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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

3-in-1 History Book Reads like a Thriller - Sept 6

This is a history book that reads like a thriller.

There is a historical puzzle, unresolved.

How did Lee Kuan Yew become prime minister of Singapore?

There is plenty of cloak and dagger plotting.

There is Lee's chief aide - entrusted with the sensitive job of keeping tabs on party branches and the fledgling grassroots movement in the People's Association - who turned out to be a communist mole.

There is the Fort Canning bungalow, commandeered by Goh Keng Swee for the People's Action Party (PAP) legislative assemblymen, which became the hive of left-wing intrigue.

And there is the mystery of what really happened one night on a kelong - who plotted against the PAP leaders?

Unlike conventional history books, this one takes an unabashedly anecdotal approach, telling the story of the PAP through interviews with more than 300 people and 200 oral histories from the National Archives, augmented by published records.

It has no pretensions to be academically objective. Thankfully for the casual reader, it is also devoid of jargon.

But this book is no lightweight either. Instead, it is a serious attempt to add fresh perspectives to the well-told story of how the PAP came to power, in the struggle against colonialism, and after fighting the communists and the communalists.

If history is a dialogue between the present and the past, Men In White adds a collection of valuable voices to that dialogue. For the first time, members of the radical left-wing of the PAP are telling their side of the story.

The writers flew to the 'peace villages' of southern Thailand where former Malayan Communist Party (MCP) members made a life for themselves. They made their way to Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, ferreting out former activists, coaxing them out of their peaceful retirement lives to revisit the past. Thousands of pages of transcript and notes later, the material spanning some 50 years is condensed into a hefty 692-page tome.

This book was conceived to mark the PAP's 50th anniversary in 2004. In the end, the project took seven years, given the voluminous amount of work. From the start, senior PAP leaders Goh Chok Tong and Lee Kuan Yew made it clear they did not want another potted history of the PAP recounting its successes. They wanted a more impartial account.

It is telling that Lee, in his introduction, distances himself from some of the authors' accounts and interpretation. He himself found the accounts of the early years riveting, as he realised for the first time just what his political adversaries were plotting.

Some readers used to a holistic narrative will find this book jarring. For the book is really three- books-in-one. As is common for a jointly authored project, the narrators' voices are quite different. The racy pace of Sonny Yap and Leong Weng Kam's prose match the breathless escapades of political infighting recounted in the first section, while Richard Lim's restrained, elegant style suits the sobriety of a story of a party in power. Part 3 is written in journalistic style, with quotes from interviewees to flesh out an issue, with minimal interpretation.

The first part on the PAP's early years up till independence is especially lively, replete with the passion and pathos of its times in retelling of the fight between the left-wing and the moderates in the PAP.

The most intriguing puzzle unearthed in this book is the question of how Lee became the prime minister of Singapore.

When the PAP swept to power in the May 1959 election, he was its secretary-general.

Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye told the authors they recalled that there was a meeting of the PAP's central executive committee (CEC) on who should be PM. There were reportedly two candidates - PAP treasurer Ong Eng Guan, who was the former mayor of Singapore, and Lee. The votes were split down the middle: six each. As party chairman presiding over the CEC vote, Toh decided on Lee. Apart from the authors' interviews with the two key players, some reports from that period circulate the story of that CEC vote.

So did Lee become PM by one vote?

He remembers no such vote. He was the party's secretary-general, leading the election. To him, it was understood and right that he should become PM. In the introduction to the book, he said he did not agree with the account of Toh and Ong Pang Boon.

Whose memory failed? The authors leave it to readers to draw their own conclusion.

One valuable aspect of Men In White is in breathing life and blood into two-dimensional characters relegated into footnotes in The Singapore Story. Which student of Singapore history has not wondered about Chan Sun Wing, whom Lee took as his chief aide and who turned out to be a communist plant?

Chan was instrumental in the left-wing's breakaway from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis to challenge the PAP in Parliament.

When interviewed in 2003, Chan did not see his move against the PAP and Lee as disloyalty to a mentor, but as loyalty to a political cause. Poignantly, he considered home to be neither Hat Yai where he worked as a secretary, nor Bang Lang where he had a small rubber holding, but Singapore from which he was in exile.

The authors also deal with a trenchant issue in Singapore's political history: What is a communist? The PAP tended to label the left-wing members communist or pro-communist, but many of those thus labelled strenuously deny it, including the enigmatic Lim Chin Siong, the left-wing leader whose Hokkien oratory helped the PAP win over the Chinese ground.

Shedding new light on Lim, the authors cite Internal Security Department information that Lim admitted he met communist leader Fang Chuang Pi three times. The suggestion in the book is that Lim may not have been a card-carrying member but he took orders from MCP leaders.

The second section brings the story of the PAP up to date, covering ground most readers will find familiar. The PAP had by the 1970s consolidated its power so effectively that challengers were few. The story is thus told largely through PAP eyes, without the kaleidoscopic insights of the first section. Highlights in this section are the accounts of how leadership renewal traumatised older MPs and activists, and insight into the mentoring programme Lee introduced to induct the second-generation leaders. Particularly breathtaking is the way he set about getting systematic feedback on their performance as MPs and as office-holders from veteran MPs and grassroots activists.

This section puts in context the Goh Chok Tong years when he served as prime minister from 1990 to 2004, although a more thorough treatment of this can be found in the recent Institute of Policy Studies publication, Impressions Of The Goh Chok Tong Years In Singapore.

The last section reiterates the PAP's core principles of governance: anti-corruption; commitment to multiracialism; distribution of wealth; and political philosophy. This section appears somewhat hastily done compared to the thorough groundwork for the first two sections. But through the use of anecdotes and apposite examples, the writers manage the difficult feat of breathing life into these well-debated topics. The chapter on race titled, Lee: You are equal to me, should be recommended reading for all students.

Recent years have seen more attempts at telling different versions of the Singapore stories.

Memoirs have been published by former MCP chief Chin Peng and former political detainee Said Zahari and former Barisan Sosialis leader Fong Swee Suan. There are reports of unpublished memoirs by Lee Siew Choh and Chan Sun Wing, among others.

With the passage of time and as Singapore society matures, multifaceted perspectives of its early political history will emerge. This book offers another prism through which to view Singapore's modern history.

History is to a society what poetry is to an individual soul: It creates a structure of story and myth through which we understand one another and our place in this world. Every attempt to write history is flawed. Every history is mutable - till more facts are unearthed, till the next political movement comes about. Once we recognise this, we can get on with the business of trying to understand history, knowing that the accounts we read are at best a sepia-toned faded photograph of the multi-hued, multi-sensorial panorama of the past.

Fleshing out historical figures

One valuable aspect of Men In White is in breathing life and blood into two-dimensional characters relegated into footnotes in The Singapore Story. Which student of Singapore history has not wondered about Chan Sun Wing (left), whom Lee Kuan Yew took as his chief aide and who turned out to be a communist plant?

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