Chinese Language Political Mobilization in Singapore

A review of Chinese Language Political Mobilization in Singapore, 1953-63, by Thum Pingtjin.

The story of Singapore’s decolonization has been told backward. It’s often said that Singaporean citizens became nationalists only after Singapore became a nation; its history has had to serve this telos. Singapore is celebrated as an example of successful decolonization, stable political transition, economic success, and nation-building – the envy of other former European colonies in Southeast Asia and Africa. The ‘Singapore story’ valorizes the struggles of moderate English-educated elites to win Singapore by negotiating self-government and independence from the British, as well as by quelling dangerous Chinese political radicalism from within. In this triumphalist account, the Chinese-speaking masses loom as obdurate barriers to national progress. Rooted in chauvinism, prone to contagion by Marxist ideas, mysterious and dangerous, they were fundamentally unsuited to being leaders of a multicultural, multiethnic state, and had thus to be tamed over the course of decolonization. The analogy is one of bestial mastery: Lee Kuan Yew is frequently said to have ‘ridden the Communist tiger’ to establish independent Singapore. P. J. Thum’s dissertation reads this well-established story against the grain by telling, as it were, the tiger’s side of the story.

The dissertation focuses on the decolonization of Singapore from the perspective of its “autonomous Chinese-speaking political sphere” (p. 1), which over the period of analysis comprised roughly 70% of the population. To recover these neglected voices, Thum undertook an exhaustive excavation of Chinese-language newspapers of the period. This in itself is an important historiographical intervention, filling two lacunae: first, the overreliance of the field on British official records in English; and second, what Thum suggests has been a systematic omission of the role and contribution to independence of Singapore’s Chinese population. Yet, as Thum demonstrates, ‘from beginning to end the decolonization process was one shaped by Singapore’s Chinese population, either in opposition to them, or as a consequence of their actions’.  This observation is densely elaborated throughout, proceeding in a chronological order through a decade of Chinese political mobilization, from 1953 to the merger of Singapore with the Federation of Malaya in 1963.

The first chapter introduces the scope, subject, and methods of the study. Thum identifies the limited subject of analysis as the “Chinese,” referring to those who spoke Chinese as first language, had access to Chinese newspapers and the public sphere they generated, were generally committed to Malaya as local community, and operated a politically low profile, frequently excluded from the essentially colonial political processes by virtue of their lack of English-speaking skills. Thum argues that despite their numerical supremacy, these are the most neglected class of voices in Singaporean historiography. He locates newspapers at the beating heart of the Chinese public sphere. In the pages of the Chinese press, political opinions were canvassed, created, and defended; literary and cultural sensibilities were refined and tested; global and local events were presented and discussed.

Chapter 2 provides essential background on the historical origins of the Singaporean Chinese community, beginning with the early labour migrations of the 19th century. Thum demonstrates the salience of labour and education issues in the development of Chinese political consciousness over the 19th and 20th centuries. He tells a story of persistent alienation experienced by the wider Chinese-speaking community outside the elite, mercantile, and often Anglophone circles through which the British historically governed the settlement. This, he suggests, established a pattern of reaction and mistrust, and a prevailing perception that the British did not ultimately have Chinese interests at heart. Chinese education was either governed punitively, as during the period under Governor Cecil Clementi (1927-1933) and the anti-Japanese movement (1937-1942); or else it was left to “die a slow death from neglect” (p. 63). Labour movements came under constant suspicion. The roots of trade unionism and organized labour were established in the prewar years, entwined in colonial eyes with Chinese nationalism and radicalism – in particular, the activities of the left-wing Kuomintang in Malaya. Chinese resistance to British colonial rule was, Thum argues, not primarily ideological but material: Chinese political demands came to be conceived in response to injustice and local grievances, rather than as deliberate expressions of Communist, anarchist, or anti-colonial ideas. Nevertheless, the postwar years would be characterized by increasing direct state intervention in the affairs of the Chinese-speaking community.

Chapter 3 addresses the expansion of Chinese civil society in 1950s Singapore. The Chinese responded to colonial discrimination and exclusion from the political process by organizing outside state formations. Civil society action included mass mobilization on issues like the establishment of Nanyang University, the first Chinese-funded university in Singapore, and the student protests against compulsory national service registration in 1954. These movements have been frequently addressed in the literature on Singapore in this period, but without the level of granular detail which Thum is able to bring to the story from the Chinese press. Social and political interventions by Chinese civil society groups were repeatedly stymied by the limitations inherent in a government which was at this time still not fully autonomous. British authorities blocked many of the reforms and initiatives proposed in this period, and cracked down with particular force on student mobilization in Chinese schools. In doing so, they helped cement popular perception of their governance as intractably opposed to Chinese interests. Once again politically active Chinese communities were pushed—materially, rather than ideologically—towards calls for self-government.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 launch into a chronological account of 1955-1963, in which Chinese political movements, previously committed to civil society and extra-state activism, reoriented themselves towards the goals of citizenship, reconfiguring their social organizations ‘from agencies of mass resistance to vehicles for lobbying politicians’. The sheer size of the newly enfranchised Chinese community promised many votes to politicians who could win their support. Chapters 4 and 5 appraise and contrast the successive approaches of Chief Ministers David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew to the Chinese mass movements, and show how the Chinese emerged as a major political force with which Singaporean leadership had to contend in decision-making processes.

Again Thum brings a level of unprecedented detail from Chinese-language perspectives to a story which is otherwise very well established from the colonial and Anglophone side; he diverges from this narrative primarily in perspective. Under the leadership of Marshall, Chinese civil society was given both the encouragement and the space to switch their focus from mass movement to electoral politics, and they did so with great vigour. Perhaps too much—for, under Lim Yew Hock, a model of governance was established which was “almost identical” (p. v) to the colonial model of handling the Chinese community described in earlier chapters: regulation, systematic destruction of Chinese education and labour organizations, and outrightly violent repression. The British, delighted, saw him as a man with whom they could do business, and awarded Singapore self-government in 1957.

Self-government enfranchised a now politicized and politically practiced Chinese-speaking electorate. Chinese concerns became national concerns for the first time. Their demands were, Thum argues, consistently moderate and democratic, but their numerical dominance and ability to mobilize on issues important to them continued to perturb the new nationalist elites as much as the former British rulers. Lee Kuan Yew rose to power by capitalizing on Chinese discontent with Lim Yew Hock’s repressive and pro-British stance. Keeping his own politics ambiguous, he forged pragmatic alliances with leaders of the Chinese-speaking electorate, many of whom were suspected Communists. But Lee was ultimately unable, or reluctant, to transition to a form of governance that took their views into account. Thus Chapter 6 ends with tragedy at just the point where the triumphant story of Singapore begins: at merger with Malaya, and independence. Thum emphasizes that merger was designed specifically to contain the growing dominance of Chinese-speaking politics. The chapter traces the return of English-speaking elites to the postwar British political models: “using legislation, repression and social control to enforce [their] will upon the electorate, destroy Chinese political power, and successfully reshape the electorate to suit its government” (p. vii).

Thum’s dissertation concludes that the history of Singapore’s decolonization is “essentially the story of a single generation, born in Malaya in the 1920s and 30s” (p. 332): the early wave of Chinese-speaking children born to a slowly rooting diaspora, and their experiences of depression, war, systematic discrimination, repression and injustice. Negotiating the governance of this community has fundamentally shaped modern Singapore. His thorough quotation and translation of Chinese-language newspaper material will provide valuable data for historians seeking to get a better handle on the central role which Chinese-language mass movements have played in the making of Singapore. The historiographical thrust of his dissertation, more generally, should encourage future historians of Singapore to listen more carefully to what the tiger said.

Rachel Leow
Prize Fellow
Harvard University

Primary Sources

Singaporean Chinese-language newspapers, drawing particularly on the Nanyang Siang Pau 南洋商报 and Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日, two of the most important newspapers of the period.

Dissertation Information

University of Oxford. 2011. 359 pp. Primary Advisors: John Darwin, Peter Carey.


Image: Nanyang Siang Pao, March 19 1956


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