Archival Research in Singapore

In our latest post on archival research Gareth Curless discusses the relationship between archival access and national myths in Singapore – what is often referred to as the ‘Singapore Story’.

My research trips to Singapore in January and April 2014 have been among the most enjoyable and productive of my foreign archive visits, not least because of the favourable climate and cuisine. It is unsurprising then that any complaints I have tend to fall on deaf ears among colleagues but archival research in Singapore is not without its problems.

Accounts of Singapore’s recent past have tended to focus on the role of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore’s ruling party since 1959, and the actions of individual figures such as Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee – the so called ‘men in white’. In what is referred to as the ‘Singapore Story’, the narrative is almost exclusively about the role of the PAP in leading Singapore’s anti-colonial struggle, the political acumen of its leaders in neutralising the communist threat, and the party’s subsequent role in the modernisation of the city-state, its transition from ‘third world to first’.[1] Such triumphalist tales are protected by a variety of gatekeepers, including not only the PAP and the state but also individual researchers and ordinary citizens of Singapore.[2]

The PAP plays an important role in upholding the ‘Singapore Story’. It affords limited space for the discussion of alternative interpretations of Singapore’s past. For example, a documentary film about Said Zahari, a journalist detained for 17 years without trial, was banned on the grounds that it might ‘undermine public confidence the Government’.[3] As well as silencing potential critics, the PAP also promotes works that support the established narrative. The memoirs of leading PAP figures emphasise the role of the party in Singapore’s socio-economic transformation since independence, while also denouncing their opponents as communists and would-be revolutionaries.[4]

The state – which can hardly be regarded as independent of the PAP – helps to sustain this dominant narrative and academics researchers, particularly non-Singaporean researchers, are mostly likely to experience this through the National Archives, an institution that serves as an important gatekeeper to Singapore’s past.

The National Heritage Board states that government records older than 25 years should become public archives and deposited at the National Archive.[5] However, as far as I’m aware there is no equivalent to Freedom of Information Act or the 30 year declassification rule in Singapore. Therefore, while the number of files deposited at the National Archives is increasing, the bulk of this material are records that are considered to be less politically sensitive. As a result, material relating to foreign affairs, defence, and internal security is generally unavailable, while other records require permission from the relevant ministry and may be subject to strict conditions of use, such as no transcription or citation.[6] During the course of my research in 2014 I found that material under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Manpower, particularly with regard trade union affairs, was often limited to a few files, specific documents, or even just a few pages from a particular document. Of course, a partially accessible file is better than no access at all but it can be frustrating. Not only does limited access make the reconstruction of events more difficult but a partial archival record also offers tantalising hints at what research might be possible if there was a greater degree of transparency and openness.

The archivists in the National Archive are extremely helpful and efficient and they can play a mediating role with the ministry, helping to explain the purpose and aims of the researcher’s project. However, beyond explaining the nature the researcher’s project, the influence of the archives appears to be rather limited. Public officials in Singapore remain concerned about the possible consequences of opening up the archives and as a result many ministries are ambivalent about academic research. In such a context, as Loh Kah Seng points out, requests for material relating to even the most ‘everyday’ of subjects, such as ‘trade, work, and housing’, can be denied.[7]

Academic researchers and Singaporean citizens are sometimes complicit in the reinforcement of the prevailing national narrative. Inadequate access to the archival record has prompted historians to utilise alternative sources, particularly oral history. Although oral history permits historians to probe the silences that exist in the official record, interviewees, particularly left-wing socialists, the one-time adversaries of the PAP, may refuse interviews or in recalling events from the 1950s and 1960s may avoid some subjects altogether, discussing certain topics within the boundaries of what is deemed to be publically acceptable. Researchers can reinforce such silences, opting to ‘excise what is considered politically incorrect … which if revealed may cause’ embarrassment to the interviewee or their families.[8] Such issues are no doubt common to oral history research wherever it is undertaken but in the case of Singapore it underscores the dominance of the ‘Singapore Story’ in a society where the state remains uneasy about alternative histories that do not conform with the linear narrative that emphasises the island’s transformation from impoverished colonial entrepôt to first-world city-state.

Thus far, I have painted a rather gloomy picture of research in Singapore. However, over the past decade there has emerged a body of scholarship that has pioneered the techniques of social history and has sought to undercover the subaltern voices from Singapore’s past, whether this has been lightermen on the Singapore river or rickshaw drivers.[9] Reading the archival record against the grain and making use of a variety of sources, such as local language newspapers and oral histories, these historians have done much to recover the social history of Singapore, a history that would otherwise remain unrecovered given the continuing focus on the high politics of decolonisation in the mainstream historiography.

More recently some of the more dramatic episodes in Singapore’s past have come under greater historical scrutiny. The established narrative dictates that it was inevitable that the PAP would lead Singapore to independence.[10] Yet during the 1950s and 1960s this was far from certain, with Barisan Sosialis, a left-wing political party with roots in the trade union movement, serving as a credible opposition party to the PAP. It was only with Operation Coldstore in 1963, when over one hundred left-wing activists were arrested and detained without trial, that the left was forced to retreat from public life. The PAP subsequently denounced Barisan as a communist front organisation and its leaders as Marxist revolutionaries – a view that has since become entrenched thanks to the ‘Singapore Story’.

However, with the recent 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore and with former leftist activists starting to pass away, there has been renewed impetus to revise conventional understandings of Coldstore and the motivations of the left. Historians, such as PJ Thum and Loh Kah Seng, have challenged the view that the Singapore left was simply a stooge for the MCP, arguing that the left should instead be regarded as a movement more concerned with anti-colonial nationalism, workers’ rights, and freedom from oppression than communist revolution.[11]

Such work is contributing much to our understanding of the formative years of national building but these revisionist interpretations have not gone unchallenged. Historians have exchanged forthright views on the alleged radicalism of the left,[12] while it has also been reported to me that researchers have struggled to secure public venues to debate and discuss their research, with many owners wary about events that challenge the prevailing historical orthodoxy.

In spite of such issues the work of the Coldstore revisionists and the Social History of Singapore series demonstrates that there is sufficient material for the researcher who has the time to follow the archival trail. The National Archives has an extensive oral history collection, which includes interviews with major political figures and ordinary citizens. Such interviews often repeat established national myths but there is also a wealth of additional material, offering insight into significant political events and the everyday minutiae of life in Singapore over the past 60 years.

As you would expect, the National Library has an extensive South East Asia collection and contains many published reports from the post-war period – some of which are freely available in the library but are restricted in the National Archives. The library at the National University of Singapore (NUS) also holds a rich variety of material, much of which is unavailable outside of Singapore, such as The Plebian – the official publication of Barisan. Another useful resource are the private papers of David Marshall (Chief Minister, 1955-56), which are held at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

It is important to emphasise that the staff at whichever institution I visited were friendly, efficient, and eager to help with my research however they could. In terms of practical advice, I would suggest that you contact the archives prior to your visit, stating the nature and purpose of your research and, if possible, provide a list of files or records that you would like to consult. This will enable the archives to liaise with the relevant ministry and seek permission for you to access the material you wish to view. The length of time it takes to get permission can vary, so, if you only have time for a short trip it’s worth trying to arrange all of this before you visit. Not all archival records are listed on the National Archives’ website so you may have to consult some paper based catalogues in Singapore and if you can’t find the specific material you’re looking for, it might be worth asking if the relevant ministry has any material relating to a particular topic. Such requests are often a long shot but you might get lucky.

As for the other institutions, the National Library is a public library so you can consult the material without being a member, while the library at NUS requires a temporary readers’ pass. Simply bring your passport and complete the necessary form at the front desk. I also have contacts with a number freelance translators, including Sivasamboo Revathy, who did an excellent job on a Tamil to English translation for me, so if you need any translating work completing I’d be happy to pass on the relevant contact details.

Gareth Curless is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of History at the University of Exeter. He completed research in Singapore in January and April 2014 as part of larger ESRC-funded project on the relationship between trade unions and British decolonisation.

Notes

[1] See for example: Sonny Yap, Richard Lim, Leong Weng Kam, Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (2010); John Drysdale, Singapore Struggle for Success (1993); Dennis Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse (1993); Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 (2000).

[2] Loh Kah Seng and Liew Kai Khiun (eds) The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History (2010); Lysa Hong, The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts (2008).

[3] Straits Times, 11 April 2007 cited in Loh Kah Seng, ‘Encounters at the Gates’, in Loh and Liew (eds), The Makers and Keepers, p. 15.

[4] Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First.

[5] Loh, ‘Encounters at the Gates’, p. 9.

[6] Ibid., pp. 9-13.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Ibid. p. 6.

[9] Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002 (2003); James F. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore (2003).

[10] Drysdale, Singapore Struggle for Success; Bloodworth, Tiger and the Trojan Horse.

[11] Loh Kah Seng et. al The Univesity Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (2012); Poh Soo Kai, Tan Kok, and Hong Lysa, The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years (2013); Poh Soh Kai, Tan Jing Quee & Koh Kay Yew, The Farjar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politic of Postwar Malaya and Singapore (2010); PJ Thum, ‘‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-Colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s ‘Progressive’ Left, Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia’, Asia Research Institute, Working Paper Series No. 211, (2013).

[12] See for example: Kumar Ramakrishna, ‘Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World Speech: A Closer Look, IPS Commons, [Online], Available at: http://www.ipscommons.sg/index.php/categories/featured/177-lim-chin-siong-and-that-beauty-world-speech-a-closer-look [22 June 2014]; Hong Lysa, ‘What is History: A Glance at ‘Lim Chin Siong and that Beauty World Speech: A Closer Look’, [Online], Available at: http://minimyna.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/what-is-history-a-glance-at-lim-chin-siong-and-that-beauty-world-speech-a-closer-look/ [22 June 2014]; Loh Kah Seng, ‘When Historians Deny New Research’, The Online Citizen: A Community of Singaporeans [Online], Available at: http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2014/06/when-historians-deny-new-research/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+theonlinecitizen+%28theonlinecitizen%29 [22 June 2014].