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Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore

In January 2010, s/pores together with the Asia Research Institute (ARI) and the venue sponsor, the National Library, co-organized a seminar on the book Men in White: the untold story of Singapore’s ruling party. The seminar was entitled ‘Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore’.

Written by three senior journalists from The Straits Times and commissioned and published by Singapore Press Holdings, Men in White was publicized extensively in the print and cyber media. The media blitz surrounding Men in White turned on its claim to offer an accessible and unbiased history of the ruling PAP government and of post-World War Two Singapore history in general. Yet, this claim quickly provoked challenges and invited critical scrutiny of its contents and research methodology from different quarters in the country. For several months following the book’s launch in September 2009, history took centre stage in the nation’s mass media.

We invited three speakers ― Tan Tarn How, Philip Holden and Hong Lysa – to discuss the book and the sensation it provoked in the mass media. Tarn How dissected the media environment in Singapore that has impacted the laudatory as well as critical reception of Men in White. Notwithstanding the attention the book created, Tarn How was critical of the less-than-satisfactory thickness of the exegesis it has generated. Philip Holden took seriously the book’s claim to ‘tell a story’. He unpacked the social and stylistic story-telling conventions giving life to the book, paying special attention to the gendered-ness of the Men in White narrative. Questioning the book’s claim to depart radically from previous accounts of post-war history, Hong Lysa traced the book’s genealogy to a long list of journalists who were given privileged access to resources and sources to write popular history books that had made similar claims as Men in White. Will Men in White be written over by another Men in White effort at tweaking the Singapore Story while aspiring to new-ness and news-worthiness all over again? Imagining one ‘missing handshake’ between the departed Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew, Lysa probed the repetitive compulsion to secure an ‘untainted origin myth’ for the post-war Singapore nation.

In this issue, s/pores is reproducing a condensed version of the papers presented at the seminar as well as a special write-up of the event by Chua Beng Huat who was co-organizer from ARI’s side. Beng Huat’s write-up first appeared in ARI’s newsletter. For those who missed the event, Beng Huat’s article provides an introduction and summary of the day’s proceedings.


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Chua Beng Huat

The Forum on Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore was held at the National Library of Singapore on 16 January 2010, and was jointly organised by the Asia Research Institute and National Library Singapore. It attracted a full house audience of members of the public and the academe, and represents ARI’s endeavours to foster an environment of public discussion of vital academic issues in Singapore. Professor Chua Beng Huat, the organiser of the event, gives an account of the main themes and audience reaction to the forum.

First published in ARI News March 2010 Issue no. 22

The publication of Men In White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Party (by Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, Straits Times Press), in August 2009, created much excitement among Singaporeans who have for five decades been waiting for the ‘full’ story of politics of Singapore of the 1950s and 1960s to be told.

Hitherto, they have only been fed the version of the victors, culminating in the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the winning half of the original People’s Action Party (PAP). This victor’s version, having been taught in primary school, repeated in secondary school, thematised in television dramas and finally, paraded in the national museum, has wide currency but it is also tired and draws heavy doses of skepticism from all quarters. The book’s subtitle promises untold stories, first-hand accounts, from the PAP’s left-wing comrades who were marginalised, detained, deported and otherwise vanquished, by the winning half that came to dominate Singapore’s parliamentary politics since 1968. The voices that until now have not been allowed to speak for themselves, appearing as ‘national villains’ in ventriloquist speeches of the victors, are now to be heard for the first time. The excitement was completely understandable.

Three journalists, Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Wang Kam, on paid leave from The Straits Times (Singapore Press Holdings), were to undertake the writing of presumably the full story of the rise of the PAP. Supported by a team of researchers, they combed sixty years of archives and spent endless hours contacting, wherever they can still be found, cajoling and persuading the suppressed individuals to speak their versions of the PAP’s history. As this history continues till today, the book covers the founding of the Party till the present government. However, much of the excitement among readers was focused squarely on the political intrigues of the first decade. Such a publication rightly deserved public discussion and debate.

The online journal S/PORES: new directions in Singapore studies and ARI agreed quickly to hold a public forum, in partnership with the National Library Board. The Forum was held on 16 January 2010, at The Pod, the National Library Building. The Forum invited three speakers, Dr Hong Lysa, an independent historian well recognised in Singapore; Mr Tan Tarn How, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy; Associate Professor Philip Holden, Department of English Literature and Language; and chaired and moderated by Dr Sai Siew Min, Department of History, all from the National University of Singapore. It drew a full house audience.

MIW Forum

Tan, an ex-journalist of The Straits Times, focused on the launching and publishing of the book as a ‘media event’. He drew attention to the conundrum that the publisher of the book is at the same time publisher of the national newspapers, in all four official languages, that were creating the media buzz, with news items on the launch — featuring on the front page and inside photographs of the, not surprisingly, ‘happy’ gathering, if not amounting to ‘reunion’, of the past enemies — excerpts, editorials and letters to the forum, critiques and rejoinders of the journalists/ writers. Meanwhile other books on broadly similar topics, including those written by previous political detainees themselves, such as The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and The Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore, received hardly a mention in the premier national press.

The very explicitly male dominance and patriarchy of the title could not escape critical attention, even when one of its obvious pop cultural references is the comedy film, ‘Men in Black’, starring Will Smith. Philip Holden noted the underplaying of women’s contributions, in leadership and at the grassroots, in the years of decolonisation, in the book. Even prominent women politicians who made it to the ranks of Ministers of State were not mentioned. Furthermore, the characterisation of women on the scant occasions that they appear are always less than celebratory; for example, in the depiction of the 1950s Chinese middle school student activism, the ‘pigtails’ of protesting Chinese middle school girls were duly noted, but not the boys with their baggy short pants. One could ask, further, do the ‘Men in White’ include the expelled leftwing members of the PAP, who before their expulsion also wore the same white uniform.

Detailed comments on the text were provided by Hong Lysa, displaying her thorough familiarity with the more than 600-page book, which she confessed to have read four times. She pointed out a central problem in both the book and what might be called the ‘official’ narrative of highly ‘organised’ connections between the communists who had infiltrated the open political sphere and those who worked in the shadows. At the various points in the book, the writers, repeating the interviewees/actors words, suggest that coordination between the two groups practically did not exist, let alone suggesting a tightly organised front. Of greater general importance is why the book, and by implication the present PAP government, need to continue with the ‘anti-communist’ narrative even when it is now evident that most of those who were labelled ‘communists’ were admittedly leftwing, partly a reflection of the politics of the time, but not card-carrying members of the Malayan Communist Party.

The question-and-answer session that ensued focused on the relevance of the PAP’s early history to particularly the younger generations, the tendency towards ‘being heroic’ among the historical actors, both victors and vanquished, of the decolonisation period and, the need for ARI to be more attentive to other voices and other books in its seminars and forum series.

Chua Beng Huat teaches sociology and cultural studies at NUS and travels frequently in Asia in conjunction with work on Inter-Asia Cultural Studies journal, of which he is a co-executive editor.

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Philip Holden

I thought I’d approach Men in White and the question of gender from two perspectives, both of which take advantage of my failings as a historian. In the first, I want to approach it as a general reader—as someone who came to Singapore in 1994 and so, like many younger Singaporeans, has no memory of most of the events described in the first two sections of the book. In the second half of my discussion, I want to revisit the text, and again the question of gender, using the perspective of a scholar who works on literature, storytelling, and the manner in which stories make our world for us.

Men In White and the General Reader

As a general reader, I found the first section of the book the most interesting. It is the fruit of substantial research, and this does result in interesting revisionist nuances: for instance, the relatively sympathetic treatment given to Ong Eng Guan, and the acknowledgment of the importance of his period as mayor in preparing the way for the PAP election victory in 1959. There is also some attempt—although not fully realised—to complicate the story of the victors that divides everyone into either PAP or pro-communist camps after the Party split, and then reads this split into party history all the way back to its founding. Some, although not enough, credit is given to the notion that there were a wide variety of principled positions nationalists of different political perspectives might take.

Despite this, I was disappointed by several elements of the first section of the book. There is lack of documentation and frequent use of paraphrase rather than quotation: many of the people interviewed are older now, and infirm, and some have passed away. It’s vital for the historical record that interview material be clearly referenced and documented, and if a book is going to run to 800 pages I can’t see why this can’t be done: a suggestion was made in the forum, for instance, that interview transcripts could be posted on a web site. There are also moments where the book lapses into stereotypes and doesn’t revisit history. David Marshall, for instance, comes off badly. He is described as being ‘paranoid’ and ‘excitable’ (p. 84) because of his insistence in holding negotiations regarding a coalition government after 1955 outside government buildings because of a fear of surveillance. Yet similar precautions by MCP members would be presented as an element of a cunning and devious strategy.

I found the second section of the book the most disappointing. It is more difficult to write about the post-1965 period, of course. Party members choose to close ranks, and in the absence of any mechanism to declassify documents from the period, archival records are few and far between. But this cannot explain the complete omission of important events that must have generated soul-searching within the PAP, and a refusal to engage with the complexity of others. The PAP’s resignation from the Socialist International in 1976, for instance, is not mentioned, despite the fact that the party’s evolving relationship to socialism was surely a key feature of its development from 1965 into the 1990s. Devan Nair’s resignation as President of Singapore in 1985 was also surely an important moment that must have caused internal debate, but it is not discussed. Even Rajaratnam’s critique of moneytheism and multiculturalism in the late 1980s is displaced from here until the final section. There is also no attempt to re-assess such events as the Marxist conspiracy despite the fact that we learn—as an aside—that S. Dhanabalan’s leaving politics in 1991 was, in Goh Chok Tong’s recollection at least, precipitated by his disagreement with the way in which the government had responded to the event (p. 468). This second section, then, isn’t the untold history of the People’s Action Party: it’s the story as already told.

What this means, I think, is that the third section of the book, which is more critical and reflective in tone, can’t really engage with some of the interesting issues raised—political succession, multiracialism, social inequality under globalized capitalism– because of the soggy foundations of the second section of the book. This is shown, in particular, in the way in which scholars and historians are brought into the debate. Rather than being engaged with, they are frequently selectively used as cheerleaders. Consider Chua Beng Huat, whose Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore in many ways still represents one of the most perceptive accounts of PAP rule until the middle of the 1990s. We hear that Chua is ‘known for his outspoken views’ but we are given only small snippets of what those views are (p. 568). Similar illustrations could be given for the manner in which the book responds to Sharon Siddique, Kwok Kian Woon, and Kenneth Paul Tan; rather than explain their ideas, Men in White tends to locate a moment when they have expressed admiration for an aspect of the PAP, and to use them as cheerleaders whose voices are even more significant because they are, we are told, usually so critical.

If we think of gender, we might trace a similar structure in the book. The first section does include some women’s voices. We have Miki Goh-Hoalim’s wonderful account of her refusal to ‘knit socks while they [the men involved in the PAP] drink beer’ (p. 59) and her subsequent confrontation with Lee Kuan Yew, and we have a small amount of space devoted to women in the PAP, particularly Chan Choy Siong and Ho Puay Choo. What’s missing is an acknowledgment of how central gender equality was to the PAP’s programme in 1959, and how much this came out of more general hopes for a new society after the end of colonialism in the late 1950s. We hear a great deal about trade union activity, but we don’t hear about struggles for gender equality in the 1950s, in which both middle-class largely Anglophone groups such as the Singapore Council for Women, and the largely Sinophone united front organizations took part. We have only a sentence on the women’s charter (p. 125), at its time possibly the most progressive piece of legislation for gender equality in the world, and we don’t hear those wonderful speeches made by Chan in support of this legislation:

On this side of the House, I wish to point out that the fundamental principle of this Women’s Charter is twofold. The problems of women are the result of an unreasonable society. Men take women as pieces of merchandise. The inhuman feudalistic system has deprived women of their rights. In a semi-colonial and semi-feudalistic society, the tragedy of women was very common. Men could have three or four spouses. Men are considered honourable, but women are considered mean. It was common in those days to regard having one more female in a Chinese family as being very despicable. Women in our society are like pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice.

The P.A.P. Government has made a promise. We cannot allow this inequality in the family to exist in this country. We will liberate women from the hands of the oppressor. With the passing of this legislation, women can contribute their part to the country. (Official Reports of Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates, col. 443)

This radical element of PAP history, its strong commitment to gender equality, articulated by an assemblywoman who would stay with the PAP after the split is conspicuously missing.

In the second section of the book, women vanish. In a way this does mirror PAP history in terms of elected representation in parliament: after Chan stepped down in 1970 there would be no elected female MPS until 1984, and it was not until 2002 that—in an expanded parliament—the number of women MPS finally exceeded the 4 elected in 1959. Yet it’s also strange to me that this anomaly isn’t commented on. If Singapore in the 40 years after 1959 underwent a huge transformation in society that should surely have benefited women, why did women’s formal political representation decline? The Women’s Affairs Bureau of the PAP ceased to function in the 1970s, and wasn’t revived as the Women’s Wing until the late 1980s. Important events that relate to gender—for instance the graduate mothers’ controversy of 1980s that led to the founding of AWARE—are covered very superficially. And, perhaps most puzzling, important women figures in the PAP in the last quarter of the twentieth century—Aline Wong and Seet Ai Mee, for instance—are not mentioned at all. When we come to the last section of the book, the narrative rightly celebrates the seven women candidates for the PAP in the 2001 election as marking a significant change, but they appear like rabbits out of the hat: we have no sense of the history behind their emergence.

History as Storytelling

Gender, however, works at a deeper level than simply the representation of women’s voices in Men in White. History, whether popular or academic, is not simply a telling of the past as it was, but a story carefully assembled from the raw material of the past so that it has coherence for the reader, so that the reader wants to read on. Much of this process is a series of conscious decisions made by writers as craftsmen. The writers of Men in White, for instance, begin many of the chapters with anecdotes, and then a circle back to describe the historical context. The desired effect is presumably to humanize history, although some readers may feel it also makes the narrative less easy to follow. But in popular history, a lot of this shaping is unconscious—writers write in a certain way because it ‘feels right,’ making use of pre-existing conventions and forms they have internalized, just as we no longer think consciously about the use of individual muscles when we perform a complicated action like walking.

To explain this process, I want to turn to an American scholar, Hayden White. In his influential book Metahistory White analyses how the raw materials of the past were turned into historical narratives. Events that occur in a ‘historical field,’ White notes, are first placed in a chronicle in the ‘temporal order of their occurrence,’ and then transformed into what he terms a ‘story’ by being linked together through cause and effect (p.5). The transformation of chronicle into story, however, is not an objective process, but rather an attempt to make sense of historical events for an audience in order to give a historical narrative the distinct literary form of plot, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. White also notes that the range of plots available to historians is limited, and lists four common ones: Romance, in which a hero embarks on a quest to achieve a goal; Tragedy, in which a protagonist, despite high achievement, is brought down by a fault or flaw; Comedy, in which disharmony is replaced by harmony, often symbolized by marriage; and Satire, which parodies and deconstructs the other three modes (p. 7). These ‘modes of emplotment,’ White further observes, are often not consciously adopted, but are taken off the shelf, as it were, by a writer who has a sense of craft and of how a story should work.

In Men in White, the underlying mode is surely Romance, a quest perhaps not yet quite completed. The narrative is the story of development and progress of a party pursuit of an ideal of governance. This underlying structure produces pressure on the narrative, and explains some of its key elements: the continual reference, for example, to the ingratitude of young Singaporeans who do not remember the privations of the early part of the narrative, and the airbrushing of the less savoury aspects of political rule, especially after 1965.

Romance is, in fact, a common trope when telling the story of a nation. As many commentators have noted, nation-states are artificial, summed up most famously in Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation as ‘imagined political community’ whose members ‘will never know their fellow-members’ (p. 6). Narrative is an essential component of this act of imagination. Nationalists thus comb the historical record retrospectively to look for signs of the nation’s emergence: witness the eager hunt in Europe for folktales in new national languages in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, or Singapore’s enshrining of the Kuomintang operative Lim Bo Seng, who died two decades before Singapore separated from Malaysia, as a national hero. The nation’s birth is imagined back into the remote, and national history then becomes a narrative of national emergence into self-consciousness, and then of growth to maturity. The climax of such a narrative is always deferred into the future. We never quite arrive: there is always a next lap, new challenges to be undergone in forging the nation. National history as Romance is common in most nationalisms, but perhaps has a particular power in Singapore because of the relatively smooth trajectory of national development from 1965, the transition, in Lee Kuan Yew’s words, ‘from Third World to First.’

It would be relatively easy, however, to choose a different mode of emplotment for the events described in Men in White. If we used the mode of tragedy, we might emphasize what Rajaratnam called moneytheism—this embedding of government into capitalism that seems to erode its autonomy and indeed moral authority. The first section of the book continually stresses the monetary sacrifice of early party activists and leaders: the giving up of well-paying jobs to serve the party and the nation. In the mode of tragedy, that might be contrasted with the present remuneration of ministers. The first section of the narrative illustrates starkly the poverty of the general population and inequality under colonialism, and the promises of equality in national independence, in the constitution, in the Pledge. In the mode of tragedy, we might again see a falling away from these ideals. We have wealth now, but much of that wealth is built on the labours of those who are not citizens: the housing I live in was not built by Singaporeans, and the reason why my colleagues and I can work such long hours, so efficiently, is partly due to the vast reserves of foreign domestic labour that silently support us. Singapore’s GINI index, perhaps the most comprehensive indicator of social inequality, has increased rapidly in the last decade. A narrative in the mode of tragedy might see, then, the return of a different kind of internal colonialism, of Singapore becoming a society like one of the Gulf States, or ancient Athens, where citizens are the minority.

Telling the story of the PAP as Tragedy is, of course, no more true than telling it as Romance, but I think it is a story we hear less often—to tell a story differently in this way requires standing, back, a kind of reflection. And when we do so, we encounter a further aspect of White’s work. For White notes that there is more to the decision to tell a story in a certain way than an unconscious desire to use a comfortable narrative structure—there are other, social factors. White devotes substantial space to them, and here I want to mention one: what White characterizes as a reliance on ‘nomological-deductive’ laws (p. 11), internalized beliefs that are widely held in society, so much so that they form the common sense through which members of the society habitually see their world. Gender roles and stereotypes are deeply embedded in all societies, and historical narratives habitually draw on a vast reservoir of gendered tropes and metaphors.

In Men in White, we might notice two ways in which such gendered beliefs influence the narrative. The first is bound up with nationalism, and the stories that we tell of the nation. Scholars of nationalism such as Deniz Kandiyoti have noted that women have a contradictory place in national movements. They may be seen as markers of the progress of the nation—the fact that women are free and modern is seen as a sign the nation-state has reached a certain level of development. We might think of the Women’s Charter. At the same time, women also bear the burden of transmitting culture which is associated with the soul or essence of the nation: in Singapore we talk about the mother tongue, not the father tongue, when describing language policy. While the balance between women as symbols of modern liberation and woman as guardians of tradition—what Kandiyoti characterizes as ‘boundary markers’ of community (p. 388)—varies from one context to another, the paradox animates all nationalisms. Revolutionary Chinese posters from the 1950s, for instance, picture women in new roles, driving tractors or serving as welders, but they also make use of images of fertility in depicting women as farmers, and domesticity, in portraying idealized homes with clearly defined gender roles, in which the woman takes on a role as a nurturer of the family imagined as a nation in miniature.

Kandiyoti and others note that in this process women are reduced to symbols, and thus face difficulties in acting as citizens in ways that transgress these symbolic roles. This explains, I think, much of the way in which the first part of Men in White deploys women. Women are not political actors in the narrative, and most testimony from women –that of Mrs Lee, in particular—is from women who enact traditional roles, looking on from the sidelines. When we see women as actors, their femininity becomes symbolic of something larger. Like Lee Kuan Yew’s The Singapore Story, the text dramatizes the devotion of Chinese-speaking leftists to their cause by focusing on the bodies of young, innocent-seeming Chinese middle-school girls in uniform, with pigtails: there is no equivalent focus on small boys in shorts. When the male members of the PAP plot an initiative regarding the August 1957 elections, they meet on a kelong. As they climb onto the pier leading to the kelong a ‘pretty young woman,’ Ye Ludi, who has no function in the plot aside from a symbolic one, appears (p. 100). Fearing bad luck, the kelong owner refuses to let her climb up kelong until she takes off her shoes and burns incense ‘to appease the spirits’ (p. 101): her body thus becomes a site of a struggle between the rationalization of modernity and the persistence of tradition. When their symbolic function is enacted, such women fade into the background. Indeed, the disappearance of women from the second section of the book perhaps indicates an unresolvable tension between the two different emplacements of women under nationalism—at a time of the gradual reiteration of ‘Asian values’ in which tradition is reinvented, it becomes more difficult to acknowledge women as markers of modernity in non-traditional roles. With the Asian Crisis of 1997 past, and the loosening of Asian values discourse, women can appear again in the third section, and resume an accustomed dual role.

A second series of ‘nomological-deductive laws’ move beyond the politics of nationalism to a global world of consumption. Singapore is perhaps the paradigmatic example of how the postcolonial nation-state has accommodated itself to neo-liberalism and the ever more liquid flows of capital, culture, and labour: the free market, its excesses mitigated but never transcended by the nation-state, is the ultimate ‘common sense’ that underlies public narratives and stories. The People’s Action Party has at times found it difficult to accommodate itself to the demands of the market; its legitimacy is dependent on its position as an arbiter that is somehow independent of the market, and yet it has continually, and not always successfully, attempted to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant in a world of popular culture. In 2004, for instance, the party held a celebration at Zouk, one of Singapore’s oldest night clubs; an indication, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, noted, that the PAP was not as ‘square’ as people might think. ‘The party got off to a slow start at 7pm,’ the Straits Times reported, ‘but picked up momentum after YP chairman Vivian Balakrishnan, clad in a white linen shirt and white trousers, asked guests to ‘loosen up” (‘People! Action! Party!’). At other times, however, members of parliament have expressed skepticism at such reinvention and rebranding, sartorial or otherwise. ‘Singaporeans,’ noted a recently-recruited PAP MP in 2006, ‘did not elect us because of our fashion sense or the fact that we party at Zouk.’

Men in White thus responds to a wider discursive environment beyond simply nationalism in Singapore. While the phrase ‘Men in White‘ has long been used by journalists and others in Singapore to refer to the PAP, the book’s title also invites association with the popular Barry Sonderheim movies Men in Black (1997) and Men in Black II (2002), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. While it is an amusing exercise to think of parallels between the secretive MIB organization, dedicated to protecting the general population from aliens in their midst through the extensive use of ‘neuralisers’—devices that induce selective amnesia—there is no evidence of intended parallels in the narrative. Yet drawing Men in White and Men in Black together does reveal how much they subscribe to normative codes regarding gender that are part of a globalized popular culture. Beneath the humour, Men in Black is a story of fraternity in which a young man learns learns from an older man to behave in a certain way, to become a certain kind of man. Women are largely invisible in the story, and when they do appear they function as foils against which men define themselves. This is perhaps more clearly shown in Men in Black II, in which the evil Surlina, who invades earth, takes the form of a lingerie model from a magazine, and the good woman – Laura Velasquez, the pizzeria waitress whom we eventually find out is the princess who embodies the ‘Light of Zartha.’ Here, as in Men in White, men are actors for the good, while women are reduced to the status of symbols.

If we return to Men in White, we might see how it replicates deeply embedded notions of masculinity and manliness. One element centres on notions of ‘integrity’ and ‘character,’ with men who oppose the PAP often shown to be lacking in ‘character.’ David Marshall is portrayed in this way, as are Francis Seow and Chee Soon Juan. Chee is described as a ‘cocktail-circuit freedom fighter’ who is portrayed as being rejected by ‘pragmatic Singaporeans’ and eventually outmaneuvered and ‘cornered’ by the PAP. It is clear that Chee made judgment mistakes—as, of course, did the early PAP leadership when under pressure in an era of competitive politics up to 1965. Yet in the narrative there’s a relentless attempt to show him up as lacking in manliness. Chee did cry publicly after losing in the 1997 general election, yet so did Lee Kuan Yew at the press conference announcing Singapore’s independence from Malaysia: why, we might ask, are similar acts narrativised as strength in one case, and weakness in another? Again, what seems to me to be happening is a resorting to hegemonic ‘nomological-deductive laws’ about how men ought to behave.

Finally, there is one puzzling element to Men in White: one of the most obvious questions that the book raises is not answered. Who decided that the PAP candidates and members should wear white? There is a brief mention of this being suggested by some of the leftist members of the party, and yet the use of white is not a Chinese cultural reference: the colour is associated with death. The wearing of white uniforms, by the People’s Action Party and indeed the Malaysian Chinese Association is associated with opposition to corruption, more plausibly in the case of the former than the latter party. The symbolism is clearly derived from Western sources, and is ultimately a Classical reference: I wonder whether we might not see Rajaratnam’s hand in it. Two words ‘candidate’ and candid’ in English seem to have an almost opposite meaning today: candidates are rarely candid. But they share a common root: the Latin ‘candida,’ or dazzling white. In Ancient Rome, candidates for office would appear in robes of pure white. On one level, the gesture might be read as the similar to that put forward in ‘Men in White’—a commitment against corruption, which the PAP has maintained. Yet candidates quickly took to brightening their togas with chalk in order to stand out from the crowd; the essential humility of the gesture was lost in a performance, and attempt to be ‘whiter than white,’ and the notion of the ‘toga candida’ took on a negative connotation. As we unravel the plots of the past in order to envision shared futures, as we try to think of Singapore stories that vary from the script of Romance, we might do well to remember this.

Philip Holden is associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, teaching and researching Singaporean and Southeast Asian Literatures. He is also currently an Exco member of the Singapore Heritage Society.

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Tan Tarn How

It was an opportunity that Singapore Press Holdings was unlikely to let pass without its own journalistic and corporate public relations and other machinery revving into full gear. After all it had invested seven years of three of its best journalists into producing the tome. But how should one put this launch in the context of the other occasions in which the SPH covers itself?

My fate is to be entangled somehow with The Straits Times. I worked there over three periods for sixteen years. So my views about my former employer is coloured, both by rose as well as darker tints. I also know the writers of MIW. When Richard Lim was the editor of Life! I was his deputy editor for a period, a very good period for the arts and arts journalism, if I may say so myself.

I know Sonny Yap and Weng Kam when I was in the political desk in the beginning of the 2000s. Weng Kam at that time was already working part time on the book, and starting to turn some of the interviews with the Chinese educated politicians of the past – interviews that are source material for the Men In White – into articles published in The Straits Times. Before he also worked on the book full-time, Sonny Yap was my deputy editor in the political desk, if I recall, where I was a reporter. He was one of the few journalists who dare to criticise the government in their columns. He had an independent mind. So I had asked him whether he would be given the freedom to write what he wanted for Men In White, and he said that he was given that promise. He has said the same thing in the publicity for the book. If there is anyone who would give this book a good chance, it would be Sonny.

I know for many that The Straits Times is a paper they love to hate, and that some would like me to help them bury it. But this presentation is not really a criticism of The Straits Times, but first an attempt to understand its role, its evolving role, in the journalism on history, and secondly to use that as a starting point for further reflections on the nature of narratives – I hesitate to use the word history – the nature of narrative about our past and present, and also of the relation between these narratives intellectual life in Singapore.

In this presentation, I am not looking at what is in the book, or talking about the writers of the book, but the media round the book, and the media round history books about Singapore. Hence I will not be talking about the history (is it the untold story, how correct is that history, and how fair in the interpretation?)

The Coverage

More than 50,000 words were written in the SPH papers about the book, including its launch. Here arethe numbers of articles published by the newspapers according to an online database search:

o Straits Times (SPH) 17
o Zaobao (SPH) 14
o Shin Min (SPH) 4
o New Paper (SPH) 2
o MyPaper (SPH) 2
o Business Times (SPH) 1
o TODAY (MediaCorp) 2

Today’s coverage included but two stories, one a book launch story and another on the report about Mr Yoong Siew Wah pointing out the error about him.

We have to consider two issues in the coverage by SPH. First, it is how SPH covers SPH. Articles on these type includes Nielsen surveys of readership, the Straits Times Pocket Money Fund, SPH papers getting Asia Pacific Newspaper Awards, and Jessica Cheam winning the earth journalism award last November at Copenhagen given by the World Bank and Internews. It is wrong, intellectually at least, to start from the point of view that the victors’ supporters are writing the story that it would be biased. We must examine the evidence. It is also wrong to assume that just because the newspaper is covering itself it will be biased, or completely biased. When SPH covers SPH, or Straits Times covers Straits Times – it is not necessarily not journalism – that is words to which you could attach the adjectives fair, accurate, balanced. I would say for instance, the coverage of Jessica Cheam being conferred the World Bank award qualifies. But quite often Straits Times on Straits Times, SPH on SPH, is unfortunately, mere public relations. It is an exercise in making yourself looking good.

Second is the issue of SPH covering history. Let’s look at how Straits Times covered the following historical books:

o Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the politics on postwar Malaya and Singapore (published in Malaysia)
o Our Thoughts Are Free: Poems and Prose on Imprisonment and Exile, edited by Tan Jing Quee, Teo Soh Lung and Koh Kay Yew, Ethos Books (2009), by five former detainees who were imprisoned in different periods in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.)
o That We May Dream Again, by ex-detainees of the Marxist arrests in 1987 by the Internal Security Department and edited by the intrepid Fong Hoe Fang, publisher of Ethos Books.

There was a pre-launch story about Fajar Generation. There was joint review in Straits Times about Our Thoughts are Free and That We May Dream Again. There is an omnibus article ‘Return of the left?’ which starts: ‘This is the year when history made news and a generation of young Singaporeans scratched their heads and asked Fong who? Poh who? Today, we take a look at what happened when the past revisits the present.’ This approach – or ‘angle’ – is a bit enigmatic to me.

The title of the today’s forum states that this book ‘has created a sensation in the mass media’. It would be more accurately described as ‘the parts of the mass media which created this book have created a sensation in the parts of the mass media which created this book.’ How can the SPH, in particular the Straits Times, coverage be described? It certainly was ‘extensive’ – like its coverage of the AWARE controversy last year, just to borrow the words of a Cabinet Minister. The 50,000 words are like a novel of the book launch, if you will. And like the AWARE coverage – I borrow the words from the same minister – it was ‘even breathless’, hence the three exclamation marks in the rather breathless title of this talk.

Overall there was fuzzy warmness to the Straits Times coverage; everyone was happy it would seem with the book and the launch. Of course there were the minor party-pooping incidents:

o The posts by Martyn See, and the swarm of online doubters, including a very long commentary by some students studying in the US, I believe.
o Yoong Siew Wah’s pointing out the error about him.
o There too is also the interview with Dr Poh Soo Kai, the ex-17-year-detainee (we have so many of these people, so it’s good to have a shorthand way to describe their tribulations), the ex-detainee who won’t shake Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s hand. The article sprinkles some watch water on the notice that everyone is reconciled about the past: We don’t appreciate it enough when Straits Times does the right thing.

If Straits Times was to do a narrative of the book launch, these would be cast as but little hiccups in an otherwise great success story, all told.

The Straits Times is a two-faced creature. One face is that of the seven samurai, not always the most thinking or reflective, but still fierceless and I would say fair, balanced, accurate and just in a way that a good newspaper should be. This side if allowed – the key word here – if allowed to show itself can be quite formidable, as a group of marauding moralists were last April and May made painfully aware of. The other face is a dubidao (独臂刀), a one-armed swordsman with a blunt Swiss knife, the face it shows to the big man in town, the face it usually shows because well the big man with his big howitzer is practically all over town. Sometimes, that blunt Swiss knife does inflict damage, mind you – and the big man is in mortal fear of having its carotid or femoral artery nicked – and sometimes the injury it is not just inadvertently but even intended.

In many ways, if left to do its job, without interference from big man or big business, it can be a surprisingly good paper. Indeed I have said so on other occasions. (You can read my report on the IPS website on the media AWARE coverage, which attempts to show the difference in coverage when big man is standing by the side and when he enters the fray: pdf file) One may have hopes of how it could have been, but ultimately could one have expected the coverage to have unfolded otherwise than it did? First there is the sheer investment, so many journalists and other stafff over so many years. Then there is the larger reality of the media. Even SPH’s rival the Today newspaper would hesitate to find fault with the project: Discreet silence seems to have largely been its strategy. Perhaps a bit too much for Straits Times to become non-Straits Times in its coverage of an Straits Times event? 35,000 copies of the book has been sold as of yesterday. This is quite an incredible number.

We also need to look at how non-SPH media covered the book. As I said it was not too unfriendly. We also have to look at how the Internet covered the book and history in general. The Internet includes not just news sites such Temasek Review, The Online Citizen, Yawning Bread and other blogs such as journalism.sg and Think Centre’s, but also history sites such as the alternative Singapore studies site s/pores and the few blogs of historians such as Loh Kah Seng’s lkshistory.wordpress.com. Then there are the personal blogs such as Martyn See’s and Seelan Palay’s. Then there are the other iterations: How the Internet covered how SPH covered the book; how SPH covered how the Internet covered the book, though there isn’t too much of that; how SPH covered how the Internet covered how SPH covered the book. Not quite ad infinitum, and for reasons which I will address later, definitely not ad nauseum.

Internet Coverage of the Book and History

It is said the Internet has opened up new spaces for the alternative. This is a huge still largely unoccupied space in Singapore. The Internet, as an alternative media, as new media, as not so easily unregulable media – of course government wants to regulate it, and the host of Internet specific and general laws on the Internet in Singapore attests to that desire – can do several things:

o It is capable of setting the agenda by bringing into view and under scrutiny issues that mainstream/old media avoid or miss.
o It can also provide alternative discourses to the mainstream and received ones.
o It can provide new information, sometimes towards the end whistle-blowing, sometimes by rounding up an incomplete picture by giving voice to those whom mainstream media avoid, do not deign to ask or fail to think of asking. The new information may feed to agenda setting and alternative discourses.

The internet also has not just functional, instrumental effects, but also psychological ones. This comes from the fact that once you put something up online, it is instantly accessible everyone who knows where to look, and thanks to the search engines, to those who don’t know where to find you. Unless you are lucky or quick, there is no delete button on the Internet. So unlike coffee shop talk or most conversations, the Internet is sticky. How many people think like you? With conversations it is hard to tell? They are gone with the wind. With the Internet you can find out whether people think like you and how many. For those who are afraid, there is safety in numbers.

So you have all the articles written online about not just the MIW book but also the little stream of other books, Fajar Generation, Our Thoughts are Free, That We May Dream Again.

Power to the digital! But then what are we to make of the 36,557 views on Youtube alone of Dr Lim Hock Siew’s sad, moving and quietly stirring speech about his long detention at the launch of Fajar Generation. He was speaking for the first time publicly since 1982 release. ‘Present political situation here is immoral – ex-political detainee!’ could have been an Straits Times headline, only the event was not covered by Straits Times.

But this is no time yet to be sanguine about the impact of the online world. I don’t think the Internet can help sell 35,000 books in Singapore, especially a tome like the Men In White. The Internet is still a blip in the media scene in many ways.

The larger context of the book and the media coverage of it is that there is a parallel between the media situation and the political situation.

First, the situation of the dominant voice of the mass media duopoly of SPH and Mediacorp against the extremely attenuated voice of alternative (and exclusively new) media (note that alternative need not be new, here meaning, online media, because you can see mainstream versus alternative as lying along say, the y-axis of the graph, and old versus new/online media on the y-axis, so you have four quadrants if you will, with one of the quadrants alternative AND old being empty of examples, except maybe at a stretch IS magazine and FHM). Alternative by definition would be weaker than mainstream, but the blank quadrants speaks of an especially weakness that is peculiar to media environments in economically well-off societies of which Singapore is one. The Internet does change that imbalance – to some extent but insufficiently. The difficulty is that as far as the mass media is concerned, there is only one singer in town, the Straits Times, or if you include Mediacorp, two choirs singing the same tune. Today newspaper – the edgy alternative to Straits Times. It is completely defanged now, post the Mr Brown episode, and now does pretty well these days out-Straits Times-ing the Straits Times.

The second situation is that of the dominant voice of the PAP regime against the extremely attenuated voice of the, in want of a better word, the alternative forces. Here again, the alternative voices would by definition be weaker than the mainstream, but its weakness is especially glaring compared to the alternative voices in the other cosmopolitan and ‘open’ societies – one hesitates to use the word advanced – societies that Singapore sees itself also to be.

That parallel is not incidental. Indeed the situations are mutually-reinforcing.

The Internet makes the alternative sticky. But does it make things ‘thick’? By thinness, I mean sparseness, a lack of critical mass, drops of water in a desert which dry out because there are an insufficient number of them. Thickness on the other hand is critical mass, sufficiency of volume, the jostling of one against the other amidst the many, enough drops of water to form a river or lake that doesn’t evaporate. Thickness is richness, of information, of ideas of knowledge, of experience of thought. It is not just quantity but also quality, not just amount of one thing but also variety of different things. It is the beginning to truth and understanding.

o Where are the reviews of the books? Where are the commentaries – and I don’t mean commentaries by Chua Mui Hoong. This forum is a start but where are the views from the academics, the public intellectuals. How about the views of the participants of the events that the book describes. Where are all these drops both in the mainstream media? There are a few online, but drops here and there.
o So much of the national archives are not publicly accessible.
o I wish SPH would put all the interviews online, the recordings and the transcripts.
o Lee Siew Choh biography is in the works. I am not sure Michael Fernandez’s. Yoong Siew Wah, I am not sure if he is here today, has a blog. I hope he writes about his years in the ISD and CPIB and the rest of his time. It needn’t even be a printed book. The Internet is a marvellous thing.

We can see a thickening, but it is not yet thick. Perhaps that is the fate of a small country which will always be a footnote in global history.

So this is about what is said, but also about what is not said. It is about silences in the media and absences in politics and society, commissions and omissions, in deed and in writing.

Tan Tarn How is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

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Hong Lysa

The Pattern

Men in White was, as could be expected, marketed as being different from any other product of its kind. However few in Singapore would have anything remotely comparable to the publicity machinery of SPH, nor indeed the kind of resources that was poured into the book’s production.

Like a Hollywood blockbuster, the sheer scale of the venture was itself newsworthy, complete with the now almost obligatory ‘The making of Men in White‘ (Straits Times 29 Aug. 2009)

The lowdown on the gargantuan effort:

To re-enact this political theatre-cum-human drama, three writers from Straits Times backed by four researchers conducted some 300 interviews in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and listened to about 200 oral history tapes

It is oral history spun in a journalistic mode, spiced unapologetically with anecdotes, quotes and human interest to breathe life into past events. (book jacket)

Those of a certain vintage may find such claims familiar. Men in White does in fact have a distinct genealogy: one of journalists given access to write Singapore’s past. This can be traced to 1968, with Alex Josey’s biography Lee Kuan Yew (1968). A closer match is Singapore: Struggle for Success (1984), whose journalist author John Drysdale mentioned ‘three and a half years of painstakingly combing through public and private archives, oral history collections, interviews with leading personalities, both government and opposition’. The pride taken in claiming ‘this is no academic study’ had earlier been made by Dennis Bloodworth, who boasted about ‘unique access to original source material through interviews with those involved, extensive oral histories, hitherto unpublished official records and security reports.’ Bloodworth also preceded Men in White in announcing that his book presents events ‘seen from both sides, and told with cool impartiality’ (book jacket, The Tiger and the Trojan Horse, 1986) In 1998, a team of three senior local journalists were entrusted with the task of distilling some 2000 of his speeches and 30 odd hours of interviews with him to produce Lee Kuan Yew: the Man and his ideas.

The Plot

The key characteristic of the story of Singapore’s ruling party, told as the nation’s history, is that it fought a life and death battle in the first decade of its existence spanning the mid-50s to the mid 60s with the communist plants within the party itself out of which an independent nation state was born. The anti-colonial movement in which the left clearly led with its mass base is written over as a communist one, save for its Lee Kuan Yew faction, the teller of this tale. Despite its claims to the contrary, Men in White does not deviate from this. While it does acknowledge that the PAP’s election victories in 1955 and 1959 were won on the mass support of the left led by Lim Chin Siong, the implications of this is kept in check by its persistent dichotomous communist/non-communist framework. Lee Kuan Yew’s foreword to the book sets this tone, with his reiteration that Lim Chin Siong had links with the communist party and worked with it to topple the government in 1961. The penultimate chapter of the pre-1965 section dwells on whether Lim was a communist, and while giving voice to various shades of opinion, hands the final say to Ong Pang Boon: that Lim may not have been be a card-carrying member of MCP, ‘but by his actions and speeches in the 1950s, he sounded like a communist and he supported communist objectives.’ Ong’s comment seconds Lee’s own on the subject.

Ong Pang Boon, a government minister who retired from parliament in 1984 at the age of 55 to make way for ‘new blood’ made his unhappiness with the pace and manner in which Lee Kuan carried out the PAP’s self-renewal process. He and similarly disaffected former PAP chairman and deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye told Men in White that at the Central Executive Committee meeting to decide on the prime ministership following the PAP’s victory in the 1959 general elections, Lee Kuan Yew won by a single vote. Lee insists that he has no recollection of this ever taking place. Ong’s account of the incident in Men in White establishes that he is ‘his own man’, and a credible source, bold enough to tell the world a bit of PAP history that Lee perhaps prefers not to remember. Presumably by the same token, his word on Lim Chin Siong should also have credibility.

Being one’s ‘own man’ is what ‘Men in White’ are about—it is the motif that separates the communists who simply act on orders, from those who act on what they consider is for the larger good. Men who demonstrate this quality include (from section 2 of the book) prime ministers Goh Chok Tong, and Lee Hsien Loong, (not mere Lee Kuan Yew’s men), PAP Malay MPs (who refused to play the chauvinist card), PAP branch party members (who stood up to the intimidation of the communist plants who controlled most of the party branches, and of course the authors themselves, and their editors.

The Stereotype

The ‘communists’ are but lackeys, and for all the sound and fury about interviewing the gamut of them, Men in White does not give a clue about how they understood their political roles aside from ‘granting’ that they were loyal to their ‘ideological cause’ (p. 8). They ultimately remain cardboard figures in history, despite interesting updates about what they are up to these days; no room is given to the possibility that they might understand change and development in the rapidly evolving Singapore of the 1950s and 60s. Indeed, their opposition to what has been proven to be a hasty and ill-conceived Merger plan, which led the PAP Left to be expelled, and to form the Barisan Socialis, is seen simply as nothing more than the communists’ fear of being arrested by the Tunku if Singapore became part of Malaysia. Men in White portrays Chan Sun Wing as a communist plant while also crediting him as ‘the most intelligent and politically educated of the political secretaries’. Yet according to the book, Chan tried to stop merger because ‘his boss must have told him to stop it.’ One wonders what Chan’s interview, taped by one of the authors has to say on the question on merger.

Indeed it would be a boon to public education if the unedited tapes and transcripts of the more than 300 recorded, the product of unmatched investment of time, money and expertise were not to simply lie forgotten in the SPH library. The Oral History Department of the National Archives is surely the proper home for them.

The Ritual

Resorting to the chapter title ‘What if Barisan had won in 1963′ to talk about the mass arrests of Operation Cold Store’ and concluding the chapter with a list of the post-65 housing programme, industrialization and job creation and infrastructural development simply justifies the removal of Lee’s most formidable interrogators from the political scene by assuming that they would have been totally opposed to everything his government did or planned to do, and would have sabotaged them. ‘What if’ either Lim Chin Siong or Ong Eng Guan had become prime minister has a set answer: Singapore would have been like Communist China in the 50s and 60s, even though Ong was in the PAP right wing—the PAP imaginary cannot accommodate any alternative scenario than of poverty and primitiveness wrought by communist regimes. Ong Eng Guan rivaled Lee Kuan Yew in popularity at the 1959 elections, when Lim Chin Siong and other left wing PAP leaders were in political detention. The possibility of there having been leaders other than Lee is not seen as an indication of the open politics of the day, only as definitely leading to unmitigated disaster .

The Albatross

One may wonder why the ‘communist threat’ and in particular Lim Chin Siong continues to feature so centrally in books like Men in White. After all, according to the book, James Puthucheary, one of the most senior Barisan members had admitted in hindsight that Dr Goh Keng Swee was right and he himself was wrong on the question of whether to nationalize the steel industry. (p.625) Dr Sheng Nam Chin, another Barisan leader, while noting that the Referendum over Malaysia was stacked in favour of PAP, said in his interview, ‘I am prepared to concede that whatever the PAP did, it was for the better of Singapore.’ (p. 232) Surely there cannot be a more ringing endorsement from its former political adversaries.

Yet the fact remains that Operation Cold Store denied Lim Chin Siong the chance to contest the elections against Lee, and since then, the longest ruling elected party in the world has not been tested seriously at the polls. Myths about Lim Chin Siong’s popularity with the masses and the possibility that he could have become prime minister of Singapore lives on. Lim died in 1996. In one sense then, Men in White comes a little too late. But would Lim Chin Siong have shaken Lee Kuan Yew’s hand? If he had refused, such a book cannot be written. Without Lim’s handshake Operation Cold Store, which effectively decimated the left from Singapore’s electoral politics remains contentious. The PAP’s attempt to claim an untainted origin myth through Men in White will not be the final one.

Hong Lysa, a historian, is the co-author of The scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (2008). She is a s/porean.

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Liew Kai Khiun

Loh Kah Seng. Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaya. Malaysia: Strategic Information, Research and Development Centre, 2009. 152 pages.

The impression of a leprosy asylum is one of isolation of seemingly contagious patients with repulsive skin lesions away from main population centres. Practically cast away from society, it would be assumed that these inmates would also be abandoned by the forces of history. A former inmate in Singapore’s leprosy asylum at the Trafalgar Home in Buangkok recalled one night during the Japanese military occupation of the island between 1942-45, Japanese soldiers raided the place after a tip off about the existence of a gambling den. A hapless suspect was promptly interrogated on the spot and determined to be guilty.

Ever since they captured the city from the British, the Japanese authorities had in both a demonstration of their presence and efforts to contain disorder from the war, had swiftly beheaded criminal suspects. The same fate was about to happen to the victim, when suddenly the officer realised that his sword would be tarnished by the blood of the leper. He ordered the jaga (local reference to mainly security guard) to get him a tongkat (truncheon). Realising this would also be fatal, the latter provided the Japanese officer with a branch from a tree instead. The branch was use mercilessly on the victim, but he survived (p. 52). This anecdotal episode not only highlights the harsh exposure and the responses of the most stigmatised peoples the forces of history. More importantly, in contemporary Singapore where the word “Buangkok” is associated with that of a subway station, historian Loh Kah Seng intends to give a voice and a history to the former residents of the asylum. In an age of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, Loh feels the experiences of these subjects should serve to sensitise societies and governments to be “mindful of how ordinary people are treated, and mistreated, in the campaign against disease and infection” (p. 118).

The recent decades have seen a proliferation of scholarly works on the historiography of leprosy and historians like Edmond Rod have drawn a critical relationship between the framing of the disease and the process of colonialisation in his works on Leprosy and Empire: A Medical and Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 2006). In this respect, scholars have increasingly recognised leprosy as not just a clinical problem, but one inflected with complex socio-cultural meanings and legacies. As such, it deserves not only to have its own history, but it should be an integral part of every society’s past. This historiographical consciousness also explains the driving force behind Loh’s research.

More than just a clinical description, Loh illustrates the intimate relationship between leprosy, developments in modern notions of diseases and contagion and the operations of British colonialism. While leprosy had been familiar to the non-Western world for centuries, it was the modern notions of bacteriology that the disease was classified as a contagious pathogen by the 19th century. Although stigmas did exists in pre-colonial societies, it was under Western colonial governance that witnessed more systematic and institutionalised efforts in identifying, segregating, quarantining and treating people with the disease, leading to the birth of the modern leprosy asylums.

Aside from the Trafalgar Home in Singapore, the legacy of leprosy in British Malaya can perhaps be located in the asylums established in Sungei Buloh near Kuala Lumpur and Palau Jerejek, an island off the coast of Penang. Physically fenced off by barbed wire installations and armed guards, the layouts and regimentations of these leprosariums were little different from prison camps. In spite of being seen as negatively dissimilar to the wider mainstream public, it is interesting to note that not only the demographic composition. With schools, temples and recreational facilities, the religious and cultural practices of these inmates closely paralleled that of the world which had systematically shunned them.

What distinguished Loh’s work has been his ability to vividly reconstruct the social conditions of the leprosariums as well as the experiences of actual former residents through his oral interviews. Those doing historical research on disease in the colonial context would find that this is a difficult undertaking, particularly for illnesses that carries a deeper social stigma. To begin with, the collective memories of these marginalised peoples as dignified and autonomous subjects are often given scant recognition by institutions that would often regard them as medical statistics. Added to this, locating and gaining the trust of these survivors at the social peripheries would also be daunting for prospective researchers. The graphic and voluminous accounts collected by Loh here reflects in turn the confidence and trust that his subjects had for him, feelings that must have involved substantial efforts on the part of the author. Part of his emphasis on reaching to the subjects personally comes from his inclinations to go beyond official records that have tended to reduce their subjects into faceless statistics and pitiful sufferers. From these accounts, he has pieced together more vibrant narratives of the painful memories of separation and dislocation from families, active and passive resistance of the medical regime, as well as the continued battle against the lingering social stigmas even leprosy is no longer seen as a dangerously contagious disease.

Another outstanding aspect of Loh’s study has been his refusal to fall into the ideological claims of both modern science and the progressivistic claims of the contemporary nation-states of Malaysia and Singapore. From his findings, both supposedly “rational” Western biomedical sciences are as guilty as well as “superstitious” vernacular folk healers were guilty of misdiagnosing and mistreating patients suspected with leprosy. On a broader macro scale, attempts by the postcolonial officialdom to spread the fruits of development in rehabilitating former inmates to new modern concrete buildings became another form of arbitrary and traumatic displacement from one set of walls to another.

In sum, for both academia and the general public, Loh’s historical study becomes a critical reminder of the necessity in looking at the past from not just sultans, colonial administrators and prime ministers, but those from the very margins of society.

Liew Kai Khiun obtained his B.A (Hons) and M.A. from the National University of Singapore, and was awarded his doctorate by the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. Among his main research interest has been that of medical history in British Malaya. He has just edited a book on Liberalising, Feminizing and Popularising Health Communications in Asia (London: Ashgate 2010). He is currently at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information at the Nanyang Technology University.

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