Debunking the "Singapore Story"
Most Singaporeans would have heard of the 'Singapore Story' – after the frenzy of SG50 last year, it would be difficult not to. The tale of Singapore's journey from colonial port city (or fishing village) to metropolis under the leadership of the indefatigable Lee Kuan Yew and his People's Action Party (PAP) is well-known, and the passing of Lee in March 2015 prompted a week of national mourning, an outpouring of spontaneous grief and tributes galore.
The crowd on 13 February was different. The young mixed with the old, opposition politicians rubbing shoulders with activists and journalists. The room was jam-packed, people sitting on the floor against the walls and in the aisles, a surprisingly good turn-out for the launch of Dr Poh Soo Kai's memoirs, Living in a Time of Deception.
Vehicles in Singapore still drive around sporting black-and-white tribute ribbons for Lee Kuan Yew, but there was little reverence for the city-state's first Prime Minister in the room that afternoon. Many attendees had been contemporaries of the man, still able to recall the days when he had been a lawyer and self-professed anti-colonialist in the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s. Some had been Lee's victims, too, spending years in detention for alleged crimes never proven in a court of law.
The author himself is one such man; arrested during Operation Coldstore in 1963, Dr Poh Soo Kai went on to spend 17 years behind bars. A member of the University Socialist Club and editor of its newspaper The Fajar, then a member of the left-wing party the Barisan Sosialis, Poh had been right in the middle of things, witnessing up close the history of post-war Singapore. His memoirs, then, are an attempt to allow readers to see this history unfold through his eyes.
"This is not just a historical memoir, but a historic publication, a landmark publication," said historian Hong Lysa, who co-edited the book with Wong Souk Yee, herself a former political detainee. "It is the first account that links post-war Singapore history from the 50s to present day, not following the logic of the 'Singapore Story'."
With the publication of essays, books and blog posts, former political detainees from the 1960s all the way through to the 1980s have found avenues to open up about their experiences, challenging the mainstream narrative in ways previously considered impossible. But obstacles continue to exist for those who are eager to speak out.
"When [social enterprise Function 8] undertook to organise this launch, it did not envision the many difficulties it would encounter in securing a venue for it," Poh told the crowded room. Attempts to secure the Medical Alumni Auditorium had failed, despite the fact that Poh could be considered a member of the alumni and had launched The Fajar Generation – the first book he had edited – there. The organisers then tried to book the Tan Kah Kee Auditorium. Owned by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), the auditorium is named after Chinese businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee, Poh's maternal grandfather. Although Function 8 paid the deposit required to book the space, the SCCCI later decided to cancel the reservation with no reason given.
"It is sad to note that I, a grandson, cannot make use of a hall that is in my grandfather's name to launch my memoir which also pays homage to the old man. This, to me, is a sign of a very sick society," Poh observed.
In describing the work that had gone into the book, Hong noted that the final product might not provide the easiest read, with plenty of documentation and footnotes provided. Wryly noting that Poh's account would undoubtedly be placed under scrutiny by the establishment and combed over for any inconsistency or opening for rebuttal, she commented that the ability to write without having to provide heavy documentation is a "privilege of those in power".
Both Hong and Poh welcomed the scrutiny and expected debate, but expressed hopes that the discussion would be in the furtherance of knowledge and understanding, rather than attempts to re-assert the dominance of the 'Singapore Story'.
"History, to me, is a subject that is based on facts," Poh said. "One may have different interpretations of the facts and one can argue over the interpretations but the facts must be there. ... History is not a tale that can be fabricated or conjured out of thin air. A 'Singapore Story' cannot masquerade as the history of Singapore."