Education at Large: An Exhibition on Student Activities and Activism In Singapore, 1945-1965

Event announcement by Francis Lim Khek Gee
Organised by The Tangent
Nov-Dec 2007, Singapore Management University

Exhibition blog archive

In a recent roundtable on ‘Rethinking Singapore History’, a junior college student posed a poignant question that might be regarded as both an indictment and a rallying cry: why is it that, for such a long time, there has been a paucity of historical work that move beyond, or challenge, the dominant state narrative of the ‘Singapore Story’? Very briefly, this hegemonic narrative traces the ‘discovery’ of Singapore by the British and their pivotal role in transforming the territory from a sleepy fishing village into a major colonial trading centre, only to be challenged following the Second World by the independence movement led by the People’s Action Party, which captured power by subduing its political opponents and other ‘disruptive’ social forces to successfully build a modern and wealthy nation.

This narrative of course largely ignores the territory’s important position in the region prior to the arrival of European colonial powers, and denies the historical agency of the manifold personalities and groups other than that of the ruling party in shaping the contours of national society. Why has it taken the historians so long to realise the need to ‘rethink’ Singapore historiography? The student’s question managed to induce a palpable sense of embarrassment among some of the scholars present, seemingly being accused as what Antonio Gramsci calls ‘deputies of hegemony’. The large turnout at the event—with a diverse audience of academics, university and secondary school students, journalists, and other members of the public—was a testimony of the extent to which the workshop’s theme resonated with a strong desire on the part of many to discover a more multifaceted, much richer history of Singapore. On a positive note, that a workshop such as this had been conceived and organised at all is indicative of a heightened reflexivity among some Singapore historians concerning their work.

Interestingly, this seems to have been stimulated in no small measure by the publication of Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, The Singapore Story, in which the biographical and the national are narrated as if they are inseparable. The title for the second volume, From the Third World to the First, further suggests how the decisions and actions of one man are inextricably entwined with the formation of the Singapore nation. Since the publication of Lee’s memoirs, many a student and scholar of Singapore history increasingly feel the need to (re)examine the intricacy of the country’s social and political developments in much broader terms, in some ways challenging the hegemonic narrative of nation formation. This should not be seen as amounting to—at least not at the moment—the subaltern tradition pioneered by Ranajit Guha and his colleagues in South Asian historiography, who see their primary task as re-discovering and foregrounding the agency of the marginalized groups through exercising a ‘preferential option’ for the poor and oppressed. Nevertheless, there is a discernable trend in recent Singapore historiography to discover unheard voices and untold stories, silenced either through official or self-censorship, or drowned out in the cacophony of the ruling party’s celebratory cheers regarding its principal role in the making of modern Singapore.

With the aim of stimulating reflections upon the different ways through which Singapore’s nationhood and culture have been envisioned and shaped, the civil society group, Tangent, is organising an exhibition on student activities and activism in the formative and turbulent period between 1945 and 1965. Apart from re-visiting and reevaluating the ‘sensitive’ topic of student activism, given its portrayal in official history as closely allied with the leftist movement and communist threat, the event also wish to broaden our understanding of students’ contribution to nation-building by exploring their varied cultural and social activities. Briefly, the exhibition aims to:

  1. broaden our understanding of Singapore’s educational history in the transitional period between the end of the Second World War and the country’s independence;
  2. examine the ways in which student activities and activism resonated with, and contributed to, the country’s wider social, political and cultural life, as well as the decolonisation process;
  3. encourage visitors, especially students, to reflect upon their own schooling experience and to stimulate debates about education and student activism in Singapore.

One unique organisational feature of this exhibition is the involvement of students from a number of schools that were already in operation in those years, such as Chung Cheng High School, Xin Min Secondary School, Raffles Girls’ School, Raffles Institution, St Margaret’s Secondary, St. Nicholas Girls’ School, and the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. As part of their school’s projects, students from these institutions will focus their research in one or more of the following areas: One, the extra-curricular activities within their schools, such as uniformed groups, sports clubs, inter-school or international competitions, etc. Second, cultural involvement, which include activities related to literary and performing arts such as public concerts, book clubs, and literary publications. What were the contents of such cultural activities? To what extent did these activities reflect, and in what way had they shaped, the prevalent social and cultural environments of the times? If there is some truth to the view that the country is a ‘cultural desert’, does this assessment apply with equal measure to the Singapore of the 1950s and 1960s? A negative answer would beg a further historical question of how Singapore lost that cultural vibrancy in the decades after gaining its independence.

The third area of research is social engagement. This includes volunteer work, political activism, and participation in charitable causes (such as fund-raising, disaster relief, etc). The period concerned is marked by the rising tides of nationalism, communism, the Cold War, and the non-aligned movement. What were the students’ roles in the imagination and the pursuit of a Malayan nation? Were there diverse conceptions of a viable postcolonial society, and to what extent did these differ among students of the English and Chinese medium schools? Much has been made regarding the different outlook, lifestyles, and political allegiance between them. But is that really the case? Is there evidence indicating the contrary? One possible arena where students from the two language streams might share common interests and activities is popular culture, and this is another area of research for the participating students as they conduct their projects on the history of their respective schools. The 1950s gave birth to the rock and roll music, and Singapore was one of Asia’s premier sites for film production. Located at the crossroads of diverse cultural flows, residents of Singapore were exposed to the latest trends and fashions from around the world.

The exhibition thus also hopes to highlight students’ involvement in popular culture as part of their wider educational experience. The 1950s and 1960s was the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood; the period witnessed the popularisation of the television; the Beatles and Elvis Priestly were global stars; and Cliff Richard gave a concert in Singapore. What sorts of music and movies were popular among students at that time? Where did they like to ‘hang out’? Where there favourite boy and girl watching hotspots? Such ‘mapping’ can be considered spatial practices that linked emotional attachments to pockets of the national space. What implications might the modernisation-induced, rapid destruction of such ‘great good places’ have on general sense of belonging and identity?

In addition to engaging various schools in the exhibition, the Tangent is also appealing for public donation of artefacts that are related to the different aspects of student life in the period:

  • Extra-curricular activities: school magazines, photos, badges, song-sheets, medals, performance programs, props, sportswear, uniforms, awards, costumes, etc.
  • Students’ general concerns and views on education (ranging from personal to social): school magazines, school newsletters, drawings, cartoons, memoirs, diaries, compositions and actual writings from the period, etc.
  • Students’ cultural engagement: documents, photos, performance programs, literary publications, costumes, ticket stubs, etc
  • Students’ responses to major social and political developments (e.g. anti-yellow campaign, Malayanisation, decolonisation, elections, independence): school magazines, school newsletters, drawings, cartoons, memoirs, diaries, essays, drama scripts, etc.

In the leading up to the exhibition in November, the Tangent is also organising a series of public forums on themes related to the event. In February, the group organised a forum entitled, ‘Education at Large: A Forum on Student Activities and Activism in Singapore, 1945-1965’, held at the National Library. The two invited speakers, Professor Koh Tai Ann, and Mr Han Tan Juan, enthralled the packed auditorium by sharing exciting episodes from their student days. One was educated in the English stream, the other went to a Chinese school; each was socially and politically active in their own ways. But, as Prof. Koh remarked, they seemed to be living in different worlds.

The exhibition wishes to examine the claim that students from the English and Chinese medium schools were living a life apart from each other. No doubt each side had its own idiosyncrasies, and the showcasing of diverse experiences of student life that partly made up Singapore’s complex social, cultural and political life constitutes an important element of the exhibition. However, the organisers would also like to uncover possible bridges that linked the two seemingly different communities, and thus contribute in some ways to the re-thinking of Singapore historiography.

(To donate artefacts, please email tangent.the[at]

Francis Lim teaches in the Division of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University. His research interests include religion, tourism and globalization, covering various Asian regions.