Men In White

Stop press! Men In White, the history of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, has been flying off the shelves of local bookstores and a third printing of 10,000 copies has been ordered, reports the Straits Times.

Er, wouldn’t it be better to correct a few spelling mistakes and grammatical errors first?

There are mistakes even in the foreword written by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. For a gifted writer like him, it is uncharacteristic to slip up like this:

“The SPH team interviewed many of the surviving players and read their oral histories, including of those who had passed away.”

Surely, he meant:

“The SPH team interviewed many of the surviving players and read their oral histories – as well as of those who had passed away.”

And this must be a typo. The Minister Mentor writes:

“The writers have given a comprehensive picture of the events since the 1950s when a group of returning students from Britain conceived the idea of a new socialist-styled political party.”

Surely, he meant “a new socialist-style party”.

Who read the proofs?

The Straits Times publisher, Singapore Press Holdings, which published this book written by three of its  journalists, will do well to order a thorough revision before printing any more copies.

Careless mistakes may be excused in a potboiler. But this is history written for posterity. The bar has to be higher.

There seems to be a mistake even  on the first page of the first chapter of this book. Sonny Yap writes:

“But get to know Chan Sun Wing better and banter with him in his native Cantonese and he will tell you in a heart-wrenching manner that home was not Bang Lang or Hatyai but Singapore.”

There is no such word as “heart-wrenching” in my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English. But it offers a substitute: “heart-rending”.

I did not pause to note down every howler but was amused by the spelling mistake made by Richard Lim while describing his former boss, Lim Kim San.

“In 2003, in his office in Singapore Press Holdings’ News Centre in Toa Payoh, the still spritely 87-year-old said: ‘We’ve got to make room for new blood and fresh ideas to succeed us if Singapore is to succeed.’…” (page 360)

A man may remain “sprightly” in his old age, but he is highly unlikely to turn into a “sprite” – an elf or a fairy.

The mistakes look like simple carelessness by gifted writers, for this is an ambitious, well-written book.

As veteran journalists, the authors describe people, places and events vividly. The narrative seldom flags.

The opening is a big surprise – zeroing in on, of all people, a man who was close to Mr Lee but turned out to be a communist agent and started life afresh in Thailand.

But that is what makes the book interesting. It is sophisticated enough not to be unadulterated propaganda. And it is a reminder that, although the PAP has ruled Singapore for more than 50 years, it has had its share of winners and losers too – the communists exiled to Thailand and China.

Sonny Yap is masterly in his evocation of people and places. The second chapter is unforgettable, recalling the PAP leaders in their younger days as students in 1950s Britain.

Who can forget Othman Wok’s account of his first meeting with a very earnest, studious Toh Chin Chye? When Othman went up to his room to ask for a stylus to play gramophone records, Toh ticked him off for disturbing him in his studies and shut the door on his face.

The authors let the characters speak for themselves. Mrs Lee sounds almost catty in her letter to Goh Keng Swee in London after the 1955 elections. “I am not sorry Devan Nair lost in Farrer Park,” she told Goh (page 76). There were tensions even then between Devan Nair and Mr Lee.

This is a tantalizing book, looking back on events seldom discussed today.

Did Lee Kuan Yew become the first prime minister of Singapore by a single vote?

“I don’t remember any such thing,” he says.

But, according to Toh Chin Chye, who was the party chairman then, the 12-member central executive committee was evenly split over who should be prime minister after the PAP won the 1959 elections. There were six votes each for Mr Lee and Ong Eng Guan, who had been the first PAP mayor of Singapore in 1957.

According to Toh, he broke the tie by voting as chairman for Mr Lee.

Ong Eng Guan refused to be interviewed, say the authors, so they could not get his side of the story.

One thing becomes clear.

Mr Lee was not all-powerful in the early days. He was shocked when the leftists won six of the 12 seats in the 1955 CEC elections, defeating three of his own candidates. He regained control only after five of the six leftist CEC members were arrested by the authorities in an anti-communist purge.

It’s revealing how he kept control in the next CEC elections, in 1957. There were no secret ballots. The members were elected en bloc by a show of hands

Singapore is what it is today because of him. Or, should one say, thanks to him? The strife-torn, impoverished, violence-prone Singapore of the 1950s seems such a far cry from the peaceful, stable, prosperous Singapore we know today. Would it have been possible without his leadership? We will never know. But we have to admire what he achieved.

Of course, he could not have achieved it single-handed. This book offers a colourful look at the immense cast of characters he had to work with.

Each has a story to tell. The Utusan Melayu journalist Samad Ismail recalls with relish how he warned Malay gangsters not to disrupt PAP meetings during the 1955 assembly elections. Miki Goh-Hualim Jnr recalled over a glass of whiskey at the Penang Club how she had never spoken to Mr Lee after he told her in 1954 that wives were not welcome at the PAP meetings in his Oxley Road home. 

Men In White – at least the chapters I have read so far – is anything but the bland newspaper reports about the PAP government we see today.

Read it at your own risk. It is hard to put down.

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