Book Review

by Paige Johnson Tan, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Journal of Asian Studies, February 2009



The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts.  By Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli.  2008.  Hong Kong:  Hong Kong University Press.  300 pp.  $65.00 cloth.


Hong and Huang’s work, though largely a collection of previously published essays, represents a significant contribution to the study of Singapore’s history.  The obvious precursor to this book is Chua Beng-huat’s Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (1995, Chua even writes the foreword here).  Chua’s book showed the ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) used “Asian values,” such as the prioritization of the group over the individual, to maintain the government in power and develop support for government policies.  As Chua deconstructed the Singapore government’s ideology, the authors of this volume deconstruct official PAP-approved history, discourse, museums, even Singapore’s portrayal of itself in the tourist market to lay bear the messages the People’s Action Party (PAP) government is attempting to convey to its population and the world.


Hong and Huang would say that the official PAP version of history has been remarkably successful.  In the approved version, Singapore became independent in 1965; it had no resources, just a lot of poor people.  The PAP government had to do what it took to survive; it had to house hundreds of thousands, find them jobs, meld disparate ethnic groups into one people, and defend the country from very real internal and external threats.  Only the tough-minded great men of the PAP could do it.  They are responsible for making the country the economic success that it is today.  Repetitions of this official history “have made this narrative accepted ‘everyday knowledge’, as ‘common sense’, the highest achievement of an ideology,” according to the authors (p. x).  The official history is so accepted that we forget that “history is a contested field of knowledge” (p. 14). The authors set out to deconstruct aspects of the official history.


The authors cover wide terrain, with the book divided into three sections focused on general history, the dilemma of the place of the majority Chinese community and its culture in Singapore, and finally the nation’s heroes and landmarks.  The book is filled with gems that open the eyes of even seasoned Singapore observers.  Singapore was founded by British colonialist Stamford Raffles, right?  His prominence in Singapore tells us so.  Hong and Huang show how the homage to Raffles, his statue on the riverside and the prevalence of his name on Singapore institutions, represents a conscious choice by the newly independent Singaporean government (and a close-run choice at that), a way to build a history for the country that was unique: not Chinese, Malay, Indian, or Malaysian.  The authors take on the first volume of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, The Singapore Story, challenging Lee’s view that his story is Singapore’s story.  This chapter is painfully short, just 12 pages, and needed to do a lot more to deal adequately with its larger-than-life subject.  Another gem is the authors’ treatment of Nanyang University, long Singapore’s flagship “Chinese” university.  Hong and Huang discuss how Nanyang’s association with 1950s and 1960s radicalism has been written out of history but a measure of history regained as now the university’s pioneers are celebrated as socially-minded philanthropists.


An underlying theme running through many of the chapters is the place of the majority Chinese community and its culture in Singapore.  Two of my favorite chapters dealt with different aspects of this issue.  Chapter 5 covered several first-generation leaders who were seen as representatives of the Chinese-educated (as opposed to English-educated) community.  These include Ong Pang Boon, Lee Khoon Choy, and Jek Yeun Thong.  Through the story of these leaders, their policy emphases, and their being pushed aside in later years, Hong and Huang tell the story of how the government has dealt with the Chinese-educated population of Singapore.   In the early years, these Chinese-educated leaders helped to play down Chinese chauvinism and play up multi-ethnic nationalism and meritocracy (what are now considered core Singaporean values).   After independence, as some perceived Singapore to be becoming too Westernized, Ong and the others became “Chinese cultural gatekeepers” in promoting Chinese, particularly Confucian, values (p. 95).  Hong and Huang include an informative section on arguments over the teaching of Chinese language in Singapore.  In a fascinating twist of history, these men were later pushed aside even as their emphasis on the Chinese heritage of Singapore was morphed and used by the PAP government in its assertion of the connection between Singapore’s Asian values and its economic success. 


Chapter 10 on Haw Par Villa (Tiger Balm Gardens) was another eye-opening take on a landmark everyone has visited once but rarely twice.  According to Hong and Huang, “Haw Par Villa was [tycoon] Aw Boon Haw’s classroom, where as benefactor and paragon, he dispensed syncretic lessons on Chinese history, culture, folklore, religion, codes of morality and proper behavior to its largely unlettered Chinese coolie visitors” (p. 211).  The authors detail fascinating debates over Tiger Balm Gardens’ fate and meaning in Singapore.  The government tried to morph the park into a Singaporean Disneyland called Dragon World; but, with only two rides, there were not many takers and the park suffered severe financial losses.  The park’s name and original content have been restored, but with the addition of a museum, Hua Song, which translates as In Praise of the Chinese Community.  Hua Song celebrates the Chinese diaspora and its contribution to host nations in Asia and the Americas.  After meandering through different takes on its Chinese-ness over the years, the Singapore government now appears to have settled on the diaspora as the proper presentation of Singapore’s Chinese-ness to its citizens and the world.  The Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, the focus of Chapter 9, also plays in to diaspora contributions, in that case to China’s 1911 revolution. 


Chua Beng-huat offers in the book’s foreword that the authors have left open the question of how else Singapore’s history could be written.  Indeed, Hong and Huang do a better job of tearing down the old than of offering up a new history or histories.  Still, they have done great service in showing that history is a field of contestation.  Alternate histories are waiting to be written. 


Paige Johnson Tan, University of North Carolina, Wilmington


Last modified April 21, 2009