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.

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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.

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The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

JGFarrell Anyone who loves Singapore should read The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell. He won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur about the 1857 War of Indian Independence. The Singapore Grip is also a historical novel, describing Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. The book was first published in Britain in 1978 and Farrell died a year later.

The author vividly describes the fighting in what was then Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the burning and the looting, the humiliation of the British, who were outgeneralled and outfought by superior Japanese forces, and the manner in which civilians and soldiers alike tried to escape from the island as the Japanese approached Singapore. The narrative captures the whole spectrum of human behaviour from cowardice and selfishness to selfless courage. There are some stoic heroic figures and a very attractive Eurasian woman who gain your empathy.

But best of all are the descriptions of Singapore before it was devastated by the war – the colonial bungalows at Tanglin, the carnival atmosphere of the Great World, the taxi dancers and the prostitutes, a dying house where the Chinese went or were left by their relatives to die to prevent misfortune at home, the world of the rich colonial businessmen and the relationship between the races. Especially memorable is the description of a plane landing in Singapore. The author gives an aerial view of Singapore as the plane begins its descent – it's marvellous.

I have been reading the book again because I am already beginning to miss Singapore.

I will be away from Singapore for more than a month, returning towards the end of June. This will probably be the last post till then.

So I will end with this – a vivid description of the city I love as it was long ago. These are the opening lines of The Singapore Grip:

The city of Singapore was not built up gradually, the way most cities are, by a natural deposit of commerce on the banks of some river or at a traditional

Image via Wikipedia

confluence of trade routes. It was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map. "Here," he said to himself, "is where we must have a city, half-way between India and China. This will be the great halting-place on the trade route to the Far East. Mind you, the Dutch will dislike it and Penang won't be pleased, not to mention Malacca." This man's name was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: before the war his bronze statue used to stand in Empress Place in a stone alcove like a scallop shell ( he has been moved along now and, turned to stone, occupies a shady spot by the river). He was by no means the lantern-jawed individual you might have expected: indeed he was a rather vague-looking man in a frock coat.

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Simon Schama’s American history

The American Future: A History by Simon Schama

The American Future is a labour of love by the British historian Simon Schama, who clearly admiSimon_schamares America. This is a loving exploration of American history highlighting the dreams and ideals that created the country and continue to animate it.

Schama also notes the darker currents — of racism, for example, that led to segregation, xenophobia and colonial adventures like the occupation of the Philippines during which US forces tortured Filipino freedom fighters with impunity.

But America has never lacked voices condemning prejudice and inhumanity. From the abolitionists fighting against slavery to Mark Twain's condemnation of the Philippines adventure to the Freedom Riders and other civil rights workers, America has never been short of idealism and tolerance.

This is the America that Schama celebrates. The book begins with an eyewitness account of Obama's victory in Iowa.

Schama describes the joyous scene. It did not happen overnight. He describes how a grizzled white farmer who had once supported Kennedy campaigned for Obama – and how a high school senior seeing the big group of Obama supporters on the caucus floor switched his support from Hillary Clinton to Obama. 

Schama catches the wave of American idealism that periodically throws up a Roosevelt, a Kennedy, an Obama.

Civil War

The idealism takes its toll. Schama describes the bitterness and enormous cost of the Civil War.

American Civil WarImage via Wikipedia

The Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC, where more than 300,000 people are buried, is a memorial to fallen heroes.

But it was once home to the Confederate general Robert E Lee. He was the son-in-law of George Washington's adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who built the house.

It was turned into a graveyard by Lee's former friend, Montgomery C Meigs, a fellow West Pointer and engineer who had helped build the Capitol building before the war.

Meigs, who served as the quartermaster-general of the Union army, could not forgive Lee for joining the rebels. Turning it into a graveyard made the house uninhabitable, writes Schama.

Meigs' own son, who died in the war, was buried there – and so was he, long after the war.

Schama also writes about the black churches and black colleges as well as white pastors who took up their cause. We encounter heroic abolitionists who went from town to town, braving mobs and speaking against slavery.

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Oscar and Lucinda: A sweeping romance

Oscar_and_lucinda
Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize and was made into a
beautiful movie, I am told, and it is easy to see why. It vividly
recreates 19th century England and Australia as it tells an impassioned
love story. And it is clever. When Lucinda the heiress confesses her
love of gambling to Oscar the clergyman, he says that is not a sin.
Believing in God is gambling, too, he says, referring to Pascal’s
Wager: there is no reason to believe or disbelieve in God, but it’s
wiser to bet He exists because we lose nothing if He doesn’t exist but
gain infinite happiness and eternal life if He does.

Lucinda is shocked to hear this from a clergyman, but they settle down to a game of cards, for Oscar is a gambler too.

With colourful characters like that, and history and romance in the
bargain, what’s there not to like about this novel? Well, it’s a little too
long and the ending is jarring.

Of course, it has to end in tragedy, given the nature of the hero
and the heroine. Lucinda is the conventionally unconventional 19th
century heroine, rebelling against convention and paying for it. Oscar
the gambler and eventually defrocked clergyman is a tortured soul, a
guilt-ridden anti-hero.

But the author gives a savage twist to the plot when after
describing their romance almost throughout the book, he suddenly
introduces another woman who destroys their relationship in just a
couple of pages. Miriam not only wrenches the lovers apart but gets
everything in the process, for she finds out about Oscar’s gamble with
Lucinda. A gamble in which the winner takes all.

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