Singapore turned 51 this year. To celebrate and commemorate, The Straits Times set up a vote for an object that best represents the year 2016, as part of the series called “Singapore’s history in 51 objects”. It is a beautifully rendered, interactive graphic list, arranged periodically in a timeline, all the way from the 10th century to present day. The 51st object turned out to be Bishan Park’s family of otters (beating out my vote of ‘Singlish’), which, in a way, is perfect for this collection of items which include chicken rice, vintage payphones and an Olympic medal; they are uncontroversial, objects of heritage rather than history:
Such “objects of banality”, as socio-psychologist Michael Billig would call them, are meant to evoke, not provoke, spurring only uncomplicated feelings of nostalgia, pride, and especially in the case of the otters, warm fuzziness.
Here’s an object embodying the opposite of that:
A three-legged chair. What does it represent? It means days and days of interrogation with no way to rest. To fall asleep is to fall, or worse. It means the feeling of having your world, your centre of gravity, turned on its head. It means teetering on the brink of your sanity.
This object, when contextualised, unquestionably provokes. It aggravates us, urges us to re-examine (I’m echoing the ‘re-’ in Singaporean advocacy group Function 8’s motto) what hasn’t been, until recent years, discussed. It is an object that would have been, if it were ever included in the canonical narrative, under the year 1963. That year is inconspicuously missing from the timeline in The Straits Times, its absence only glaringly apparent to a number of people in Singapore.[Source: Function 8]
That number is growing. I only learned of what the three-legged chair meant yesterday at the book launch of Living in a Time of Deception, a memoir of Dr. Poh Soo Kai, a founding member of the People’s Action Party and former political detainee of 17 years. This memoir is a historical, not political one. One of the editors of the book, Dr. Hong Lysa (a historian I have been following and citing avidly since I read her co-authored book A Scripting of National History when I was 17), reminded us in her presentation that there is a difference: this book is a result of painstaking, critical scrutiny of archival documents as much as it is a recount of Dr. Poh’s life history.
This book launch, organised by the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, was denied several venues in Singapore with no reason given, including the Tan Kah Kee Auditorium; philanthropist Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961) was Dr Poh’s maternal grandfather. I was therefore enormously privileged to be able listen to this 84-year old man calmly, lucidly and logically outline the politically tumultuous years circa Merdeka, not in any way drawing attention to himself or his role but choosing to concentrate on what he calls “fixing” the image of his former colleague Lim Chin Siong, a much maligned character in the state-approved Singapore Story.
Dr. Hong Lysa spoke next, and hers was a review of all the historical literature of the political left in Singapore that has managed to be published. It was a stirring presentation, and you can get a sense of her well-deserved gratification at the fact that, from the year 2010 onwards, there have been many writings and publications ‘rejuvenating’ the history of Singapore that have received unprecedented attention from critics and the public alike. She focuses on one in particular: a graphic novel by Sonny Liew called The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I have a treasured copy in my bookshelf, and I understood her wholeheartedly when she remarks on Liew’s ability to capture what historians can’t in a thousand words in one comic panel:
Of course, I had to put my hand up when Q and A came along. I wanted to know why, in this particular juncture in Singapore’s history, is the general movement for alternative narratives, other Singapore Stories to emerge happening. Why now? Why To Singapore With Love (Tan Pin Pin 2014 film on political exiles), why Charlie Chan (2015), why are we all gathering here in a packed room right now listening to Dr. Poh? I was curious, partly, of my own fascination with alternate narratives that emerged at a similar time and spurred me to do my PhD project and co-create a group such as Perspectives on the Past in SEA.
Dr Poh patiently walked to the podium to tell us, understandably, that he wanted to write the book immediately after he was released (in 1982 after his second arrest). But the long and short of it was that the archives were too closed for any meaningful historical inquiry. Dr Hong’s answer was more impassioned: it takes years and years of reflection to be able to make sense of your life story and place it in the national narrative. The right question would be to ask: how did these individuals manage to put forth their stories, cogently and critically, in the first place?
Indeed. And although it was a partial answer to my question (which extended to the burgeoning awareness amongst non-detainees), perhaps it is through the strength of these writers’ convictions that people like me have been inspired and instigated. It also made me marvel at Dr Poh’s relaxed, easy smile and peaceful demeanour. An elderly Australian gentleman in front of me in the autograph queue remarked, “I wonder, is it a Chinese thing? Australians would have railed and ranted against the injustice of it all. Where is your anger?” Dr Poh, amused, gave another one of his smiles and chuckled, “No, it is not a Chinese thing.” What it is, I thought, must be years of the determination to come to terms with what happened so that other Singaporeans like me can appreciate his story today.
Stories like these are why Perspectives of the Past exist, and what we exist for: in the hope that countries like Singapore can finally work towards a multi-vocal, embodied, critically reflexive historiography and history.
Cheng Nien Yuan urges people interested in the political history of modern Singapore to listen to historian at Oxford University Thum Ping Tjin’s podcast, The History of Singapore. Episodes 43 and 44 deal with Operation Coldstore, which saw people like Dr Poh detained without trial.