“A Subaltern Perspective on History” (人下人的历史观): Reading Fang Zhuang Bi’s (方壮壁) Memoir

Sai Siew Min

To write the history of the Communist Underground or the Left-wing movement in post-war Singapore demands more than simply filling in the blanks of the existing dominant narrative with authentic voices of erstwhile participants hitherto denied their right of articulation by the hegemonic Singapore state. It also demands resisting the temptation to flip the dominant story around, championing the cause of the so-called “losers” and turning them into heroes who have arrived decades too late on the historiographical scene in contemporary Singapore. In late 2006, the memoir of Fang Zhuang Bi, who Singaporeans have come to believe, was the Number One man in the Singapore Communist Underground was published. Written in Chinese, Fang’s memoir provides some clues for a historian or any student of Singapore history on the task of reconstructing the position of the Communist movement in post-war Singapore. If Fang’s memoir is anything to go by, the most critical insight that it affords is the realization that the idea of a recoverable authentic voice from the Communist Left is a pipe dream.

One fundamental historiographical question confronting any scholar or student investigating this topic is not that concerned with the recovery of untainted “facts” or ascertaining who had been “right” or “telling the truth”. For too long, historiography in Singapore has been dominated by a particular genre and practice of history that idealizes and therefore aspires to apolitical historical truth. The practice of history in Singapore, naturalized by the general apoliticization of Singapore society from the 1970s onwards, failed even to recognize how the production of ideas about knowledge (epistemology) and power are thoroughly intertwined. By this, I do not mean that the dominant state deliberately produces historical falsehood in a conspiratorial fashion. Instead, the state draws strength from demanding of itself and its detractors nothing less than “the truth” and certainly persecutes in the name of “truth” which it understands as decidedly monosyllabic. These fundamental attitudes and beliefs about epistemology, shared by non-state agencies such as the mainstream media and the academia in Singapore, encourage a particular understanding of the very nature of the historiographical inquiry. History is concerned with the search for an objective truth about the past, and some narratives are more right than others. Posed in this manner, scholars, students and ordinary citizens can pretend that we may leave out the whole process by and through which historical truth is produced in contemporary Singapore society. The production, practice and dissemination of historical truth which is after all, embedded in the entire apparatus of knowledge production in Singapore society is thereby taken out of the Knowledge/Power grid.

Fang’s memoir does not begin as most autobiographies do with the moment and place of his birth. Chapter one reads almost like a preface. It is perhaps not a matter of chance that Fang begins his memoir with an interrogative gesture. He declares himself an “ordinary Singaporean”[1] and a “subaltern” in Singapore society. In an important move which should be evaluated not for its veracity or bias but for its interrogation of Singapore historiography, Fang names his particular perspective of history — the narrative that he is about to present in his book “a subaltern perspective on history” (人下人的历史观):

I live in Singapore, in the lowest rung of its social and political life. I breathe the air of the lowest rung of its social and political life. Therefore, I believe I reflect the voices of those from the lowest rung of society and politics in Singapore: “a subaltern perspective on history”. The “subaltern” (“人下人”) refers to those who have been oppressed or trampled on. My feelings and my perspectives will therefore, diverge in every way from those of “Mr Elite” (“人上人先生).[2]

In pre-World War Two Singapore, Fang describes himself as not a legal subject of the British colony and thus labels himself a “Third Class Being”. After the war, Fang being Chinese-educated was not proficient in English which was the official language of the British government and hence, the dominant language of colonial society. Although citizenship issues had emerged into the forefront of post-war politics in Malaya and Singapore, Fang writes that he was still living in a colonized society. He thus labels himself a “Second Class Being”. In the struggle against the anti-colonial movements, the British turned Fang into a “terrorist” and a “criminal of the nation”. In social and political terms, he was classed together with the criminals. Even after Singapore achieved independence first in 1963 and then again in 1965, Fang remained a “criminal” in the eyes of the ruling People’s Action Party government, a fate he describes as being pushed into the “nineteenth level of hell”[3]. For the next thirty years, Fang describes himself as a “fugitive” and an “outcast from Singapore”.[4]

I am not too concerned with Fang’s reconstruction of his “street credentials” or how genuine they are. Rather, I am interested in exploring what Fang’s bold assertion of “a subaltern perspective on history” can do for the state of historiography in Singapore. I suggest we should read the memoirs and life stories of Left-wing historical personalities like Fang’s not because they give us an innocent and authentic portrayal of the other side of the story which somehow, make our knowledge of the past more complete. Such a chimera of historical truth can only be accomplished if we willfully ignore how Fang’s subaltern narrative is shot through with the valance of contemporary historical discourse straining to re-connect with a past, the logic of which is already beyond the comprehension of Fang’s readers in present day Singapore.

Moreover, to read and evaluate Fang’s memoir merely as testimony from an erstwhile participant who had really “been there and done that” misses the double move he is making when he asserts from the outset that his narrative is a reconstruction of his life story as well as an interrogation of dominant historiography. Giving himself different labels to mark his subaltern position —“Third-Class Being”, “Second-Class Being”, “fugitive”, “outcast” and “a quarter of an intellectual” (四分之一的知识分子) [5] —Fang’s self-descriptions of subalternity re-visits the workings of the Knowledge/Power grid. What were the forces shaping Fang’s transformation into a subaltern? How has historiography abetted this transformation? Fang’s challenge raises the important question of how a “subaltern perspective on history” is produced within the Singapore context.

What can such a “subaltern perspective on history” do for Singapore historiography? A focus on the subaltern helps to reverse the elitist bias of political history and the practice of elitist politics in Singapore. Thus far, the mainstream and dominant narrative about political events in post-war Singapore — now rapidly transmuted into “national history” and taught to students in Singapore schools — has suppressed completely the lower/under classes and their politics. Uncannily similar to the state of South Indian historiography prior to the intervention of the Subaltern Studies Collective in the 1980s, post-war Singapore history depicts colonial and nationalist elites as the primary agents of change. In fact, Ranajit Guha’s[6] critique of Indian historiography would be equally applicable to Singapore:

The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism — colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism…Both these varieties of elitism share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness-nationalism which confirmed this process were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements. In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies those achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions and culture; in the nationalist and neo-nationalist writings — to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas.[7]

While the archetypal subaltern in Guha’s sense is the peasant insurgent who stood for a heterogeneous under-class in Indian society ― peasants, low-caste communities, widows — and does not include self-styled representatives of these groups such as the Indian Left, conceptual debates emerging from within the Subaltern Studies Collective connect subaltern subjectivity to the ideological reproduction of dominance. The subaltern is not a ready-made category cast in stone as a consequence of economic inequalities. The subaltern in any society is an ideological product of above all, the hegemonic order which works to secure and naturalize the identity of dominant groups. Thus, historians from the Subaltern Studies group read the voluminous texts produced by dominant institutions, often the only available evidence of subaltern activities to reconstruct, albeit not in the manner of positivism, the “consciousness of the subaltern”. One methodological implication of such reading for the subaltern is not to champion the cause of the down-trodden or to make the historical account more true and complete, but to examine the ground, always power laden, through which historical agents take their place in history. In the words of Shahid Amin, a member of that research collective:

It is, I feel, quite important for any historian of the subaltern classes to investigate the discursive practices within which statements by the police, administrators, judges, and by the accused themselves, are produced. This is required not in order to discern bias, rectify it and thereby arrive at an untainted, proper narrative of things pasts, unsullied by the context within which such a narrative was produced: that would be to indulge in a pointless positivist venture. It is necessitated by the fact that most statements about the dominated are produced in well-defined fields of power. The way out does not simply lie in the search for new sources for new history, for the issue of reading evidence as text is not brought to a close by the discovery of new testimonies, new depositions. It is posed afresh with every such discovery.[8] (my emphasis)

Following Amin, the subaltern in history is not a saviour of truth. The subaltern appears in history as a figure who is defined through his/her unequal relationships with the dominant order.

When Fang Zhuang Bi names himself the subaltern par excellence in Singapore’s history, he does so self-consciously as a counter-reaction to mainstream interpretations of post-war history put forth by the ruling government in Singapore, in particular, that of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as well as that presented in the widely-circulated book The Tiger and the Trojan Horse by Dennis Bloodworth. Fang’s lengthy riposte takes up the whole of chapter one. For this reason alone, Fang’s subaltern perspective on history cannot be read literally for what it reveals about the genuine voice of “the other” in Singapore history. Fang’s deliberate positioning as a subaltern only makes sense in relation to the mainstream interpretation of post-war history he now challenges. Speaking in the voice of the subaltern enables Fang to pierce through existing historical accounts from which he has been exiled. Taking on the subject positioning of the subaltern in retelling his story enables Fang to speak from his current position as “a fugitive” and “outcast” of Singapore society.

Fang’s description of how he was politicized and chose to go Left illustrates perfectly how the subaltern is defined through his/her unequal relationships with the dominant. According to Fang, his political awakening took definite form only at the precise moment when he felt the sheer force of detention without trial enacted by Emergency laws. Fang shatters a couple of Singaporean historical myths when the Number One Communist in Singapore recounts his years in school. Fang remembers his days in Chinese High School, surprisingly as years he spent outside the political circle. He was not politicized through the usual channels of student organizations and study groups in Chinese High, attributing his absence from student activism to the dire economic straits his family was in. Driven by the need to earn a living and study at the same time, Fang was fleeting in and out of school. Student politics was a luxury he could ill afford. Also surprising is the time he spent in an English-medium school i.e. Saint Andrew’s School (after he graduated from Chinese High and was teaching at a Chinese-medium primary school) where, Fang reveals, he once managed to top the class in “Scripture”! Fang recounts these years in school as time he spent drifting, and without a definite direction in life.

Fang muses that had he not been subjected to a classic Kafka-like detention one day by the Special Branch on the prowl for Communists and their sympathizers, which then triggered off an existential crisis in him, he would have continued with his studies at Saint Andrew’s School, ending up half-English-educated and maybe even realize his ambition of becoming a civil engineer:

For how long was I detained, there is no way to be sure, about ten days to half a month! Life’s hardships, psychological struggles, physical pain do not have too huge an impact on me. I have always been able to be at ease in my surroundings and adapt myself to circumstances. I was young and full of vigour. I had huge reserves of energy and an appetite for life. I was driven by the will to succeed in life. Yet, it was precisely at such a difficult moment, my body locked away in a prison cell that I was terrified to realize I did not have a definite direction in life at all! Where was my future? What should I do next? How should I move on? I simply had no answers to these questions. … It was precisely that dark and dingy prison cell, precisely the air that stank of animals crowded into terrible living conditions, precisely that kind of hopeless situation where one’s fate was in the hands of another, that finally pushed me, and there within me the search for a new direction in life was awakened.[9]

Fang’s subaltern perspective on history throws up a blind spot in Singapore historiography i.e. the character of Singapore’s anti-colonial movement. Fang argues that between the 1950s and 1960s have been so sorely misrepresented in the dominant narrative as a clash between “the Communists” and “the non-Communists” it was as if the anti-colonial movement never really happened. Such a characterization transforms the anti-colonial movement into a power struggle between the Communists/Left and the “non-Communists”, to whom the British chose to transfer power, leaving the latter’s interests and legacy in post-war Singapore completely un-problematized:

Was the anti-colonial struggle by the people of Singapore merely a matter of mutual killing amongst the Communists, the Left-wing and a couple of socialists? All that had nothing to do with the British Empire and the British colonial authority? Were the British Empire and the British colonial authority innocent by-standers?[10]

Who were the real enemies of the anti-colonial movement? What were the objectives of Singapore’s anti-colonial movement? What were the Communists, the Left and the non-Communists fighting for? Fang’s critique points to the need to move beyond partial accounts of Singapore’s anti-colonial history offered by self-professed “non-Communist” protagonists. His critique points to the marked absence of the Communist and Left-wing movement in Singapore’s anti-colonial history that the British colonial authority was so anxious to suppress and to which, the “non-Communists” owed the raison de’tre for their political existence. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and coercive Emergency laws, the label “non-Communist” is itself revealing of the real need to define a political stance vis-à-vis “the Communist” for a particular audience.

As for the characterization that the Communist movement was a “terrorist” movement, Fang rejects this as language the British had used deliberately to discredit the Communist movement. He was particularly upset that the label “ex-Communist Terrorist” was still imposed on him in independent Singapore, way after Singapore’s anti-colonial struggle was over:

On 25th September 1995, in two letters the Home Affairs Ministry had issued me, my comrades and I were labeled three times as “ex-Communist Terrorists”. Readers can imagine my indignation. If the British colonial authority called us “Communist Terrorists”, so be it. They were the enemies and nothing good would come out from their mouths. But if the People’s Action Party government calls us “Communist Terrorists”, it would be intolerable. If I had accepted this label, it would be tantamount to admitting that opposing British colonization, opposing the Japanese invasion, fighting for national independence and the glorious and great liberation of the people constituted “terrorist activity”.[11]

In the end, after writing to the Singapore government, Fang managed to get the Home Affairs Ministry to re-issue the letters, dropping the label “Communist Terrorist” and using in its place, the more accurate term “Communist Member”.

In Fang’s subaltern perspective, the anti-colonial movement was an unequivocal political struggle between the Communists, the Left-wing and the people on one side, and the British Empire on the other. The “three-cornered fight” featured in the dominant narrative between the Communists/the Left, the British and the “non-Communists” who inherited power from the British only demonstrates in retrospect to Fang the extent to which the anti-colonial struggle had been hampered by enemies from within and without. Fang’s revelations about the inner workings of the Communist movement when it operated underground in Singapore underscored what a mammoth task it was fighting the colonial machinery, especially its capacity for capture, persecution and punishment, incidentally a point Chin Peng’s memoir also brings across. The grand conspiracy of Communist subversion certainly sounded more plausible in the British “prose of counter insurgency” than in the memoirs of these two Communist leaders. Fang, for example, seems to have spent a great deal of time dodging arrest or trying to figure ways of printing and disseminating Communist propaganda under arduous circumstances.

It would be easy to dismiss Fang Zhuang Bi’s memoir as the voice of a disgruntled loser if we read him simply as an erstwhile participant of events in the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore. It would be far more difficult, however, to dismiss his interrogative gesture directed at the state of post-war Singapore historiography. Fang’s subaltern subjectivity, ever sensitive to the implication of power in the production of history, raises a different set of issues than “the search for an objective truth” sanctioned by the practice of positivist historiography. The subaltern has written back.


[1] All quotes from Fang’s memoir are my translations from the original Chinese text. Fang Zhuang Bi, “The Plen From the MCP”: Fang Zhuang Bi’s Memoir (“Ma Gong Quan Quan Dai Biao”: Fang Zhuang Bi Hui Yi Lu) (Selangor: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2006) p. 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] According to popular Chinese religious beliefs in Singapore, there are only eighteen levels of hell.

[4] Fang, “The Plen From the MCP”: Fang Zhuang Bi’s Memoir, pp. 2-3.

[5] Ibid., p.3.

[6] Ranajit Guha is a historian and one of the founding members of the Subaltern Studies Collective in India.

[7] This quote is taken from a sixteen-point critique on Indian historiography by Guha. It combines the first 2 points of Guha’s critique. Ranajit Guha, “On Some Aspects of the Indian Historiography of Colonial India” re-produced in Vinayak Chaturvedi ed. Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London and New York: Verso Press, 2000) p. 1.

[8] Shahid Amin, “Approver’s Testimony, Judicial Discourse: The Case of Chauri Chaura” in Ranajit Guha eds. Subaltern Studies V (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987) p. 167.

[9] Fang Zhuang Bi, “Ma Gong Quan Quan Dai Biao”: Fang Zhuang Bi Hui Yi Lu (Selangor: Strategic Information and Reseach Development Centre, 2006), pp. 64-65.

[10] Ibid., p.19

[11] Fang, p. 13.

Sai Siew Min is Assistant Professor at the Department of History, National University of Singapore, where she teaches courses on history in Singapore, Indonesia as well as gender history in Asia.

4 thoughts on ““A Subaltern Perspective on History” (人下人的历史观): Reading Fang Zhuang Bi’s (方壮壁) Memoir”

  1. Great piece!
    I have a minor question about how the conception of power in your article. It seems that you see power as operating in a repressive manner – i.e. how the political elite marginalized and silenced their opponents in their “great men and their great deeds” history. That may be true for their political opponents but for general population in Singapore, they are invested thoroughly with bio-political power through the different socio-economic regimes to produce highly-productive (in the politico-economic sense) self-regulating individual – the economically calculative, disciplined workforce, always seeking to “upgrade” himself, and probably could not care less about history. What do you consider these people as? Are they also the subaltern? Perhaps unlike India, the masses in Singapore are not the silenced, marginalized, illiterate class who are not able to represent themselves.

  2. On the contrary, I do not see power as simply operating in a “repressive” manner. The whole point of the article is to explore the making of Fang’s “subaltern subjectivity” WITHIN dominance. It is too easy to see dominance and opposition as two polar opposites and Fang’s resistance as flowing “naturally” from his personality and politics. What I want to argue, by tracing how Fang has chosen to write about his life was the extent to which the dominant forces. i.e. power was productive of his subaltern subjectivity. This does not mean that Fang was “controlled” to act in certain ways or that his resistance was an illusion. Rather, by looking at just how sensitive Fang was to the ways of the dominant (and he was very sensitive to that, definitely!) we see how thoroughly engaged he was with the workings of power and how his life and himself was actually shaped in this long process of engagement. Fang’s decision to go Left, for example, was a classic example of how powers of repression are productive of particular subjectivities, especially subaltern ones.

    I tend to be suspicious of questions posed in very general terms and I am therefore very far from claiming that “the general Singapore populace” or “the Singapore masses” are all “subalterns”. Used in this way, the idea of “subalternity” loses its specificity and utility. I also think that your portrayal of the general populace is , well err… “too general” and it does overplay, the extent to which these regimes have been too successful. Even for Indian history, only particular groups were described as “subalterns”, not all of the Indian “masses” (pls see article) and I am arguing that we can usefully study the Singapore Left, not the whole of the “Singapore masses”, as a subaltern group.

    I understand the differences between India and Singapore and I do not reproduce entirely the ways Indian historians have conventionally used the idea of “the subaltern”. However, even for India’s case, sublaternity is not simply measured by extent to which subalterns are objectively illiterate and need to be represented although the politics of voice and silencing is critical. The latter issue goes beyond being educated or un-educated, literate or not, income group etc… The politics of voice and silencing is what I am trying to highlight wrt Singapore history and the position of the Left. Pls refer to article again for clarification on the idea of the subaltern used.

  3. Given the national inclination towards positivist historiography, it is all the more cogent for NUS to fund the translation of this book into English to widen access – whether by researchers or the public.

    With Chinese being the 2nd language for most Chinese Singaporeans, I hope NUS will take up this suggestion for translation into English.

  4. In response to my previous posting, I have since learned from Dr Hong Lysa that there is in fact a little known English translation:

    Fong Chong Pik, Fong Chong Pik: Memoirs of a Malayan Communist Revolutionary (Petaling Jaya, Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2008.)

    I have since found out that this translation is available for reference at the National Library. But if you wanna borrow it, you have to go all the way to Woodlands Library – and there’s only one copy.

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