Archive for the ‘08 intellectuals’ Category

Editorial: Intellectual/History

Francis Lim

s/pores editor

Who are the intellectuals, and what roles do they play in the process of social change in Singapore? What is the relationship between the intellectuals, historical understanding, and political power? These are some of the questions explored by the contributors in this issue on intellectuals in Singapore.

The term, ‘intellectual’, can be understood in at least two ways, one more general, the other more specific. A general idea of who an ‘intellectual’ is can be gleaned from the oft-cited writing of Antonio Gramsci, whose own experience in dealing with political repression has contributed to the archetypal construction of the ‘modern intellectual’. According to Gramsci, an ‘intellectual’ is not only an educated person; he or she must also be actively engaged in either upholding or altering existing conception of the social and moral order based upon consciously and deeply-held values. In this understanding, an intellectual can adopt a variety of different social roles, such as a politician rallying citizens behind a particular vision of society, a public official involved in policymaking process, an artist or a writer seeking to change the way we perceive the world through their artistic works, or an activist participating in civil society for some causes. In addition, intellectuals can relate to the various centres of power in different ways. Thus, it is conceivable that an intellectual who is marginal to political power in society can at the same time be an integral member of its cultural elite. It is also possible that an intellectual has close ties with multiple centres of power.

A more specific way of understanding the ‘intellectuals’ is to consider them as a social group whose actual form is shaped by the social, cultural and political contexts in which it is located. In this perspective, we seek to understand how a society or a dominant public discourse within it constructs, legitimates and valuates the socio-political activities of its educated population. This includes the examination of the extent to which the public positively acknowledges the role intellectuals play in important historical events. This sort of public appraisal is crucially shaped by the contending discourses of the state, civil society and the market. Does a particular society expect its educated class to play an active part in the free discussion of important national issues, and lend their respective expertise to the effort in formulating viable solutions to various social problems? Is there a vibrant civil society where multiple views and opinions can be debated and discussed, without the participants fearing reprisals from the state and entrenched powerful interest groups as a result of exercising their constitutionally-guaranteed rights? Also, how do members of the educated class themselves see their roles in society and how have such views been historically shaped by different political and cultural forces?

As some commentators of Singaporean affairs have pointed out, part of the ideological work of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) involves the creation and promulgation of a particular rendition of Singapore’s history—now commonly known as the Singapore Story. Prominent within this narrative is the official story of ‘Singapore’s success’, defined primarily in economistic and materialistic terms, made possible by the valiant effort and wise leadership of the PAP, who had triumphed over their political opponents labeled variously as ‘leftists’, ‘pro-communist Chinese student and trade unions’, ‘racists politicians’, etc. As the narrative goes, it is precisely partly due to the elimination of these alleged ‘troublemakers’ that has enabled the highly pragmatic PAP to successfully build up the young nation to what she is today. According to its critics, the promulgation of the Singapore Story forms part of the ideological work of the PAP in highlighting its pivotal role in transforming Singapore ‘from a Third World to the First’ (this is a sub-title of the memoir of Lee Kuan Yew), thereby further legitimating its authority in the eyes of Singaporeans. Are we surprise then to read in Hong Lysa and Lim Cheng Tju’s interview with filmmaker, Boo Junfeng, that he ‘did not know about his alma mater’s [Chung Cheng High School] turbulent past when he was in school’? The promulgation of the Singapore Story has ironically stimulated a groundswell of effort by intellectuals and students of the country’s history to either seek out ‘multiple’ interpretations, or to uncover historical events and personalities previously buried under the weight of the official narrative. As Boo Junfeng explains to Lysa and Cheng Tju, an important reason for his making of the film, Sandcastle, is to explore the ‘sensitive’ topic of left-wing social activism of the intellectuals in the turbulent period of 1950s and 60s; more specifically, ‘to reach out to the Chinese educated, to the intellectuals through the film.’

Chiu Weili’s contribution on the modernist poetry movement and the poet Lin Fang goes some way to dispel the common myth surrounding Chinese intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s as predominantly ‘leftwing’, pro-China, or pro-communist. Here, we see an influential artistic movement that celebrated ‘Arts for Arts sake’, and focused on the creation of a new aesthetic in poetry by combining the influences of Malay poetry, Western modernism, and classical Chinese culture. The artistic output of Lin Fang and those associated with the May Flower Poetry Society departed from the work of the more left-wing Chinese artists which tended to exhibit a strong dose of socialist realism. For further discussion on the artistic movements in Singapore of that period, readers can refer to Cheng Tju’s review of Yeo Wei Wei’s edited volume, Realism in Asia, in which Cheng Tju points out the crucial distinction between Social Realism and Socialist Realism.

The early works of Kuo Pau Kun, the doyen of Singaporean theatre, certainly depart from the aesthetic sensibility shown by the modernist poetry movement. Clarissa Oon’s discussion of Kuo’s early Chinese works shows how deeply ideological and political they were, with the explicit identification with the working masses and their class struggle against capitalist oppression. In the context of a newly independent Singapore, when the ruling People’s Action Party sought to tame the trade unions and invited the multi-national corporations into the country with open arms, the artistic works and political orientation of Kuo and his collaborators were deemed by the powers-that-be as against National Interest. The imprisonment of Kuo and his wife, Goh Lay Kuan, as well as their subsequent rehabilitation, would become a recurring leitmotif of the general story of prominent intellectuals in Singapore whose ideological-political stance diverges from that of the ruling party.

The experience of Kuo Pao Kun and the transformation of his work throughout the years—from the explicitly political to a ‘different voice’ (as Oon puts it)—perhaps epitomizes the experience and dilemma of many ‘independent’ intellectuals who are confronted with a situation where a strong state constantly seeks to establish ideological hegemony and exert control over civil society. The existence of the draconian Internal Security Act that allows for detention without trial, and its use in 1987 against a number of social activists under Operation Spectrum, further helps to instill among many Singaporeans what the scholar Hussin Mutalib calls the ‘Caution Syndrome’. This brings us to a very interesting phenomenon evident among some intellectuals in Singapore: the often expressed qualification of being ‘non-political’ in their work and activities. This has come up in the Boo Junfeng interview, when he says that his film, Sandcastle, ‘is not supposed to be overtly political’. Similarly, in interviews for Kelvin Chia’s article on The Tangent, members explicitly mention the group’s positioning as ‘non-political’ and explain that The Tangent focuses on dialogue rather than achieving ‘tangible’ outcomes. Is the response of Boo Junfeng and members of The Tangent of being ‘non-political’ a reflection of an underlying cautious (and perhaps fearful?) attitude, given the well-known fate that befall some of the older generations of prominent intellectuals? Or is this a strategic positioning that allows for some form of substantive engagements with certain ‘sensitive’ issues under the watchful eyes of an authoritarian state?

For Constance Singam—social activist, past President of AWARE, and a former Nominated Member of Parliament—being ‘non-political’ might not be a viable position to take for an intellectual who wishes to promote progressive changes in society. In her contribution to this issue, Singam tackles another ‘sensitive’ topic in Singapore, race. In a society where race has become a dominant identity for many Singaporeans, intellectuals from various ethnic communities face a particular challenge: to be able to speak to members of their own ethnic community, and at the same time, to reach across the ethnic divide to engage all Singaporeans on issues of national importance. Singam’s article offers a critical look at Singapore’s discursive practice of ‘multiculturalism’ and sees it as a ‘technology of control’: the state exercises control over the population partly by culturally essentializing the various ethnic groups, and then constructs the parameters for acceptable social behavior and delimits the imagination of alternative social possibilities. Hence, Singam’s call for civil society groups to transcend racial categorization is also an exhortation to break out of the state-imposed limitations on social activism and imagination.

In Singapore, intellectuals who are dedicated to the study and sharing of ideas—and through the process implicitly or otherwise hoping to contribute to social change—are often disparaged as ‘idealistic’. ‘Idealism’ has taken on a strongly negative connotation in the eyes of many Singaporeans who live in a society that prides itself on its economic pragmatism. In the final article of this issue, Kwok Kian Woon poses two important questions for us to ponder: Can (and should) one be idealistic in a capitalist (and consumerist) world? And what is the role of ideals and ideas in relation to ‘real-life’ contemporary problems? Kwok argues for what he calls a ‘troubled idealism’, one that entails an intellectual effort that combines moral reasoning and rigorous knowledge inquiry, and which can serve as a solid foundation for social action.

Finally, if we hear intellectuals claiming to be ‘non-political’ in Singapore, we should perhaps bear in mind what Edward Said advises: don’t believe them!


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Lim Cheng Tju and Hong Lysa

Can art transcend history, pain and loss?

I think art helps in the healing process where there has been trauma. It is an emotional outlet for both the artist and the viewer. It helps by allowing people to revisit past experiences, and generates discourses so that people can talk about issues that have been swept under the carpet (Boo Junfeng, interview with the authors)

There has been a surge in the number of local films dealing with history in recent years, giving rise to the question whether the film format is a better medium to teach the subject than the textbook or works by historians. Non-mainstream histories of Singapore like Tan Pin Pin’s ‘Invisible City’ (2007), Eng Yee Peng’s ‘Diminishing Memories’ I and II (2008) and ‘Endless Days’ the in-production second feature by Ho Tzu Nyen come to mind.

In America, TV and films have been legitimized as purveyors of history as seen in the historicity of Tom Hanks’ ‘The Pacific’. In the case of director Boo Junfeng, his short films are haunted by the spectre of history, whether they are family secrets as in ‘A Family Portrait’ (2004), spatial history in ‘Changi Mural’ (2006) and ‘Bedok Jetty’ (2008) or social/gender/legal history in ‘Tanjong Rhu’ (2008).

Junfeng’s first feature film is ‘Sandcastle’. We sat down and talked to him on 4 September 2010 at the Esplanade Library café, a week after the film opened.
(text in block quotes or italics are from s/pores interview with Junfeng)



Working with silences

‘Sandcastle’ manages to explore the meaning and nature of history through its mutation into social memory in a more thoughtful and intricate way than if it were to be set in the 1950s, the turbulent political era where the Chinese middle school students were in the forefront of anti-colonial mass politics.

A historical reenactment would require the enormous resources such as that at the disposal of Oliver Stone. At the same time, such an effort may also not be the most fruitful, for our understanding of the period still hovers between the portrayal of the Chinese school students by the powers that be as dangerous, manipulative, if not manipulated, and the former students’ labeling of themselves as ‘idealistic’ and ‘anti-colonial nationalists.’ Even then, it is only lately that the latter narrative has been cautiously emerging.

The filmmaker’s attempts to interview former Chinese school student activists and political detainees were rebuffed. However he did not work his contacts very hard. After all, understanding and accepting their silence is what he deals with in the film itself.

I wanted to be considerate. I did not want to impose or intrude. It is history told as stories, people’s stories.

By telling the story through the eyes of 18 year old En, and selecting 1999 as the setting, the filmmaker cut his cloth to a manageable size. The death of his grandmother who suffered from dementia set him off on exploring En’s coming to terms with his family history. Each social unit, from family to country, is inhabited by a dynamic sequence of individuals, and cares about what is communicated and transmitted to its members, present and future, so as to maintain its cohesion and vitality in the face of contradictions, disjunctions and counter-narratives. En’s parents’ involvement in the Chinese school students’ political movement, deemed subversive and anti-national by the colonial as well as post-colonial state has brought shame, and awkward silence about the family’s past.

What interests, intrigues, inspires me are the many elements, the dilemmas and taboos in Singapore that surround us. I wanted to juxtapose what is happening to the current generation of Singaporeans, especially the way the internet, the social media is so much part of their lives, with the older generation who rely on the traditional media. Our mindsets are so different.

I wanted to reach out to the Chinese educated, to the intellectuals through the film. But it is very difficult to get in touch with them. The internet and facebook don’t work in this instance

En has a lot of questions. He speaks for my generation who wants to know. What En goes through is that he questions, but at the same time he empathises too. He deals with the revelation (of his parents’ past political involvements) passively. He did not confront his mother, but placed his father’s letter to her recounting their lives in a spot where she would know that he knew. You realize that there is this past, which is painful to bring up. You want to be considerate.

‘Sandcastle’ looks at the more emotional aspect rather than the larger political canvas.

The film has no answers, only questions [which the 18year old has]. I only want to pose questions. I don’t have the answers. The answers are with those who do not want to speak up. Hopefully the film will lead to some dialogue, trigger some communication.

It did not escape the filmmaker that ‘Sandcastle’ ‘made it’ this far because it was supported by the Media Authority of Singapore and the Singapore Film Commission. Being selected for Cannes and for international distribution by Fortissimo Film had allowed it to be viewed in Singapore as something without political agenda. Yet its political overtones were picked up by the overseas press.

For me, really nothing is at stake. I meant to address the issue of memory and it is not supposed to be overtly political. I am just that not polemic.

This perhaps can be seen in the filmmaker’s decision to focus on the 1956 and 1961 student activities rather than 513 ‘anti-conscription’ incident of 1954 (which would be too obvious given that En was about to be enlisted – “that would be too neat.”) or Operation Cold Store of 1963.

Reconciliation/ alienation

In ‘Sandcastle’, the disjuncture which threatens En’s family’s ability to tell the next generation who they are cuts across the three generations, with the one in the middle, in the person of his mother, as the pivot. She withholds and denies her husband’s past, and her own, from their son. En’s grandfather was about to tell him about his father, having taken out the photo negatives of the latter’s student activities so that En could store them in the computer to ensure their preservation. However, En was distracted by a phone call, and the moment passed. As it turns out, his grandfather died that very night.

En’s grandmother has dementia, but in her lucid moments, she turns away from looking at the photo album and tells En to leave the past alone. However, her mumbling in her sleep alerts him to the possibility that his father had been in prison. He finally learns that his grandmother had tried to persuade his father to sign the ‘confession’ that would lead to his release when En was born, even though it would be admitting to falsehoods. He had refused. En takes his grandmother to Johor where his father was exiled, died and was buried, to perform his belated qing ming ritual. En’s acknowledgement of his father’s life frees his grandmother from the burden of her son’s unfilial act. The wholesomeness of the family’s social memory is restored.

But there is another disjuncture between generations that the film is enmeshed in—one between 18 year-old En (and the 26 year old filmmaker) and viewers who had been middle school students in the 1950s. The sexual exploits of En, at the beginning of the movie where he watches a porn clip on the computer, and later having sex with the girl next door, may well symbolize alienation and listlessness, and the intimacy and solace derived from people of one’s age group. The girl, Ying is three years older than En, and so is mature enough to handle their relationship, but members of the audience in their seventies, particularly the women who were politically active in the 1950s may well find their sexual liaison not easy to take in their stride.

A key issue which had galvanized the middle school students into critiquing colonial society in the 1950s was the anti-yellow culture movement which condemned pornographic salacious publications and films as the product of unbridled greed of capitalism, which led the young away from a wholesome life and service to society. Proper male-female relationships were a primary code of conduct which the progressive students observed, and which gave them a tremendous sense of righteousness. En’s mother refused to talk to him and even slapped him in anger when he told her she was over-reacting—his grandmother had slipped out of the house when he was in bed with Ying. A former Chinese middle school student in her 70s who watched the film said that she would have slapped him as well.

People of different age groups respond to the film differently. That response is another form of conservatism. Things have changed.

Embracing China (once more)

Things have indeed changed, and to the filmmaker one change is that it is now alright to ask questions about the 1950s, for that is history. In an interview with Ng Yi-sheng, he said, “Honestly, there was a line in the film that we took out where the grandmother asked the grandson, ‘What the hell does communism even mean?’” Because in this day and age, like, we are like showing China’s 60th anniversary film [‘The Great Cause of China’s Foundation’], that huge propaganda film that was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. And it was released here.”

In today’s Singapore, we can watch the film of the Communist Party of China praising its brilliant history, totally oblivious to the fact that what is being shown was that which had riveted at least one generation of student political activists in Singapore.

Why can’t we talk about that period, why can’t we put it into film, if it is done responsibly?

We have completely embraced China. There is so much communication between that country and our government. The story is set at the time after the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997, with China’s open economy as an established feature. I pushed it as far back as I could to 1999 to be able to accommodate the handphone, Windows 98 and to make the task of coming with clothes, hairstyles and cars on the road etc ten years ago easier for my production designer. Two years makes a great difference in Singapore, given the rapid physical changes in the country. Any later than 1999, and it would not have been possible for someone schooling in the 1950s to have a biological child age 18.

Embracing Chineseness

In the interview with Ng Yi-sheng, the filmmaker said:

“Bobbi Chen played En’s new girlfriend. She’s the character who moves in next to En and she’s a new immigrant from China, and so is her father. As the film deals with the idea of time, it also deals with the idea of new immigrants and old immigrants: that Chinese Singaporeans are essentially all immigrants. It addresses a little bit of the heritage of Singapore.”

However, the relationship between En and Ying, underplays the very real social tension and mistrust between the local Chinese, and the recent PRC immigrants in Singapore. Ironically, it is Ying who makes it possible for En to piece his parents’ past. She is the one who recognizes his parents in the old photographs, and is able to read his father’s letter, written in the non-simplified script, which younger Singaporeans, are unable to read (though in actual fact, neither can PRC Chinese). In a reversal of the situation in the 1950s where the Chinese middle school students in Singapore were steeped in the history of China, Ying struggles to read in English about Sir Stamford Raffles and the indentured Chinese labourers who came to Singapore in the 19th century. She cannot identify with this history, nor does En think that she should.

The issue of the Chinese educated is better explored in the film’s telling and casting. The filmmaker told Ng Yi-sheng:

“Language also plays a big role in the film. It’s a generational thing: between the grandparents, they speak in Hokkien; mother and son speak Mandarin, and then En, the son, and his friends speak English. I think language can really define how the generations of Singaporeans have lived.”

Junfeng is a former student of Chung Cheng High School, an Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school which offers Chinese as a first language. However, he was from the Express stream. He admits that it takes a long time for him even now to read a piece of writing in Chinese. Like En, he has difficulty connecting with the past because of his limited command of Chinese. En overcomes this when he stays with his grandparents, and when he get to know Ying.

Junfeng did not know about his alma mater’s turbulent past when he was in school. But he can see that embracing Chineseness is the way to go.

I still think it is harder for an English-language Asian film to travel, whether it is art house or commercial. The reality is, people want ‘authenticity’, and a film from Asia with Asians speaking in English isn’t considered ‘authentic’.

The improbable top history student, 1999

Were the students communists?

Well, they were protesting the closure of the student union, which was supposedly pro-communist.

And in the 60s, the government arrested the communists?

Well, that’s a contentious issue also… whether or not those arrested were communists.

What happened to them? Were they exiled?

They were locked up for many years. Some of them exiled after that.

Andy, En’s classmate gave this history lesson to En when they were at a disco. His voice was almost drowned by the loud dance music. It was impossible for them to discuss the subject further then. In any case, En did not seem to want to, nor is it plausible that Andy could have said much more. For that matter, his reply was rather improbable for 1999. ‘Alternative histories’ made its cautious appearance in 2001, with Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in history (edited by Tan Jing Quee and KS Jomo). This book certainly did not hit the reading list in schools immediately. The civil society group, Tangent, organized a forum on ‘(Un)learning the past’ which featured an account of the idealism of the period by former Chinese middle school student Han Tan Juan (Han Sanyuan, born 1942). Tangent published the papers of the forum in a landmark issue of their journal (2003). Documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin, who had filmed the event for Tangent, featured Han in her ‘Invisible City’ (2007), which was a primary resource for the director of ‘Sandcastle’. In 2006, The Necessary Stage organized a forum where two former political detainees spoke

That Andy could utter the line ‘that’s a contentious issue…whether or not those arrested were communists’ certainly cannot be taken for granted. If such open-endedness existed in 1999, then En’s mother’s suppression of her 1950s self does not make much sense, or seem necessary. The silence that continues to be maintained by participants of that period of history is a product of a hardline insistence that the political detainees were all communists.

The unredeemed mother

The film’s resolution rests firmly on whether En’s mother finally lives ‘a fulfilling life’ and is ‘true to herself’, as her dying husband bid her to in the final line of his letter to her where he expressed his deepest love. In fact, she does the opposite, rejecting her past. Disavowing the admiration the students of the 1950s had for China, she makes baseless and disparaging generalizations about the hygiene level of food prepared by PRC Chinese. She embraces a ‘western’ religion, and disregards the ritual visit to En’s father’s grave during the qing ming period even though her son wants to observe it. In the same vein, she forces the deathbed conversion of her mother-in-law. Her beau is no less than a colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces, charged with organizing the National Day parade. There is no indication that with the burden of hiding the past from her son lifted, she finally attains some degree of liberation, and self-realisation. All that happens is that having discovered the truth of her past, En accepts her for what she is.

‘Sandcastle’ is the first feature film to deal with the Chinese middle school students of the 1950s and early 60s. As filmic history, it will shape the view of its audience to some degree, especially as there are no other means of learning about that generation beyond the prescribed stereotype, given the paucity of memoirs and other literature on them.

Ultimately, En’s mother lives that very stereotype. Just as she was even more committed than his father was to political activism as students, forty years later, she embraces her new religion and Singaporean identity in a much more uncritical and uncompromising way than her son.

While for En’s family, his discovery about his parents’ past brings an acceptance and equilibrium to its social memory, the same cannot be said about the large family of the Singapore nation. Its disjunctures remain, as such may even be reinforced, such is the impact of film. The trauma of being vilified largely remains. ‘Sandcastles’ privileges En and his generation. They grow, develop and move on with life. On the other hand, the wounds inflicted by the political system on En’s mother leaves permanent scars. She is disfigured for life. There is no healing for her. Nor for viewers then of her background and generation.

However, this is perhaps as far as En’s generation can grasp of that period of history. The failure to go behind and beyond the stereotype is not the younger generation’s alone. Historians have not done any better to date, nor have the subjects themselves helped to explain who they are.

But does En need to know more? He doesn’t seem to think so. That is a choice that his generation is entitled to make.

A beach sans sandcastles?

Newly built sandcastles would dot Changi beach when existing ones were washed away by the incoming tide.

One wonders if this is still the case.

Ng Yi-sheng’s interview with Boo Junfeng can be found at

Lim Cheng Tju is a secondary school history teacher who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art.

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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Chiu Weili

The ‘Modernist’ poetry movement started in Singapore in the late 1950s, with key figures such as Chen Ruixian, Du Nanfa etc. Initially viewed as an off-shoot of its Taiwanese counterpart, it soon became an indigenous literary campaign, extending its reach as far as Malaysia. It is distinctive in its particular emphasis on aesthetics and modernity with a deep-seated Singaporean flavor given its rise after the formation of the nation-state, Singapore, significant as earlier poetry tends to be centred on a more Malayan identity; stylistically, it somewhat ‘rescued’ local poetry from domination by leftwing ideologues advocating political art and social realism. A poetry enthusiast myself, I think the movement epitomizes the very best of the baby-boomer generation, one typified by imaginations of utopia, modernization and rapid social change. Lin Fang, founder and chairman of the May Flower Poetry Society, shares his life-long experience in the modernist poetry movement.

In a maze of concrete, nondescript high-rise HDB (public housing) flats in eastern Singapore, I cruised down the avenues of Bedok New Town in search of the home of a local literary pioneer. A stately old man sporting a flowing Batik (Indonesian-style) shirt, greets me with a disarming smile and an air of old world genteelness, ushers me into his flat, a unit in an HDB point block (referring to a particular type of high-rise public housing in the form of a squarish tower, rather than a row). Rare calligraphies of renowned writers such as Xu Beihong and Yu Dafu adorn the walls of an otherwise ascetic apartment.

Modernist poet Lin Fang was a thorny upstart in his younger, firebrand days. “We were the modernists, the rebels in the local literary scene. We were labeled ‘poisonous weeds’ by the literary establishment, swore and spat upon”. Pitched in endless pen battles with Leftist heavyweights in the local dailies, Lin Fang was then an odd-ball, a pain in the eyes of mainstay Gorkian proponents.

“We wrote poetry that was unintelligible, obscure and symbolic. We tortured the Chinese language, introducing European syntax, juxtaposed with classical styles and the vernacular. We celebrated Arts for Arts’ sake, inventing a new aesthetic. We wanted poetry that was analytical, thinking, considered. We emphasized form and method, it was like calligraphy, how you wrote the words, the brushstrokes, the shades of the ink, those were equally important, if not more important, than the meanings of the words themselves. We were the infidels, traitors of the New Culture movement (which originated in China in 1919). The-then mainstream writers were subsumed by utopian sensibilities and Left-wing politics, utterly fired up by new Red China, student and labour strife engulfing Singapore in the post-war years. Those were difficult times, if you didn’t write poetry in a bland, slogan-sounding way trumpeting the underbellies of society, you’ll be lambasted as some kind of an escapist, morally-bankrupt lackey of the idle classes. But as things got better, we thought it was only sensible to practice proper art, proper poetry.”

I pressed further on what exactly it meant to be a ‘Modernist’ poet.

“Modernism began in the west with the likes of writers such as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, but really, the spirit of modernism can also be found in classical Chinese poetry, for instance, of the Tang dynasty era, from which the modernist pioneer, Eza Pound borrowed heavily through Japanese interpretations. The modernist spirit, in my opinion, emphasizes the aesthetic of form, as much as, if not greater than, content. There is also the aspect of Renaissance-style neo-classicalism, revering the classics and the traditions, but in a modern way. For instance, the poetry of Bai Juyi, born 772 A.D. during China’s Tang dynasty, is very much modernist in spirit, in terms of the way words are beautifully arranged, the emphasis on symbolism etc. Take for example, his poem “As if a flower, yet not one”:


(As if a flower, yet not one)


(As if a fog, yet not so)


(Appears in the middle of the night)


(Away at the break of dawn)


(It comes like a fleeting spring dream)


(Vanishes with the morning clouds, nowhere to be found)

“This poem is beautifully written, and is very much open to interpretation. It could be about anything, a dream, the moon, a lover; that’s the beauty of it. So you see, we went back to the classics in search of poetic inspiration. And we combined it with our modern predicament, our modern anxieties. In a way, we rescued poetry from the brutalization of the Leftists; we relied on a new-found confidence as Singapore modernized, as well as our strong foundations in classical Chinese culture. Of course, we were under the influence of the Taiwanese modernists. A variant of modernism spread to Singapore from Taiwan, where political émigrés fleeing the Chinese civil war furthered their avant garde experimentations in a new-found solace, while the mainland underwent the dark ages, crashing and burning. In 1959, I chanced upon a correspondence-based creative writing course conducted by the famous Taiwanese writer Qin Zihao and the rest was history. I believe I was among the first few locals who wrote modernist poetry in the late 1950s. In Singapore, we continued the experimentation in poetic syntax, but with a local twist – we were at the confluence of the East and the West, the ideological fractures of the Cold War, and most importantly, years of mixing between different peoples on a tiny tropical island produced a curious fusion of culture unique to this part of the world–all these served as excellent fodder to fire off a new literary movement, a modernist poetry movement of a Singaporean variant. For instance, then we were really into Malay pantuns (four-line verse), take for example, the following:

Dari mana punai melayang

(From where do the wild pigeons fly)

Dari paya turun ke padi

(From the swamps to the paddy fields)

Dari mana datangnya sayang

(From where does my lover come)

Dari mata turun ke hati

(From the eyes down to the heart)

The folk tradition of Malay poetry and its heavy reliance on symbolism really appealed to us. We are very familiar with this sort of style, for the first major Chinese poetry anthology, the Book of Songs (500 B.C.) was precisely of this tradition. Many of our generation, that of the post-war baby boomers, were fluent in Malay, so it was easy for us to access each other’s literary traditions. I’m not sure if that’s still the case today with the younger generations.”

“So what’s left of “Modernist” movement now?”

“The May Flower Poetry Society, a grouping of ‘Modernist’ poets, was founded in the late 1960s and produced its seminal anthology “New Poems by 15 Singapore Poets” in 1970. The ‘modernist’ style gradually gained acceptance, as Leftist politics waned in line with the advent of prosperity, or put it this way, people demanded more creativity and originality; you have the Nanyang University poetry society, which later popularized the combination of music and poetry. This eventually led to the Xinyao movement (local folk music) in the early 1980s. I’m not sure what’s happening outside right now, I’m retired and hardly left my flat for the past five years.”

“Thank you Mr. Lin for the illuminating insights into local poetry and your exciting life!”

As I left Lin Fang’s flat, I wondered how many hidden gems are out there in many of our plain-looking housing estates. I remember the lines of a local Modernist poet, Xia Zhifang (one of the 15 Singapore Poets), aptly comparing Singaporeans living in HDB flats to pearls stashed away in caves:


(“Mani”, sanskrit for pearl)


(How many weeping pearl-hunters)


(Searching in vain, sinking sinking)

猜我居住鐵樹叢, 居住岩穴

(Guess where do I live, in this jungle of steel, in this myriad of caves)

Chiu Wei Li, a.k.a. Tao Zongwang, 32, is a poet currently residing in Singapore. He read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, and used to work as a currency trader in a local government-linked company. His third poetry collection, “Tyre Puncture” (2009) was recently published by Firstfruit Publications.

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Clarissa Oon

In the half-century from the 1920s to the mid-1970s, Chinese-language drama was a major cultural force and part of the lifeblood of the Chinese community in Singapore. Numerous amateur theatre and cultural groups were formed; their members came from all walks of life, including teachers, shopkeepers, businessmen, hawkers, artists, musicians and writers. Many of these drama enthusiasts already had exposure to theatre through drama groups in nearly all of the Chinese-medium high schools and their alumni associations. Plays were read and performed on Rediffusion and radio, and faithfully publicised and reviewed in the Chinese newspapers. From the outset, it was not just the scripts from China that were prized; equally important, if not more so, was the creation of original scripts reflecting Nanyang, Malayan and later Singaporean realities.

During this period, there was no consciousness of a theatre apart from politics. Chinese drama was tied, by an umbilical cord, to various socio-political movements in China, beginning with the May Fourth movement in 1919 which planted the idea in intellectuals and artists that the purpose of art was for the betterment of the people and the nation. There were other movements which galvanised Singapore’s Chinese language theatre at different points in its history – the anti-Japanese resistance during the Second World War, when dramas were put up to rally people and raise funds to help China fight the Japanese; and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when art and politics were so closely intertwined in China that artists who did not reflect the “correct” leftist values and ideology were seen as a threat to society’s moral fibre. As Singapore lurched from a tense merger with Malaysia to finding itself unexpectedly on its own as a new nation, the birth pangs of development added to the concerns of Chinese-language theatre. The economy’s strategic dependence on foreign multi-national corporations, the resettlement of villagers to make way for factories and the struggles of the working poor were seen by some as new signs of social inequality, barely a decade after being freed from the yoke of colonialism. The left-leaning views of many Chinese language theatre practitioners were not dissimilar to those expressed by the opposition Barisan Sosialis political party, student activists and more radical trade unionists. Many of them were Chinese-educated, as opposed to the minority English-educated elite. It was in this political and intellectual ferment that Chinese-language drama found its voice and its audience.

As a sign of how politically influential Chinese drama was as a medium during the early years of independence, the ruling People’s Action Party’s Central Cultural Bureau formed its own drama group in 1965 to produce Chinese plays. This was presumably to counter the largely leftist output of the Chinese theatre scene. There were frequent bans on performances by the authorities, and not a few theatre groups were ordered to shut down.

In 1976, several Chinese-language theatre practitioners, including Kuo Pao Kun and his dancer-choreographer wife Goh Lay Kuan, were detained in a major security sweep against 50 alleged members of Malayan Communist Party splinter and front organisations. Kuo spent four years behind bars under the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. In those four years, a seismic change took place, quietly but with wide-ranging implications. The thriving Chinese-language theatre was nipped in the bud, and when it recovered in the 1980s, was a pale shadow of its former vitality. Suddenly, the English language theatre which had previously languished was now on the ascendant, as a major shift in education policy in the late 1970s established English as the first language and main language of instruction in all schools. The Chinese language, like the other mother tongues, was reduced to a second language. Vernacular schools, which taught in the mother tongue, had been facing declining enrolment for many years now due to the growing economic importance of the English language, and by 1987, were either shut down, or converted to English-medium schools. The young writers and drama enthusiasts were now expressing themselves in English, and this theatre scene that took off in the 1980s was a very different animal from the Chinese theatre of the past. Influenced primarily by the individualism of theatre-making in the contemporary Western tradition, theatre practitioners were now speaking for themselves and did not seek to reflect a larger collective consciousness. They were a vital part of independent civil society, but no longer as anti-government as before. Indeed, funded by state monies, they became part of the global capitalist circuit of art production and consumption. In comparison to the Chinese-language drama a decade before, this new theatre did not have the baggage of ideology and history, but conversely, its roots in the wider society were not as deep.

Kuo bridged those two worlds, as a playwright, director, educator and thinker who would also start writing in English from 1983. In a playwriting forum held at The Substation in 1996, he described his work from the 1980s onwards as “reflecting (on) and criticising life through drama and theatre, rather than using theatre as part of a socio-political movement” (9 Lives 1997 p. 70). Reoriented towards Singapore’s changing society and his own rethinking of his art, his rich body of work and his pioneering role in theatre training have established him as the most influential figure in Singapore theatre, a position which still stands despite his untimely death in September 2002.

And yet, remarkably little is known today about his early leftist plays. They have never been translated into English and have not been restaged in the last 35 years. The original Chinese scripts, written and staged between 1968 and 1975, were collected and published a few years ago for the first time. In one sense, they are products of their time that read somewhat anachronistically today. At the same time, they are integral to understanding Kuo as a person, activist and artist. If we take the earlier quote from Kuo, what he added after that is significant: “But I don’t think I could ever sort of cut politics away from my work – it just works in a different way.” (9 Lives 1997 p. 70)

The history of the forgotten Chinese theatre of the last century has been the subject of two recent exhibitions, one at the National Library in 2009, and another from February 2 to 28 in 2010 at the Esplanade, produced by Drama Box and curated by theatre academic Quah Sy Ren. Lately, the leftists’ role in Singapore history has also moved from the margins towards the mainstream of public discourse, beginning with Singapore Press Holdings’ publishing of the “untold” history of the PAP in Men In White (leaders of the left were among the PAP’s founding members, and later broke away to form the Barisan). Subsequently, a group of former leftists and political detainees told their side of the story in The Fajar Generation, a book of essays on the University Socialist Club and politics in postwar Malaya and Singapore. Kuo’s early plays help to flesh out the cultural and not just political history of the left. Through the medium of theatre, they shed light on what the Chinese-educated leftists stood for and believed in during that shadowy period in Singapore’s history, which for subsequent generations, has been filled out largely by the official narrative.

The leftist movement and the Singapore Performing Arts School

It was an uneasy dawn after Singapore was forced to split from Malaysia in 1965. While the PAP pushed for integration with global markets, injection of foreign capital into the economy and rapid industrialisation to spur growth and create jobs, the leftists hit out against what they saw as exploitation of the working classes. There were sharp rifts in politics and economics, and over other issues like education, language policy and the fate of the Chinese-language Nanyang University in a multi-racial society. As Quah noted in his introduction to Volume One of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, “Singapore’s formation was like that of many newly-independent, developing nations at that time; each individual, organisation, community had constructed different versions of the imagined homeland”. (2005, p. xv) The leftist movement in Singapore was a multi-racial one, but the Chinese-educated Chinese made up the biggest group.

By the 1960s, socialist and even pro-communist ideas were ingrained in the Chinese-language theatre here. This can be traced back to the influence of left-leaning China writers and intellectuals, who sought refuge in this part of the world at critical junctures during the civil war with the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, before the Communists finally seized power in 1949. Chairman Mao Zedong’s dictum that art must be close to the common people (the workers, peasants and soldiers) participate in their struggles, and serve political ends, caught on here, though not without some debate over the extent to which art should be politicised (Zhan 2001, p. 39-41).

The start of Cultural Revolution in 1966 gave further impetus to the notion of theatre as agitprop, to rally the working masses in a class struggle. Kuo’s contribution, according to Malaysian drama doyen Krishen Jit in a 1989 essay, was to “inject strong doses of professionalism and artistic responsibility to the doctrinaire of revolutionary theatre”.

The modern Chinese-language theatre was a naturalistic one, with realistic dialogue, well-defined characters and scenography that represented local settings as faithfully as resources allowed. China had embraced Stanislavskian realism via the Soviet Union and the Moscow Arts Theatre. As an example of how this tradition had filtered over to Singapore, the founders of one of the most established and active groups at the time, the Singapore Amateur Players (inaugurated in 1955), had received drama training from visiting China instructors while they were in school and members of the Chung Cheng High School Drama Research Society. Kuo was born in Hebei, China, and his early background was in Chinese theatre. However, he was also proficient in the English language, having received formal training at Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in his early 20s. Among his first works in the theatre were translations and adaptations of English-language plays. However he stuck to the naturalistic Chinese tradition for his original Chinese dramas, though he would sometimes throw in a Brechtian chorus during intervals; they recited their commentary in the Chinese oratorical style, instead of singing it as the German playwright and pioneer of “alienation” techniques in the theatre envisioned.

Kuo came to Singapore at the age of 10. He had a turbulent education, going through five different schools. One of them was Chinese High School, where he participated in the 1956 student strikes against the ban on pro-left organisations connected with the Chinese schools. After a brief stint as a reporter at Radio Singapore, he left for further studies in Australia with his wife-to-be, Goh Lay Kuan.

Upon their return to Singapore in 1965, Kuo and Goh wanted to do full-time theatre and dance, but there were no professional theatre and dance companies they could join, as the groups were all amateur. They decided to start a performing arts school, to train students who could eventually perform and produce works with them. (Hu and Lin 2000) That was how the Singapore Performing Arts School (renamed Practice Performing Arts School in the 1980s) was founded.

The school began by performing modern Western dramas translated by Kuo into Chinese, such as Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, but later devoted its energies entirely to creating original plays and dance performances. As was typical of other Chinese drama groups of the time, most of the plays were created collectively and Kuo was credited simply as “the one who does the actual writing” (执笔者; zhibi zhe), rather than as “playwright”. The creative process is documented by Quah as follows: the group members would first gather to brainstorm ideas for a script; Kuo then wrote a first draft; members would break into small groups to discuss the draft and present their ideas, consulting seniors outside the group; Kuo produced a second draft with the input; another round of discussion followed; then a third draft was produced. This was the version of the script that was used in rehearsals. (2005, p. xviii-xix)

The plays by the SPAS had a strong following, particularly among blue-collar workers. From the late 1960s, Kuo and Goh started “Going Into Life” campaigns where they and their group members went to live and work alongside farmers, rubber tappers, construction workers and fishermen. This was so that their dramas and dance performances could be closer to the lives of the working masses. Kuo recalled the symbiotic relationship with the workers:

I remember at the time when we had new plays performed, written by us – sometimes collectively, sometimes individually – you would have busloads of students and workers coming to see the play. And sometimes they came from as far as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh or even Penang. At the time, it was still very much a peninsular kind of Singapore and Malaysia. The bridge was still very fluid in traffic. And people from my school, other groups and theatre companies fanned out into the working masses – the factories, the construction sites, even fishing villages, padi fields and plantations on the Peninsula to, so to speak, experience life and bring their experiences from what they found back for creative production. And very often workers and students come to the first rehearsals, or previews, to chip in comments about what they liked, what they didn’t like. (9 Lives, p. 68-69)

The “worker friend” (工友; gongyou) was their audience, inspiration and foremost critic. By the early 1970s, a Singaporean technocratic elite as well as mid-level bureaucrats and executives had emerged alongside the foreign bosses, with a mass of workers at the bottom employed as cheap labour. Costs were rising as the economy picked up, but the wages of these workers remained low. Not only was their employment in flux amidst the ups and downs of the business cycle, they were also very vulnerable to industrial accidents, as sociologist Noeleen Heyzer noted in a 1983 essay. From the 1970s, the once-militant trade union movement was largely tamed by the Singapore government, but dissent and strikes among workers still broke out occasionally. Kuo’s leftist plays did not attack the government directly, but targeted industrialists, technocrats and supervisors, portraying them as emblems of an oppressive capitalist class.

From “Hey, Wake Up!” to “Growing Up”

From 1968 to 1975, Kuo wrote three full-length plays. The first two, “Hey, Wake Up!” 《喂,醒醒!》and “The Struggle” 《挣扎》were produced by his own group, Singapore Performing Arts School (SPAS). The third play, “Growing Up” 《成长》, was produced by a younger group, Selatan Arts Ensemble, whose members had been trained by Kuo and Goh at the SPAS. It was Kuo’s revised version of an earlier play he had done with SPAS that was banned and never saw the light of day, titled “The Sparks of Youth” 《青春的火花》. “Hey, Wake Up!”, “The Struggle” and “Growing Up” are published in volume one of The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun.

“Hey, Wake Up!”, which premiered on December 27, 1968 at Victoria Theatre, centers around a headstrong high-school graduate, Xiao Mei, who answers a job advertisement for a “ladies tour agency” despite the reservations of her working-class neighbours and washerwoman mother. The play follows Xiao Mei as she tries to safeguard her integrity in her new job. She rationalises that she is simply making a living and trying to make enough money so her mother does not have to wash clothes anymore. It ends, somewhat inevitably, with a rape scene, but her neighbours in her crowded tenement block rally around her and she finally “wakes up”, so to speak, to the reality of her exploitation.

The play received extremely good reviews in the Chinese press. One critic, Zhong Shi, writing in the Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau on January 5, 1969, hailed it as “an utterly though-provoking play. It did not resort to sloganeering or lectures, and there was not a scene out of place… It is the most successful locally-written play we have experienced”. To a contemporary reader, the script would seem a tad melodramatic, but Singapore had a flourishing sex trade in the 1960s and 1970s. Upscale escort agencies took off along with the economy, catering to foreign and local businessmen and recruiting young women looking for a way out of poverty. In Zhong Shi’s view, the story told by “Hey, Wake Up!” is “one we are familiar with” and the play would have “definite educational and instructional value for our young audiences”.

The next full-length play by SPAS, “The Struggle”, was scheduled for production in December 1969, but was banned two weeks before it could go on stage. In that short two weeks, the SPAS members managed to rustle up a series of poetry recitals and one-act playlets to take the place of the banned play. “The Struggle” opens with the forced eviction of villagers from their land by an unscrupulous landowner who wants to build factories. Some of the younger villagers go on to work in the factories, where they face the dilemma of whether to cooperate with factory bosses, take on longer hours and be compensated for it, or band together with other workers to fight for better terms and conditions of work.

As an ideological statement, “The Struggle” is more hard-hitting than “Hey, Wake Up!”, one of its key messages being that unity among workers is more important than the filial piety so valued in traditional Chinese culture. This is clearly seen in its confrontation between an elderly and ailing mother and her daughter, a factory supervisor. The mother is aggrieved that her daughter, Ya Long, has not aligned herself with the other workers. As she says accusingly: “Everyone is saying that my child is standing together with the bosses and opposing the workers (工友)!” When a hurt Ya Long says that all her actions stem from putting her mother first, so that they can pay her medical bills and put food on the table, her mother counters: “Before you stopped school to work and we had debts to pay, who helped us through that time? Friends! Now, just for the sake of earning a few more dollars, you are not acknowledging your friends? How are you ever going to become a person of dignity?” (The Complete Works p. 97-98)

Kuo’s third original full-length production, “Growing Up”, was staged in January 1975 and is perhaps the fullest expression of his leftist ideals. It traces the journey of three young women who become labour activists. There is Li Mei, who has slogged to earn enough money to help her boyfriend finance his studies overseas, only to be betrayed when he returns and marries someone else. There is Gui Yu, who comes from a wealthy but estranged family; her father is a philanderer and her mother, a second wife. And then there is Zhou Xia, their friend who helps them find a spiritual calling in looking out for the disenfranchised and educating workers about their rights. The play portrays their inner conflicts in casting aside the bondage of romantic love and empty family ties. As they take up jobs on the factory floor to serve other workers, they learn how to do so not just in words but in action, and to pay willingly the price for taking a stand against injustice.

Kuo and SPAS also created several short plays, dramatic poems and xiangsheng (相声; cross-talk) skits in a similar pro-labour, anti-capitalist vein. For example, “Sister Luo’s New Year Eve” tells of a woman who has no choice but to work on Chinese New Year’s Eve, even though her daughter is seriously ill at home. If she does not work, she will not get the bonus that she needs in order to send her daughter to hospital, and her unfeeling boss refuses to cut her some slack by releasing her earlier, despite her plaintive explanations of her daughter’s plight. By the time she gets home with the money, it is too late; her daughter has already died.

There are several common themes in all these works. One is the distinction between the “yellow culture” of sexual debauchery and “healthy culture”. The “anti-yellow movement” had begun in the Chinese-medium schools from the early 1950s, when the British colonial government was perceived to be turning a blind eye to the growing number of brothels, hostess bars and girlie shows as well as the influx of pornographic magazines (Zhan 2001 p. 28-30). Pop music tunes which sang of freewheeling love, parties and gambling were also seen as unhealthy. The campaign to stop “yellow culture” from corrupting youths and society at large took the form of school talks, public rallies, dramas and newspaper articles. In this, activists were influenced by May Fourth intellectuals who regarded women as equal to men, breaking with a feudal Chinese tradition of seeing them as sex objects and having only a secondary role in a patriarchal society.

Another trope running through Kuo’s early plays is the leftist revisioning of the classic coming-of-age plot, redefining the notion of what youths should aspire to have and to be. One unnamed Nanyang Siang Pau writer, reviewing “Growing Up” on January 6, 1975, concurred with the play’s perspective: “In this age, what kind of ideals should young people have? What kind of lives should they live? Born into different families and different life experiences, the three young ladies in the (play) grapple with these questions in different ways; however, they finally uphold the interests of the masses in a righteous resistance, continuing a resolute struggle on behalf of the majority.”

Clearly, the most distinguishing feature of the plays is their binary treatment of issues and black-and-white dichotomies of good and evil. Those who are capitalists, or align themselves with the forces of capital, will invariably set out to exploit the working class, regardless of the background or initial intentions of these businessmen and industrialists. This is because the system is inherently unjust. In turn, workers must lock arms, seek power in numbers and not compromise their integrity by falling in line with what bosses demand of them, in exchange for limited material gain.

The 1980s and the utopian imagination

In the second half of the 1970s, Kuo and other left-leaning intellectuals were put to sleep.

In subsequent interviews and writings on his four years in detention, Kuo would regard it as a constructive period of reflection, during which he began to see the limitations of the kind of theatre he had been pursuing. By this point, leftists across Asia had become aware of the ruthless extremes of the Cultural Revolution in China, including its persecution of many artists, writers and intellectuals. Many became disillusioned with the ideals of socialism, as Kuo’s compatriot, veteran Chinese newspaper journalist Han Tan Juan revealed in a 2003 interview with the Tangent journal. Kuo speaks of his own break with ideology in an interview with Alvin Tan and Sanjay Krishnan:

It is a good thing that Chinese theatre in the 80s cut itself off from active party politics because only then could it begin to exist on its own as an art form… The great Chinese writer, Lu Xun, wrote an article in the ’30s entitled, “The Diverging Path of Politics and Art”. I read it before I went to prison but it never really registered until I read it again under detention… Suddenly, it sort of jumped off the pages. Lu Xun said that progressive politics and progressive art very often seem to be fellow travellers, partners in struggle, but once that political movement assumes power, their paths begin to part because it is the nature of every political movement or party to hold on and perpetuate its rules; and it is in the nature of art to always pursue truth, even to the extent of incurring the hostility of the ruling powers. (9 Lives 1997, p. 132)

Some have argued that from the 1980s onwards, like many others who had been against the PAP, Kuo was co-opted by the government. But anyone who has watched or studied his plays after 1980 would know that he did not lose his critical voice. Nonetheless it was a different voice. These plays questioned policies such as relentless urbanisation (The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree), the utilitarian abandonment of Chinese dialects (Mama Looking For Her Cat) and the pervasive, humourless and soul-destroying rigidity of the bureaucracy (The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole and No Parking On Odd Days), but were not really issue-based plays as such. While various elements were clearly rooted in the contemporary Singaporean reality, their mix of realism and allegory also made them less socially-specific than his earlier plays. The later plays were an attempt to cultivate an “independent cultural space”, as he himself put it (9 Lives 1997, p. 133), a space for the imagination, story-telling, art and philosophising that could not be ascribed to any particular brand of politics. They were more about the human condition than anything else, striving for a deeper understanding of life and society, without offering easy answers.

According to Kuo, another reason for the change in direction of his works was his move into bilingual theatre practice. In 1984, he wrote his first English-language play, the monodrama The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and translated it into Chinese himself the following year. Subsequently, he would create both Chinese and English versions of many of his plays. From 1985, he began conducting some of his drama workshops in English; these workshops would be attended by many of the future leaders of the English-language theatre scene, including TheatreWorks’ Ong Keng Sen and The Necessary Stage’s Alvin Tan. He was moved to start working in the English-language theatre because he knew the ground had shifted, and with it, the outlook and values of a whole new generation. Chinese-language education was no more. In 1980, Nanyang University (Nantah) was merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, putting an end to Chinese-medium university education. Serious discourse in Chinese was severely weakened. In 1983, citing declining circulation of the two Chinese broadsheets Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, the government merged them into one newspaper, Lianhe Zaobao.

From 1984 onwards, Kuo’s plays would still be broadly rooted in the socially-conscious Chinese intellectual and dramatic tradition, driven by the May Fourth ideal of art-making as something for the greater good of society. Yet influences from other theatre traditions were much more palpable than in his pre-detention Chinese plays. These included Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of the “poor theatre”, emphasising an actor’s physical and spiritual development above other elements such as text or scenography. Kuo introduced Grotowski’s techniques to a new generation of young actors when he wrote The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree in 1987 and invited the Grotowski-trained Taiwanese director Liu Jing-min to co-direct the production. The European theatre of the absurd was another influence that could be felt in Kuo’s plays such as The Coffin, perhaps his most enduring work which has been frequently restaged and reinterpreted by younger theatre practitioners. In the monodrama, a man vividly narrates how his late grandfather’s huge and ornate coffin could not fit into the standard-sized plot at the cemetery, resulting in the protagonist’s tragicomic clash with bureaucrats who have trouble bending the rules for him. Reading The Coffin as an expression of the dilemma of modern man – caught between the living and the dead, family and society – the renowned contemporary Chinese playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian noted that Kuo had transcended the social specificities of Chinese culture by borrowing from the Western absurdist tradition and making it his own (Gao 2000 p. 73-74).

What is the relevance today of his forgotten leftist plays? Why is it worth understanding them and the context in which they were created, even if their moment in the sun has passed?

One, Kuo is acknowledged to have pioneered the technique here of devising plays with a group of actors, known as “workshopping”. Many younger practitioners became exposed to this method of creating theatre through The Silly Little Girl and the Funny Old Tree and 1988’s Mama Looking For Her Cat, a ground-breaking multi-lingual play. Like theatre groups elsewhere, Singapore theatre companies now routinely create productions through workshops, in which the kernel of a script is improvised by actors in rehearsals to create new performance riffs, fragments of dialogue, and subsequently entire scenes. A study of Kuo’s earlier works reveals why this method of creating theatre came so naturally to Kuo – because of its antecedents, for him, in the collective mode of script-writing in the left-leaning Chinese-language theatre of the 1960s and 1970s.

The difference between the two forms of collaboration, I would argue, is that earlier process was more intellectual and literary, centering on analysis and discussion of the script and how it could be improved. The later process of workshopping, however, was and is more theatrical and performative in nature. The director and actors improvise and play around with ideas while “in the moment” of a particular scene, and the work evolves more organically as a result. This methodology was instrumental in the creation of Mama, involving a multi-racial cast of actors. The story of a dialect-speaking old lady, who grows increasingly alienated from her brood of adult children but finds a connection with a cat and a Tamil-speaking old man, resonated with the all the linguistic complexity of everyday Singaporean reality, yet also turned it on its head as social commentary, in a way that was quite instinctive and unforced.

Two, throughout his life, Kuo remained passionately concerned about justice. His later plays were, at heart, about little people and the larger forces they are enmeshed in, as much as those that he wrote as a card-carrying socialist. The difference was that, this time, he knew that the enemy could not be so easily defined, and that the seeds of impotency and betrayal lay in one’s own heart. He learned how to inject humour – and black humour – into his plays.

Finally, the early works put one indelible trait of Kuo’s in sharp relief – his utopian imagination. His leftist plays reflect an idealistic hunger for a world where the disenfranchised are no longer oppressed. Post-1984, his hopes for humanity increasingly found expression in the ideal of multiculturalism. Again, such leanings were not new and harked back to the Malayan consciousness of his works with the SPAS from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s – not so much the plays, which were written in Chinese for Chinese-speaking audiences, but the dance-dramas he created with his partner Goh, which incorporated Malay and Indian dance as well as Western classical ballet (Quah 2004).

From the 1980s onwards, however, multiculturalism would form a greater part of what he stood for as an artist and intellectual. This trajectory began with the multilingualism of Mama. With later plays like 1995’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – an allegory of the castrated condition of contemporary Chinese and Singaporean life – a deeper understanding of the ancestral cultures of Singapore and their respective connections became for him a way out of the mind-numbing corporatisation, a form of salvation for the decultured urban nomad.

This belief found its ultimate fruition in his setting up of an intensive programme to train actors in Asian and Western performance cultures, known as the Theatre Training and Research Programme. As he said in his interview with Tan and Krishnan, he likened the cultures of the world to trees in a densely-packed forest. In his words, “the higher you reach into the respective cultures, the more you see all the branches and leaves touching each other. But the stalk, the stem, the trunk are very separated” (9 Lives 1997, p. 134).

In his journey from socialist to multiculturalist, the one constant was his desire to make the world a better place, and his belief in the transformative powers of theatre to do so. And we are richer for it.


Gao Xingjian. 2000. “The Coffin Is Too Big For the Hole: Dilemma of the Modern Man.” trans. Kong Kam Yoke. Images at the Margins: A Collection of Kuo Pao Kun’s Plays. Singapore: Times Books International.

Heyzer, Noeleen. 1983. “International Production and Social Change: An Analysis of the State, Employment and Trade Unions in Singapore”. Understanding Singapore Society, eds. Ong Jin Hui, Tong Chee Kiong and Tan Ern Ser. Singapore: Times Academic Press.

Hu Wen Yan and Lin Ren Yu. 2000. “郭宝崑谈实践新课程‘剧场训练与研究’60岁让梦想成真”(“Kuo Pao Kun discusses Practice’s new course, Theatre Training and Research Programme – at 60 his dream has become reality”) Lianhe Zaobao, 1 March 2000. Singapore.

The Necessary Stage. 1997. “Playwright’s Voice: A Forum on Playwriting” and “Between Two Worlds: A Conversation with Kuo Pao Kun”. 9 Lives: 10 Years of Singapore Theatre, 1987-1997. Singapore: The Necessary Stage

Quah Sy Ren. 2004. “Form as Ideology: Representing the Multicultural in Singapore Theatre”. Ask Not: The Necessary Stage in Singapore Theatre, eds. Tan Chong Kee and Tisa Ng. Singapore: Times Editions.

Quah Sy Ren. 2005. “导论: 另一种理想家园的图像” (“Introduction: Another Representation of the Imagined Homeland”) in The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume One: Plays in Chinese – The 1960s and the 1970s.

Quah Sy Ren and Pan Cheng Lui, eds. 2005. The Complete Works of Kuo Pao Kun, Volume One: Plays in Chinese – The 1960s and the 1970s. Singapore: Practice Performing Arts School and Global Publishing.

Rowland, Kathy, ed. 2003. Krishen Jit: An Uncommon Position. Selected Writings. Singapore: Contemporary Asian Arts Centre.

Tangent. 2003. “Riding the Tide of Idealism: An Interview with Han Tan Juan.” Tangent: Special Bilingual Issue: Voices of History. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

Zhan Dao Yu. 2001. 《战后初期的新加坡华文戏剧 1945-1959》 (Singapore Chinese-language Drama in the Early Post-war Years, 1945-1959). Singapore: Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore and Global Publishing.

Clarissa Oon is a former Beijing-based correspondent and the author of a book on the history of English-language theatre in Singapore. She has written about theatre, politics and Chinese culture for The Straits Times.

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Kelvin Chia

Situating The Tangent: Chinese-educated intellectuals in Singapore’s socio-political history

The Chinese community in pre-Independence Singapore can be seen as one that is bifurcated between the ‘Chinese-educated’ and the ‘English-educated’. These two sectors were schooled in institutions that use Chinese (i.e. Mandarin) and English respectively as their dominant language of instruction, and this distinction in language stream. While the community can also be differentiated along other socio-cultural markers such as clan membership and dialect group, the distinction in language stream was especially salient as it engendered clear differences across various dimensions – the two sectors were distinguishable not only by access to opportunities in employment and higher education, but also by cultural outlook and political inclinations (Kwok 2001:495–6).

Such differences were exemplified by the establishment of Nanyang University (abbreviated in Mandarin and referred to hereafter as Nantah) in 1955. Prior to its establishment, those who had completed Chinese high school education had to travel abroad to China or Taiwan to pursue tertiary education while their English-educated counterparts could enrol locally in the University of Malaya. The call to establish a Chinese-language university drew financial support from “all classes in the Chinese community, from the richest magnates to the poorest drivers and prostitutes” (Hong & Huang 2008:9), and culminated in the establishment of Nantah, the first Chinese-language university in Southeast Asia. Nantah thus represented not only a response to practical constraints confronting the Chinese-educated sector, but also a symbolic community project that demonstrated their solidarity (Kwok 2001:496).

Besides the establishment of Nantah, the 1950s and the 1960s also saw increased political prominence among the Chinese-educated. There was, for example, a wave of student movements in those years, the most frequently remembered amongst them is the ‘May 13th Incident’ of 1954 when Chinese-educated middle-school students protested against the colonial government for implementing mandatory military conscription. Such social movements were not simply isolated reactions to specific events, but were fuelled by “a wider sense of exclusion for the Chinese-educated with a colonial society in which fluency in English was the route to employment and advancement” (Harper 2001:15).

It was from such movements that ‘Intellectual-Politicians’ such as Lim Chin Siong emerged. Lim attended Chinese-medium schools, but he never completed middle-school education. In 1951, he was expelled from his school for participating in examination boycotts. His subsequent employment as a trade union official continued to develop his oratorical and organisational skills, and eventually led him into the leadership of the left wing faction of the People’s Action Party (PAP). It was Lim and his allies from the left wing faction who drew support for the PAP from the Chinese-educated electorate (Harper 2001:13–25).

By 1961, the left wing faction of the PAP split from the party to form Barisan Socialis, an oppositional political party under Lim’s leadership. When the electoral battle took place between the PAP and the Barisan Sosialis in the 1963 general elections, Tan Lark Sye, founder of Nantah, provided overt financial support for all graduates of the University who were running for the Barisan Sosialis. Students of the University were themselves equally participative in electoral politics, and were reportedly seen to be going to electoral areas in busloads to solicit support for Barisan Sosialis candidates (Yao 2008:184). In 1965, the students of Nantah were to be galvanised into a dramatic protest involving marches, petitions, and examination boycotts with the release of the University Curriculum Review Committee Report. The report made several recommendations that were interpreted by some members of the Chinese-educated community as a attempt by the PAP to take control of the University and to remove an education stream that ostensibly cultivated immense support for its nemesis – the Barisan Sosialis (Hong & Huang 2008:109–135).

The period from the 1950s to the 1980s, which overlapped with the political prominence of the Chinese-educated, saw the gradual phasing-out of Chinese-medium education. Key changes during this period include the teaching of English as a second language in Chinese-medium schools in 1956; the ‘merging’ of Nantah with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore, an English-medium University in 1980; and the conversion of nine established Chinese-medium middle schools into Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools – bilingual institutions that will offer both Chinese and English as first languages (i.e. Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools) in the same year. These changes took place amidst a broader shift towards English as the main language of instruction – by 1987, English officially became the language of instruction for key subjects in all secondary schools and Chinese was taught as a subject itself (Kwok 2001:500; Sai 2006:195–196).

Given the historical trajectory of Chinese-medium education in Singapore, Kwok instructively suggests that the Chinese-educated sector can be seen as a “continuum” of ideal types:

On the “purer” end of the spectrum are the older generations who have had long years of exposure to Chinese education. At the apex, this includes Nantah graduates… On the “diluted” end of the spectrum are the younger generations in their twenties and thirties. They have a more mixed education in terms of exposure to both English-language and Chinese-language universes of discourses (2001:502–503).

As Kwok adds, it is problematic to apply the term ‘Chinese-educated’ to those at the ‘diluted’ end of the spectrum from a purist view because they are taught primarily in English during their schooling years. However, having received their education in SAP schools where high teaching standards of the Chinese-language are maintained in an environment that bear some semblance to ‘traditional’ Chinese-medium schools, those at the ‘diluted’ end continue to operate regularly in the Chinese-language. As such, the term ‘Chinese-educated’ may still be applied to them (Kwok 2001:503).

In the same tone, Chinese-educated intellectuals can also be seen along a similar continuum. On one end, there are those from the ‘purer’ end of the Chinese-educated who were active in the political scene during the 1950s and the 1960s. The most illustrious amongst them is perhaps none other than Lim Chin Siong. On the other end, there are those from the ‘diluted’ end of the Chinese-educated. They are bilingual in both the English-language and the Chinese-language, but have chosen to use the Chinese-language in intellectual discourse. The most visible among the ‘diluted’ end are members of The Tangent. They are a much younger cohort than the Chinese-educated intellectuals of the 1950s and the 1960s, and have emerged from an English-dominant education system although many were schooled in SAP schools. Subsequent sections of this article will consider how the group has constructed their roles as intellectuals in contemporary Singapore.

Constructing intellectual identities: The self-positioning of The Tangent

Given their educational background and their emphasis on using the Chinese language in their events and publications, it is worthwhile to consider how members of The Tangent have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals. For Lee Huay-Leng, a founding member and the first president of the group, the decision to register themselves officially as a civil society is itself tied to the experiences of the older generation. In the inaugural issue of the group’s biannual journal, she explains this decision:

By starting first amongst ourselves, we hope to see members of the Chinese-speaking community let go of their historical baggage, and to participate actively in dialogue during this time when Singapore is continuously progressing. Some of our qianbei may have had very unhappy personal experiences, and we do not dare to forget them. However, instead of allowing ourselves to be constrained by the past, we should try to see things through a more positive lens in this different time and age (2000:4).

The Chinese term qianbei (前辈) translates literally into ‘earlier generation’, and implies common descent and a shared identity. Here, the term is used in reference to the older members of the Chinese-educated community who were subjected to state-sanctioned violence and political detention for their political activism in the 1950s and the 1960s. The use of such a term in this account signals continuity and a sense of identification between members of The Tangent and the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals even as the former see themselves as being situated in a “different time and age”.

Other members of the group, however, held differing views. In the words of another member,

I think they [i.e. the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals] are quite different from us. The whole socio-historical context is different. At that time, as you know, it was before Singapore as a nation-state was established. So there were a lot of complex issues of identification – ethnic identification, national identification.

In this account, members of The Tangent and the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals were situated in two markedly different socio-political contexts. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the process of decolonisation created “complex issues of identification”, and questions as to whether the Chinese-educated should view China or Malaya as their ‘homeland’ were often raised and debated. For another respondent, this historical context engendered a clear discontinuity between the Chinese-educated intellectuals of those years and members of The Tangent:

Those who were schooled in Chinese-medium schools during the 50s and the 60s were never our reference point – they never were. The social context of that history is very different. The linguistic environment and the historical context – they were all different. So I feel that there is no way to make a comparison by juxtaposing them and us. Our whole organisation and what we want to achieve is based on the situation of Singapore from the late 90s and onwards, and you need to understand it from this context. I don’t think there is continuity between them and us.

Contrary to Lee’s view, such strongly-worded responses suggest that members of The Tangent and the Chinese-educated intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s are two incommensurable groups

Here, the sociological notion of ‘generations’ may be useful in understanding the divergent and conflicting accounts. The idea of ‘generations’ signals at a tension between continuity and discontinuity: on one hand, it is only meaningful to speak of a different generations insofar as it is meaningful to think them as belonging to a larger community; on the other hand, each new generation also represents a departure from its predecessor. As Edward Shils puts it, each generation “comes to its task with a fresh mind, unencumbered by the beliefs and attachments settled in the minds of the generation antecedent to it”, and “seems to have to chance to begin again, to call a halt to the persistence of the past into the present and to make its society anew”; yet, “the boundaries of any generation are vague; there are no natural boundaries. Where does one generation begin and another end? There is no satisfactory answer” (1981:35).

If there are no natural boundaries between generations, then the idea of generational differences may itself be a product of construction. As Maurice Halbwachs points out, we preserve traditional values or entire systems of traditional values (e.g. religion) even though they no longer seem to apply to contemporary conditions because we are not certain if they are indeed obsolete; we are afraid of eliminating them because we are not sure if we would be able to create an equivalent should there be a need for them again. Hence, we “emphasize their antiquity and avoid effacing all that which no longer has present-day utility.” In so doing, we allow the “society of yesterday” to be perpetuated today without becoming constraints for the ‘society of today’ (1992:120–121). In this view, the rejection of the older generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals as their antecedents can be read as a desire on the part of members of The Tangent to ‘work the past out’ without erasing it, and in so doing, to chart new intellectual roles for themselves in the present.

The contours of the intellectual roles that members of The Tangent have charted for themselves can be sketched by looking at how the group is positioned in relation to two other civil society organisations in Singapore – Thinkcentre, and the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP). The backgrounds of these two organisations are themselves rather distinct. Thinkcentre was officially registered in 2001 as an organisation that “aims to critically examine issues related to political development, democracy, rule of law, human rights and civil society” through “research, publishing, organising events and networking” (Thinkcentre, n.d). In contrast, AMP was founded by a group of Malay-Muslim professionals who felt that Malay members of the parliament from the PAP yielded the interests of the Malay-Muslim community to those of their party. They established the organisation to provide an alternative form of representation, but subsequently shifted their focus to providing educational service to the Malay-Muslim community (Chua & Kwok, 2001:100–101)

In comparing The Tangent with these civil society organisations, one respondent offers that:

[Thinkcentre and AMP] are quite different from us… We don’t have any political agenda, or any intention to champion any kind of social movement. I think that they are also doing things for their own community. AMP, for example, is working for a particular community, to strive for their welfare. Thinkcentre is a more of a think tank. From my impression, it has a stronger political inclination.

As another respondent point out, the “political inclination” of Thinkcentre refers to their intent to influence policy-making and to champion for greater democracy:

I think they [i.e. Thinkcentre] are more about offering inputs about policy-making, to shape policy-making. I don’t think Tangent has that explicit purpose – the shaping of policy-making in Singapore, but you can see Thinkcentre coming out with position papers. And also, importantly, I think links to other civil society groups in the region, democracy groups, or something like that, if I am not wrong. The explicit purpose is, I think, influencing policy-making and pushing for greater democratisation in Singapore. I think the explicit goals are quite different… Tangent is about discussion and publication, and hopefully, it is also to contribute to nation-building. But the kind of democratisation or influence over policy-making is not explicit goals of Tangent.

The same respondent also shares a similar view on the difference between AMP and The Tangent.

…it [i.e. AMP] seems to serve as a bridge between the Muslims and the government… they try to represent the Muslim community. And Tangent, when it was set up, was not trying to represent the Chinese community. In fact, many in the Chinese community think that Tangent is like jettisoning the 5000-year history kind of good critical thinking, or even the Chineseness and Chinese culture… Tangent is really explicitly set up to engage in social and political discussion, and getting more people to talk about such issues.

The above response underscores an important characteristic of The Tangent: its members do not see themselves, and do not want to be seen, as representatives of the larger Chinese community. Such a view is also emphasised by another member:

… we do not take a unified stand. You can see that in our journal, everyone is voicing different stands. This is why all our articles are published in the capacity of individual writers. This is also true for our forums and discussions – we always note down clearly who said what. There is never any statement or article that is published collectively in Tangent’s name; none at all. It is precisely because we emphasise so much on our individuality that we have no way, honestly speaking, we have no way, of fighting for the privileges of any community. We do not try to represent. Even among ourselves, we do not think we can represent Tangent, much less any larger community.

To summarise the preceding analysis, The Tangent has been positioned by its members as a group that aims not to explicitly influence the policy-making process, but rather to provide a multitude of platforms to discuss a wide range of social, cultural, and political issues. In addition, by emphasising individual expression rather than consensus, the group is also positioned as one that does not attempt to speak to, or on behalf of, the larger Chinese community in spite of their use of the Chinese-language in their conferences and discussions. In sum, their intellectual role is constructed as one that is both ‘non-political’ and ‘non-representational’

Intellectual life as a social practice: Articulation and representation

The roles of intellectuals are constructed not only discursively but also in practice. Since their inauguration, the group has published 13 issues of their journal. The journal contains articles written by its own members and those contributed by non-members. In addition, the journal also contains transcripts of interviews, dialogues, conferences, and discussions that are organised by the group. The themes that are covered in these articles include arts, civil society, culture (especially multiculturalism), economics, education, history, intellectuals, and politics. The varied nature of the group’s interest raises one central question: who is/are its ‘target audience’? As one respondent relates, the idea of ‘target audience’ is not a central concern for the group:

We seldom think about issues from such the perspective of ‘target audiences’. If you are to organise an event or a project, you will consider who your target audience is. Your target audience might decide how you say certain things, the words that you choose, the scale of your project, and so on… we do not see the need to talk to any specific group of people. Instead, we feel that as long as there is a record of what we say, and if were to publish any materials, then the proceedings of the activities we organised are recorded, then those who come after us can see that there is indeed such a group that has done these things at these points in time, then it is sufficient.

It seems then that the group is not particularly keen on speaking to any specific group of audience. Rather, its aim is to create opportunities for discussions and to document these discussions for posterity. This resonates closely with the self-positioning of the group as one that does not aim to explicitly influence the policy-making process or to speak to, or on behalf of, any specific community.

Nevertheless, it is counterintuitive that members of the group do not see their actions as being directed or oriented towards the Chinese community. This brings into question why the group had chosen to operate primarily in the Chinese-language. The same question has been raised by members themselves in an online members-only discussion forum on the theme of Multiculturalism in Singapore. In her comments, Lee writes:

When we explore the multicultural issue, make great efforts to understand other ethnic groups, we come to a question of whether we understand our own community in the first place. Do we not know or have we thought we knew, but in reality we don’t? Whatever the case, and whether we like it or not, we will be perceived by others as Chinese-speaking Singaporeans. In fact, one of our main objectives in forming The Tangent is to promote the use of Chinese at a higher level. This implies that subconsciously, we also perceive ourselves as part of the Chinese-speaking group (Goh et al. 2002:166–167).

Ong Chang-Woei, another member of the group, expresses a similar opinion:

Yet we all truly belong to the Chinese community, regardless of how fragmented this community is or whether it can be represented by only a few. All along, I have been insisting that as someone belonging to the younger generation of the nation and who feel at ease when using Chinese, we have a responsibility towards the Chinese community… I ask The Tangent to simultaneously consider the needs of the Chinese-speaking community when we are reaching out to other communities (Goh et al. 2002:172).

For Lee and Ong, the cost in becoming ‘multicultural’ is to be marginalised from the larger Chinese community, of which The Tangent is seen to be a part. However, other members have expressed opinions to the contrary, the strongest of which was put by Chiu Weili:

I am utterly disappointed with the seemingly compulsive obsession with one’s identity being deeply rooted in some kind of essentialist self which we would then spend a lifetime trying to uncover. It is not! Otherwise to be really pedantic we might have to adopt Ethiopian identities if that is where we think we originate (Goh et al. 2002:189).

Hence, among members, opinions are divided on whether The Tangent is a part of the larger Chinese community that they ought to establish closer relations with. Indeed, even the idea of a ‘Chinese community’ has been subjected to questioning and criticism among members. Perhaps, these differences are can be summed up by Lee’s view that “with our generation growing up with a very different family and education background these days, I wonder how many would still see ourselves as a Singaporean with a Chinese background” (Goh et al. 2002:177). In a way similar to how the Chinese community in the 1950s and the 1960s grappled with and is fragmented along complex issues of political and cultural identification, The ‘Chinese community’ of today is fragmented in terms of linguistic and ethnic identification.

Between autonomy and engagement

In understanding the relationship between intellectuals and the social groups from which they emerge, Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between ‘organic intellectuals’ and ‘traditional intellectuals’ provides a useful framework. For Gramsci, the emergence of every social group in the world of economic production will create, within those very groups, ‘organic intellectuals’. The roles of these ‘organic intellectuals’ are to give their group “a consciousness of its own function in the economic sphere”, and to secure “the most favourable conditions” for the group’s expansion (1996:199). When social structures are altered such that certain social groups are antiquated, ‘organic intellectuals’ that are created with those groups will appear and regard themselves as being autonomous and independent – that is, as ‘traditional intellectuals’ (1996:200).

As the previous sections show, members of The Tangent have taken on an intellectual role that is different from those the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals. While those who are at the apex of the older-generation have engaged themselves actively in activism and electoral politics, members of The Tangent have chosen to focus on dialogue. The issues that both groups dealt with, and hence the ‘constituencies’ that they serve, were also considerably different – the older-generation frequently rallied together on such issues as changes in Chinese-medium education (including changes to the operation and administration of Nantah), but there seems to be no readily identifiable thread in the issues that members of The Tangent have responded to through their activities and publications. Finally, while the relationship between the Chinese-speaking community and the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals is unconscious and unarticulated, the relationship between The Tangent and the Chinese community is itself an issue that has been problematised among its members. In this sense, there appears to be a transition from ‘organic’ to ‘traditional’ intellectuals.

What then accounts for this transition? As one respondent points out, the political activism of Chinese-educated intellectuals in the 1950s and the 1960s is followed by a void in intellectual activities in the 1980s and the 1990s:

One of the reasons why we want to use Chinese as a medium to discuss all sorts of issues is that people in the past did not want to do so. Why did they not want to do so? Because they took part in, for example, the political activities of the 1950s and the 1960s, and they suffered for it. After that, their thinking is ‘Okay, that’s it. I don’t want to say anything anymore’. These people suffered in the 1950s and the 1960s, so they chose to remain silent in the 1980s and the 1990s. They may not want to speak anymore, but for me, I want to have the opportunity to come in and speak.

This account echoes the words of individuals such as Han Tan Juan, who writes that:

To those of us, the traditional huaxiaosheng, who were ‘born in the 40s, grew up in the 50s, fought in the 60s, and felt a sense of loss in the 70s’, we have incurred a lot of ‘battle scars’ on our bodies. Some of these ‘scars’ have taken a very long time to heal. They still hurt when the weather changes. We really do not want others to touch these scars anymore (2003:39).

At the same time that the older-generation of Chinese-educated intellectuals have opted to remain silent for the ‘battle scars’ that they incurred, there was an important shift in the language-education as schools increasingly adopt English as the primary language of instruction. For one respondent, the result of this is a shift towards an English-speaking community, which essentially meant the “elimination of an entire linguistic community.” Such a description might have been worded too strongly as there are still individuals who choose to operate in the Chinese-language or to work in a Chinese-language environment in spite of the education that they have received. Besides members of The Tangent, Chinese-language teachers who were products of the English education policy also serve as a case in point. Nevertheless, that these teachers identify themselves variedly as Chinese-educated, English-educated, or bilingually-educated (Sai 2006: 208–212) indicates a fragmentation within the Chinese community along the lines of language and, in a sense, ethnic identification following shifts in educational policies. Returning to Gramsci’s distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ intellectuals, it may be said that a transition from the first to the second category is engendered by linguistic and educational policies that results in the fragmentation of the social group from which ‘organic’ Chinese-educated intellectuals first emerged. With the nature of the social group altered through state policies, and as a new cohort of intellectuals are pushed by the silence of earlier cohorts to chart out new roles for themselves, the link between members of The Tangent and the broader Chinese group becomes increasingly tenuous.

‘Traditional intellectuals’, in the sense that they are disengaged from the interests of their own social group, conjures up images of ivory-towered thinkers who are engaged in scholarly pursuits with little stakes for the ‘real world’. With The Tangent’s positioning as a ‘non-political’ intellectual grouping that focuses on dialogue rather than on achieving any ‘tangible’ outcomes, it is easy for critics to dismiss them as a group of disengaged intellectuals who are interested only in talking among themselves.

For its supposedly ‘non-political’ orientation, The Tangent had even been referred to by the state as evidence of how it has provided more space for “bottom-up initiatives”. In a speech delivered at the 35th anniversary of the Harvard Club in Singapore in 2004, Lee Hsien-Loong, who was then Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister (and who is now the Prime Minister), offered the following words:

I have focused on what the Government has done to encourage civic participation. But equally important is where the government has stepped back, to give space for people to look after their own affairs. For example HDB estates all used to be administered by HDB, centrally and inflexibly. But now they are looked after by town councils, with MPs and town councillors, who are volunteers, deciding on municipal matters on behalf of residents. And there have been independent bottom-up initiatives too, including “non-political” associations like the Roundtable, AWARE and Tangent, and eco-environmental groups like the Nature Society.

The term ‘civic participation’ has its roots in ‘civic society’, a term which seemed to have first appeared publicly in a speech delivered in 1991 by George Yeo, former Acting Minister for Information and the Arts, who is now serving as Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. The term ‘civic society’ is a non-political variant of ‘civil society’, with the latter connoting a stance that was deemed to be too politically adversarial (Hill & Lian 1995:225–227). ‘Civic participation’ may thus be understood as participation within civil society that falls well within “the accepted parameters of discourse” as established by the state (Hill & Lian 1995:227; see also Koh 2000).

Yet, the state’s mention of The Tangent as an example of ‘non-political civic participation’ has not been acquiescently accepted. For example, one member of the group raised this as an instance of how The Tangent’s “indeterminate nature” (in the sense that it does not deal with a clearly-defined set of issues) has inadvertently provided leeway for the state to cast the actions of the group in a manner that befits its own agenda. This indicates that the ‘non-political’ identity, insofar as it implies compliance with the state, can be contested. In addition, the notion that The Tangent is a group of ‘non-political’ ivory-towered intellectuals is also problematic if one accepts Edward Said’s contention that

The intellectual who claims to write only for him or herself, or for the sake of pure learning… is not to be, and must not be, believed… the moment you publish essays in a society you have entered political life; so if you want not to be political do not write essays or speak out” (1994:110).

The term ‘political’ is used here, as did George Orwell, in its widest possible sense: “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after” (2005:5). Having published 13 issues of their journals, and having organised public forums on various issues, it can be argued that The Tangent has played a visible role in public discourse and political life, without being partisan in the sense of supporting or opposing any political party. Why then did the group choose to focus on discussion and dialogue rather than on tasks that would produce more ‘tangible’ outcomes? One founding member offers the following view:

In Singapore’s context, I don’t think we can take the initiative. That is to say, whether the state wants to listen to your views, how it chooses to listen to them, what it does after listening, how to conduct a dialogue, all these are not determined by us; they are determined by the state. The initiative is all on the other side. This is why I would say that I am honestly not so concerned about whether what I say has any effects. I will just say what I want to say. After I have expressed my opinion, it will be there. Whether the state wants to consult it, whether the state wants to accept it, and how the state wants to treat it, that is for them to decide.

In this view, the focus on dialogue can be interpreted as not only a recognition of the state’s initiative in decision-making processes, but also a refusal to be mired in incapacity, and a conscious response to overcome challenges that intellectuals operating within civil society have to confront .

Yet, the most difficult challenge for intellectuals comes not from the external environment, but from within. As Edward Said explains:

The hardest aspect of being an intellectual is to represent what you profess through your work and interventions, without hardening into an institution or a kind of automaton acting at the behest of a system or method… the only way of ever achieving this is to keep reminding yourself that as an intellectual you are one who can choose between actively representing the truth to the best of your ability and passively allowing a patron or an authority to direct you. (1994:121).

In this view, an intellectual is one who remains constantly self-reflexive in relation to ‘truth’ and power. For members of The Tangent, this self-reflexivity is manifested through their tenuous relationship with the older Chinese-educated intellectuals, their questioning of the group’s own position within the larger Chinese community, and their choice of using dialogue as an intellectual practice. In turn, these allow them to situate themselves tangentially at the margins of history, tradition, and authority. The position of marginality implies some measure of exclusion from the centre, as much as they are not marginalised in terms of educational and occupational status. However, this marginality is not one that is resented by members of The Tangent. As Quah (2001:2) puts it, “there is nothing wrong with [being at] the margins – on the contrary, it allows for a sober, independent, and incisive perspective”. In this sense, The Tangent is a case study of how individuals come together as a group to play a social role that attempts to maintain both intellectual autonomy and public engagement.


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This article is excerpted from a longer thesis that was submitted as a Graduation Project to the Division of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University in March 2009. The thesis was completed under the guidance of Associate Professor Kwok Kian Woon, and draws on in-depth face-to-face interviews conducted in 2008 and 2009 with six members of The Tangent who are serving on its Council at the time of writing.

Kelvin Chia holds a Master’s degree in Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science

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Constance Singam

I was in a taxi chatting with the driver, a Chinese man, when he spotted an Indian woman on the roadside. He points to her and says to me, ‘There’s your country woman’, and I tell him, ‘We are all from the same country; we are all Singaporeans’. ‘No’, he says, ‘Singapore belongs to Lee Kuan Yew’.

Race matters to this taxi driver. Race need not be the only source or even a major source of meaning or identity in a multicultural, multiracial, multireligious and globalized city like Singapore. But it would seem from the taxi driver’s comment however that he identified with race against other available identifications such as nation. He was also using race to signal his alienation from national identity. When racial categories are imposed as a dominant indicator of identity, they become the root cause of marginalization and discrimination. As we can see from the above anecdote, the taxi driver’s denial of national identity led him to ‘other’ the Indian woman, who was a fellow Singaporean.

Racial categorization has been officially set and normalized in Singapore. It is considered ‘normal’ in Singapore to describe people in terms of their race. It is ‘normal’ for the media to identify people in terms of their race. It is ‘normal’ to compare the achievements of various groups along racial lines. It is ‘normal’ to limit the learning of a language to one’s ‘mother tongue’. In Singapore, racism is thus institutionalized. Every official document requires one to record one’s race. By the time children enter school they have been indoctrinated into defining their identities in terms of their race rather than as Singaporeans.

Race matters in Singapore. For example, a 2004 study by staff of the National Institute of Education has given us the evidence that children of different races are not mingling (Lee et al. 2004). It confirms what we have suspected all along–that the current public policies have not brought people together. Indeed they may have created more divisions.

Race matters. But is it possible to escape it? Singaporeans have access to multiple identities–race, ethnicity, religion, culture, nationality and class, as well as others. None of these identities are fixed: they are continually evolving and changing, constantly shifting according to time and place, so that they are simultaneously ‘traditional and creative’. For instance I am Singaporean; before that I was British, and then, for a brief period, Malaysian; I was daughter, wife and housewife. I was young once and am no longer young. I am woman, feminist and social activist, teacher, and writer. Of all these categories, race is the least important part of my identity. Identity is important for it builds citizenship, interests, values, projects and social commitment. How and what kind of identity is constructed, especially as a dominant category: these are equally important questions. How then can I escape the limitations that ‘Race’ imposes on me in Singapore, where race is an official signifier of identity?

I am interested in the possibility of forging a Singapore community of people across racial divides, suspending racial categories. This process suggests a need for radical thinking that challenges powerfully held beliefs, which are supported and reinforced by public policies. My own experience and research leads me to believe that it is possible to forge such a community for the following reasons: people are not as powerless as they think they are and so need not feel trapped by official categorization; historically, women have succeeded in challenging oppressive systems and patriarchal domination; and civil society groups, such as women’s groups, suspend racial divides and have succeeded in challenging dominant values and ideologies and forced changes in the laws.

State multiracialism, civil society and citizen power

Literature on multiculturalism asserts that ‘civil society’ organizations can serve as a kind of ‘social capital’ that contributes to the development of a public culture of citizenship and inclusive participation. I am, therefore, particularly drawn to the concept of power that invests the individual with the capacity to shape and transform her life (within material constraints) and also to resist and subvert domination and control, be it individual, ideological or institutional. This is the power that has been demonstrated most clearly by local feminist organizations such as AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) which lobbied for women’s rights and equality, and other civil society groups such as TWC2 (Transient Workers Count Too) in their fight for the rights of domestic workers, the Nature Society (Singapore) in raising awareness about conservation and preservation of natural habitats, as well as the Cat Welfare Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in their campaign against cat abuse. Their campaigns raised awareness about domestic violence, maid abuse and cat abuse which triggered a response from the community and nudged the state into responding to these abuses vigourously by prosecuting abusers and imposing severe penalties (Long 2003).

This is the concept of power as analyzed by Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. Power in the Foucauldian sense is not possessed but exercised through actions. In his view, the mechanics of power are not centered in particular types of institutions but are dispersed through a labyrinth of networks. It is this interplay of power through multiple discourses that helps to explain the opportunities to challenge dominant ideologies and state control. The social reality of a multicultural society offers alternative discourses that inform other significant ideological directions. It is, therefore, possible to imagine a different Singapore and a different Singaporean. In the essay ‘Quietly resisting; silently subverting: the “wayward” ways of Singapore women’ (Singam 2002), I explored that different city – the slightly chaotic side of Singapore and of Singaporean women, who are redefining themselves in the mix of cultural influences that they experience, and who are not bound by traditional or official forms of identity.

Historical evidence supports the view that Singapore women have succeeded in challenging dominant value systems. There were the Samsui women who were highly visible from the 1930s to 1950s as labourers in our construction industry, who led independent lives, spurning marriage and living in a community of sisterhood under the most oppressive patriarchal system; the immigrant wives who crossed oceans to begin lives in a foreign land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; pioneers such as Hajjah Fatimah, the successful businesswoman of the nineteenth century; Janet Lim, the author of the autobiography Sold for Silver, who triumphed against slavery; and Shirin Fozdar and Chan Choy Siong who lobbied for an end to polygamy (Chin and Singam 2004).

These women survived some of the harshest realties of life for women in their day. Janet Lim had arrived in Singapore in the 1930s as a child mui tsai (slave) but escaped from her bondage and grew to become the first Asian matron of St. Andrew’s Mission hospital. She eventually married an Australian and settled in Australia. Harsh experiences made such women strong enough to resist imposed identities and build new lifestyles in the face of considerable odds (Lim 1958).

The study Singapore Women Re-Presented traces the history of Singapore women and her evolution over time (Chin and Singam 2004). The editors conclude that Singapore women do what they want: they marry whenever they want or they don’t marry; or they marry whoever they want, going against expectations that they marry within their race; they won’t have children just because the State wants them to; they will have them, however, on their own terms. They are educated, financially independent and they have, in the course of a short period, in historical terms, emerged as smart, independent women. It is these women who will blaze the trail for the evolution of a Singapore identity precisely because they are prepared to embrace change in order to survive, as their grandmothers had done before them.

Their identity is defined by their history, their experiences of culture, race, ethnicity, nationality, politics, religion, geography, class and gender. Consequently the Singapore woman can be a Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian or Caucasian. Yet, she is not a Chinese woman the way a Chinese woman is in China, nor an Indian woman the way an Indian woman is in India. She is evolving into a unique Singapore version of the different ethnicities. That is exciting.

These women, however, may not openly contest the strength of the dominant cultural forces, where control and traditional attitudes are pervasive and where many other women work to support these forces. My argument, therefore, does not assume that either patriarchal or modernist frames of reference have been replaced or superseded. But rather, I want to say that the consequence of domination is that acts of resistance and subversion will be low-keyed, circumspect and individual, and consequently may go unnoticed. Therefore the challenge to state prescription and re-definition of values based on racial categories will be slow and incremental in its assertion. But it will happen.

Identity is not only ideologically articulated and constructed by the state but it can also be re-articulated and re-constructed by the individual. However obstacles do exist as, indeed, do opportunities, to question the dominance of state-imposed values and systems. Firstly, there are many Singapores, which make the forming of affiliations difficult. There are the remains of the British colonial days: its buildings, its laws, its language, its churches, its schools; then there is the city of immigrants, who continue to pour into the city in search of work and wealth and who care very little about Singapore’s multicultural history; there is the city of English speakers, children of early immigrants who had settled here; fourthly, there are the Malays, the original settlers of Singapore; and finally, there is the city of vernacular speakers of Tamil and the Chinese dialects, who continue to feel marginalized.

Another obstacle is the attitude of Singaporeans who have become so accustomed to a centralized and oppressive system, a monolithic form of control, that they have difficulty envisioning opportunities for subversion or resistance to that power. In ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, Louis Pierre Althusser, the Marxist philosopher, examines oppression as a structural condition arising from a system of social institutions which are patriarchal and capitalist in nature and highly structured as a top-down system (Althusser 1971).

The third obstacle to challenging the system would be, as Linda Lim notes, the state’s use of ethnic/race identifications as a technology of control that delimits the subject-formation of citizens, sometimes on terms that are not commensurate with the nation’s past or its present, the ‘real’ historical forces within which it operates (Lim 2006). These necessarily impact adversely on the citizen’s ability to imagine and materialize new social possibilities. Lim points to the way in which the state re-shaped identities especially through language policy for the purpose of creating a national identity that would ensure survival in a globalized world in specific ways (and not always involving equality) and which would not challenge its own political dominance. In the past we saw the fusion of local cultures, which led to the formation of Peranakan ethnicities. If the state had not intervened in this process of identity formation, other historical forces may have led to the further evolution of local ethnicities that would have disrupted racial categories.

Raymond Williams has observed that a culture is a production of meanings of the experience of a whole society (1997: 9). ‘ It is stupid and arrogant’, he says, ‘to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways we cannot know in advance. To try to jump the future, to pretend that in some way you ARE the future, is strictly insane’ (ibid.) This may be an overstatement of the issue but Williams captures the anomalous position of Singaporeans living and working within a postmodern, multi-cultural and fast-moving society but subscribing to yesterday’s, particularly colonial, constructions of race imposed by the state.

The mother-tongue policy does not only enforce specific racialized identifications, but also impacts on citizens’ perceptions of reality. This is a fourth obstacle to Singaporeans’ attempts to escape from imposed identities. Language is the means of imposing order on things and people. Through language, the symbolic order continually reproduces a ‘reality’ that is also a hierarchy of values which sustains the interest of the dominant power. It is in the interest of power to impose a particular perception of ‘reality’ as the only one.

However, despite the perception of a monolithic form of state control, the reality on the ground is a slow erosion of racial categories and the emergence of new ethnicities and the assertion of old ones. For instance, the state has attempted to construct one Chinese ethnicity out of a multi-dialect system by mandating Mandarin as the official ‘mother’ tongue of Singapore Chinese. It banned the public use of other dialects from all broadcasting media, in which Cantonese operas, movies and songs had then been a popular source of entertainment. However, today, this banning of dialect cultures has been less successful given the individual’s easy access to global communication systems, including video discs, cable television channels as well as the Internet. These have compromised the state’s ability to monitor and control the interpellation of ‘raced’ citizens.

Ordinary citizens also triumphed over the control of the language policy when, starting with the 1997 election, the ruling People’s Action Party surrendered its declared language policy to the use of dialect during election campaigns. This prompted a cynical political observer to observe to me that while PAP promotes Malay as the national language (which very few people outside of the Malay community use), and English as the language of commerce, Hokkien has become the language of elections.

Thus the capacity of individual citizens is revealed in the way Singaporeans negotiate their private lives, somewhat independently of the ideological practice and style of government. State control is tempered by other loyalties, interests and cultural discourses of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious immigrant population which, separately and in synergy, offer the potential to dissolve into less monolithic fragments. These fragments are often reconstituted at the level of the individual or group.

So the state may imagine a strong, well-organized and racially pure Singapore, steeped in tradition, but the real life in the streets of Singapore is less organized and a little messy. As illustrated by civil society activism cited above, the category of race was suspended as Singaporeans of all races collaborated in addressing common concerns. It is, therefore, possible to leave the politics of race to the politicians and to imagine a different Singapore–a Singapore driven by a different set of values and identifications than the one rooted on the rhetoric of race.

AWARE: suspending race through gender

As we have seen, Singaporeans have the capacity to define their own reality and challenge dominant ideologies. Often this has required the suspension of racial identification in bringing other significant categories to the forefront in the pursuit of common goals. The role of feminism in this process has been an important trajectory for the redefinition of identity along non-racial lines.

Manuel Castells characterizes the new social movements in the information age as involving a decentred form of networking and intervention that counters the more centralized networking logic of domination. For him, women’s movements are an example of ‘insurgents against the global order and religious fundamentalist movements’ (1997: 362). He describes women’s movements as producers and distributors of cultural codes in their various networks of exchange, interaction and sharing of experience in women’s groups, women’s magazines, women’s films and other women’s support networks.

Indeed, perhaps feminist activism enjoys greater facility than other civil society movements in penetrating more deeply against a society’s existing and dominant ideologies. In fighting for a better life for themselves, women must necessarily cross racial as well as class and sexuality lines to form the critical mass required for effective action. The need for inter-racial collaboration for the women’s cause is even more urgent within multiracial contexts such as ours. As I will show, within the local women’s movement, race was very often temporarily suspended or relegated to the background in addressing concerns shared by women from diverse communities. One may protest then that feminist activism can only offer utopian possibilities for thinking through and beyond race on the back of a struggle against another inequality, that of gender. This raises the irony that race can be suspended only by uniting all in another social category of oppression and struggle. Except that one has to bear in mind that gender intersects with many of the major ideological formations of patriarchal culture, including that of race and nationalism. Much of what we understand about our ‘racial’ culture or our national identity involves notions of women’s social roles, specific expectations of female conduct and gendered meanings of ‘tradition’ versus ‘modernity’. To then ‘suspend’ race in favour of the gender struggle is also simultaneously to cross swords with it, to interrogate it, to re-configure its meanings. In the women’s struggle, to suspend race is not just to ‘forget’ it temporarily but also to remember it later differently, as something less oppressive, less divisive, less compelling as an identification. This would apply also to the gay movement, given the traffic in meanings between sexuality, race and nationalism.

The first significant mobilization of women across race in Singapore was in 1952 with the formation of the Singapore Council of Women, which had a membership of 2,000 women of different races. It spearheaded a campaign, led by Mrs. Shirin Fozdar, an Indian, to abolish polygamy, which was a serious social problem for women from the majority Chinese population. The second serious challenge to dominant ideology took place in 1985 with the formation of the AWARE. This challenge was provoked by government intervention in the reproductive roles of women due to declining birthrates.

AWARE has created a space for challenging Singapore’s dominant ideology and control, a space for plurality and for the ‘ethics of self’ as a way of empowering women. Working across divides and focusing not just on gender but on sexuality, feminist activism traverses much inter-racial cultural terrain by at least temporarily deferring racial identifications. Solidarity among women across divisions of class, race/ethnicity and language allows them to draw on the power of collective action and it has been successful precisely because of the diversity of those involved. In their struggle to transform their society, women suspended race and class divisions to work towards shared issues related to women. Rape, unequal work burdens, and the political marginalization of women speak a universal language. The focus on the common good, universal values, human rights and AWARE’s leadership in challenging the state’s patriarchal values have earned public respect and recognition across the racial divide. One of the major successes of AWARE and other civil society groups has precisely been the suspension of race consciousness in a very race-conscious society.

For instance, when I was president of AWARE (1987-1989, 1994-1996) and of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations (1990-1992), I was seen, not as an Indian, but as a person and leader in her own right who represented the views of all women, regardless of race. In a 1995 AWARE survey of membership, the writer, Lenore Lyons, noted that the AWARE membership data maintained records of the number of members, life members, student members, Friends of AWARE, year of joining, marital status, age, citizenship and nationality (all of which are required by the Registry of Society) and occupation. But the association, she pointed out, did not maintain racial records of its members. Although the majority of the membership is made up of Singaporeans of Chinese descent, five of the 12 AWARE presidents have been non-Chinese. Of the three past presidents who became Nominated Members of Parliament, two were of Indian origin. Feminists in AWARE have offered a critique of society and a commitment to social change such as has not been attempted in Singapore’s political culture. The association has taken issues that confront Singapore women to the public realm and challenged the State’s definition of reality for women.

Through consciousness raising and advocacy over the past 20 years, AWARE has succeeded in challenging patriarchal values and forcing changes in the system and in the law to acknowledge the human rights of women. By suspending race, it countered the use of the state ideology of multiracialism to mask pressing social inequalities. The association played a role in the government’s rescinding, in 1994, of a gendered policy that had required girls to study home economics and boys to attend classes in technical studies for the previous ten years. The association’s efforts also led in 2003 to improved citizenship rights being offered to foreign husbands and children of Singapore women, the lifting of the medical faculty quota system which had limited women to one-third of the cohort, and the granting of equal medical benefits to families of female civil servants. The association had also been working for eligibility for singles to purchase certain HDB housing and for family friendly benefits to be extended to employees, giving longer maternity leave, lower maid levy and a five-day week. This was accomplished in 2004.

In 1995, as part of an AWARE campaign to raise public awareness about the problem of domestic violence, Dr. Kanwaljit Soin, a past president of the association, moved a Private Member’s Bill in Parliament in her capacity as Nominated Member of Parliament, calling for better protection for women in situations of domestic violence. Two years later, the Women’s Charter was amended to include provisions for the protection of victims of family violence and gave the police more power to arrest abusers. The campaign to change the attitudes and value system of Singaporeans re-negotiated social contracts in which society as a whole had condoned domestic violence against women as acceptable in a marital relationship, as a ‘private’ matter between husband and wife that did not warrant state intervention, and even as something that was acceptable within ‘Asian’ culture in that it related to male authority in the family. The campaign established the right of women to be treated as equal to men in a relationship, garnered the support of the wider public, the media, and other civil society activists in this, and also opened channels between government and non-governmental organizations to work against these existing attitudes and perceptions.

AWARE set about subverting, through its activities and its writings, the way people thought about power and control by shifting the state-controlled space towards more open debate on women’s issues. By questioning the categories that define and limit us, AWARE has suggested the potential for self-transformation. It challenged all of us who were disturbed by the controlling power of dominant ideologies to engage in on-going, critical self-examination about how we live in our world. AWARE’s public assertion of a feminist ideological position, empowering in itself, not only demonstrated a radical form of resistance to patriarchal values in its suspension of race but also articulated a resistance to state ideology and its authority.

Small groups of activists, well positioned and strategically armed, may well be more successful in effecting change than large-scale mass organizations with divided interests. Groups such as AWARE and TWC2 have challenged notions of race and gender and the controlling power of dominant ideology. While the State continues to dominate public space, limiting citizens’ freedom, the experiences of feminists offer a different view of power as a ‘productive creative force’ that creates knowledges, methods and techniques that can be deployed to maintain a sense of power and control over one’s life. Women devised a variety of creative strategies to assert their own interests and to achieve goals without overt expressions of hostility.

The main goal of the feminist group AWARE, as it is of most feminist groups, is the liberation of society from behaviors that constrict the humanity of any one group. It may also work for the liberation of all people, not only women, from arbitrarily imposed behaviors, including that of race constructed strategically to serve particular social and political ends. It can do this without directly butting heads against ‘race’. These experiences could provide an ever-changing frame of reference that animate society and serve to validate a new imagined community or to revitalize ideals without conflict.

Civil society activists appeal to the core decency of ordinary people when they address issues of common social problems and values. Thus they have the power to take the Singaporean imagination beyond racial barriers in re-visioning society. What is, therefore, the particularly important lesson learnt from the experience of feminists and other resistant groups is the practice of seeing through and beyond race, questioning and challenging definitions of gender and race, and rejecting the very concept of a dominant value system. To challenge the authority of the one ideology and to name one’s reality against it is to usurp that ideology’s power to dominate and devalue one’s culture. Feminist discourse, as a body of knowledge and as a political force and praxis, offers such a site for challenge.


Civil society, while it respects diversity, is able to forge unity across differences, as opposed to a state defined ‘multiracial’ identity. Indeed I argue further that there exists within these organizations under discussion, a respect for the individual and recognition of her/his humanity irrespective of their race, class, gender or age. Consequently, politicized civil society movements forge ‘cultures of solidarity’ which can be transformative for a race-conscious community in offering citizens other and more heterogeneous identifications. The values engendered by the ‘cultures of solidarity’ in non-race-based causes that connect individuals within organizations and across civil society are then extended beyond these boundaries of civil society interaction to the spaces of everyday life. When youth in schools and tertiary institutions as well as government organizations are roped into civil society work, as they often are, then one could say that the thinking through and beyond race is achieved to some degree even in state-controlled spaces.

However, given state control of its spaces, civil society alone cannot adequately counter the government’s power to order local subjectivities along racial lines. Also, the deferral of race in social activism may not survive beyond the projects engaged in if no new cultural energies enter the national landscape. It remains to be seen how and whether civil society can work in tandem with the larger forces of globalization that so have the propensity to cause significant interruptions in the state’s agenda. With the Internet, for instance, the government can no longer have the kind of control over public opinion that it used to, including curbing open discussion of race relations and hostilities. This has resulted in more attention being given now to inter-ethnic relations, muting somewhat the discourse of race. The influx of foreigners who come for study and employment here has also allowed race to recede a little into the background, if not interrogated as a category, with differences in nationality, ethnicity and class becoming more apparent in marking people. But, as we can also see, the global movements of capital and labour across continents have also unleashed forces that are crystallizing new, perhaps more powerful transnational constructions of race and ethnicity. How these will play out in our society and against the state technology of race is anyone’s guess. Civil society may need new strategies, new causes and modes of organizing if it is to continue to make gains in future in overcoming barriers to social and self transformation posed by limiting ideologies of race.


Althusser, L. (1971) ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Brewster.

Chin, A. and Singam, C. (eds) (2004) Singapore Women Re-Presented, Singapore: Landmark.

Castells, M. (1997) The Power of Identity, Malden: Blackwell.

De Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) ‘Truth and power’, in C. Gordin (ed.) Michel Foucault: Power / Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, New York: Pantheon.

Goh, C.L. (2006) ‘…while local brides are not: far fewer Singapore women than men marry foreigners, but sociologist believes number likely to rise’, Straits Times, 1 Oct 2006.

Lee, C., Cherian, M., Ismail, R., Ng, M., Sim, J., and Chee M.F. (2004) ‘Children’s experiences of multiracial relationships in informal primary school settings’, in Lai A.E. (ed.) Beyond Rituals and Riots: Ethnic Pluralism and Social Cohesion in Singapore, Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.

Lim, L. (2006) ‘Singapore: place or nation?’ Straits Times, 19 June 2006.

Lim, J. (2004) Sold for Silver: An Autobiography of a Girl Sold into Slavery in Southeast Asia, Singapore: Monsoon.

Long, S. (2003) ‘Contradiction at the heart of the Singapore system’, Straits Times, 29 May 2003.

Lyons, L. (1995) Summary of Findings from the AWARE Membership Survey January 1995, unpublished, AWARE, Singapore.

Mak, M.S. (2007) ‘Foreign affairs: when people of two races marry, even something like where you cut your nails can be a problem’, Straits Times, 6 May 2007.

Oon, C. (2003) ‘Be my dimsum curry tonight (and every night)’, Straits Times, 3 August 2003.

Scott, J.C. (1990) Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Singam, C. (1997) ‘The workings of power in Singapore: control-resistance-change’, unpublished Master dissertation, Curtin University of Technology, Australia.

—–. (2002) ‘Quietly resisting; silently subverting: the “wayward” ways of Singapore women’, in W. Lim (ed), Postmodern Singapore, Singapore: Select.

Williams, R. (1997) ‘Culture is ordinary’, in A. Gray and J. McGuigan (eds), Studying Culture: An Introductory Reader, London: Edward Arnold.

Constance Singam is the legendary three-time president of AWARE who describes herself as “a writer, a social activist, teacher, restauranter and now … a blogger” (Living Life at 70).

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Kwok Kian-Woon

This is a shortened version of a lecture delivered to university students in early November 2010; as with the lecture, this essay is meant to stimulate further discussion, and it does not represent the views of any institution that the writer is affiliated with. For the sake of brevity, I cite sources in the text, and I have not included the bibliography of recommended readings that was provided in the original lecture.

I. ‘Idealism’

Idealism is troubling and troublesome. In confronting the trouble with idealism I attempt to make a case for a troubled idealism as part of one’s intellectual vocation. This, in a nutshell, is the thrust of my argument.

Here I refer to ‘idealism’ in two broad senses of the word. First, I use the term in a sense related to ‘the pursuit of ideals’, a perspective that certain principles or standards are worth trying to achieve. An ‘idealistic’ person develops an attitude or takes action oriented towards changing ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be’. Pursuing ideals necessarily involves making value-judgments about the ‘good’ and its ‘worth’ as something to be striven for in one’s conduct or in social life. However, it may not necessarily involve judgments about whether and how the good can be realized under an existing set of social conditions – although these questions would have to be confronted by those who attempt to achieve what they truly value (and this is a point that we’ll take up later).

Indeed, ‘idealism’ is often pitted against ‘realism’ in the sense that is often found in everyday speech, especially in the commonplace admonition: ‘Don’t be so idealistic – get real, you’ve to be practical!’ This rebuke may be uttered in a variety of ways (sincere or sarcastic, well-meaning or condescending), especially on the part of older persons or those in authority with the implication that the young are inexperienced, immature, and ‘do not know better’. An idealist is ‘high-minded’; she or he pursues ‘lofty’ or ‘elevated’ ideals, but is out of touch with ‘reality’ and not ‘down to earth’.

The second sense of ‘idealism’ is set in opposition to ‘materialism’. In academic discourse, these constitute two apparently contrasting modes of social inquiry, the former, as in Max Weber’s work, focusing on the role of ideas in history (e.g., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and the latter, as in Karl Marx’s analysis of the dynamics of capitalism as a mode of production. This is not the place to delve deeply into the perspectives of the two theorists, both of whom made seminal contributions to modern social science. It may suffice to suggest the gist of their perspectives by referring to a few oft-quoted passages in their works. Marx (1818-1883), for example, famously says:

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859).

In other words, human consciousness – as expressed in ways of life, ideas, values, customs, laws – is fundamentally shaped by the material or social-economic conditions of human existence, in particular, the ownership of the means of production and the organization of human labor. In propounding ‘historical materialism’, Marx emphasizes the ‘materialist basis’ of historical change; historical epochs are marked by the predominant way in which material production is socially organized.

For Weber (1864-1920), writing in the shadow of Marx, the significance of ‘material interests’ in motivating human action could be almost taken for granted. At the same time, he offers a newer perspective on ‘the role of ideas in history’:

Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet, very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest. (From Max Weber [FMW], Oxford, 1958, p. 280).

On the one hand, Weber emphasizes the combination of both ‘material and ideal interests’ in ‘pushing’ human conduct towards one direction rather than another. On the other hand, he argues that there are instances in which the specific ‘ideas’ have been crystallized into compelling ‘world images’ that could capture the imagination of whole groups of people or resonate with their life experiences – and steer the course of human action differently.

To be sure, Marx’s concept of ‘ideology’ may be interpreted as allowing for ideas to play a determining role in the lives of men and women – and, indeed, Marxism as a political ideology has been taken up as a program of social transformation in different parts of the world, with consequences that can be evaluated from various viewpoints. For that matter, we can think of other instances in which ideas has been systematized by thinkers into ‘isms’ and advocated by political leaders in the course of mobilizing populations towards the attainment of new collective goals. What Weber suggests, however, is that this process isn’t confined to the sphere of politics; ideas that have made a significant impact on the course of human history have germinated from unlikely sources (e.g., religious traditions) and they could ‘interact’ with ideas from rather mundane sources (e.g., economic behavior).

II. The Trouble with Idealism

As it happens, the two senses of ‘idealism’ are interrelated. For example, a person who is ‘idealistic’ (read: ‘unrealistic’ and ‘impractical’) is often criticized as one who is not facing up to ‘material reality’, including concerns about making a living and improving one’s socio-economic status. (Interestingly, the flip side here is that ‘materialism’ in everyday speech is synonymous with ‘consumerism’, an excessive preoccupation with material possessions). Likewise, academics who have dedicated themselves to studying and sharing ideas, are often disparaged as removed from the ‘real world’ and isolated in an ‘ivory tower’. Hence it is not uncommon for policy-makers to shrug off an idea or perspective as merely academic, i.e., as having little or no practical relevance or significance. And the criticism is often extended to intellectuals as ‘men and women of ideas’.

Why is idealism troubling and troublesome, and for whom? In the first place, idealism is troubling and troublesome for everyone because it orientates one beyond ‘what is’ and towards ‘what ought to be’. Idealism holds out the possibility that ‘things could turn out differently’ and ‘for the better’ – and that such a possibility is worth exploring, and this may lead to taking action in questioning the ‘is’ and working towards the ‘ought’. Idealism carries an obligation on the part of a person not to behave like a passive bystander in any given situation that may require some moral judgment and perhaps also social intervention – and that is not only troubling for oneself but may be troublesome for others, too. That the ‘passive bystander effect’ is common enough is attested by many phrases that are often used in everyday life, such as the following in English (which may have their equivalents in other languages): ‘Turn a blind eye… Bury your head in the sand…Ignorance is bliss… Conspiracy of silence…Nothing to do with me…Nothing I can do about it…Avert your gaze… None of my business…Remain neutral… Don’t want to get burnt…Don’t rock the boat… I’m only following orders…Won’t make a difference anyway…’ (Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities & Suffering, 2001, Blackwell, pp. 1-2, 70).

Why is idealism troubling and troublesome for ‘intellectuals’ in particular? For one thing, although it can’t be said that any thinking adult is a ‘non-intellectual’, the very idea of an ‘intellectual’ is embedded with elements of ‘idealism’. The intellectual does not wholly accept an existing state of affairs and does not behave like as passive bystander. This quality or ethos is manifested in many traditions. For example, Theodore de Bary has this to say about two exemplars of the Confucian tradition: ‘Confucius traveled the twisted road that lay between easy accommodation and total withdrawal’ and ‘no one [other than Mencius] has exposed more forthrightly than he the danger of cooptation that lay in the ruler-minister relation or the seductive ease with which officials could fall into the obsequiousness of servitors or slaves, awed by autocratic power’ (The Trouble with Confucianism, 1991, Harvard, pp. 8, 15). The same ethos is reflected in Edward Said’s definition of the intellectual:

At bottom, the intellectual…is…someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling but actively willing to say so in public (Representations of the Intellectual, 1994, Vintage, p. 17).

Ideally, intellectuals have a responsibility to resist, on the one hand, accommodation or cooptation and, on the other hand, withdrawal from public engagement. I say ‘ideally’ because one can imagine that any intellectual may fall short of fulfilling such a responsibility in any given instance

III. Intellectual Vocation and Moral Reasoning

Indeed, ‘falling short’ of intellectual responsibility does not stop at accommodation to the status quo or withdrawal from public engagement. Even if an intellectual strives to question conventional wisdom, she or he must be engaged in a process of moral reasoning about both ends and means. Consider this popular saying that is directed at idealists who set out do good or to achieve the good: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Consider, too, this troubling question: ‘Does the end justify the means?’ This question is often asked when the achievement of apparently desirable ends has entailed the use of morally problematic means. (See e.g, Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality, 1987, Oxford).

In addressing these questions I draw briefly from Max Weber’s two speeches delivered before students at Munich University in November 1917 and January 1919: ‘Science as a Vocation’ and ‘Politics as a Vocation’. To begin with, the very idea of ‘vocation’ (Beruf) suggests that an intellectual’s work is not reducible to a profession, occupation, career or job; it is imbued with a sense of inner calling. Weber is keen to make the distinction between science and politics as two spheres of intellectual life. For Weber, value judgments – such as those that inform political convictions – cannot be scientifically proven. In this respect, Weber does not subscribe to a kind of scientism that claims no limitations to the applicability of science. For Weber, therefore, the scientist or scholar teacher should not use his or her position as a teacher to advocate a partisan stand. At the same time, however, scientific objectivity does not equate moral indifference. As Fritz Ringer say, ‘Weber’s science could reveal connections between actions and their consequences, and expose logical inconsistencies in an agent’s principles and value commitments….’ (Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography, 2004, Chicago, p. 255).

In this perspective, what can bring science and politics together as related spheres of intellectual life is a process of reasoning that considers both moral principles and the consequences of human actions. In particular, Weber clarified the thrust of such a process of reasoning in his discussion of two types of moral conduct, one oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ and the other an ‘ethic of responsibility’. While the former places emphasis on the purity and integrity of one’s moral convictions, the latter carries the responsibility of taking into account the foreseeable consequences or, in retrospect, the unintended consequences of the means that one employs to achieve a moral end. Having made the conceptual distinction between the two ethics, however, Weber argues that the two should not be taken as mutually exclusive positions: on the one hand, a deep concern with one’s ultimate ends should not be automatically equated with irresponsibility, and on the other hand, a concern with the consequences of action does not necessarily imply ‘unprincipled opportunism’. Weber’s words are worth quoting in full here:

However, it is immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man – a man who can have the ‘calling for politics’ (FMW, 127).

IV. A Troubled Idealism

In lieu of a proper conclusion, I offer a few tentative closing remarks. Intellectuals are condemned to be troubled. If ‘idealism’ is in a sense ‘built into’ an intellectual vocation, it has to be a troubled idealism, one that is sustained by active intellectual effort that combines rigorous humanistic and scientific scholarship and lucid moral reasoning, transcending scientism and partisan politics. This, in turn, has practical implications for both social analysis and social change today. On the one hand, our humanistic, scientific and interdisciplinary imagination comes alive in the understanding of social structure and human agency, history and biography, the macro-structural contexts of social forces and the micro-existential contexts of everyday life. On the other hand, we affirm that individuals – individual reflexivity, individual responsibility – do matter, and even more so in a world that would have us believe otherwise.

Kwok Kian Woon is a sociologist who is also an active participant in Singapore civil society.

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Review: Realism in Asia

Lim Cheng Tju

Yeo Wei Wei (ed.). Realism in Asia, Volume One. Singapore: The National Art Gallery, 2010. 88 pages.

A rather curious volume. Realism In Asia Vol 1 is the accompanying publication to the Realism In Asian Art show that ran at the Singapore Art Museum from April to July 2010. The show is put together by The National Art Gallery of Singapore (TNAG) and Korea’s National Museum of Contemporary Art. The show travels to the latter from July to October 2010.

Realism in Asia

There are six essays here that cover Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and Korea. Chinese art is reserved for Vol 2. I would much prefer a ‘regular’ catalogue with all the plates of the show and for the essays to be extended. As explained in the opening essay by Kwok Kian Chow (TNAG Director), the preparations for the show started with an international symposium on the subject held in Seoul in September 2007. The conference papers were published in Modern Art Studies 4.

Tsutomu Mizusawa’s essay on the problems of ‘realism’ in Japanese modern art history is a revised version of the one he wrote for Modern Art Studies, which is a pity as his is the strongest piece here and I would have liked to read the original longer version. His essay would also be strengthened if we were able to look at the plates of the paintings he talked about. A better publication in this aspect (of a similar ‘realism’ in Asian art show) would be Art Toward the Society: Realism in Korean Art 1945–2005, the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name that traveled between Korea and Japan in 2007 and 2008. That 252-page tome contains all the art pieces exhibited as well as five full-length essays by curators and researchers.

Art history is filled with trajectories. The other solid piece here is Kim Youngna’s ‘Cold War Ideology and Realism’, which provides an overview of the intersections between art and politics in Asia. It is well known that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covertly funded some of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) international exhibitions of American abstract art as part of their cultural mission to counter Soviet communism and the Socialist Realism style the Soviets expounded. The MOMA exhibitions were touted as expressions of freedom and purity, silently positioned in ideological contrast to the supposedly regimental nature of Soviet art.

However, I disagree with Kim’s description of Singapore’s Equator Art Society (active in the 1950s and 1960s) as being influenced by Socialist Realism. What they did was closer to Social Realism, an art movement that actually gained prominence in the West during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s. The ‘strand’ of Social Realism in Singapore and Malaya arrived from China from the 1930s onwards with the founding of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1938. The Singapore Art Museum itself had clarified this point in their earlier exhibition on art during the Emergency. (From Words to Pictures: Art during the Emergency, 2007)

It is a pity that this difference between Social Realism and Socialist Realism in Asian art is not further explored other than a cursory line in Kwok’s essay. One could tie it to other similar realist movements in this region such as ASAS 50’s (Angkatan Sasterawan ’50; Singapore Writers’ Movement ’50) “Art for Society’s Sake” in the early 1950s or the “Art for Life” debate in Thailand during the same period.

Lim Cheng Tju is a secondary school history teacher who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art.

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Philip Holden

Teo Soh Lung, Beyond the Blue Gate, Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2010.

In recent years, historians have increasingly written not of a single Singapore story, but of Singapore stories. Such stories are various: the experiences of political activists outside the People’s Action Party, for instance, or the lives of groups marginalized in terms of class or community by the colonial and then the new national states. One genre of narratives that has proved particularly powerful has been accounts of political imprisonment under the provisions of the Internal Security Act, exemplified by Said Zahari’s two books, Dark Clouds at Dawn (2001) and The Long Nightmare (2007). Such stories consciously aim to give sympathetic inside accounts of principled positions of opposition to the People’s Action Party, to testify against injustice, and thus to rehabilitate the reputations of their protagonists which have been crushed by dominant historical narratives. Yet their writers also face a difficulty. The act of witnessing is always haunted by the invisible presence of an official history that must be rewritten. In Said’s account, and indeed in accounts which feature later, and less prolonged, periods of imprisonment, such as Francis Seow’s To Catch a Tartar, the task of the rehabilitation of personal reputation often overwhelms the narrative, making it more difficult for it to do other kinds of historical work.

Testimony published more recently by those arrested under Operation Spectrum in May 1987 and later, in what is now remembered as the “Marxist Conspiracy,” tells a different kind of story. Seow apart, those who were arrested under the ISA during the period were not public figures, but rather church workers, theatre practitioners and social activists, as the testimonies from detainees such as Vincent Cheng, Kevin De Souza, and Tang Lay Lee collected in Fong Hoe Fang’s That We May Dream Again (2009) show. Teo Soh Lung, who recounts her detention in Beyond the Blue Gate, at one point reflects that unlike Nelson Mandela, Chia Thye Poh, or Said Zahari, she has “no cause to fight for” (212), and her story concludes with her giving up all legal action against the Singapore government immediately before her release; on one level, her detention is “a waste of time” (212). Yet no one could say the same of her retrospective account of the imprisonment. The book is engagingly written in two sctions. The first is a diary constituted immediately after Teo’s release in September 1987. The second is a longer narrative account of the detainees’ public statement concerning their treatment when in jail and protesting their innocence, their re-arrest, and Teo’s subsequent legal actions while in detention until her release in June 1990. Teo’s memoir, if it can be called that, was completed in 1991, and as now published—with a few new elaborations–it also the status of a historical document.

Having “no cause to fight” for apart from a desire to testify for the benefit of future generations of Singaporeans liberates the book from the burden that many previous accounts of detention have carried. Beyond the Blue Gate becomes compelling for two further reasons: its storytelling, and its detailed legal analysis of the ebb and flow Teo’s legal applications for habeas corpus. The narrative is more powerful because of its acts of unmotivated testimony –- in the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s words, “as witness to the common lot, survivor of that time, that place”—and the sharp legal analysis that it brings.

The story Beyond the Blue Gate tells is in itself compelling. If experiences of detention are often monotonous and disorienting, their retelling is not. Teo’s memoir has the drama of initial arrest, of interrogation, personal reflection, and release, and then, under the second detention, of court cases and appearances before the review board, of hopes and disappointments. Two elements of the narrative stand out, and indeed have parallels with other prison memoirs. The accounts of the psychological cat-and-mouse game between the prisoner and her interrogators and later case officers are acutely observed, and intensely self-reflective. Her description of the complex relationship between prisoner and prisoners, in which the prisoner often establishes affective relationships with her jailors despite knowing that these are psychological traps, recalls the prison memoirs of South African Ruth First; such self-awareness, indeed, seems to be a marked feature of women’s prison narratives. The detailed descriptions of cell interiors, and in particular the almost microscopically observed encounters with creatures such as lizards, toads, crickets and even ants, are hauntingly similar to Jawaharlal Nehru’s chapters on animals in prison in his Autobiography.

As a lawyer, Teo is eager not simply to testify, but also to explain the legal complexities and consequences of her various legal challenges to her detention To non-lawyers, arguments and detailed quotations from submissions made in court initially seem overly abstract, slowing down the narrative, and moving from issues of justice to ones of legal technicality. And yet the consequences of her law suits are highly important to Singapore today. The amendments to the constitution made during Soh’s detention changed the relationship between the executive and the judiciary considerably. The abolition of appeals to the Privy Council was perhaps an inevitable development in a postcolonial nation-state. The amendment of the constitution in 1989, however, to limit (and possibly—although this has not yet been fully tested—abolish) the role of judicial review of detention under the Internal Security Act, has less justification, especially given that Singapore’s government is a unicameral legislature that has, since independence, seen prolonged one-party dominance.

Nehru famously commented that the regime in a colonial British prison, with its arbitrary abuses of authority, incompetent management, and widespread use of informers, was a mirror of India under British rule. Teo makes no such explicit argument concerning politics in Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew’s ultimate rejoinder to British journalist Bernard Levin’s critique of the detentions, indeed, was the fact that his government had legitimacy and public trust gained through large majorities in regular elections. As we wait for an election in which a constitutional amendment to substantially increase the number of non-constituency MPs is likely to again change the practice of politics in Singapore, however, Teo’s story has the power to disturb and promote critical thought. It does not lecture, but it educates in the original sense of the word—it leads its readers out, causing them to think not simply about an historical incident, but about principles of constitutionality, separation of powers, justice, and indeed the political and judicial developments necessary for an expanded public sphere in Singapore in the future.

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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