The leftist hole in history books


Protesters fleeing amid tear gas released during the Hock Lee bus riots in 1955. Chinese-medium school students were responsible for the riots, as well as other anti-British protests in the 1950s. — ST FILE PHOTO

To not tell all sides of the story is to do the young a disservice

Two subjects made the news recently, one to do with Singapore’s turbulent political history and the other, the restless, questioning symbols of its future.

Former leftist leader and ex-political detainee Lim Hock Siew died at age 81 on June 4, leading several friends and observers to call for a fairer accounting of his contributions towards the making of a new nation.

In the same week, a teenage blogger’s critique of a minister who had thrown back questions on topical issues posed by pre-university students – with the aim of sussing out what students themselves thought – stirred debate.

What struck me was not so much the expletives 17-year-old Reuben Wang used in his blog post or his subsequent apology to Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, but the reactions by other young people to what is a common rhetorical device at ministerial forums. The consensus among those interviewed by this newspaper was that any sharing of views has to cut both ways and, above all, they want to hear from the horse’s mouth the policymaker’s view of thorny issues.

Essentially, not only are the Generations Y and Z of this world more outspoken through social media, they also place a higher premium on transparency than their elders, given their exposure to all kinds of views on the Internet.

The relevance of this for the teaching of history is that it is much better to deal with the stories of the leftists in a balanced way – and in the process, give the young tools to make informed judgments – rather than maintain a studied silence on these anti-establishment figures and have young Singaporeans lionise them simply because of their marginalised status.

To be fair, the teaching of the country’s political history has evolved somewhat from my student days. A look at the current lower secondary textbook on Singapore history shows that a whole page is now devoted to Mr Lim Chin Siong, the most influential left-wing leader in the run-up to Singapore’s independence, who died in 1996. The biographical sketch outlines his political career up to his detention without trial from 1963 to 1969. It even includes a quote from the first Chief Minister of Singapore, Mr David Marshall, who upon being introduced to Mr Lim in 1955 by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, was told by the latter that Mr Lim was ‘the finest Chinese orator in Singapore and he will be our next prime minister’.

However the large numbers of politically active Chinese-medium school students, whose support propelled to power a PAP comprising Mr Lee’s moderates and Mr Lim’s leftist faction, still get short shrift in the textbook, studied by all lower secondary students.

The Chinese school students, responsible for the Hock Lee bus riots and other anti-British protests in the 1950s,

  • are seen largely as violent dissenters manipulated by the communists. That is only one side of the story,
  • the other being their frustration at being an underclass in colonial society, pride in the Chinese language and culture and their sense of idealism, justice and social discipline.
  • These qualities – in contrast to the largely apathetic English-educated students at the time – were highlighted by Mr Lee himself in his memoirs, as well as by English-educated leftists like Dr Lim Hock Siew in his oral history interview with the National Archives.

The history syllabus also says very little about the Barisan Sosialis, the leftist party founded by the likes of Dr Lim and Mr Lim Chin Siong and the main opposition to the PAP in the 1960s.

The likely reason is the touchy matter of the detentions of many leftists under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for preventive detention of security threats before a crime has been committed. Detainees are arrested based on classified intelligence and never tried in open court.

The two Lims as well as Mr Fong Swee Suan and Dr Poh Soo Kai – two other prominent former leftists who are still alive – were among more than 100 left-wing politicians and trade unionists detained under the ISA in Operation Coldstore. The lower secondary history textbook mentions this security operation in a footnote, saying those arrested were ‘alleged to be involved in subversive activities to establish a ‘Communist Cuba’ in Singapore’.

Dr Lim, who was detained for a total of 19 years because he refused to agree to conditions that would have granted earlier release, is not mentioned.

These Barisan leaders deserve a fuller sketch putting their actions in context. While they were undoubtedly influenced by Marxist and socialist ideas prevalent at the time, some historians have since judged there to be inconclusive evidence as to whether they were acting as part of a wider communist united front or on their own initiative.

In the end, they proved to be on the wrong side of history and it is doubtful if Singapore’s economy would have been as successful under a leftist government. Yet, as one letter writer pointed out in The Straits Times Forum Page, pro-working class activists like Dr Lim ‘provided a formidable psychological force to ensure that any newly elected government of post-independent Singapore would have only one option – to be corruption-free and effective to improve the livelihood of the people’.

Today, the official pro-PAP version of Singapore’s history has been challenged by published accounts of former leftists, also circulated online.

The result, however, is a tendency by some young Singaporeans to be ‘reading the past selectively for heroes and acts of repression in order to address contemporary concerns’, as a new book by four Singapore historians and educators puts it. The book is about one of the cradles of political activism in the 1950s, the University of Malaya’s University Socialist Club. Authors Loh Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Lim Cheng Tju and Seng Guo Quan say their response to such selective reading is to ‘tell an empathetic story of the club, detached from the old cliches of communist manipulation, while not forgetting the ideological blinkers and failures in the club’s history’.

To make history meaningful for the young, the least school lessons could do is strive for an accurate and impartial account that covers all sides.

The bottom line is that there was nothing inevitable about this nation state. It was formed out of a contest of ideas, and the passion, determination, self-sacrifice and intellectual verve shown by the People’s Action Party Old Guard and their opponents are all qualities the young can learn from.

History, which is fundamentally about weighing one source against another, equips the young with the critical skills to parse evidence and come to their own conclusions. Needless to say, your future and mine depend on how effectively they can do that in all areas of life.

clare@sph.com.sg
By Clarissa Oon, Senior Writer, Published on Jun 17, 2012, StraitsTimes

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