Learning Me Your Language

Wang Gungwu

The Singapore Heritage Society presented a public talk by Professor Wang Gungwu, then Director of the East Asia Institute, on 10 April 2006 at the National Library, entitled “Learning Me Your Language”. Professor Wang discussed the politics of decolonization and English language writing in Singapore/Malaya in the early 1950s, a period when he was a student at the University of Malaya and was involved in campus magazines like The Malayan Undergrad and The New Cauldron.

I would like to make two broad points about the students of the University of Malaya in the early 1950s. One is that many of my generation felt that it was time for the British to go. After the Japanese Occupation of Singapore of three and a half years between 1941 and 1945, the British didn’t really deserve to come back. Lots of people felt very let down by the British. The humiliation of the British forces during the war left all of us with not so much a sense of betrayal as the sense that we had been let down by the very people whom we thought were so great and powerful. That was pervasive among the students of the university.

But there was also a division among the students. There were those who looked hopefully to a post-British era and those who were very nervous, who were fearful: ‘what would we do without the British?’ The student population remained divided for quite some time and we still have remnants of that down to the present day. The question of what we would do without our Anglo tradition has been a strong component of the way we decided how society and the establishment should be shaped.

The second general point I want to make is that we were all told we would inherit a British colonial state and should try to make it into a new nation. Easier said than done! But at the time we were very optimistic. We would be a new nation and this new nation would be a different one. A unique one with a mixture of all the people that have been brought here, including Malays from “Tanah Melayu”, Chinese from southern China and Indians from British India.

Questions of who would then forge this brand new thing called ‘the Malayan nation’ were very exciting. They stretched our imagination in all directions trying to see what kind of nation that would be. I don’t think many of us agreed on what we imagined – we had our own little picture of what the new Malayan nation should be like. There was no unity on the subject as far as I can recall but amongst the various pictures or visions we had for the country were people who fought for a very different kind of society and amongst them were people who were following the political fashions of the time. These students inherited from the British left wing ideals represented by the Labour Party movement in Britain. They were anti-imperialist and thought the British Empire should be ended and wanted the British to withdraw. Now, this was opposed by those who wanted the British to remain, but they were getting fewer and fewer. In general the British knew that they could not continue. It was inevitable they had to leave and not return. In that context, the question was: what kind of nation was to be formed?

Would it be one close to the British model? If you saw it in terms of the colonial state being the heritage and that the new nation state be based on that, then of course it had to be a British type state. That would be the foundation and we could build upon that.

Against that were a lot of young people of my generation who were pretty idealistic. Somewhat naïve about politics because none of us knew what politics was like. If you live in a colony, politics was not for you. You just accepted what the government tells you to do. Politics was something that other people had. But we read about exciting things going on elsewhere, the revolutions that were happening and it was tremendously exciting.

The young people then who were with me were rather rebellious. But we were rebellious in an armchair kind of way. Nevertheless, we had ideals which included the view that ultimately it should be society that determined the kind of nation that we would build. It was not to be determined by the colonial state, but by society, by the different people representing different interest and communities – the Malays, the Indians, the Chinese and the different classes of people. You’ve got to remember that the majority of the people on both sides of the Straits of Johor then were poor. Mostly agriculturalists among the Malays, and even among the Chinese. They lived mainly in the countryside, and many were full-time plantation workers. The Malayan Communist Party and the trade unions of the time were very active and sought to represent the interests of the majority against the elites who were descendants of Malay royalty and aristocrats and middle class rich merchants and professionals.

The idea that the nation should be built up from below and not be a state imposed from above was a pretty dangerous idea in the eyes of the British and essentially they discouraged it in no uncertain terms. In all sorts of ways they tried to make sure that we would feel the benefits of the British system because we would inherit it when they went. So they made us feel that we should learn how to operate the system because the state would be ours to rule.

This applied to my generation. In fact as I recall it, there were only a handful of us who didn’t join the civil service or work for the government or became schoolteachers. A few went into commerce but all the brightest ones in my class and the class upwards for the years that I can remember were selected for the civil service and became, in a very short time, very senior public officials of the next generation after the British left.

The message was very clear, if you join them, you would inherit the state. If you don’t join them, you would have to fight them. And those who didn’t join them and went into the jungle were arrested and deported. The British made it very clear what they would do if you did not share that picture of the survival of the colonial state under local actors. And I think they basically succeeded. The state structure the British left behind has more or less survived. It was the biggest thing that the western tradition had left to all the ex-colonial territories that became new nation states. In most cases, the colonial state was the foundation for the new state. Where they weren’t [and there are examples as in Indonesia], it became very messy. If you didn’t have a modern colonial state as your foundation and tried to re-shape or build a new state based on revolutionary principles, it led to tensions within that in fact took a long time to settle. So when you look around at the post-colonial state, those that continued to be run as such are more stable and developed more quickly. So it was a message of self- interest on the part of the British, it was something they believed in. If you did what they prepared you to do, you would have a better chance of having a stable and economically prosperous environment.

So students were very divided. What sort of rational choices should you make under those circumstances? On the whole I think the students bought the British line and that was to accept the heritage. You then learned how to administer a new state in a way that was successful. Why give that up to risk doing it in some different way? The few who continued to reject that model failed in their efforts to change the system.

Thus, though the background was very much a rejection of imperial rule, it was also a resignation and acceptance of the need for the colonial state to provide the basics of the nation building task. Without that, most felt they wouldn’t know where to begin to build a new nation.

Question: The colonial state tried to import their way of colonial management to the university students at that point in time. Who were so the potential threatening groups that they identified? You were in the University of Malaya then. Did you have any special sympathies for your friends who opposed the British?

Many of my fellow students who were considered threatening were arrested. It was very clear that that was the penalty. The arrests began even before I came to the university in 1949. By that time, a whole bunch of students from Raffles College and the Medical College had already been arrested. It was in the context of the Malayan Emergency and these students had been writing to magazines that were sympathetic to left wing movements. Except for a few, most of them were not communists. Some of them were deported after their arrest; others found after their release that they couldn’t stay on in Singapore, so they continued their studies in the UK. Paradoxically the colonial government was much tougher than the mother government in England.

The colonial government had to operate like that. They had to be very tough because the British Empire, as you all know, was a handful of British people controlling a lot of people. So the measures used had to be a little more clear cut. Back in England they could afford to be more tolerant because it was a very stable and secure society. But not in the colonies where the few Englishmen had to run a huge empire. I think that message was very clear already and every student knew that. However, that did not stop them. There were three more arrests during the five years I was in university.

The most important thing at the time was that, in every case, the question was whether the students were actual members of the communist party and with the exception of one or two who were arrested in 1949 before I came into the university, none of them were members of the communist party. But they were under other organizations regarded as friendly or sympathetic to the left wing or the communist party. So that was the message, even if you were not a member of the communist party but you showed sympathy or were actually acted in sympathy, you could be penalized.

The most famous was the Fajar case, as many of you know. The students were definitely innocent. But it was actually a message from the colonial government that we were not even allowed that sort of political discussion, that we had gone too far. We formed the Socialist Club in 1953 and while our ideas of socialism varied from very mild to very radical, the government decided they didn’t care to distinguish. The young people were associating with something they saw as having a bad influence on the people that they were hoping to be leaders after the British left. They had to be punished in a very clear way. The case was a very weak one. In fact it was by no means a major triumph to have got the case thrown out by the courts. There was simply no case. Frankly, looking back at it, it was simply a message to warn the students. And I think it worked: no students from the University of Malaya were arrested for a really long time afterwards, if I recall correctly.

[NB: Professor Wang was the founding president of the Socialist Club.]

Question: Your presentation makes it very clear the sort of atmosphere some of us grew up in. The building of the PAP state on the colonial state is very clear. If the tension between the moderates and the left within the PAP and the breakaway in 1961 when Lim Chin Siong and the rest left to form the Barisan Sosialis, had not happened could Singapore somehow be more democratic in that standard western sense or British sense than it is now. Would that be really possible, given as you said, given the realities of the erection of the new state on the old colonial state and the sort of modernity following a colonial modernity, was that historical possible even Lim Chin Siong had been in power in some ways? Would what he and others working with him stood for, result in a Singapore different from what it is now? Is that really possible?

Historians also like to ask “what if” questions. Yes, that is possible, but it is a really big subject, and I really don’t think I can answer all of it. I should mention that we left Singapore in 1959 and didn’t come back until 1996. A lot of things had happened in Singapore after 1959. I could only observe them from afar so I couldn’t really feel their nuances. But I think the most important thing I would underline in reference to your question is that Singapore was not alone. Singapore was a very small place then. Things were happening all over the world. There were major forces that were changing the world at that time of which Singapore and Malaya were only a small part. Among the biggest thing that shaped everything then was the Cold War. The separation between the capitalist world and the communist world was becoming sharper and sharper. The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in China in 1949 was a turning point for Asia. The threat of communism in Asia was never greater than at that point, and the domino theory ruled. When China turned communist, it was expected all the Southeast Asian countries would turn communist. So in that context, it was a desperate struggle. The choices for the people in Southeast Asia were very, very limited, to be honest. It was not just Singapore and Malaysia, but the whole of Southeast Asia. Small countries barely coming out of the de-colonization process, hardly ready to get started, had to face immediately a world that was divided and the divide cut across Southeast Asia, with Indonesia on one side and Singapore and Malaysia right in the middle, and Thailand and the Philippines on the other side. So in that context, for Singapore and Malaysia, there was no choice for the British and the elites both Malay and Chinese who did not want to fall under communism. They would have to side with those against communism and that was really the divide. In a way, it totally overwhelmed all other considerations. All the things I have been talking about were really minor, little themes in the large swelling scene that was around us and enveloped everything. Everything was colored after that. So, in that context, “what ifs” did not really offer a choice.


I think the politics of language is a very special subject by itself. There are languages for usage, whether it is for business, education or literature and so on. There are languages of choice for people because their family spoke it and it is for daily use, which is quite different. The language of politics comes into play when the nation-building process has to be focused on the way of determining how people communicated.

For Singapore, English became the first language. But in literature, there was a certain unease about writing in English. For myself, I was actually introduced to serious, contemporary British poetry in China. It was there that I discovered people like T S Eliot and W H Auden. I had never heard of them in school. It never occurred to my teachers to teach what was happening in Britain at the time. We were reading Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad and several others, earlier work. There was no mention of the contemporary movement.

I was really impressed by the students in China who were familiar with these new writings. I still remember that the first copy of Elliot’s Four Quartets arrived in Nanjing in early 1948 and one of my classmates, who loved English poetry, went to the British Council library, which had that first copy, and he so wanted to study it that he sat down and copied the whole thing. He hand-copied the whole poem because there was only one copy and the British Council library would not lend it out.

Now that sort of feel and love for literature, I never encountered in Malaya. There was never that depth of commitment to literary writings of all kinds and these were my classmates at the Chinese university. The Chinese were reading everything, of course many of them in translation; we would read all these different literatures. For example, I was introduced to Russian literature in China, in translation. Almost all the works of Tolstoy had been translated, Dostoyevsky had been translated and my classmates were reading The Brothers Karamazov, which I had never heard of before then. It was in China that I learned about them.

It was also in China that I learnt that those fellow students of mine could memorize a bit of Walt Whitman. I was amazed they could do that. Again, these writers were not mentioned by my British teachers when I was studying in Malaya. American literature just didn’t count. But China was open to every country. When Mao Zedong said they were a semi-colony, what he meant was it was a colony of all the many powers that enjoyed extraterritorial rights on Chinese soil. The British, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans – everybody had a little bit of the colony. And that was one of the reasons why the students were exposed to all kinds of ideas and cultures. The people in Shanghai, for example, were exposed to all those various European people that lived there. There were different schools that taught in French, in English, in German, and also in Chinese and in Japanese. And the Chinese students were free to go to any of these schools if they had the means or the opportunity. So the idea of many languages, many cultures, and many literary traditions was really normal to those Shanghai Chinese.

I remembered my first year at university in Nanjing. I was amazed at one of my teachers; he had spent years translating about seven novels of Thomas Hardy and the Chinese translations were selling very well. Another teacher had translated several of Shakespeare’s plays, but of course Shakespeare had been translated many, many times by many people. I think he did seven or eight of them, as far as I can remember. To the Chinese students who were interested in literature, this was the norm – an access to everybody’s literature, including your own. You had to have a very strong base in your literature first, then when you have access to other literatures, you had something to compare with, and that influenced how you wrote. The influences didn’t come from one source.

Whereas our work here was based entirely on the British type of writing, it was made available to us with a very narrow conception of what literary quality was about, so it was a very limited one. When I came back from China and entered the university here in 1949, I brought back something with me, which unfortunately I didn’t follow through. But being in China, I did have my eyes opened in a different environment.

Like I said, I was not a poet. I was enjoying the excitement of our friends, doing and writing various kinds of poetry and I joined in and I suppose I was in the right place then. You could say that some other influences that I had absorbed in China were active in me without my knowing it.

Question: One last and personal question, do you have any favorite authors?

Do I have any favorite author? Oh no! I just have too many… I am too miscellaneous in my taste, I’m afraid. I think when I was young I had some favorite authors but they were not great literature. I think it was the sort of things that young boys of my generation were excited by. I don’t even remember which in particular was most important for me. I’m afraid I am one of those rather Catholic in my taste. I read all kinds of things; I am not able to say… you’ve challenged me to think about it but… I will give me it more thought, but I can’t answer your question.

Professor Wang Gungwu is the Chairman of the East Asian Institute and University Professor, National University of Singapore. He is also Emeritus Professor of the Australian National University.