Posts Tagged ‘student activism’

Tan Jing Quee

Originally published in FAJAR: ORGAN OF THE UNIVERSITY SOCIALIST CLUB 1961, volume 3, number 8.

Transcribed by Karen Goh

The statement by Tengku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, on 16th October in the Federal Parliament during the debate on the “merger” proposals and the subsequent turn of events had thrown into bold relief the motivations long ago suspected of those who are now negotiating for a “merger”. The Federation Parliament had given its “mandate” to the Tengku for carrying out the proposals. In Singapore, the White Paper for “merger” has been published, and the Singapore Legislative is likely to endorse the Government’s “plan”. The way is thus clear, as far as the two governments are concerned, for the arrangement. The British has also given the green light to the proposals.

From the whole series of events we can gleam certain definite conclusions:

(1) That the Prime Minister of the Federation does not want a real re-unification between the two territories, in the sense of complete merger with Singapore entering into the Federation as the 12th constituent state. The Tengku has stated this in clear, categorical terms:

“But one thing is certain, and that is that we cannot take Singapore with us in complete merger without a great deal of unhappiness and trouble and so we must find a middle course” (Straits Times, 17/10/61).

(2) That the Tengku favours some sort of constitutional arrangement in a larger Federation of Malaysia, in which Singapore is to be reduced to a mere “partner”:

“What I have in mind is to call such an association or Federation of states the Federation of Malaysia, i.e. all the Federation of Malaya states, the Borneo territories and the Sates of the Federation of Malaya, join in together as a Federation of Malaysia and Singapore is joined in partnership on a footing something like that which exists between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.” (Straits Times 17/10/61).

(3) That the real reason which motivates this move was not a genuine desire for reunification, but to control Singapore’s internal security, and from this to deny Singapore’s citizens the same rights and privileges as other Federal citizens.

Singapore is being treated as a “problem child” (Straits Times 17/11/61, Tengku’s speech). The White Paper, which sets out the heads of agreement for a “merger” speaks of “Equal duties and responsibilities under the Constitution of the larger Federations, “but “Singapore citizens will continue to enjoy their State rights and privileges within Singapore.”

Firstly, on entry into the proposed “merger” Singapore citizens will be asked to shoulder the duties and responsibilities of Federal citizens, but they would have no corresponding rights. They “will continue to enjoy their State rights and privileges within Singapore.” This is untrue. Many of the existing rights which Singapore citizens enjoy, e.g. finance, broadcasting, press and publication, will be placed on the Federal or Concurrent lists (which give the Federal Government the overriding authority). And even those so-called “autonomy” of labour and education are subject to the overall supervisions of “internal security.”Are not the examples of Lim Lian Geok and Said Zahari blatant admissions enough to the mockery of such “autonomy”?

Why does the Tengku reject a re-unification?

To understand this, we must view the curious volte-face on the part of those who had always been antagonistic even at the very mention of “merger.” Had this development been a genuine change of attitude, and is based on a sincere desire to reunify our territories and our people, it would have been widely acclaimed. But the basic motivation is to mount up anti-communist hysteria with the purpose to rush through a freak arrangement whereby socialist strength would be excluded from the constitutional arena in the larger Federation. The way to achieve this is to restrict the democratic rights of the people of Singapore so that they may not be in a position to exert an influence on political trends in the Federation. The Federal Government at the same time can utilities its control over “internal security” to curb tendencies (in the name of anti-communism) which may be detrimental to their interest.

This present “change” in attitude, is merely an admission of the growing threat of Singapore towards the future of the Alliance and not a threat to the security of the Federation, In the first place, how could Singapore be a security risk to the Federation? Why should Singapore seek to be hostile towards our very relatives?

Tengku’s words as regards the apparent change in attitude are revealing and self-explanatory.

“The division of the two territories might be all right at a moment when Singapore was still under the control of Great Britain, as the security of the islands was in the hands of the UK Government, in other words, in safe hands …”

The intention is thus clear: as long as security is in “safe hands” all would be well, but the moment the people west the internal security into their own hands, we must do something about it.

A way must be found, a “middle course” as the Tengku himself puts in. In this he was aided by the “Socialist” PAP. In fact it was the PAP who first made the approach:

“… the Prime Minister of Singapore felt rather concerned and approached me with some of his problems and difficulties. We made a careful study of the situation and came to the conclusion that the only salvation for Singapore would be in some form of closer economic and constitutional association with the Federation.”

So a freak arrangement was effected.

Why did the PAP fear real re-unification?

The political fortune of the PAP is hinged on anti-colonialism. That was the prime purpose for its formation, and the basic reason for its growth. But once the PAP leadership seeks to ignore the anti- colonial struggle when the task is still incomplete, the leadership of the people went out from its hands. The Hong Lim and Anson by-elections further sealed its fate. From then on its future lies in proscribing the growth of the left which forms the most base of the party. The way out for the PAP is thus not the anti-colonial struggle, but the suppression of the left wing. The PAP as such has no fear of the right – its truculent arrogance against the right in Singapore is well-known. Their concept of a “pan-Malayan base for the socialist movement” in actual fact boils down to the total expulsion of the left which gives it its strength and popularity. Thus we are the alliance with the Right in Malaya, and the fear of the left.

Changes in the objective conditions within the region as a whole have also a part to play in the scheme of things. In this context, the interplay of foreign interests must not be ruled out. British interests within this region are well known. But in recent years, with their decline of British colonialism, American capital in collaboration with German and Japanese capital, are making great headway in undermining traditional British interests within the region.

The developments of objective conditions — the rising mood of anti-colonialism, spell danger to these various interests. In the Borneo territories, it is apparent that the anti-colonisation struggle is gaining momentum. The signs of these are obvious: the traditional British colonial policies of “concessions” by stages, the intensified whipping up of the “communist” bogey. In Laos, a neutralist government is in the helm, and this appears to be totally unacceptable to the East. A vituperative campaign is now being waged through Radio Bangkok against Laos. The rising “trouble” in South Vietnam, where Ngoh Dinh Diem rules with an iron hand and American aid is hardly welcome prospect. The visit of General Taylor to the region was followed up by promise of more aid to check “communist subversion, and aggression.” Further south of Malaya, the Republic of Indonesia is fighting to regain her lost territory, West Irian.

The West viewed all these developments — “trouble spots” as they are called in the Pentagon’s military jargon — with great apprehension. America, in particular has assumed for itself the role of the “champion of freedom” for this region. They schemed to involve whatever countries who would listen to them into the cold war through membership of SEATO, etc. The cardinal feature of the American foreign policy is revolved round “anti-communism”. No one can seriously quarrel with her if she restricts her fanaticism to her own shores and does not attempt to export this fanaticism to other countries. The fact that she cannot do so is precisely because of the economic stakes involved, in the world order which she represents.

Ostensibly, the Federation is not in SEATO, although the Tengku himself is personally well-disposed towards it. He had publicly stated this more than once. The fact that he takes into consideration the feelings of the people towards this is praise-worthy. It is also a clear indication that the people wish to remain non-aligned in this cold war conflict. In actual practice however, Alliance policy has tended towards involvement in the cold war. “We are with the West”, “We belong to the Free World” — the Tengku had said this on several occasions. Urgent trips to theatres of “War” and promises of “moral and material aid” are hardly gestures of a neutralist country.

Merger and Malaysia: a brief overview:

In view of the actual practice of the Alliance’s foreign policy, in the context of these carious developments, not only in Singapore and the Federation, but also within the whole region, the Tengku was forced to make a reassessment of the whole situation.

It must be pointed out that from the very beginning when this “change” of attitude takes place, the two separate issues of merger and Malaysia were never kept distinctly apart. The intention was obviously to cloud the real motivations behind the scheme. The overwhelming desire of our people for real reunification was capitalized upon in order to push forward a freak arrangement.

In the editorial in June-July issue (Vol 3 No. 4) called “Trap of Super Merger” FAJAR had set out to postulate, as a first hypothesis, the probable intentions underlying the sudden reversal of the Alliance’s attitude towards the whole question of reunification. The whole approach was to prolong colonial domination within the “whole” region.

“Merger” (“the right kind”) was not longer objectionable, indeed desirable. Long, involved arguments were propounded as to the desirability of merger. Attempts were made to put up an economic case for merger, Singapore cannot survive without merger, Our unemployment problem will worse unless we merge. Industrialization is not feasible in the limited market we have, and we have no raw materials. We depend on the Federation even on our water supply.

On the political front, the spectre of a Communist Singapore was played up — a Singapore hostile to the Federation — Israel in the East, Little China, and now West Irian. If we do not merge, either Singapore or the Federation will be conquered, Racial strife will be the order of the day.

All these arguments were propounded, and they are still being propounded, with the prime purpose to support the general thesis that the left is anti- merger, and to push through a freak arrangement in the name of “merger.”

The left had never at any time been anti-merger, Right from the time of the division, the left had always fought for the realization of reunification. It was the right wing which had been anti-merger, because reunification was opposed to their interests. There is then no need for a fool-proof case to be put up against the left. The fact that the arguments are being put forth, with such compelling and inflated earnestness presupposes certain things. Might it not the prelude to a freak arrangement to be passed off as merger? In actual fact, the economic care for merger is not as rosy as the PAP would have it. The Federation has its own problems, and merger will not usher in an economic paradise. The political case for argument is based principally on the use of threats. The underlying assumption is of a hostile Singapore. Why should Singapore seek to be hostile one does not know? Why should she have to be hostile for, when especially many of the people across the causeway are our relatives?

The Real Nature of Merger and Malaysia.

It is clear that this sudden “enthusiasm” for merger is not based on a genuine desire for reunification but on finding ways and means to contain the growth of the progressive forces in Singapore, and to deny the people their basic democratic rights. This finds manifestation in the concrete form of the proposed “merger.

Under the proposed arrangement, Singapore is to give up everything she now enjoys, except for labour and education. External defence, internal security, and external affairs, will also go to the Federal Government. There would be two separate citizenships, namely Singapore citizens and Federal citizens. A Singapore citizen who enters into the Federation will be to all intents and purposes an alien. The distinction between the two citizenships will be extended to discriminations in various spheres of activities, e.g. employment opportunities, business undertakings, Since not all Singapore citizens are eligible for Federal citizenship, Singapore’s representation in Parliament would be 15 seats, taking into consideration as well the “autonomy” on labour and education.

Under this arrangement, the first essential of a real reunification is absent: namely political integration. Singapore is to remain a separate political entity from the mainland, with the right solely to send a stipulated number of representatives to the Federal Parliament. Her citizens cannot partake of the normal activities of the country on the same level as Federal Government which finds expression in the ultimate control of “internal security.”

Under Malaysia, this arrangement between the Singapore and the Federation will still apply. The three Borneo states will enter as constituent states to the Federation. Singapore is to enter merely as a “partner.”

One probable fear of the people as regards the Malaysia plan is the likely involvement of the whole area into the cold war. Alliance’s foreign policy has tended to make this more than just a mere possibility. In recent years, Alliance policy on this score had tended to isolate Malaya from the main stream of Asian thinking. Our geographical and political reality remind us that our rightful place belongs to Afro-Asia — with Indonesia, Burma, India, and the newly independent African countries likely Ghanna, Guinea and other countries like Algeria which are struggling to achieve freedom. We are united as President Sukarno said in Bandung in 1955 by the “common destestation of colonialism and racialism.”

This present move will strike at the very root of our associations with these countries, if its basic motivation is involvement in the cold war. It may antagonize our nearest neighbor, Indonesia, We remember too well the period of the Sumatran Revolt when a hostile Singapore gave sanctuary to the rebel leaders. A larger territorial unit, advancing in a different direction, may pose a greater threat to the Indonesian people.

Such a development is against the interests of our peoples who do not seek to involve ourselves into the cold war struggle, and who wish to remain friendly and united with our African and Asian neighbours.

The Tengku said that he wanted to bring freedom to the Borneo territories. This is a laudable aim. If the Tengku is really sincere on this score, he should support the movement for self determination and then let the people decide whether they would like to come in or not.

What should be our attitude?

We should always fight for the realization of a genuine merger, because that is the long standing desires of our people, and also because it is in the long term interests of the people, but we should be wary of any attempt to deny us our democratic rights and to be used as a pawn to fight against our neighbours. In any arrangement for real reunification, it is therefore essential that the colonial power be totally excluded from the decision. The people must make the last decision. It the arrangements we seek are not based on temporary expediency, or depending on the reasonableness” of certain political leaders, then we should have no feat to refer the matter to the people. We should seek to expose any false scheme to be passed off as “merger” — and at the same time, pressed forward to set the basic conditions for a real reunification. These revolve round the question of the eradication of colonialism. The greater the measure of freedom we enjoy, the greater is the colonial influence isolated from the decision. The greater is the likelihood for a real reunification based on equality, progress and democracy.


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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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M.K. Rajakumar and Poh Soo Kai

Originally published in FAJAR: ORGAN OF THE UNIVERSITY SOCIALIST CLUB, Issue No. 7, Monday, 10th May 1954. Transcribed by Karen Goh

Looming large in Asia once again is the threat of Western aggression. The West has been the aggressor in modern history and Asia has suffered bitterly from Western barbarity. The bitterness of these memories is not easily removed. They will greatly influence Asian thinking for a long time, until the West proves itself worthy of trust and friendship. (more…)

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Philip Holden

Wang Gungwu is best known as a historian of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, and for a stellar academic career commencing at the University of Malaya in Singapore and culminating in periods as Vice Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, and Director of the East Asia Institute, National University of Singapore. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Wang was a young adult at a turbulent time when modern Southeast Asia was being made during the period of decolonization immediately following the Second World War. (more…)

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Edgar Liao

Few young Singaporeans today would know of Dennis Joseph Enright, a name that might ring only faint bells to some from older generation. As Professor of English at the University of Malaya in Singapore, he had taught for a decade between 1960 and 1970. Enright is inadvertently remembered for his role as key antagonist in the conflict with PAP ministers Ahmad Ibrahim, S. Rajaratnam, and eventually Lee Kuan Yew, over his alleged criticisms of the newly-enthroned PAP government’s cultural policies in November 1960, published in then colonial-owned Straits Times. (more…)

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Lim Cheng Tju

Let me begin with my personal journey. I was teaching Singapore history at a junior college a few years back. It was a source-based paper, using primary and secondary materials to teach the history of Singapore from 1945 to 1965 – from the end of the Japanese Occupation to independence. (more…)

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Event announcement by Francis Lim Khek Gee
Organised by The Tangent
Nov-Dec 2007, Singapore Management University

Exhibition blog archive

In a recent roundtable on ‘Rethinking Singapore History’, a junior college student posed a poignant question that might be regarded as both an indictment and a rallying cry: why is it that, for such a long time, there has been a paucity of historical work that move beyond, or challenge, the dominant state narrative of the ‘Singapore Story’? (more…)

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