researching the more complex phases of Singapore history, or led them to rely much more on overseas sources like the British archives. This "has done incalculable damage to the charting of the history of the young nation-state from as many angles and from as great a depth as possible", says Prof Huang in a recent essay in the book, The Makers And Keepers Of Singapore History.

However, oral history interviews and transcripts kept in the National Archives here have helped to fill the gap, says Mr Kwa Chong Guan, a historian affiliated to the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Researchers may access such recordings with the permission of interviewees or their families. Opponents of the PAP who gave interviews included Puthucheary, Dr Lim, S. Woodhull and senior MCP leader Eu Chooi Yip. 

Beyond black and white

FOR scholars seeking to understand the complexities of the anti-colonial left-wing movement, there is also a need to go beyond loaded terms such as "leftist" and "communist". "Those words are heavily laden with meanings that, on closer examination, were imposed long after the fact or which have changed dramatically over time," says Mr Thum. "History is not neat. There are no heroes and villains, just people with different perspectives. We need to understand each group on their own terms and understand what their beliefs, motivations and values were."

Apart from inconclusive evidence as to who in the left was communist and who was not, the extent to which the MCP influenced their actions is debatable. Says Dr Tan: "We tend to overplay the role of Singapore in the MCP's calculations, but by the late 1950s, the British had more or less smashed the party's Singapore Town Committee." 

Another gap is the dearth of research on the Chinese-educated leftists, whose writings have either been destroyed, or are inaccessible to those who do not read Chinese. While the leftist movement is often seen as being driven by the Chinese-educated, its multiracial dimension has also been obscured, say other observers. Notes Ambassador Kesavapany: "MM in his book, The Singapore Story, had written at length about the Chinese-educated wing, but how well do we know the English-educated leftists? "For a complete story, it is important that all aspects are covered."

Underlying the groundswell of interest in alternative histories is the sense that there is no better time than the present to do such research, while key players are still alive, and with enough critical distance from the events of 50 years ago.

For only when a country can understand and come to terms with its past in all its facets, can it truly be said to have come of age.




Lim Chin Siong vs Lee Kuan Yew: The true and shocking history (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

Leftists and the blurring of history, Loh Kah Seng (here)


No comments: