When I was notified about Barr’s new book, I jumped at the chance to read and review it.
This book will probably take you more than a couple of hours to read, if you’re reading it carefully. I like to keep in mind that it takes the author/scholar/historian far more than 10x that amount of time to research, write, and edit the book!
I posted a review of Michael Barr’s other book, The Ruling Elite of Singapore, back in March 2014. Holy Smokes, that’s a solid half decade ago.
Anyway, on to the review proper…
Singapore: A Modern History, by Michael D. Barr
Dr. Barr is a very talented writer. His intellect and more nuanced perspectives come through in this book, in which the content dives deep into Singapore’s history from a political, geographic, and economic view.
While Singapore: A Modern History is not as easily digestible as some other non-fiction books (i.e. you need to be observant of the text to retrieve the “juicy” bits), this is a quality that strengthens a history book in terms of objectivity. A heavily critical revisionist or preferred official narrative are both opposite extremes, and neither approach will give you an informative and educational view of history, which is what this book sets out to do.
The foreword written by historian and author, Carl A. Trocki, is truly exceptional. It reflects his intimate understanding and expertise of Singapore and the region.
“In all of this [Michael Barr] has pioneered looking behind the curtains of mythology and self-congratulation that have becomes hallmarks of the ‘story’ of Singapore’s success, as told by its elite class.”
Here are a few other choice quotations from the foreword:
‘The Singapore Story’ is the title of LKY’s historical autobiography — himself and Singapore — as if the two could not be separated.”
“Such factors as the development of steam travel. . .Singapore’s shipbuilding industry. . .and its public housing programme were all elements that were already in place before 1959.”
“Barr has shown that the system from education to military service has been quietly rigged to promote Chinese over other races.”
“In structuring his study around these three issues, Barr completely deflates the Singapore Story, and in the process reveals its fundamental emptiness.”
After the succinct and power-packed foreword, we are led into the first chapter which has an equally strong opening. “Reorienting the National Narrative” is the title of the first chapter, and the content does not disappoint or deviate from this title. I especially like the choice of the word “reorient,” as the facts are laid out beside the seemingly “absolute truths” that are contained within the official state narrative.
Page 4 explains how the undisputed ‘mother’ of Singaporean history, Mary Turnbull, denied Singapore’s pre-British past by opening A History of Singapore with the memorable words: “Modern Singapore dates from 30 January 1819. . .”
In Turnbull’s national history, Singapore’s story was “separate from the history of both Malaya and from Singapore’s pre-colonial past.”
We are told how no critiques of the Singapore Story came from Singaporeans themselves, during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. Barr explains why: because the “task [of challenging the national narrative] was left to ‘foreign talent’ — in those decades it would have been a career-killing exercise for a local scholar to have questioned the orthodoxy.”
Readers only have to get to Page 22 before they’re told about a security sweep called ‘Operation Coldstore’, which Barr describes as having “assumed a foundational place in the Singapore Story as evidence of its vulnerability to subversion.” We are also told that [amongst many others, three members of the opposition United People’s Party] were “known to have no communist connections or sympathies at all, but were targeted because they were political opponents of Lee Kuan Yew.”
Now that is something I would have appreciated reading in my social studies or history book when I was a student in Singapore. Maybe the future holds an updated history book? There’s no point sweeping things under the rug when undeniable facts exist. Tragic events become a sore point in the nation’s history to Singaporeans who are conscious of this event — it’s akin to a festering wound that can never heal. How can any genuine nation-building be achieved if there’s so much animosity with coming clean at an official level about one of the country’s most horrible events?
Barr is patient and diplomatic with reminding us that “there was already a firm idea of Singapore as the starting place of the Malacca Sultanate” long before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles. He reminds us several times that “the abandonment of 1819 is key to reconstructing Singapore’s modern history,” while noting that the strong case he makes should not be taken as a complete dismissal of 1819. Barr also notes that The British Empire and the ‘Great Men’ need to “remain part of this narrative, but they should neither define it, nor bookend it.”
Chapters 4 to 6 set out “to study Singapore’s long history through the prism of government and politics.”
On page 116, we are told about Lee Kuan Yew moving forward with a political campaign for Singapore to join Malaysia. A referendum on merger with the Federation of Malaysia was held in September 1962. Of this referendum, Deputy PM Toh Chin Chye said in a 1996 interview:
“The ballot paper was crafted by Lee Kuan Yew. Whichever way you voted, you voted for merger. . .and we moved in the Referendum Bill that [even] spoilt votes will be counted as votes for merger.” *
Towards the end of Chapter 5, Barr explains how the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia was actually an arrangement negotiated by Goh Keng Swee. Barr says that this “myth-making was a face-saving measure for the Singapore leadership, and a way to avert Lee Kuan Yew’s detention at the hands of the Kuala Lumpur police.”
I don’t think Barr actually uses the word “hypocrisy,” but he shows it in the opening of Chapter 6 on Governance in Independent Singapore:
“Journalists, academics and bloggers who support the government are not ‘political’ but the journalists, academics and bloggers who are critical of the government are. By the same token, foreign newspapers and NGOS that praise the Singapore government are reported widely, while foreign newspapers and NGOS that criticize the Singapore government are dismissed as interfering foreigners.”
We are informed of how the reforms in the 1980s were mostly driven by facets of Lee Kuan Yew’s personality: such as his “elitism (education), his Chinese supremacism (education, language, multi-racialism), his personal hostility to welfare (health), and his determination to dilute the Malay community’s political power (by introducing racial quotas into housing estates).”
There is an interesting section in Chapter 6 about the “Reinvention of Authoritarianism.” Professor Garry Rodan identifies the Singapore government as a “consultative authoritarian regime.” Barr adds that “the underlying logic at all times rested on technocratic elitism: the myth that Cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats truly brought professional standards and best practice into government.”
The reflection in the last chapter rounds out the content explored and presented in the book. In Barr’s view, there is prosperity in Singapore but it has given Singapore and Singaporeans “a frantic edge.”
He observes how the one thing that seems to unite everyone is that life in Singapore has become “uncomfortably crowded, frightfully expensive, and above all, unrelentingly busy.” He notes how foreign maids often substitute “for the maternal figure in children’s lives as professional couples and small business holders struggle to find time for family life.” Only Singaporeans can decide whether what they get is worth the price.
In the afterword, Barr writes that he is “dismayed” that the political elite of Singapore is continuing to build the country’s “foundation myth on the arrival of an English imperialist” (in line with the bicentennial celebrations in 2019 of Raffles’ landing).
Barr concludes that the current elite seems here to stay, and the reader can infer whether or not the Singapore Story will continue to determine the national narrative.
There’s plenty more that couldn’t be included in a relatively short review.
If you want a very real and well-researched academic historical book, don’t miss out on this one!
Rating (as with most books reviewed on this blog) = 5/5
Links to The Book and Author:
Singapore: A Modern History at Amazon
Singapore: A Modern History at Kinokuniya
Professor Michael Barr’s Page at Flinders University