Singapore: A Modern History – Faizah Zakaria speaks to Michael Barr on his new book

Singapore’s history has generally been represented through a linear, upward trajectory “from Third World to the First,” in the words of the postcolonial state’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. In his book Singapore: A Modern History (Bloomsbury, 2020), Michael D. Barr synthesises a story that complicates this progress narrative and critiques the foundational timeline of the state-sponsored history known as the ‘Singapore Story.’ At the center of the Singapore Story is modernization through good governance and outstanding leadership that set it apart from the rest of the region. This book re-positions Singapore’s history vis-à-vis peninsular Malaysia and the world, while re-considering its claims to exceptional governance.

In this interview, we discuss the problematics of the “Singapore Story,” how we can reposition figures like Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew when we step back from a great man narrative, the relationship of colonialism with modernity, the elimination of the political left in Singapore and the prospects of sustaining a Singapore exceptionalism.

Michael D. Barr is Associate Professor of International Studies at Flinders University in Australia. He was recently elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and is an associate editor of Asian Studies Review.

Faizah Zakaria is an assistant professor of history at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. You can find her website at or reach her on Twitter @laurelinarien.

More from New Books on Southeast Asian Studies

New Books on Southeast Asia: Melissa Crouch on the Myanmar Constitution

On the unusual context for the drafting of the Constitution of Myanmar, and its impact on present-day politics.

Nick Cheesman talks to Sara Davies about her new book on the politics of disease outbreaks in Southeast Asia

Sara Davies joins us for a coronavirus pandemic special on New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to talk about health security and political sovereignty in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Nick Cheesman in conversation with Sumit K. Mandal on “Becoming Arab”

A discussion on the power and limits of colonial racial categories; Hadramis, Sayyids and Sharifas in maritime Southeast Asia; modernity and cultural hybridity; the descendants of Arabs in the Malay world today;