Life before Lee: When Singapore had a history

Ben Bland
The Asia File

The history of Singapore has not received the level of investigation and coverage that it surely deserves. Not least in Singapore, where a dry, semi-official historical narrative focused on Lee Kuan Yew and the ruling People’s Action Party predominates.

But a new book published by the National Museum of Singapore – Singapore: A Biography by Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow – seeks to change that, albeit in a subtle way. I’ve reviewed it for the latest edition of the Global Asia Journal. Here’s an extract.

Every authoritarian government worth its salt understands the importance of commanding the national historical narrative. It is a concept that was perhaps best encapsulated by George Orwell in his classic dystopian novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.”

Countless one-party states and banana republics have banned books, banished professors and pumped propaganda into the education system. But few have managed so successfully to stamp their imprint on their nation’s history as Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Just as Lee dubbed his two-part memoirs The Singapore Story, so many Singaporeans perceive their own history to be little more than the Lee Kuan Yew story, with a bit of Sir Stamford Raffles thrown in for good measure.

The well-rehearsed official narrative tells of a Singapore that was little more than a sleepy fishing village until Raffles, a representative of the East India Company, arrived in 1819 and planted the British flag there. Raffles built Singapore into a successful trading outpost, but the vast majority of its people remained disenfranchised and mired in poverty until Lee took control amid the social and political turbulence that buffeted the city after the Second World War. Lee then dragged the people of Singapore, initially kicking and screaming, “from third world to first,” as he himself puts it in the sub-title of the second volume of his memoirs.

Given the government’s hegemonic control over the school curriculum, universities and the mass media — and its belief that these institutions must perform a “nation-building” function — this narrative has become deeply entrenched and gone largely unchallenged.

But a new book, Singapore: A Biography, makes a concerted if subtle attempt to wrest Singapore’s historical memory from Lee Kuan Yew’s unyielding grip. Turning the state-sanctioned timeline on its head, the authors begin their study of the island in the 14th century and draw it to a close in 1965, shortly after Lee’s accession to power. There are not many books about Singapore where the first mention of Lee comes on page 327.

The authors, Hong Kong-based academic Mark Ravinder Frost and Singaporean writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, delve into Singapore’s distant and little-known past in an attempt to challenge the orthodoxy that the Southeast Asian island was a stagnant backwater before it was pulled up by the PAP.

Self-consciously following in the footsteps of historian Simon Schama — who believes history should “bring a world to life, rather than entomb it in erudite discourse” — the authors draw vivid portraits of a Singapore shaped by pirates, prostitutes and prima donnas as well as the usual cast of colonial officials and Chinese businessmen.

Much history is invariably written by the victors, but Frost and Balasingamchow try to draw attention to the underdogs and their vital contribution to Singapore’s cultural, economic and political development: the Indian convict laborers who built some of the city’s better-known colonial edifices such as the former Government House (the present-day Istana or president’s residence) and St Andrew’s Cathedral, the opium-sustained Chinese coolies who kept Singapore’s people and goods moving and the Japanese prostitutes who serviced a population dominated by single men away from their families, whether they were colonial officials or rickshaw-pullers.


Continue reading at the Global Asia website.

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