Deconstructing the Singapore Story

Gareth Curless. “Death of ‘communist’ Fong Swee Suan and a chance to rethink Singapore’s past,” South China Morning Post, February 11, 2017.

Philip Holden. “Tears and Garlands: Lim Chin Siong, Coldstore, and the End(s) of Narrative,” Life Writing, vol. 13, no. 2, 2016, pp. 191-205.

  • This paper considers the role of biography in contemporary remembrance of the moment of decolonisation in Singapore. To challenge a hegemonic developmental narrative told through the biography of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, many popular and academic historians have focused on the lives of political figures previously written out of history. Most notable among these is the opposition leader Lim Chin Siong, who was detained in 1963 in Operation Coldstore, one of several waves of detentions by the security forces during Singapore’s transition from internal self government in 1959, through membership of the Malaysian Federation in 1963, to independent nationhood in 1965. Such acts of storytelling, however, while having an important status as testimony, often simply invert the dominant narrative, trapping their protagonists in a new series of historical binarisms. In contrast, life writing in media less closely wedded to narrative, such as poetry and photography, has perhaps a more radical ability to ask questions of history, through a focus not on storytelling but on images extracted from contexts, on the moment before narrative starts.

Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli. The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts. NUS Press, 2008.

  • The People’s Action Party’s unbroken mandate to rule in Singapore rests in no small part on how it has explained its lineage and record to the electorate. The Scripting of a National History studies the constructed nature of the country’s past as endorsed by the state, and the power vested in it.

Hong Lysa, “The Lee Kuan Yew Story as Singapore’s History,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 2002, pp. 545-557.

  • Despite Lee Kuan Yew’s record, his long service in politics and his firm grip over the country, Singapore’s history cannot be simply reduced to an account of his political career or a study of his pronouncements, as he himself has done.

Hong Lysa. “Revisiting Malaya: Malayan dream or Singapore nightmare,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 2015, pp. 24-34.

  • What “Malaya” is or what it means to Singaporeans today has a history. Revisiting the historical and contemporary scenes where “Malaya” is a subject allows for the fleshing out of the politics underlying the conflict between those who desire and those who despise it. Whether Singapore’s history of the 1950s and early 1960s is the striving for a dream or the forestalling of a nightmare situation is fiercely debated today, after a few decades of quiescence and amnesia, in the face of the hegemonic state narrative.

Huang Jianli. “Positioning the student political activism of Singapore: articulation, contestation and omission,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 7, no. 3, 2006, pp. 403-430.

  • For much of the second half of 20th century, student political activism occupied a special place in the history of many countries and Singapore is no exception. Driven by their youthful energy, idealism and romanticism before they were tied down by the heavy burdens of family, career and property ownership, students of Singapore had also once surged to the forefront of national politics, exerted an influence out of proportion to their numbers and become a force to be reckoned with. Although student politics is an important part of the history of Singapore, the understanding of this topic has been much shackled and its positioning ambiguous. Under the influence of the Cold War rhetoric and with an eagerness to inscribe a victor’s version of events, the ruling People’s Action Party has scripted a national history which simplified the student community into the polarized binary of those who received education under the Chinese medium of instruction and those who learnt in English. The rigidity of this official articulation has led to the tendency of apportioning much greater attention to student activism associated with the former group, while sidelining parallel developments in the latter and largely ignoring the inter‐connectivity between these two groups. It has also framed Chinese educated activists as being the natural agents of Communism. In recent years, this official paradigm has come under contestation by historical political memories, reinterpretation of sources, and emergence of alternative representations through popular culture. This revisionism exposes the disjuncture between the party’s current attempt to entice present‐day students out of their deeply‐seated political apathy and its omission to reconsider the nature and contribution of past student politics. It also opens up unprecedented space for reflections about civic culture and political maturity in Singapore today.

Loh Kah Seng. “Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1998, pp. 1-21.

  • Political groups rarely embrace history for altruistic reasons. In Singapore, the past is an important legitimizing instrument in sustaining the hegemony of the governing People’s Action Party. The PAP government has abandoned its initial hostility to history and embarked on the creation of an authoritative “Singapore Story” of the nation’s past. Official initiatives like National Education, introduced in 1997, draw selectively from Singapore’s history to formulate sustained themes like the country’s “vulnerability” and the need for “communitarian values.” The object lessons drawn from the past are directed toward young Singaporeans, whose supposed individualism and preference for parliamentary opposition are perceived by the PAP as proof of a dangerous disregard for such lessons. The most compelling chapter of the “Singapore Story,” that dealing with the 1950s and 1960s, has been authorized primarily by the personal experiences of the PAP Old Guard, whose privileged positions as leaders of government during that period have allowed them to pre-empt alternative interpretations of contemporary events.

Loh Kah Seng and Liew Kai Khiun. The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History. Ethos Books, 2010.

  • In exploring the past, researchers labour in the present: to locate the archival document which is located somewhere behind a gate with its keeper; or to find that elusive participant who will throw light on a gap in our knowledge, and convince them to speak. The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History meditates on this relationship between past and present in a developmental city-state. It discusses how researchers seek to gain entry to archives and memories, in endeavours which crucially shape the imagination of Singapore as a nation and the identity of its people as citizens.

Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin, and Jack Meng-Tat Chia (editors). Living with Myths in Singapore. Ethos Books, 2017.

  • Singapore is a mythic nation, where our ‘reality’ and ‘common sense’ are conditioned by a group of influential myths. Our main myths are examined in this collection of essays and thoughts on the social ramifications of myth-making: The Singapore Story (that our nation has a singular story), From Third World to First (our story of success), Vulnerability and Faultlines (the threats we still face despite success) and A Deficient People (the threats exist because people remain immature). Myths build social consensus but also marginalise crucial stories, perspectives and possibilities that don’t fit the main narrative. Should we teach our students to be good citizens by telling them one unifying narrative of Singapore, or many varied narratives? Have we always said no to social welfare, or to the casino? Is liberal democracy necessarily a threat to social stability? Have Singaporeans historically been apathetic, ignorant or irrational? The contributors to this book believe that knowing, and debating, how we live with myths will help us to better understand Singapore today, and to imagine its future. Here they share the robust discussions and debates which took place from 2014 to 2015 even as Singapore celebrated 50 years of full independence.

Michael Barr. The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence. I.B Tauris, 2014.

  • Michael Barr explores the complex and covert networks of power at work in one of the world’s most prosperous countries – the city-state of Singapore. He argues that the contemporary networks of power are a deliberate project initiated and managed by Lee Kuan Yew – former prime minister and Singapore’s ‘founding father’ – designed to empower himself and his family. Barr identifies the crucial institutions of power – including the country’s sovereign wealth funds, and the government-linked companies – together with five critical features that form the key to understanding the nature of the networks. He provides an assessment of possible shifts of power within the elite in the wake of Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, assuming power, and considers the possibility of a more fundamental democratic shift in Singapore’s political system.

Michael Barr. Singapore: A Modern History. I.B. Taurus, 2019.

  • Michael Barr explores the complex and covert networks of power at work in one of the world’s most prosperous countries – the city-state of Singapore. He argues that the contemporary networks of power are a deliberate project initiated and managed by Lee Kuan Yew – former prime minister and Singapore’s ‘founding father’ – designed to empower himself and his family. Barr identifies the crucial institutions of power – including the country’s sovereign wealth funds, and the government-linked companies – together with five critical features that form the key to understanding the nature of the networks. He provides an assessment of possible shifts of power within the elite in the wake of Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, assuming power, and considers the possibility of a more fundamental democratic shift in Singapore’s political system.

Thum Ping Tjin. “The Malayan vision of Lim Chin Siong: unity, non-violence, and popular sovereignty,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, 2017, pp. 391-413.

  • Lim Chin Siong was the undisputed political leader of the anticolonial and Malayan left-wing in Singapore until his detention without trial in 1963 ended his political career. That he had a major impact on Singapore’s decolonisation is beyond dispute – indeed, both Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew formulated their merger policy specifically in response to Lim’s politics and his values. Yet Lim remains a poorly understood figure because of a lack of sources and a historiography written almost entirely from his opponents’ perspectives. Reassessing existing literature in view of recently declassified British archives, this essay pieces together Lim’s articulation of three tenets in the political thinking that guided his tactics for social mobilisation: anticolonial unity, non-violence, and popular sovereignty. Lim put these principles into practice with great success, becoming the leader of the largest and most formative nationalist movement Singapore has ever known. Understanding Malayan nationalism in Singapore – and its successor, Singaporean nationalism – is thus impossible without understanding Lim Chin Siong.

Walid Jumblatt Abdullah. “Selective history and hegemony-making: The case of Singapore,” International Political Science Review, vol. 39, no. 4, 2018, pp. 473-486.

  • This article attempts to analyze the process of selective history and hegemony-making in Singapore, and makes the following arguments. Firstly, the birth of the nation-state led the political elites to rely on several hegemonic ideologies as founding myths, chief of which is the idea of ‘survival’. Secondly, to create and sustain these ideologies, two things needed to be done concurrently: de-emphasize the Malay-ness of the nation’s past; and accentuate the racial/religious nature of sources to instability. Finally, the article makes the claim that these ideologies have been successfully perpetuated, and outlines the contours of this success. In making these arguments, the article hopes to argue against Singapore ‘exceptionalism’ in studies on democratization, and further contends that the link between ideas, history and authoritarianism needs to be considered more seriously.