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The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity

LOH KAH SENG is Assistant Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Sogang University. He is also the author of Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore.

EDGAR LIAO is a Tutor at the Department of History, National University of Singapore.

LIM CHENG TJU is an Educator in Singapore who has written about history, popular culture and the arts.

SENG GUO-QUAN is a History PhD candidate at the University of Chicago.

NUS Press (First Edition, 2012)
347 pages including Bibliography and Index


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The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity using a small group of left-wing student activists as a prism, explores the complex politics that underpinned the making of nation-states in Singapore and Malaysia after World War Two. While most works have viewed the period in terms of political contestation groups, the book demonstrates how it is better understood as involving a shared modernist project framed by British-planned decolonization. This pursuit of nationalist modernity was characterized by optimism to replace the colonial system with a new state and mobilize the people into a new relationship with the state, according to them new responsibilities as well as new rights.

This book based on student writings, official documents and oral history interviews, brings to life various modernist strands—liberal-democratic, ethnic-communal, and Fabian and Marxist socialist—seeking to determine the form of postcolonial Malaya. It uncovers a hitherto little-seen world where the meanings of loud slogans were fluid, vague and deeply contested. This world also comprised as much convergence between the groups as conflict, including collaboration between the Socialist Club and other political and student groups which were once its rivals, while its main ally eventually became its nemesis.

The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity emerged and crystallised somewhere at the intersection between history, education and society. History because naturally the book is an attempt, like other academic histories, to extend our understanding of the past through rigorous research; our account investigates the less trodden areas of the making of the Singapore nation-state. Education, since at various points of time, we have been (or still are) school and university teachers. As the teaching of Singapore history courses becomes more sophisticated, and historical sources play a more important role in education, educators bear greater responsibility to bring students beyond the textbook, to develop their thinking skills and help transform them into active citizens.

The Fajar trial of 1954 is an event with Which the University Socialist Club is tied to and which has attained mythic status in the standard narrative of modern Singapore yet, one of the authors was initially unable to even locate the offending issue of the publication which led to the arrest of the editorial board members. The journey from source to student represents a key challenge for history teachers in Singapore, and this book will hopefully play a role in educating, and exciting, history students.

Society, because texts on Singapore history are now produced, read and critiqued very differently from a generation ago. The culture of writing and reading history is being redefined at the interface between two social processes. One is the growing polarization of historical views and claims as society liberalises and matures. The state no longer has a monopoly on historical knowledge, and mirror images of its rather tired account of the linear history of modern Singapore have emerged in the form of contending discourses both from the margins of society and in cyberspace. We have, in our writings and public talks, cautioned about what one of us has called reading history for inspiration and vilification by some young Singaporeans that is, reading the past selectively for heroes and acts of repression in order to address contemporary concerns.

The second process is the increasing willingness of some former left-wing activists to speak publicly about their political participation and, as they insist, contributions to the complex struggles that built post-colonial Singapore. This process is double-edged our book is one instance of how oral histories can combine with the imperial archive and student writings to enrich academic scholarship. Yet, oral testimonies of the left, which oppose the state narrative on one level but converge with it as a group of modernist-nationalist discourses, also pose a major challenge to the historian and educator how does one mediate between the demands of academe, prerogatives of education and growing social disenchantment with the Singapore Story?

When The Fajar Generation, edited by three former Socialist Club members, appeared in 2009, we were suitably chastised by our relative lack of progress in our book. But the publication of the earlier book probably did some good by making us reconsider the project we had on our hands and what we wanted to say. Although we did not find an easy answer, our response is to tell an empathetic story of the Club, detached from the old clichés of communist manipulation, while not forgetting the ideological blinkers and failures in the Club’s history. We also decided that our account should avoid swapping heroes and villains and yet still try to find a way to connect the various political players in a compelling narrative which makes history meaningful to academics, educators and students.

Weight0.512 kg
Dimensions22.9 × 15.3 × 1.7 cm




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