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Philip Holden


I thought I’d approach Men in White and the question of gender from two perspectives, both of which take advantage of my failings as a historian. In the first, I want to approach it as a general reader—as someone who came to Singapore in 1994 and so, like many younger Singaporeans, has no memory of most of the events described in the first two sections of the book. In the second half of my discussion, I want to revisit the text, and again the question of gender, using the perspective of a scholar who works on literature, storytelling, and the manner in which stories make our world for us.

Men In White and the General Reader

As a general reader, I found the first section of the book the most interesting. It is the fruit of substantial research, and this does result in interesting revisionist nuances: for instance, the relatively sympathetic treatment given to Ong Eng Guan, and the acknowledgment of the importance of his period as mayor in preparing the way for the PAP election victory in 1959. There is also some attempt—although not fully realised—to complicate the story of the victors that divides everyone into either PAP or pro-communist camps after the Party split, and then reads this split into party history all the way back to its founding. Some, although not enough, credit is given to the notion that there were a wide variety of principled positions nationalists of different political perspectives might take.

Despite this, I was disappointed by several elements of the first section of the book. There is lack of documentation and frequent use of paraphrase rather than quotation: many of the people interviewed are older now, and infirm, and some have passed away. It’s vital for the historical record that interview material be clearly referenced and documented, and if a book is going to run to 800 pages I can’t see why this can’t be done: a suggestion was made in the forum, for instance, that interview transcripts could be posted on a web site. There are also moments where the book lapses into stereotypes and doesn’t revisit history. David Marshall, for instance, comes off badly. He is described as being ‘paranoid’ and ‘excitable’ (p. 84) because of his insistence in holding negotiations regarding a coalition government after 1955 outside government buildings because of a fear of surveillance. Yet similar precautions by MCP members would be presented as an element of a cunning and devious strategy.

I found the second section of the book the most disappointing. It is more difficult to write about the post-1965 period, of course. Party members choose to close ranks, and in the absence of any mechanism to declassify documents from the period, archival records are few and far between. But this cannot explain the complete omission of important events that must have generated soul-searching within the PAP, and a refusal to engage with the complexity of others. The PAP’s resignation from the Socialist International in 1976, for instance, is not mentioned, despite the fact that the party’s evolving relationship to socialism was surely a key feature of its development from 1965 into the 1990s. Devan Nair’s resignation as President of Singapore in 1985 was also surely an important moment that must have caused internal debate, but it is not discussed. Even Rajaratnam’s critique of moneytheism and multiculturalism in the late 1980s is displaced from here until the final section. There is also no attempt to re-assess such events as the Marxist conspiracy despite the fact that we learn—as an aside—that S. Dhanabalan’s leaving politics in 1991 was, in Goh Chok Tong’s recollection at least, precipitated by his disagreement with the way in which the government had responded to the event (p. 468). This second section, then, isn’t the untold history of the People’s Action Party: it’s the story as already told.

What this means, I think, is that the third section of the book, which is more critical and reflective in tone, can’t really engage with some of the interesting issues raised—political succession, multiracialism, social inequality under globalized capitalism– because of the soggy foundations of the second section of the book. This is shown, in particular, in the way in which scholars and historians are brought into the debate. Rather than being engaged with, they are frequently selectively used as cheerleaders. Consider Chua Beng Huat, whose Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore in many ways still represents one of the most perceptive accounts of PAP rule until the middle of the 1990s. We hear that Chua is ‘known for his outspoken views’ but we are given only small snippets of what those views are (p. 568). Similar illustrations could be given for the manner in which the book responds to Sharon Siddique, Kwok Kian Woon, and Kenneth Paul Tan; rather than explain their ideas, Men in White tends to locate a moment when they have expressed admiration for an aspect of the PAP, and to use them as cheerleaders whose voices are even more significant because they are, we are told, usually so critical.

If we think of gender, we might trace a similar structure in the book. The first section does include some women’s voices. We have Miki Goh-Hoalim’s wonderful account of her refusal to ‘knit socks while they [the men involved in the PAP] drink beer’ (p. 59) and her subsequent confrontation with Lee Kuan Yew, and we have a small amount of space devoted to women in the PAP, particularly Chan Choy Siong and Ho Puay Choo. What’s missing is an acknowledgment of how central gender equality was to the PAP’s programme in 1959, and how much this came out of more general hopes for a new society after the end of colonialism in the late 1950s. We hear a great deal about trade union activity, but we don’t hear about struggles for gender equality in the 1950s, in which both middle-class largely Anglophone groups such as the Singapore Council for Women, and the largely Sinophone united front organizations took part. We have only a sentence on the women’s charter (p. 125), at its time possibly the most progressive piece of legislation for gender equality in the world, and we don’t hear those wonderful speeches made by Chan in support of this legislation:

On this side of the House, I wish to point out that the fundamental principle of this Women’s Charter is twofold. The problems of women are the result of an unreasonable society. Men take women as pieces of merchandise. The inhuman feudalistic system has deprived women of their rights. In a semi-colonial and semi-feudalistic society, the tragedy of women was very common. Men could have three or four spouses. Men are considered honourable, but women are considered mean. It was common in those days to regard having one more female in a Chinese family as being very despicable. Women in our society are like pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice.

The P.A.P. Government has made a promise. We cannot allow this inequality in the family to exist in this country. We will liberate women from the hands of the oppressor. With the passing of this legislation, women can contribute their part to the country. (Official Reports of Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates, col. 443)

This radical element of PAP history, its strong commitment to gender equality, articulated by an assemblywoman who would stay with the PAP after the split is conspicuously missing.

In the second section of the book, women vanish. In a way this does mirror PAP history in terms of elected representation in parliament: after Chan stepped down in 1970 there would be no elected female MPS until 1984, and it was not until 2002 that—in an expanded parliament—the number of women MPS finally exceeded the 4 elected in 1959. Yet it’s also strange to me that this anomaly isn’t commented on. If Singapore in the 40 years after 1959 underwent a huge transformation in society that should surely have benefited women, why did women’s formal political representation decline? The Women’s Affairs Bureau of the PAP ceased to function in the 1970s, and wasn’t revived as the Women’s Wing until the late 1980s. Important events that relate to gender—for instance the graduate mothers’ controversy of 1980s that led to the founding of AWARE—are covered very superficially. And, perhaps most puzzling, important women figures in the PAP in the last quarter of the twentieth century—Aline Wong and Seet Ai Mee, for instance—are not mentioned at all. When we come to the last section of the book, the narrative rightly celebrates the seven women candidates for the PAP in the 2001 election as marking a significant change, but they appear like rabbits out of the hat: we have no sense of the history behind their emergence.

History as Storytelling

Gender, however, works at a deeper level than simply the representation of women’s voices in Men in White. History, whether popular or academic, is not simply a telling of the past as it was, but a story carefully assembled from the raw material of the past so that it has coherence for the reader, so that the reader wants to read on. Much of this process is a series of conscious decisions made by writers as craftsmen. The writers of Men in White, for instance, begin many of the chapters with anecdotes, and then a circle back to describe the historical context. The desired effect is presumably to humanize history, although some readers may feel it also makes the narrative less easy to follow. But in popular history, a lot of this shaping is unconscious—writers write in a certain way because it ‘feels right,’ making use of pre-existing conventions and forms they have internalized, just as we no longer think consciously about the use of individual muscles when we perform a complicated action like walking.

To explain this process, I want to turn to an American scholar, Hayden White. In his influential book Metahistory White analyses how the raw materials of the past were turned into historical narratives. Events that occur in a ‘historical field,’ White notes, are first placed in a chronicle in the ‘temporal order of their occurrence,’ and then transformed into what he terms a ‘story’ by being linked together through cause and effect (p.5). The transformation of chronicle into story, however, is not an objective process, but rather an attempt to make sense of historical events for an audience in order to give a historical narrative the distinct literary form of plot, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. White also notes that the range of plots available to historians is limited, and lists four common ones: Romance, in which a hero embarks on a quest to achieve a goal; Tragedy, in which a protagonist, despite high achievement, is brought down by a fault or flaw; Comedy, in which disharmony is replaced by harmony, often symbolized by marriage; and Satire, which parodies and deconstructs the other three modes (p. 7). These ‘modes of emplotment,’ White further observes, are often not consciously adopted, but are taken off the shelf, as it were, by a writer who has a sense of craft and of how a story should work.

In Men in White, the underlying mode is surely Romance, a quest perhaps not yet quite completed. The narrative is the story of development and progress of a party pursuit of an ideal of governance. This underlying structure produces pressure on the narrative, and explains some of its key elements: the continual reference, for example, to the ingratitude of young Singaporeans who do not remember the privations of the early part of the narrative, and the airbrushing of the less savoury aspects of political rule, especially after 1965.

Romance is, in fact, a common trope when telling the story of a nation. As many commentators have noted, nation-states are artificial, summed up most famously in Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation as ‘imagined political community’ whose members ‘will never know their fellow-members’ (p. 6). Narrative is an essential component of this act of imagination. Nationalists thus comb the historical record retrospectively to look for signs of the nation’s emergence: witness the eager hunt in Europe for folktales in new national languages in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, or Singapore’s enshrining of the Kuomintang operative Lim Bo Seng, who died two decades before Singapore separated from Malaysia, as a national hero. The nation’s birth is imagined back into the remote, and national history then becomes a narrative of national emergence into self-consciousness, and then of growth to maturity. The climax of such a narrative is always deferred into the future. We never quite arrive: there is always a next lap, new challenges to be undergone in forging the nation. National history as Romance is common in most nationalisms, but perhaps has a particular power in Singapore because of the relatively smooth trajectory of national development from 1965, the transition, in Lee Kuan Yew’s words, ‘from Third World to First.’

It would be relatively easy, however, to choose a different mode of emplotment for the events described in Men in White. If we used the mode of tragedy, we might emphasize what Rajaratnam called moneytheism—this embedding of government into capitalism that seems to erode its autonomy and indeed moral authority. The first section of the book continually stresses the monetary sacrifice of early party activists and leaders: the giving up of well-paying jobs to serve the party and the nation. In the mode of tragedy, that might be contrasted with the present remuneration of ministers. The first section of the narrative illustrates starkly the poverty of the general population and inequality under colonialism, and the promises of equality in national independence, in the constitution, in the Pledge. In the mode of tragedy, we might again see a falling away from these ideals. We have wealth now, but much of that wealth is built on the labours of those who are not citizens: the housing I live in was not built by Singaporeans, and the reason why my colleagues and I can work such long hours, so efficiently, is partly due to the vast reserves of foreign domestic labour that silently support us. Singapore’s GINI index, perhaps the most comprehensive indicator of social inequality, has increased rapidly in the last decade. A narrative in the mode of tragedy might see, then, the return of a different kind of internal colonialism, of Singapore becoming a society like one of the Gulf States, or ancient Athens, where citizens are the minority.

Telling the story of the PAP as Tragedy is, of course, no more true than telling it as Romance, but I think it is a story we hear less often—to tell a story differently in this way requires standing, back, a kind of reflection. And when we do so, we encounter a further aspect of White’s work. For White notes that there is more to the decision to tell a story in a certain way than an unconscious desire to use a comfortable narrative structure—there are other, social factors. White devotes substantial space to them, and here I want to mention one: what White characterizes as a reliance on ‘nomological-deductive’ laws (p. 11), internalized beliefs that are widely held in society, so much so that they form the common sense through which members of the society habitually see their world. Gender roles and stereotypes are deeply embedded in all societies, and historical narratives habitually draw on a vast reservoir of gendered tropes and metaphors.

In Men in White, we might notice two ways in which such gendered beliefs influence the narrative. The first is bound up with nationalism, and the stories that we tell of the nation. Scholars of nationalism such as Deniz Kandiyoti have noted that women have a contradictory place in national movements. They may be seen as markers of the progress of the nation—the fact that women are free and modern is seen as a sign the nation-state has reached a certain level of development. We might think of the Women’s Charter. At the same time, women also bear the burden of transmitting culture which is associated with the soul or essence of the nation: in Singapore we talk about the mother tongue, not the father tongue, when describing language policy. While the balance between women as symbols of modern liberation and woman as guardians of tradition—what Kandiyoti characterizes as ‘boundary markers’ of community (p. 388)—varies from one context to another, the paradox animates all nationalisms. Revolutionary Chinese posters from the 1950s, for instance, picture women in new roles, driving tractors or serving as welders, but they also make use of images of fertility in depicting women as farmers, and domesticity, in portraying idealized homes with clearly defined gender roles, in which the woman takes on a role as a nurturer of the family imagined as a nation in miniature.

Kandiyoti and others note that in this process women are reduced to symbols, and thus face difficulties in acting as citizens in ways that transgress these symbolic roles. This explains, I think, much of the way in which the first part of Men in White deploys women. Women are not political actors in the narrative, and most testimony from women –that of Mrs Lee, in particular—is from women who enact traditional roles, looking on from the sidelines. When we see women as actors, their femininity becomes symbolic of something larger. Like Lee Kuan Yew’s The Singapore Story, the text dramatizes the devotion of Chinese-speaking leftists to their cause by focusing on the bodies of young, innocent-seeming Chinese middle-school girls in uniform, with pigtails: there is no equivalent focus on small boys in shorts. When the male members of the PAP plot an initiative regarding the August 1957 elections, they meet on a kelong. As they climb onto the pier leading to the kelong a ‘pretty young woman,’ Ye Ludi, who has no function in the plot aside from a symbolic one, appears (p. 100). Fearing bad luck, the kelong owner refuses to let her climb up kelong until she takes off her shoes and burns incense ‘to appease the spirits’ (p. 101): her body thus becomes a site of a struggle between the rationalization of modernity and the persistence of tradition. When their symbolic function is enacted, such women fade into the background. Indeed, the disappearance of women from the second section of the book perhaps indicates an unresolvable tension between the two different emplacements of women under nationalism—at a time of the gradual reiteration of ‘Asian values’ in which tradition is reinvented, it becomes more difficult to acknowledge women as markers of modernity in non-traditional roles. With the Asian Crisis of 1997 past, and the loosening of Asian values discourse, women can appear again in the third section, and resume an accustomed dual role.

A second series of ‘nomological-deductive laws’ move beyond the politics of nationalism to a global world of consumption. Singapore is perhaps the paradigmatic example of how the postcolonial nation-state has accommodated itself to neo-liberalism and the ever more liquid flows of capital, culture, and labour: the free market, its excesses mitigated but never transcended by the nation-state, is the ultimate ‘common sense’ that underlies public narratives and stories. The People’s Action Party has at times found it difficult to accommodate itself to the demands of the market; its legitimacy is dependent on its position as an arbiter that is somehow independent of the market, and yet it has continually, and not always successfully, attempted to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant in a world of popular culture. In 2004, for instance, the party held a celebration at Zouk, one of Singapore’s oldest night clubs; an indication, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, noted, that the PAP was not as ‘square’ as people might think. ‘The party got off to a slow start at 7pm,’ the Straits Times reported, ‘but picked up momentum after YP chairman Vivian Balakrishnan, clad in a white linen shirt and white trousers, asked guests to ‘loosen up” (‘People! Action! Party!’). At other times, however, members of parliament have expressed skepticism at such reinvention and rebranding, sartorial or otherwise. ‘Singaporeans,’ noted a recently-recruited PAP MP in 2006, ‘did not elect us because of our fashion sense or the fact that we party at Zouk.’

Men in White thus responds to a wider discursive environment beyond simply nationalism in Singapore. While the phrase ‘Men in White‘ has long been used by journalists and others in Singapore to refer to the PAP, the book’s title also invites association with the popular Barry Sonderheim movies Men in Black (1997) and Men in Black II (2002), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. While it is an amusing exercise to think of parallels between the secretive MIB organization, dedicated to protecting the general population from aliens in their midst through the extensive use of ‘neuralisers’—devices that induce selective amnesia—there is no evidence of intended parallels in the narrative. Yet drawing Men in White and Men in Black together does reveal how much they subscribe to normative codes regarding gender that are part of a globalized popular culture. Beneath the humour, Men in Black is a story of fraternity in which a young man learns learns from an older man to behave in a certain way, to become a certain kind of man. Women are largely invisible in the story, and when they do appear they function as foils against which men define themselves. This is perhaps more clearly shown in Men in Black II, in which the evil Surlina, who invades earth, takes the form of a lingerie model from a magazine, and the good woman – Laura Velasquez, the pizzeria waitress whom we eventually find out is the princess who embodies the ‘Light of Zartha.’ Here, as in Men in White, men are actors for the good, while women are reduced to the status of symbols.

If we return to Men in White, we might see how it replicates deeply embedded notions of masculinity and manliness. One element centres on notions of ‘integrity’ and ‘character,’ with men who oppose the PAP often shown to be lacking in ‘character.’ David Marshall is portrayed in this way, as are Francis Seow and Chee Soon Juan. Chee is described as a ‘cocktail-circuit freedom fighter’ who is portrayed as being rejected by ‘pragmatic Singaporeans’ and eventually outmaneuvered and ‘cornered’ by the PAP. It is clear that Chee made judgment mistakes—as, of course, did the early PAP leadership when under pressure in an era of competitive politics up to 1965. Yet in the narrative there’s a relentless attempt to show him up as lacking in manliness. Chee did cry publicly after losing in the 1997 general election, yet so did Lee Kuan Yew at the press conference announcing Singapore’s independence from Malaysia: why, we might ask, are similar acts narrativised as strength in one case, and weakness in another? Again, what seems to me to be happening is a resorting to hegemonic ‘nomological-deductive laws’ about how men ought to behave.

Finally, there is one puzzling element to Men in White: one of the most obvious questions that the book raises is not answered. Who decided that the PAP candidates and members should wear white? There is a brief mention of this being suggested by some of the leftist members of the party, and yet the use of white is not a Chinese cultural reference: the colour is associated with death. The wearing of white uniforms, by the People’s Action Party and indeed the Malaysian Chinese Association is associated with opposition to corruption, more plausibly in the case of the former than the latter party. The symbolism is clearly derived from Western sources, and is ultimately a Classical reference: I wonder whether we might not see Rajaratnam’s hand in it. Two words ‘candidate’ and candid’ in English seem to have an almost opposite meaning today: candidates are rarely candid. But they share a common root: the Latin ‘candida,’ or dazzling white. In Ancient Rome, candidates for office would appear in robes of pure white. On one level, the gesture might be read as the similar to that put forward in ‘Men in White’—a commitment against corruption, which the PAP has maintained. Yet candidates quickly took to brightening their togas with chalk in order to stand out from the crowd; the essential humility of the gesture was lost in a performance, and attempt to be ‘whiter than white,’ and the notion of the ‘toga candida’ took on a negative connotation. As we unravel the plots of the past in order to envision shared futures, as we try to think of Singapore stories that vary from the script of Romance, we might do well to remember this.


Philip Holden is associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, teaching and researching Singaporean and Southeast Asian Literatures. He is also currently an Exco member of the Singapore Heritage Society.


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One Response to “From People’s Action Party to Men in White

  1. That’s one of the central problems of history …The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.
    Control mystery keeps you turning the pages, but it is the mutability of memory and what this means for evaluating one’s personal history – time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent – that really occupy this slim volume.