Posts Tagged ‘gender’

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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Philip Holden

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

Men In White and the General Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History as Storytelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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