This alternative history from the gaols of Singapore may seem distant and irrelevant to some. Many  are not even aware of this dark side of Singaporean history. But just knowing is not enough, people need to care. One of my friends once remarked to me that he could understand why those affected were angry, but he could not understand why those not affected cared so much about this issue. To me, this apathy strikes me as strange. For example, if someone was cruel to a cat in a public setting you could be sure that bystanders would stop him, even though they are not the ones experiencing the cruelty and interfering could prove dangerous. Rather than apathy, empathy seems to be the natural condition in reaction to cruelty. At times it is more important we believe in the lies of the oppressor, less the truth reveals our cowardice. I believe this apathy is an artificial condition, socialized through decades of fear and propaganda that we instinctively seem to flinch away at state cruelty. Only by having the courage to gaze back can we reconnect with our human need to care.

The Dangers of the ISA

However, this need is not the only reason that we need to oppose the Internal Security Act. The primary danger of the act is that it translates political opponents into security threats. This is a major lesson to be gleaned from this alternative reading of history. There are of course other tools which can be subverted for political use, as other instances of Singapore history will show but the ISA is most virulent for its impunity. It denies someone their basic right to be judged in a court of law whether someone is guilty or not. This allows for long detentions in perpetuity. This act of repression breeds more repression as to translate a political threat into a security threat you would also need total control of the narrative through control of other social institutions such as the media, the universities and the arts. It is the tumour through which the cancer of oppression reproduces.
Ironically, the ones who should be most cognizant of this are the elites. For example, in a power struggle within UMNO the ISA was used by certain factions vying for the Prime ministership. Syed Husin Ali, at that time a political detainee, recalls how he was told to denounce Mahathir as a communist. He did not, earning Mahathir’s thanks afterwards. What this illustrates however is the effect of such legislation: it heightens political conflict. Its potential for abuse should worry political elites.

The ISA is thus a piece of legislation which creates fear in the masses and heightens political conflict for elites. Its ability to turn political adversaries into security threats highlights the potential for abuse. Its reason for being is at an end, and though the Prime Minister has assured that it would only be used for ‘terrorists’ it does begets the question: who gets to define the terrorists? Surely there are other legislation which can prosecute terrorists.

An Urgent Call

Ironically, in the matrix of control, the ISA may seem the most fearsome. However, there are several reasons in which this may be an opportune time to challenge it. Firstly, is that for the fearsome weapon of political control, an existential security threat must exist. In a geopolitical sense, the cold war is over. The Konfrontasi has ended and the ‘war on terror’ is winding down with the capture of key leaders. In a real sense, major security threats do not exist. Secondly, for there to be a manufacture of security threats, one needs to have control of the narrative. Currently, the internet is able to provide a platform for counter narratives on a variety of issues. However, this situation can change and the potential for abuse of the ISA will still be there if unchecked. Furthermore, the victims are still alive. They should be given due justice to clear their names. We should not assume that this space for dissent may not last, as Singaporeans seem more agitated by economic and immigration factors rather than clamouring for an alternative political system. The connection between economic policy and the political system needs to be shown. With the commemoration of the events of Coldstore and the Marxist conspiracy, the generations of brave Singaporeans before us have led the way. It is now up to us, the inheritors of their clarion call for freedom to continue a struggle yet unfinished.

Perjuangan belum selesai! Mansuhkan ISA!


On 2nd February 2013, I attended an event at Hong Lim Park to commemorate the 50th anniversary or Operation Coldstore, an event which saw the arrests of over 100 activists.  This tragic event shattered many lives and severely crippled the political efforts of the left. Perhaps emboldened by the earlier commemoration of the detainees involved in the 1987 ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ this commemoration marked not just a rememberance of a political tragedy, but a necessary introspection into the narrative of Singapore’s history, specifically that to the evolution of authoritarian political structures.

Historical context: The Colonial System

Discussion of authoritarianism in Southeast Asian countries cannot be divorced from the reality of colonial history. Autocrats in Asia and Africa denounce democracy as a Western construct. Historians such as Niall Ferguson write apologia on the merits of empire. However, in reality, the influence and institutions of Western colonialism was key to maintaining authoritarian structures in the colonies. The purpose of colonialism was not a civilizing mission but to extract resources and cheap labour for colonies as well as markets to sell goods. In such colonies, the colonial masters also prevented the development of advanced industries which would compete with their own goods. This situation was highly exploitative and was often disguised by a layer of local dignitaries to obscure the reality of foreign domination. This arrangement meant that colonial countries were structured by institutions which was not accountable to the local populace and whose existence was premised on a large disempowered local mass.

Struggle for Independence

This situation was made highly untenable with the end of the second world war where the traditional colonial countries of Britain and France severely hampered the ability of these powers to control their colonies. Instead, the Japanese interregnum was crucial in denting the myth of colonial invincibility. When the colonial forces came back, the nationalist forces were well organized to mobilize the masses into revolt. A nationwide Hartal (strike) by the multi racial coalition of PUTERA AMCJA was a manifestation of this new organization.

Political Repression

The Malayan Emergency however signalled the onset of a new round of political repression. The official narrative was that this Emergency was to tackle the threat of the Malayan Communist Party, however, the arrest of over 10000 Malay nationalists such as Ahmad Boestaman suggested that a primary target of the British was the nascent radical Malay Nationalism inspired by the Indonesian revolution. Looking back, the colonial strategy to protect their interests in Malaya seems clear. Firstly is to destroy whatever genuine organized anti colonial groups through repression, and secondly cultivate an elite which would be more amenable to protecting their economic interests as they ceded political power.

The Pieces LIne Up

In Malaya this would be the feudal elite who had been comfortable with them up to the formation of the Malayan Union. Singapore however had no feudal elite. The Progressive Party who would have been their group of choice had been devastated by left wing parties such as the Labour Front and a fledgling PAP. Behind these parties was an effervescent movement of various anti colonial groups. With the resignation of David Marshall however, another Labour Front member Lim Yew Hock became Chief Minister and took an increasingly repressive stance. This pushed the Left away from the Labour Front and into the PAP which ensured its landslide victory in the 1959 elections.

The political game was thus outlined. The British wanted an elite which would protect their interests in Singapore (and the region). The various forces of the left had various interests but were united by their desire to see the British out. The pivot from which these forces swung was the new PAP government which ensured some form of democratic respectability for the British while providing some cover for the various leaders of the Left from arrests.

However, internally there was another dynamic within the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew and his group knew that they could not compare to his contemporaries such as Lim Chin Siong on the ground. If Lim and his cohorts were released they could easily win power and he would be sidelined. Yet, he could not appear to be anything other than an anti colonial fighter. He thus became increasingly secretive in negotiations with the British, insisting on clauses aimed at his political enemies, such as insisting people in prison could not stand for elections (something which was not practised in other countries). He was also helped by various institutions such as the media, the special branch and the civil service to play both sides. However such actions increasingly alienated him from both his party and the people. At the same time, the British too kept up pressure, even inviting Left wing leaders to a tea party to send a message out to Lee that they were supposedly just as amenable to the Left taking over Singapore. Losses in the Anson and Hong Lim by election showed the ground was increasingly turning against the PAP and unless he acted he would lose the next election. Lee Kuan Yew forced the issue by calling a motion of confidence in the legislative assembly. When 13 assemblymen from the PAP abstained, they were sacked. This led to a large scale withdrawal from the PAP of the party branches into a new party: The Barisan Sosialis. The support for the Barisan was such that they had to be ‘fixed’.

However, such large scale repression could not be done outright. Lee Kuan Yew wanted to give it the cover of a pan Malayan arrest, but the Tunku initially balked at arresting the elected members of parliament. The Azhari revolt in Brunei however, provided an opportunity to act. The national media (with Lim Kit Siang as one of the journalists)proclaimed that the Barisan Sosialis had supplied the revolt with weapons (later declassified information from the British archives proved otherwise, that the Barisan were distancing themselves though giving moral support). Operation Coldstore began with many of the stalwarts of the Left arrested. Many would not smell the free air for a long time.

An Alternative History Emerges

The truth of the situation is harrowing especially the stories which have come from the detainees themselves. In his political memoir Dark Clouds at Dawn Said Zahari gave of the sufferings he and his family had to endure, such as how his mother died never seeing her son free, him missing his childrens’ childhood and the ill treatment meted to the prisoners. It is from the biographies of men like him and books written by other ex detainees, as well as declassified British records that forms the bedrock of an alternative understanding of operation Coldstore. The question then, is its relevance for today.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell “1984”

Dr Poh Soo Kai, a prominent figure in the left movement in Singapore in the 50s and 60s held a talk organized by Collective Intelligence on the background to the formation of the Barisan Sosialis. (The lecture can be found here: The richness of detail of his account reveals a full and meaningful life despite having to spend 17 years in the darkness of Lee Kuan Yew’s gaols without recourse to due process.  This is a summary of his lecture with this overarching question in mind: How could the British ensure their interests were maintained in the face of the rising tide of nationalism? In the end would be my own commentary on the importance of such alternative histories.

Colonialism under Threat

After the war, Malaya’s tin and rubber was key to pay British war debt. Besides serving as a port to facilitate the sale of rubber to London firms, Singapore also served as a place where rubber smugglers could rise to tycoons. The war had changed many things in which the different races began to accept Malaya as their homeland.  A combination of left forces represented by PUTERA AMCJA (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat and the All Malayan Council for Joint Action)formed a united front. In response to the federation proposals by the British, John Eber and William Kuok from the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU)presented the People’s Constitution based on the concept of an equal, multicultural nation with Melayu citizenship for all. When the British did not accept it, PUTERA AMCJA called a 1 day Hartal. (For a vivid account of this do check out Fahmi Reza’s 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka or 10 Years Before Independence

The British of course did not take this lying down and launched an emergency on 18 June 1948. The  primary aim emergency was to decimate the Malay nationalist movement in which over 10000 Malays were detained without trial. The Chinese groups were the secondary target, but were more easily controlled through corralling them into ‘New Villages’. With the destruction of the left, this vacuum was filled by UMNO who emphasized the communal aspect of politics.

Fajar and the University Socialist Club (USC)

It was in this context the University Socialist Club and its journal, Fajar came into being. The University Socialist Club was a nationalist club out to build a non communal multi cultural nation. The founding declaration spoke about communalism rather than socialism. They advocated Malay as national language, but promoted the mother tongue of other communities. There already was an Anti British League (ABL) operating in the university, and members such as James Putucherry and Dollah Majid helped and discussed with the group but kept their distance so as not to endanger it through  association with underground left wing associations.

 The issue which got the USC into trouble was the emerging South East Asia Treaty Organizations (SEATO) which they saw as an attempt to encircle China and the third world countries. They  wanted to be neutral in the cold war. The editorial in the Fajar was very mild but brave enough to talk about neutrality. Upon their arrest, John Eber, who had been arrested and sent to London, cabled them to inform them that he had 2 QCs to represent them: DN Pritt or Dingle Foot. Dr Poh chose DN Pritt. The trial broke long dammed frustrations and people came forward to support: workers, the middle class, teachers. (A more detailed account of this trial and the USC can be read in The Fajar Generation, edited by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew)

Formation of PAP

The USC shot to prominence by winning the case. They subsequently played a pivotal role in building the bridge between Chinese educated and Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Kuan Yew was courted by Labour front, but that group comprised mainly of Indian workers in city council and government service.  He wanted to start another party with Chinese union support. USC had contact with the Chinese middle school through the Pan Malayan students federation- it was from there that Lee Kuan Yew built up his Chinese base. Key to this were charismatic individuals from the Unions who joined the PAP such as Lim Chin Siong.

Lee Kuan Yew’s Manoeuvres

In 1956 David Marshall went to London and asked for greater control of internal security which Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Yew Hock opposed. At the failure of the London talks, Marshall resigned and Lim Yew Hock took over. In 1957, Lim Yew Hock discussed with Lee Kuan Yew and British the formation of the Internal Security council in Singapore. This council would comprise of 3 members from Britain, 3 from Singapore, 1 casting chairman and 1 from Malaya. Two defining terms were established: Firstly, the Council had over riding power to arrest, but release was to be proposed by Singapore government. (This was not told to people) Secondly, at the behest of Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew, people in detention not allowed to stand for election. This was unlike other countries,  and aimed at people like Woodhull, Lim Chin Siong, Putucherry.

This would lay the stage for the political game which ensued. The British needed someone to stem the rising support for the Left, and Lee Kuan Yew fashioned a role for himself as an increasingly influential gatekeeper. This often meant however, being secretive about his manoeuvres to an extent that even his cabinet did not know. For example when the International Labour Organization asked why the Trade Union leaders were not released, Kenny Byrne responded that  this was the fault of the British. However, the British responded that as with the agreement, the onus was on the PAP to ask for their release, something which Byrne did not know.

This secrecy led to opposition to him in the PAP. In 1957, Lee Kuan Yew’s group lost control of the CEC in the PAP, but with Lim Yew Hock’s crackdown on supposed communists, LKY’s group was restored to the PAP. Henceforth, the PAP would be run through a system based on the papacy where the CEC (pope) would appoint the cadres (cardinals) and the cadres (cardinals) would appoint the CEC (pope).

However, by 1961, pressure to release the detainees was mounting. Ong Eng Guan campaigned in the Hong Lim by election on the platform that all detainees before 1959 should be released and he won. It showed that there was a deep and genuine concern from the people on the release of the detainees and Lee Kuan Yew knew that he would lose the next election if he did not order the release of the detainees. In desperation, he asked Selkirk that if he proposed release, that Selkirk would countermand the order. Selkirk refused as the reason for putting LKY in front was to take the odium of the arrest from the British.

The Die is Cast

With Selkirk refusing to back him up and the public opinion pressurising  the release of the detainees, Lee Kuan Yew acted decisively. On 20th July 1961 Lee Kuan Yew called an emergency legislative assembly meeting to discuss the question of merger.  A group opposed him, not because they were against merger per se, but wanted to know the terms of merger. When they abstained, they were kicked out of the party and formed the Barisan Sosialis.

The formation of the Barisan Sosialis dealt a near fatal blow to the PAP’s operational capacity. Nearly all the branches, including Lee Kuan Yew’s Tanjong Pagar branch went over. To deal with this, a large scale ‘security’ operation was mooted, however, to mask the true nature of this operation, this needed to be a pan Malayan ‘anti communist’ affair. Azhari’s revolt in Brunei gave the opportunity and the arrest of Malayans like Ahmad Boestaman made it seem like there was a Pan Malayan communist plot. The Barisan were accused of supplying weapons for this revolt and over 100 people were detained on February 1963 under Operation Coldstore. This was eventually proven untrue from official British records which showed that the Barisan were trying to distance themselves from the revolt. (Dr Poh’s personal account of his arrest can be found here

With key leaders arrested, and propaganda against the Barisan as well as the issue shifting to the question of merger rather the release of the detainees, the PAP unsurprisingly won the elections. With the arrests, the situation was tough for the unions. Their leaders were arrested, some blackmarked along with their families. Most of unions still fought on through 1963 but were eventually completely smashed. (An account of this can be found here:

Present and Future

Although the trade unions as a site of mobilization and resistance has been smashed, Poh Soo Kai outlined several tensions in Singapore society. Recently workers from China employed as bus drivers were unhappy at their poor treatment and inequitable wages. At the failure of the official lines of protest, many decided to stay at home and not work. They were arrested and charged for going on strike.

Politically, the opposition is gathering strength as the people are less fearful but also because economically not doing well. There is high GDP, but much foreign money is laundered in through casinos. This clean money is speculated into land causing inflation to rise. This causes a corresponding rise in house prices. Previously one could pay back a house in 15 years, now it takes a lifetime. Such expensive housing also consumes CPF moeny meant for retirement. The cost of this is not only the interest paid on the housing loan, but the interest otherwise earned on the CPF foregone. When many people feel they cannot afford old age, ministers suggest they move over the causeway. Another option for supplementing old age would be to rent out the rooms of the house. As such, economic factors are more important now for merger than before. Unfortunately the old consciousness that Singapore is an inalienable part of Malaya is not there in the younger generation anymore.

The Importance of Alternative History

One of the major questions at this point is why the need for an alternative history. I am not a philosopher of history, so I will just try to substantiate with key learning points from Dr Poh’s talk. Firstly is the issue of justice. If Dr Poh’s account is accurate, and which can be easily substantiated from declassified British records, many of the people arrested were innocent of their charges. Although many have passed away, others such as Dr Poh, Said Zahari and Chia Thye Poh are still alive and deserve the chance to clear their names. Such revelations and other revelations from people like Teo Soh Lung more recently shows that the Internal Security Act itself must be reviewed and all those charged deserve to have their names cleared.

A second important point is that of social memory. Dr Poh often pays homage to the Malay left as a matter of fact. He rolls out names such as Burhanuddin Helmy, Ahmad Boestaman and Pak Sako (Ishak Haji Muhammad).These names are often forgotten to most in Singapore whose most heroic Malay historical figures are often Leftanen Adnan or Hang Tuah. Whatever their contributions, they surely pale in significance to the bravery, dedication, intelligence and initiative of not only those leaders, but also those of the scores of people in that generation who made the acrifice. This highlights not merely the true heroes which time otherwise forgot, but also inspires a certain type of ideal in contrast to the role models we find today. Another point is that the history presented to us is often full of precautionary tales about racial strife and discord if we do not have repressive laws. His narrative turns these tales on its head. It was precisely repression which destroyed the solidarity of the races to break the united front against colonialism.

A third point is that listening to his narrative is like following an unbroken rope. The rope is frayed and some pieces jut awkwardly, but events which are otherwise incoherent makes more sense from his perspective. Although I often feel like I am marooned in the vastness of time, I feel that following the rope, with all its frayed edges will give me greater clarity about my own situation of where Singapore came from, why certain things are what they are today and where we are going. There are obviously more of such ropes to discover as we hurtle towards an uncertain future. Such a turbulent inception has left a lasting trauma, institutionalized into the social, political and economic order, seeping deep into the psyche of citizens. We face the economic difficulties dictated by the logic of such a system, namely continuous influx of foreign labour and capital for disproportionate economic growth, but are seemingly too disempowered and alienated to change it. His narrative does not provide us with a time machine to change the key moments in history, but it does give greater clarity to the problems that confront us today so we may address them with honesty.

John Roosa’s exposition of the 1965 coup is a highly readable account of the events and actors surrounding a failed ‘coup’ which involved the kidnapping and death of several generals at Lubang Buaya. The subsequent  ‘countercoup’ spearheaded by General Suharto destroyed the army’s political rivals namely the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) and signalled the beginning of a ‘New Order’ regime.

Official Narrative of the Coup

The official narratives which try to explain the coup is riddled with incoherence and contradictions. Part of the problem is that those who provided these narratives were heavily invested in presenting a one sided view. The military depiction of the  event was that the PKI was responsible for the movement. This was supported by propaganda and forced confessions in the days of repression following the coup. Anti PKI propaganda proclaimed that PKI members had a huge role in the death and torture of the generals. Films, memorials and events were  constructed to ingrain this narrative in the consciousness of subsequent generations of Indonesian citizens. Many Western sources are also prejudiced by the context of the cold war and were inclined to believe the propaganda of the nascent New Order.

Alternative Explanations of the Coup

 However, scholars like Benedict Anderson and Ruth Mcveigh theorized that the movement was started via a group of officers disgruntled by the leadership of the general staff under Yani. They wanted to purge the army of these officers so Sukarno could more effectively carry out his policies. The PKI in effect got dragged into the conflict by Suharto’s manoeuvrings.  Another scholar Harold Crouch had argued that the PKI did have a role. He suggested that the Special Bureau of the PKI had a hand in planning the coup, but the party as an institution was not involved. Rather several select members of the party supported what they saw as the attempts of their progressive allies in the military to execute the coup. In another analysis, Wertheim on the other hand argued that the movement was a frame up of the PKI. The general who was not abducted and was responsible for crushing the movement, namely Suharto was close to the military leaders of the initial coup. The centrality of the Special Bureau of the PKI and the role of Sjam led Wertheim to speculate that Sjam was the double agent for the army to instigate the PKI into rash action.

Roosa however writes that some of the alternative explanations of the  coup has its own internal weaknesses. For example, if the coup was led by the progressive army officers, how did this disparate group of officers come together? Why were there radio pronouncements during the coup urging people to form revolutionary councils? If it was led by the military, why was everything so poorly planned?

Recreating the Situation

Using new evidence that he had gathered such as the Supardjo document and insights from an insider ‘Hasan’, Roosa sifts the evidence to piece together a more coherent and plausible narrative of the events leading up to that period. He studies the key pieces of the puzzle one by one- the arrangement of those involved both civilian and military, the role of Sjam and the special bureau, the situation of Aidit and the PKI. Finally he gives a plausible alternative narrative to the reasons and context of the coup.

In 1965, the political situation in Indonesia was highly volatile. The left wing was rapidly growing but unarmed. The PKI which were growing however continued to be sidelined from the state machinery. Under ‘guided democracy’, they did not have the electoral mechanisms required to translate their mass support into political power. The right wing generals aligned with the Western powers were concerned about the left’s growing strength, but were unable to do anything because of Sukarno’s influence. They thus needed to lure the PKI into rash action while preparing for a counterattack to such action. At the same time, various factions within the army were upset at the corruption of the top generals, as well as their undermining of Sukarno’s policies. The role of the Special Bureau in the PKI was to source out and consolidate this dissent into a movement which could oust the right wing generals. Egged on by Sjam, Aidit and sections of the military arranged for a coup in which sections of the PKI would support the military actions of the progressive generals. However due to Sjam’s personality, the movement was extremely poorly planned which led to blind spots cumulatively leading to the collapse of the coup. In the final denouement, Sjam and Aidit were  described by Sukarno as ‘keblinger’, misreading the political situation and were extremely poorly prepared to fall into the trap that had been set for them.


This summary is merely a rough overview of Roosa’s work and arguments. The significance of his work is important as part of the ongoing efforts to reclaim the historical narrative from the huge propaganda which followed the massive repression of the PKI. It also puts the actions of the various actors in historical perspective allowing us to appreciate the bravery and courage of those who struggled in extremely difficult circumstances and condemn more forcefully the brutality of those who engaged in such oppression. Such a work provides useful touchstones in navigating the maze of lies and fabrications, coerced confessions and testimonies and propaganda which bestride this period of Indonesia’s historical landscape. This would be instructive in relooking at Singapore’s own history  and position in the Cold War, especially since its independence occurred just mere months before the coup.  It would also be useful to read the works of the other scholars mentioned as well as their updated analysis of the situation to get a clearer account. What is clear however is that the actions of Suharto supported by the military and various factions were unwarranted and remain one of the more heinous acts of repression in history whose victims still have not received their due justice.

As I took a ride on the East line the other day, something different struck my ears. Apparently, all the station names were announced in Chinese. At the time, I did not think that this was not a translation of the stations’ name, it was more the pronunciation that was changed. At first I thought it was a one off as I did not hear them the next time , but my friend shared an article about this from this website Apparently there were translations of the station names and it was not limited to the East West line. This exercise was due to a ‘review of public feedback and suggestions for station names to be announced in Mandarin’. In the article, Mr Gerard Ee also announced that “There are quite a number of Chinese who do not speak English well and refer to places by their Chinese names,”  

Firstly in the very long list of possible recommendations that commuters would give ‘announce station names in Chinese’ would probably be near the bottom. Among some at the top: Reduce the overwhelming congestion, reduce train fares, cut down on salaries of top executives, reduce number of train breakdowns, replace those scary slamming ticket doors are among some I can think off the top of my head. One wonders whether the other problems are being addressed.

This reminds me of something an MP said some time ago which caused a furore: that some of the Malay and Indian staffs could not converse in English well enough so we can accept broken English. However, it seems that Mandarin must be pronounced with a perfect accent lest ‘commuters’ be confused.

It seems hard to believe that any Singaporean would need the MRT names be sinicized to know the stations. Even Malaysians (Chinese or otherwise) would have no problem understanding these places. The only group that ‘needs’ these changes are the mainland Chinese. I can almost imagine that some would accuse my objections of being xenophobic and proof that “recently-arrived Chinese nationals are arguably subjected to more and harsher discrimination and racism than Singaporean Malays or Indians.” However, if SMRT were concerned about foreigners navigating through the MRTs, then would they not to have taken Tagalog, Thai or Bengali into consideration? So this hardly addresses the needs of all the ‘commuters’, this is meant to benefit a very specific group of commuters.

One can take my objections to be petty as well, that it these are mere station names and that announcing the names in all four languages would be considered as mentioned by the report. However if we look across the Eastern half, do we really need to translate Pasir Ris, Tampines, Tanak Merah, Bedok, Kembangan, Eunos, Paya Lebar, Aljunied, Kallang or Bugis into Malay? Or even into Tamil or English? Sure we can have announcements in all four languages, but why do we need to transliterate the station names as well. This is a fruitless exercise just to cover up the fact that these names were sinicized to make the migrant Chinese groups feel welcome.

This whole episode prompts some disconcerting thoughts. Firstly is that the translation of the station names reaches right into the heartlands. This suggests that the people this would be outreaching to are not just tourists, but residents. This in turn suggests that the migration policy that many Singaporeans detest is not going to change, despite promises to the contrary. Governments can say all kinds of rhetoric, but often it is the ‘facts on the ground’ which give intentions away.

Secondly this case also highlights the lack of attention paid to the locals who are not fluent in English or Mandarin. What about Singaporeans fluent mainly in dialect, Malay or Tamil? Why were their feedback not taken into consideration? Perhaps it was overlooked, so this is mine (not meant to be representative): You should have the announcements in the 4 official languages, but please leave the names alone.

Finally the last quote by ‘another commuter’ in the report would speak to a lot of the frustrations of Singaporeans, that ‘the announcements could also teach Singaporeans how to say the names of MRT stations in Mandarin.’ Why would one need to do that? Pretty much all of us who have lived here all our lives KNOW where they are whatever language they are in be it Bedok, or Ang Mo Kio or City Hall. Why not instead those who don’t know learn how to speak as it is pronounced here like everyone else? I wonder what were the reaction to be if I went to China or Britain or France or the USA and ‘give feedback’ that their station names should be changed so it is easier for me to pronounce? Where would I be told to stuff my suggestion?

I guess more than anything else this is what would piss many off. That they somehow have to adapt to the ‘new citizens’  to make them feel welcome and any form of resistance is labelled as ‘xenophobia’. It adds a cultural dimension to the disempowerment Singapore citizens feel: like clay to be shaped and reshaped into any form the powers that be desire. One wonders where this bending over backward will end. Will the numbers of new citizens be so large that housing quotas be placed on Singaporeans so we don’t ghetto ourselves and ‘integrate’ with the new migrants?

When some of my friends talk about Singapore, they talk about it in pessimistic terms. The question of the sustainability of the current economic strategy underpinned by the political system seems highly unsustainable. From the point of independence, our economic system has been built on attracting multinationals to take advantage of the cheap docile labour and the pro business environment. This strategy, undertaken at a point where other nations were not yet emerging, lead to Singapore’s much vaunted economic progress. However it came at two costs: both of which are lynchpins within our current political system.

Unstated Cost of Development

First is the continued depression of labour stemming from both competition from transient workers as well as the inability for labour to push independently for better working conditions. This is the conflict which necessitates subsequent forms of oppression, and even newer more devious forms to obscure these forms. The pinnacle of this is the self censorship which Singaporeans know so well. Second is the nexus of control over capital which is tightly linked with both Government Limited Companies and Multi National Companies. This was due to the potential political threat local capital posed. GLCs under the ambit of state were under party control while the concerns of MNCs of profits rather than politics  meant that such repressive measures could be sustained.

The social effects of this repression has been discussed to some extent. The lack of productivity has been highlighted, and this can be speculated to be from the disempowerment of the workforce. Such disempowerment of the workforce and the populace in general has also brought an apathy and cynicism to public affairs. The lack of innovation can also be traced from the development process, ranging from the culture of self censorship inhibiting creative energies, to a hierarchical socialization process which prizes order and obedience rather than innovation. The lack of entrepreneurship can be traced to the dominance of big companies, spiralling costs (such as rent) making start ups difficult and risky and the lack of social safety nets to mediate the cost of failure.

A Latent Culture of Sadism

The purpose of this article is to highlight a more understated cost of Singapore’s authoritarian developmental path, that of the latent culture of sadism. Sadism, in the way it will be used here, is the desire to inflict punishment on others, especially those weaker than you. It is the exercise of power for the sake of itself to demonstrate superiority or dominance over another. It is of course difficult to truly look into and gauge the hearts of men but to make a case on the evidence available. This is not to say that all Singaporeans are sadists but several factors have contributed to and still seeding these emotions deep within the psyche. We see the fruits of this latency in frivolous lawsuit cases being brought up in courts as well as police reports for many trivial offences which could be resolved through civilized conversation. We see expressions of sadism in public outrage where there is sometimes an almost manic desire to punish transgressors. This can also be derived from  the kiasu mentality with its desire to win not so much for the material benefit per se, but for the pleasure of dominance itself. These expressions of sadistic impulses are of concern not only due to its latent visibility but also due to  several which cultivate these impulses. 

Inequality in Society

When listing the examples of sadism above, people elsewhere  may recognize these traits in their own societies. However in his book ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson highlights the prevalence of such behaviour in highly unequal societies. This is partly because in unequal societies, one’s status and position becomes increasingly important. When the prize of winning and the cost of losing becomes great, it becomes not only important to win and lose, but also to demonstrate that one is a winner or loser. Conspicuous consumption i.e. buying branded goods becomes all the more important in this instance to show that one has ‘won’ or ‘lost’. It is no surprise that Singapore, being one of the most unequal societies in the world, there is a proliferation of malls and shopping centres. These status symbols constantly affirm and reify the pecking order into lifestyles.

Unequal societies also breed justifications for such inequality. The way it is done in Singapore (though now quite passé) is via the ideology of meritocracy. Meritocracy was a self referential way of thinking. If you were poor and became rich, it was through your merit and if you stayed poor it was through your lack of merit. However, meritocracy is not merely a way of thinking, it is a way of doing. This for example underlies the arguments for a lack of social safety nets in Singapore that the poor deserve their condition of poverty due to their laziness. Not only that, it also structures the process of welfare in Singapore, where recipients of financial aid often have to subject themselves to a social nudity where the most intimate details of their private finances are up for inspection. They do not just have to do it once but multiple times at various institutions to get a meagre amount. Such sparse social safety nets are even more damning as a far superior social safety net can be acquired with minimal impact to the economy. Such lethargy  and reluctance for improvement is inconsistent with a reputedly efficient public service and has to be located in an ideology inclined to punish the losers.

Inequality thus makes dominance more important and visible and breeds sadistic institutions where social failures are routinely punished .

The Political Spectacle

The second distinguishing element is the political spectacle in which opponents are punished for not bowing to the whims of power. The list is lengthy and the punishments harrowing.  It ranges from lengthy detentions without trial in the most sordid conditions, exile, televised confessions bankruptcy and shaming and destruction of character in the press. The reason for detention we have learnt could range from political opposition to wanting to raise awareness of issues. This is sadism in its pure form that which seeks to punish most not the losers but that which does not subscribe to the logic of power. Recent revelations have merely confirmed the practice of sadism behind the charade of maintaining social order.

However socialization of these impulses is not so much the spectacle but the fact that it is accepted and valourized. The gratuitous display of such behaviour by various levels and institutions of society thus normalizes it such that it becomes acceptable. Example becomes the best teacher and thus it should not be surprising that many of the citizens have learnt that the exemplary way to solve problems is through the punitive recourse of the law.

The political spectacle thus socializes sadism through a demonstration effect, normalizing sadistic behaviour.

Institutional Socialization

The last form of socialization is through the logic of various social institutions. One obvious example is the continued use of corporal and capital punishment. This also has the subconscious demonstration effect of the philosophy of how deviance is viewed. Another example is national service where engineered hardship and punishments are rationalized as character building. It does ‘build character’ but the characters it builds are those which enjoy suffering as a way of bonding and views punishment as a privilege of rank. The education system in Singapore also conditions the  ‘pleasures’ of jumping through the painful hoops of tests and tuition which have little meaning other than how to jump through  such hoops.

These institutions sublimate a penchant for pain and stoic suffering into values of discipline, ‘hard workingness’ and ‘character building’. What is implicitly taught is not to question the basis of suffering but how to suffer nobly and that pain is necessary for enforcing this order of things.

Sadism at the Onset of Decay

To return to the concerns articulated in the beginning, one notes that systems have a natural tendency for decay from which social change stems from. The Singapore system is certainly no different.  The question is what kind of social change will emerge from such a decay. Several examples are instructive such as the former Yugoslavia and Indonesia. Both societies were multicultural societies hallmarked by the collapse of authoritarian governments. In both these countries, social tensions suppressed for decades erupted in paroxysms of communal violence. In Singapore, such  primordial urges are domesticated through a mixture of legislation and fanfare. However from the periodic escape of tensions from the only free medium, i.e. the internet, we know problems are simmering below the surface. This problem is exacerbated by the influx of new migrants, in which increasing unhappiness has been dismissed as xenophobia. One can only wonder what may happen should the sadistic impulses nurtured should be released at the onset of the decay of the system.

Some have proposed that Singapore’s strong civil service will see Singapore through periods of crisis. The civil service is constrained however by the political culture and the political masters. There is a presumption that a crisis would eventually lead to a liberalization of the system. However this might not necessarily be true. One of the periods of great gain for the stronger rule was during the time of economic downturn. People seem to be more inclined to strong rule at periods of crisis. The concern here is that a precipitating crisis would push the populace, guided by such impulses towards a more authoritarian regime, be it the PAP or otherwise.

Mediating Sadism

These sadistic impulses cannot be said to be unique to Singapore. However, some conditions may be more fertile ground than others in sowing these impulses. In many societies art and religion form two important civilizing bulwarks against the darker impulses of men. (though reportedly Nazi officers listened to Bach after engaging in genocide) In Singapore however the culture of control and the commodification of spaces have sorely hampered the ability of art and religion to temper the sharp edges of modern life. The moral force of religion in influencing public life has been curtailed from episodes such as the Marxist conspiracy. Art forms on official platforms tend to not challenge fundamental questions in society. This highlights the importance of  developing independent spaces which can illuminate the darker side of Singapore.

The other important point to highlight is the importance of the efforts of civil society especially concerning human rights. It is evident how various civil society efforts in Singapore blunt the sadistic urges, ranging from calls to lessen the severity of punishments like the mandatory death penalty to  the effort of migrant groups to ameliorate work conditions. However, due to the exigencies of Singapore history, human rights is seen as something partisan against the state. Contrary to this notion, human rights serve an important function in society, such as to mediate the sadistic impulses cultivated by systems of control in the economy and politics. More importantly human rights civilizes political conflicts inherent in all societies, ensuring that the denouement of any political contest do not overly punish the losers. By mediating the price of failure, human rights do not guarantee a utopia but does go a long way in ensuring that the contest itself does not take on an all encompassing struggle.

The book ‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty’ is a voluminous book, covering a large span of human history over various continents. The book traces the evolution of human societies in South America, North America, Africa and Asia across the Neolithic period to the current state. Despite the broad historical circumstances, the book ties these  myriad experiences into a coherent narrative on why some nations succeed and others do not. The book debunks the role of culture and geography as destiny. Rather the crucial factor for the prosperity of nations is the role of political institutions of which there are two kind: extractive and inclusive. Generally speaking inclusive political institutions exist as broad coalitions representing different groups in society. Extractive political institutions in contrast are dominated by narrow interest groups. The reason why countries with extractive political institutions fail to prosper is because entrenched elites in extractive political institutions block any form of change vital to the development of society in order to preserve their power base. This often includes entrepreneurs who are vital in introducing more efficient technology due to the protection of their own economic interest which is tied to older economic arrangements. How these institutions develop are dependent on contingencies at the critical junctures of history. However, these small differences cause institutions to drift widely over time between different nations. This is especially so when the more developed nations colonize other nations in ways which preserve the extractive institutions of other nations. As such, even after independence, these extractive institutions are reproduced under different elites who continue to block change which would threaten their power base.

What I appreciate most in the book is the wealth and breadth of historical data in clear prose. The long perspective comparative approach also enables the authors to seethe out fundamental principles from contingencies. However when a man (or in this case two) says much, what he does not say is telling. Some of the historical examples seem truncated. The authors for example trace under development in the Middle East to extractive institutions formed in Ottoman times but is glaringly deficient on the role of the British, French and Americans. The role of colonization is given due critique in spaces, but critique of continued interference and complicity in the maintenance of extractive institutions is patchy at best. Notably the term neoliberalism is not used and missing from its index.

Also in identifying countries such as Britain and the US as inclusive, one can also argue that the authors are not critical on Western capitalist democracies. As we clearly see in the example of the previous years that such countries can generate the type of narrow power elites as any other society whose political power spills over to economic dominance and economic interests. The power of big pharmaceutical and oil companies in blocking out key areas of research, as well as the alliance of the party of elites with fundamentalist retrogrades who block scientific advancement would be a classic example of the authors’ main thesis. Perhaps to complement the gaps in the book, I recommend reading David Harvey’s ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ as well as Erik Reinert’s How rich nations get rich’ as powerful complementary if not competing explanatory narratives on the development of prosperity and poverty among antions.

Despite my criticism however, I believe that Singapore as an example would make an interesting case study to the authors’ thesis.  Singapore has managed to gain a large degree of economic development through a narrow set of elites. However, it must be noted that the authors inserted several caveats in which extractive institutions can acquire growth. Using the example of the Soviet Union, the authors note that growth under such institutions can be acquired through allocating resources from inefficient to more efficient sectors i.e. industrialization. However, the authors note that such growth is unsustainable as the sort of creative destruction and technological innovation necessary to economic growth is lacking in countries with extractive political institutions. It is not surprising that another economist, Paul Krugman had compared Singapore to the Soviet Union in the sense that growth is acquired only under circumstance of added inputs of capital and labour rather than gains in productivity. There is another more ominous forewarning of why such extractive institutions are unsustainable: that under such circumstances the prize of victory and the cost of defeat gets so high that fighting over the levers to such institutions gets intensified. Of course the long term effect would take a long time to see, but the concern is that the institutional entrenchment would make it difficult for any shift to more inclusive institutions to occur, even with a change of political elites.