The Writer as Historian

From the archives (January 4, 2017):

The Writer as Historian: Written Country as Historiography
by P. J. Thum


In the introduction of Written Country (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2016), editor Gwee Li Sui sets up his central premise: the writer as historian and literature as historical record. Written Country, he explains, “tells the modern history of Singapore … by carefully constructing not one but two major selections. The first selection involves fifty key historical moments that are chosen and arranged to form the bare skeleton of a historical narrative. The second selection involves what eventually adds up to fifty-four mostly published English texts and passages supplying the literary content.”

To understand this book, it is crucial to note that very few of the texts can be considered primary sources. With a few exceptions, only towards the end do we have texts which are contemporaneous with the events they describe. Only with “Radio Broadcast – A Nation in the Making” (1957) do we get such a text– but, conversely, it is not tied to a single event. Only with “Operation Coldstore” (1963) do we have something written by someone who was intimately involved with the event under examination. Written Country can only be seen as a primary source on a few events in Singapore’s history from the 1980s onwards.

Accordingly, the central premise of the book is not literature as primary source, but literature as secondary text. Each literary work or extract – by well-known Singaporean authors such as Goh Sin Tub, Gopal Baratham, Rex Shelley, Catherine Lim, Philip Jeyaretnam, and Alfian Sa’at – is prefaced by a short blurb by the editor. Set in this context by the editor, each literary text is a response to history, rather than a narrative of it.

The result is a unique work: a historical text that consists entirely of literary source material, through which the Singapore story can be told. The selections are, in and of themselves, excellent pieces – thought-provoking and reflective in their own ways. Written Country provides a new entryway into Singapore history, provoking more emotional resonance and reflection than an academic history monograph.

This review, however, does not address the quality of the imaginative texts. It claims no literary expertise. Indeed, a literary review of the book has been expertly done elsewhere. Instead, this review analyses Written Country as historiography – how good is it as a history of Singapore?

In this regard, it unfortunately replicates the chief flaws of Singaporean historiography.

Firstly, its collection of texts are overwhelmingly written in English, which was and remains the language of the elite in Singapore. As with Singaporean historiography in general, this skews the perspective of our history, privileging the English educated elite, who generally also come from upper class backgrounds. The 1947 census found only around 11% of Singaporeans could speak, read, and write English fluently, which means that any selection of texts has to be heavily weighted against English language sources, and towards those written in the vernacular languages – Malay, Tamil, and the Chinese languages – in order to fully encompass the wide breadth and diversity of the Singaporean experience. This is not to say that the texts have to be in the vernacular, but they have to accurately reflect the lives and experience of those who existed outside the Anglophone sphere, and often the only way to accurately capture that experience is in the language that it was lived in.

Indeed, Singapore’s literary culture is far richer in the vernacular. Following the New Culture Movement in China, Singapore’s literary culture from the 1920s included a rapidly growing local Chinese tradition. Between 1945-1959, a massive 414 new Chinese periodicals appeared. 140 appeared in the brief “Malayan Spring” between 1945 and 1948 (when the Malayan Emergency suppressed media activity). Following the end of the Emergency, another 153 new periodicals were published for the first time between 1955 and 1959 (Chui 1993: 155).

This was accompanied by a surge in publications in Bahasa Malaya. As our new national language following independence, many Malayans sought to build a new Malayan consciousness by learning and writing in our National Language. Singapore, as the wealthiest, most connected, and most literate city in maritime Southeast Asia, was the intellectual and publishing capital of the Malay world until the 1960s. An accurate history of Singapore has to, at minimum, take into account the multiple, overlapping, vernacular worlds in which Singaporeans lived.

Secondly, the periodisation and spatialisation of Singapore history, starting in 1942 and showing only the island, reflects official narratives and not necessarily what mattered to Singaporeans. The Japanese Occupation was undoubtedly a hugely traumatic event, but to use it as a starting point makes us overlook the important continuities that existed between pre- and post-war Singapore. The emergence of local nationalism can be dated to the events of the 1920s, part of the massive wave of nationalist revolutions sweeping the world. The terror of the Japanese Occupation was, for Chinese Singaporeans, a consequence of the anti-Japanese campaigns from the late 1930s (and their suppression by the British until 1940). Equally, a story of Singapore would not be complete without an account of the traumas of the 1930s, the division of Malaya into two parts in 1946 (with Singapore left out of the new state), or the Malayan Emergency in 1948.

Likewise, the historical concept of Singapore as an independent state is very recent, dating from the publication of Professor Mary Turnbull’s A History of Singapore in 1977. Before that, Singapore was conceived as part of the Straits Settlements, or as part of Johor. This reflected much old administrative and political arrangements that pre-dated Singapore’s emergence as an independent state in 1965, but which were inconvenient facts for the two governments on both sides of the causeway trying, post-facto, to create new nation-states out of entities which reflected colonial and nationalist political manipulation.

In other words, the “Singaporean” consciousness of our history can be discerned from as far back as the 1920s, or as recently as the 1970s, depending on how a person defined “Singaporean” – and there were many people who defined “Singapore” in those ways. Likewise, “Singapore” was previously (and still is) imagined as part of greater entities – the Johor Sultanate; the Straits Settlements; Malaya – and these imaginings might still exist as political reality if their proponents had managed to win crucial arguments in our decolonisation.

Third, as the texts are responses to the short blurbs which open each chapter, it is crucial that the blurbs set the context as accurately as possible. Unfortunately, the blurbs often repeat common misconceptions of Singapore history, either through crucial omissions or factual errors.

– “The Maria Hertogh Riots” (Ch. 4), for example, neglects to mention that Muslim anger was the result of decades of systemic discrimination by the colonial authorities against non-Europeans and non-English speaking. The Hertogh case was not an isolated incident, but the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

– “The National Service Riots” (Ch. 5) presents an inaccurate account of events which unfairly demonises the students. The students were not “refusing to defend a colonial government” but rather were requesting that the government would guarantee that it would adhere to its stated policy of allowing those in full-time education to defer National Service until they had completed their schooling. The British had previously promised to do this in the Federation of Malaya, but failed to do so. Naturally, Singapore’s students responded to the same promise by the British in Singapore by asking for a guarantee in writing. It was not “many students” who participated but a tiny minority of students (around 2% of those eligible). After a meeting with the Colonial Secretary on 11 May, the deadline was extended by ten days, to 21 May; hence the students were not in violation of the deadline. The students submitted a petition to the Governor, who agreed to meet with a small delegation on 13 May. Many students turned up to support the delegation and to wait outside Government House (the Istana) to await the outcome. There was no “demonstration” nor a “march on the Istana with a petition”. Newspaper reports make it clear that the Riot Police arrived and struck first on peaceful, defenceless students.

– The blurb overstates the impact of the Hock Lee Bus Strike (Ch. 8). The strike did not have the impact of “effectively paralysing Singapore’s public transport network” – there were around eight private bus companies, along with the Singapore Traction Company, at that time, of which Hock Lee was but one. The strike was but one of several, across different industries, that were going on at the same time. A sympathy general strike, called for 12 to 13 May, would have paralysed the public transport network, but the riot broke out the same day.

– “The Chinese Middle School Riots” (Ch. 11) presents an inaccurate picture of Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock’s actions. At minimum, it is accepted that his actions were politically motivated (to prove to the British that he had a firm grip on internal security, thus improving his negotiating position for constitutional concessions) and impacted many legitimate organisations as well. The myth of Lim Chin Siong’s “pah mata” speech has been debunked, and the speech cannot be said to have “compounded” the mayhem – quite the opposite, since he urged the audience to be friendly with the police.

– Conversely, the blurb for “Operation Coldstore” (Ch. 17) is an artful exercise in understatement and omission: “The operation was understood to have severely crippled the underground Communist network in Singapore.” This sentence is technically correct, in the same sense that a bomb dropped on Singapore would reduce the mosquito population. However, just as the bomb would kill a lot of innocent people, damage valuable infrastructure, and set back Singapore’s economic development, so did Coldstore destroy the lives of many innocent people, damage important institutions and principles of good governance, and set back Singapore’s political development for generations. The careful understatement and technical accuracy of this blurb suggests that the author is aware of the extensive research – by Tim Harper (2015), Matthew Jones (2002), Simon Ball (1999), Geoff Wade (2013), and myself (2013), among others – who have convincingly demonstrated that Coldstore was an exercise designed primarily to neutralise Singapore’s political opposition, not to address any particular security issue. However, possibly because of the issue of censorship in Singapore, this blurb has chosen to carefully skip around the issue. Like many other works on Singapore history, this blurb demonstrates an error of omission, rather than commission.

– Finally, the blurb for “Singapore in the Federation of Malaysia” (Ch. 20) has a number of inaccuracies. Firstly, the country’s name, as stated in Article 1 of the Malaysian Constitution, is simply “Malaysia”. Secondly, rather than “years of planning and consultation”, merger was conducted in secret and in a rush. The core political arrangement was hammered out throughout the better part of 1961; the core financial arrangement was forced through between March and July 1963. In both cases, only a handful of men were privy to the discussions. Thirdly, it is far more accurate to say that the ideological differences between the Federal government in KL and the Singapore state government centred around the PAP’s participation in national government. Their actual positions evolved in response to changing political circumstances, and the PAP only debuted the phrase “Malaysian Malaysia” in March 1965, fewer than five months before separation. Finally, Tunku Abdul Rahman did not expel Singapore. As Goh Keng Swee related in 1996 (Chew 1996) – and since corroborated by other sources – separation was proposed in a meeting between Goh and Malaysian Deputy PM Razak, and was negotiated in secret between a handful of men on both sides. Singapore’s active role in separation was kept secret afterwards, until 1996, when Goh revealed his role in the events of 1965. Goh’s “Albatross File”, with his documents for his negotiation of separation, has since been publicly displayed in the National History Museum.

The above list of corrections may seem, at first glance, to be minor. However, they are critical differences because the Singapore government has based decades of policy on flawed or incomplete interpretations of history. The flawed official narrative about the Chinese school students and the National Service protest, for example, has been held as an example of the radicalism of the students and their infiltration by subversive communist elements, thus justifying both the disproportionate riot police response and the subsequent violence against the students and the schools over the ensuing decades, concluding with the closure of Chinese language education in 1980. Likewise, the erroneous official narratives of the Hock Lee Bus Strike and Operation Coldstore justify the use of detention without trial against opposition politicians, trade unionists, and activists, from the 1950s to the 1980s. It is important that they be set straight, not just so that we can examine the past critically, honestly, and openly, but also because we need to have an accurate understanding of our past in order to better understand our present and to inform our critical decisions for our future. [Editor’s note: this last paragraph was added on January 16, 2017.]

To conclude, it is important to emphasise that the deficiencies of language and class, and temporal and spatial limitations, are widespread in Singapore’s historiography. These limitations are not inherently negative, but it is important for historical works to be self-aware and understand their own limited perspective of history. This is an excellent book, and a valuable one for the perspectives it presents. But like all history, it is limited by its sources, and readers should be aware of such limitations as they engage with the text.

Works Cited

-Ball, Simon J. “Selkirk in Singapore.” Twentieth Century British History 10, no. 1 (1999): 162-91.
-Chew, Melanie. Leaders of Singapore. Singapore: Resource Press, 1996.
-Chui, Kwei Chiang. Xinjiapo huawen baokan yu baoren [新加坡华文报刊与报人]. Singapore: Haitianwenlunqiya, 1993.
-Harper, Tim N. “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’.” In Comet In Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, edited by Soo Kai Poh, 3-55. Kuala Lumpur: SIRD and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2015.
-Jones, Matthew. Conflict and Confrontation in Southeast Asia, 1961-1965: Britain, the United States and the Creation of Malaysia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
-Thum, Ping Tjin. “‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia.” Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series No 211 (2013).
-Wade, Geoff. “Operation Coldstore: A Key Event in the Creation of Modern Singapore.” In The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years, edited by Soo Kai Poh, Kok Fang Tan and Lysa Hong, 15-72. Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2013.


Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, PJ obtained his doctorate from Oxford in 2011. He was previously a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. His work centres on decolonisation in Southeast Asia, and its continuing impact on Southeast Asian governance and politics. He is creator of “The History of Singapore”, a weekly radio show on BFM89.9 in Malaysia, available at or on iTunes.