by Tay Kheng Soon
I just went to the book launch of my old friend, Arunasalam Mahadeva’s memoirs — “Completing the Singapore story?” — written by his much younger brother Arun Bala. It is a very important narrative of the bad old days. Maha, former Secretary-General of the Singapore National Union of Journalists, was imprisoned twice for his left leanings in the 60s and 70s.
What I think has to be read between the lines is what I call the laggard localist identity. It is what makes Singaporeans feel unworthy in relation to the West. This feeling was confirmed by the reliance on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Ranking.
A totally different narrative of the Singapore story is the political and ideological contest between the local educated and the foreign educated. Every top People’s Action Party (PAP) minister has to have a degree from a top Western university.
When Lee Kuan Yew was hosted by Graham Allison and Henry Kissinger in Harvard in 1968 it sealed Singapore’s identity fate until the rise of the East Asian Tigers and LKY’s infatuation with “Asian Values.”
Be that as it may, some reorientation did occur but the admiration of the West remained. Especially the context of the cold war and western economic, finance and global influence remained strong until recently the success of China.
Singaporean identity continued to lag behind but there was a nagging feeling. “The little red dot”, captured the mood. It is the “red” that compensated for being “little”. But that’s all.
Western Credentialisation continues making a big difference. Notice that every top leader from before must have a higher degree from Cambridge or Harvard. Every building in the Central Business District must be designed by a noted Western Architect. West is best. Local is lousy.
From the beginning it was the local graduates from University of Malaya and Nanyang University in the 50s and 60s that opposed the UK trained PAP minister dominated leadership.
Locals were only useful packing pieces. It was not only a matter of language-identity although this as a major perceptual factor, but it was also the PAP’s version of democratic socialism with its subtle Western bias that contrasted with local activists’ orientation towards the 1954 Bandung Non-Aligned Spirit which conveniently served them as substitute for the emerging English educated “Malayan” and the Chinese educated “Malaiya” identities that served to frame the feeble feelings of localism.
Localism was pitted against Westernism. Local identity was understood as backward kampong versus the progressive modernity of the west. Of course western modernity and western style progressiveness won.
The suppression politics of those early PAP days terminated the search of local identity and the search itself was made unconscious. Those budding sentiments and constipated aesthetics of emerging nationhood dwindled under the rigors of nation building and the dream of becoming a global city.
Edwin Thamboo’s poems “Rib of Earth” of that period that captured the sense of the local and that sense re-emerged 5 decades later in Alfian Sa’at’s “One Fierce Hour.” These represent the faint stirrings of the soul but that’s all.
I will want to develop this idea further but this brief note is just for now.
Discussion on Maha’s memoir today brought it all back.