We often talk about Singapore’s history as if it were an orderly transition from colonialism to independence, with only the minor messiness of the Japanese occupation intervening. Yet there was a terribly exciting period between 1945 and 1960 when the entire future of the nation seemed up for grabs, particularly from 1948 when a State of Emergency was declared against the Communist insurgency, and the battle between competing ideologies became a war in all but name. If things had gone differently, the whole of Malaya might well have turned Red. I am fascinated by this whole stretch of our past, one I feel isn’t talked about or known widely enough.
Naturally, I leapt at the chance to translate Yeng Pway Ngon’s Unrest, now published by Math Paper Press. Mr Yeng is one of the nation’s leading Chinese-language authors, with the Cultural Medallion and three Singapore Literature Prizes to his name. Unrest won the prize in 2004, and explores the divergent paths of four characters in their transition from student firebrands in the 1950s to cynical, middle-aged adulterers in the 1980s, aware that nothing in their lives will ever mean as much to them as the movement they were briefly a part of.
The most interesting parts of Unrest describe the protests of the 1950s—vividly drawn from Mr Yeng’s interviews with the surviving participants—in gripping terms: students barricading themselves in their schools, the police breaking in with tear gas and batons, solidarity from the workers’ unions. More than that, a combination of revolutionary fervour and fear of arrest if they remained in Malaya drove many of these young people to travel to China, which most of them regarded as the fatherland despite never having been there, and from where most of them would never return after the Cultural Revolution shut the country’s borders.
Singapore’s political scene these days appears divided along ‘pro-establishment’ and ‘anti-establishment’ lines. With a single party having been in power for so long, it is difficult for any more nuanced position to exist than ‘keep them in’ or ‘kick them out’. At a micro-level, it is mundane issues that predominate—public transport, estate upgrading, primary school places. One seldom hears the idea of the political spectrum being aired, of whether a policy belongs on the left or right, whether a party is moving towards the centre or becoming more radical.
Yet there was a time when large numbers of Singaporeans would have identified as members of the leftist movement, agitating to bring about the departure of the British and better rights for workers—not just a list of individual policies, but also a platform representing a coherent ideology. Remarkably, many of these were students—largely at the Chinese-medium secondary schools (then known as ‘middle schools’). But all that was swept away by universal English education, not to mention the detention or exile of most of the movement in the fifties and sixties—and henceforth, the official version of events was that Singapore (and Malaysia) was almost derailed by misguided socialists, but we have moved past that dark chapter of our history, never to speak of it again.
The Chinese middle school students in Singapore were influenced by the larger leftist movements elsewhere in Malaya and the region, but had their own goals and activities. They read Mao, but also Maxim Gorky and Bertrand Russell. Their activities were aimed at influencing events from within the existing political framework, and often focused on domestic policy—most notably the ‘May 13’ incident of 1954, when Chinese school students gathered to demonstrate against compulsory military conscription—on the grounds that without self-government, they were being forced to fight for a foreign power—and were attacked by police, triggering a riot. Far from being the indoctrinated dupes of Red China, they were strong-minded individuals with a vision of a fairer society free from colonial rule, and were accordingly ready to fight for independence, for worker’s rights, for intellectual freedom.
I meet Mr Yeng at his bookshop on North Bridge Road, Grassroots, on the third floor of a shabby commercial building. There is no signage at street level—you have to know it’s there, which a small but devoted group of followers does, regularly turning up for their fix of Chinese literature. He doesn’t have an office, so we sit on stools in the shop and his wife brings us Milo. There is no where to put my cup but on a shelf. I spend the rest of the conversation trying not to spill Milo on his books.
Mr Yeng is a fiercely energetic man, with steely eyes behind large glasses. I ask him how involved he was with these groups—although being born in 1947, he was too young to have taken part in the 1950s protests. “I had no connection to the leftists, at first,” he says. “It was reading Lu Xun that influenced me. But I wrote poetry that questioned the government, so they detained me.” The Internal Security Department (ISD) held Mr Yeng for four months in the 1970s. Legally, they cannot detain someone for more than thirty days without producing evidence against him or her. So every thirty days, they gave him back his civilian clothes, told him he was free to go, and re-arrested him at the gate—a tactic they were still using in the late eighties, as recounted in Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond The Blue Gate.
Eventually, Mr Yeng was freed. “They held me for four months, no warrant, no charge, nothing. Then one day they just phoned my wife and told her to come and get me. After I was released, the leftists thought I must be one of them, because I was detained, so they contacted me and I got to know them.” Has the government apologised? “No,” he says, looking angry and then sad. “Never. I should ask for compensation, shouldn’t I?” Then he laughs. “But they had to give me the Cultural Medallion, even though they don’t like me—I’d become too famous abroad.” And it’s true, Mr Yeng’s political novels and poetry have made him a more influential figure in the Taiwanese literary scene than in his own country, partly because Chinese writing has fallen out of favour here, partly because he has, at least so far, not crossed the Taiwanese government.
The irony of gaining political awareness through his detention is not lost on Mr Yeng, but he points out that a lot of what shapes our thoughts is down to chance anyway. “I was Chinese-educated, but at Catholic High, which was less left-leaning. If I’d gone to Chinese High or Chung Cheng, which had more politically active student bodies, I might have been involved in leftist activities earlier on.” In fact, he only learnt of these later, when in the course of his research for Unrest he spoke to many former members of the movement, travelling as far as China and Hong Kong to track some of them down.
The question of how our surroundings affect our view of the world is an important one to Mr Yeng. In both Unrest and his latest work, Studio, protagonists question whether they truly hold socialist beliefs, or if they are merely being swept along by peer pressure. Then again, our philosophies are all to an extent formed by those around us—which is all the more reason to allow alternative voices into the discourse, rather than have a monolithic worldview dominate.
While Mr Yeng’s work deals extensively with the left, I would hesitate to call him a socialist writer. He interrogates ideology on all sides, and his leftist characters are as likely as the establishment figures to be shown as flawed and lacking conviction—just like many of us, whatever our political persuasions. InUnrest, for instance, Daming is ‘happy to live in a capitalist society replete with material wealth, experiencing its decadence and culpability whilst expounding on the glories of communism, but he’d never put himself through the deprivation of an actual communist country.’ This is in contrast to writers such as He Jin, who reads like a communist Ayn Rand—simplistic characters, ideologically straightforward choices. When I put this to Mr Yeng, he agrees that ‘socialist realism’ is a problematic genre, being driven by rigid ideology rather than humanity, its characters illustrating precepts rather than being fully-rounded individuals.
Almost everything Mr Yeng says is tinged with melancholy for what we have lost, and the Singapore he describes really does feel like another world. It isn’t just the surface changes, major as these have been—Unrest sketches a Bugis Street still populated by transvestites and American sailors, a Chinese community with their own names for streets and neighbourhoods (anything west of the Singapore River was da po, big hill)—but how committed everyone seems to have been to their vision of the world, and how determined, for all their flaws and weakness, they were to make these changes come to fruition.
Alongside the movements emerging from the Chinese schools, Mr Yeng explores the schools themselves, and particularly how they (along with the Malay and Tamil-language schools) became diminished in importance to the point that they could be shut down, and English-medium education made universal. Both his early work A Man Like Myself and the later Trivialities About Me And Myselfhave protagonists marginalised by their Chinese education finding there is no place for them in modern Singapore. Mr Yeng speaks movingly of the casualties of this change to an English-dominated system, telling me “many of the old people you see wiping kopitiam tables are actually well-educated Chinese school students—but because they don’t speak English, don’t know computers, they can’t get other work.”
It’s difficult to deny that the vernacular school system’s side-lining went beyond issues of language. Hong Lysa says in The May 13 Generation that the authorities imposed “a more centralized and uniform education system to cut down exposure to competing ways of understanding the world.” Schools in Singapore today certainly smack of central control, with both the History syllabus and National Education carefully delineating our narrative of the past.
Does any of this matter today? Mr Yeng insists that Singapore’s current position, as a successful sovereign state, was shaped by the Chinese school students, who were the main force agitating for independence. “The English students wouldn’t have gone against the British—they were trained by them!” And while the English schools spawned their own left-wing movements, as documented in the fascinating book The Fajar Generation, this is a good point—Lee Kuan Yew would not have had as much impetus behind his push for independence without the leftists he later disdained. So, yes. It matters.
This isn’t about taking sides, though I should say here that I’ve always been fascinated by communism. The idea of creating an egalitarian society in which resources and rewards are shared equally is extremely appealing—though ultimately, unworkable in real life. Socialism seems a reasonable compromise, an attempt to mitigate the entrenched privilege and structural inequalities that attend a pure capitalist system. So why do attempts to argue, say, a mandatory minimum wage today meet with in many quarters with a dismissive “Oh, that’s just socialism,” as if that were enough to end the discussion?
It’s difficult not to wonder what would have happened if the leftists had been given more of a say in how Singapore developed—bearing in mind that in the 1950s, they had popularity but not power—and whether there is room for a tiny bit more socialism in the country today. It’s difficult to imagine secondary school students today being as politically engaged as the protesters fifty years ago, and that in itself is a pity. Certainly in a society that is now seeing “illegal” strikes because workers have no other outlet through which to protest against unequal treatment, it is fair to ask whether we’ve thrown our lot too heartily in with capitalism.
And the other question—how far does all of this affect artistic output today? Most people born post-independence know little about the political currents of the 1950s, subscribing to the official line that there was a smooth transition from colonialism to self-government with only a few disruptions by the communists along the way. Even work that deals with this period, such as Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle, tends to use the student movement as a backdrop, rather than delving deeper.
Which is why it was a pleasant surprise to discover visual artist and film-maker Green Zeng’s exhibitionChinese School Lessons, which he describes as “a continuation and expansion of my research and fascination with history.” A history, one might add, that he learned largely through his own efforts and from stories told by his father, rather than through his school education. Green’s pictures examine the iconography of that period—the school uniforms, the slogans—and presents it in a way that manages to be both respectful and gently questioning.
I ask Green—a gruff young man with strong hands—what drew him to this particular topic, given that he was born long after the events that inspired him, and he responds that the issues of “identity, language and history” he is interested in were not created afresh for his generation, but have been investigated before by people such as Chua Mia Tee, whom he is “not really a fan of”, but finds intriguing for his painting National Language Class. This work is a study of a group of people from various ethnicities learning Malay, and its blackboard text ‘Siapa nama kamu?’ (What is your name?) is appropriated and given a different resonance in Green’s rendition. This, perhaps, is how we can engage with an era that feels so remote to us—simply to look at it with modern eyes, discovering how much of it still applies to us, and how elements have transformed with the passage of time.
Culture does not exist in a vacuum. Art and literature are built up through a process of accretion, each generation developing, refining or rejecting the work of those who came before then. We would lose a great deal if we were to ignore these aspects of our past – the 1950s movements and the work they produced, the fruit of the vernacular education system. And yet, our society largely resists picking at this particular scab. When I tell my mother I’m writing about the Chinese middle schoolers for this piece, her response is ‘They were communists, you know. Make sure you don’t get into trouble.’ Which, to be fair, is a perfectly normal attitude in the Singapore of today. Yet the stakes are far lower for us than they were for the students fifty years ago, and if we cannot find the courage to take this small risk, if there are not more artists like Green Zeng and Yeng Pway Ngon who question the version of events they were told by those in charge and look to the past for their own answers, I worry if we will ever be able to move forward.