Men In White: More

Officials fallen out of favour were said to be airbrushed out of pictures in the Soviet era. Something similar happens in Men In White, the history of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party.

Devan Nair vanishes from the pages of this book after he gives up his seat in parliament to become president in 1981. His subsequent fallout with the then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and resignation as president remain unexplored.

The book tells how Ong Teng Cheong became Singapore’s first elected president in 1993, but there is hardly anything about his subsequent differences with the government.

One may argue those differences involved matters of state while this is the history of a political party. But both were PAP men and Singapore has been so long under PAP rule – for more than 50 years – that their histories are inextricably interlinked. The book touches on almost every government policy from housing to education. So there should have been more on them.

This is a history, not a novel. You cannot drop a character halfway through. Especially key figures like these.

Devan Nair was a PAP founder member. We are told so much about him in the early chapters – his leftist leanings, his differences with Lee Kuan Yew, his subsequent disillusionment with communism; we are even told about his wife’s “fabled cooking” — and then he suddenly drops out of the story. It happens so abruptly:

“In 1981, Goh Chok Tong and Lim Chee Onn were once again put in charge of a by-election campaign — this time in Anson, whose MP Devan Nair was going to be made the state president and had to give up his post.” (Page 409.)

And that’s it. He is gone. The by-election, won by JB Jeyaretnam, who became the first opposition MP, is described in detail. But what about Devan Nair?

This is like a history of post-war Britain without the miners’ strike. It’s incomplete.

I enjoyed reading the early chapters of the book covering the 1950s and 1960s. As I mentioned in my previous post, Sonny Yap is masterly in his evocation of people and places. He takes you back to old Singapore, vividly portraying the PAP founder members and their antagonists and the ordinary people, the poverty and unrest and the uncertainty that marked that era.

The book gets blander, however, from the 1980s onwards.

Richard Lim is a fine writer but has the delicate task of covering recent history which affects present-day Singapore more directly. The narrative then sometimes takes on the tone of the Straits Times newspaper,explaining official policies instead of offering independent analysis. That was unavoidable, perhaps, since this is a book written by Straits Times journalists and published by the Straits Times publisher, Singapore Press Holdings.

So, we read quite a bit justifying the government’s decision in the 1990s to upgrade public housing first in those precincts where it won a big majority. No one is quoted opposing or criticizing it.

Nevertheless, this is a book worth reading. Despite all that’s missing, it tells a lot about Singapore and sometimes makes one think again.

For example, here is former prime minister Goh Chok Tong recalling that the PAP had lost ground under his predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, and how he had to regain that ground. Richard Lim writes:

“He said: ‘The question I asked myself was, how was it that PAP, which I regarded as the most competent party with the right policies, was losing ground over the years after 1981. (In the) ’81, ’84, ’88 (elections), we were losing ground. Why? So we had to solve this problem. We could not govern if we could not solve the problem. In time, we might be out.

” ‘There was no doubt in my mind that PAP was the white knight for Singapore… to be able to deliver the goods and a better life for the people. But why were we losing support? That worried me and intrigued me. My goal, therefore, when I took over, was to reverse this trend.’

“And reverse the trend he did, in only three general elections.” (Page 505)

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