Once Upon a Time, a Mendicant Professor in Singapore: Remembering the Enright Affair (November 1960)

Edgar Liao

Few young Singaporeans today would know of Dennis Joseph Enright, a name that might ring only faint bells to some from older generation. As Professor of English at the University of Malaya in Singapore, he had taught for a decade between 1960 and 1970. Enright is inadvertently remembered for his role as key antagonist in the conflict with PAP ministers Ahmad Ibrahim, S. Rajaratnam, and eventually Lee Kuan Yew, over his alleged criticisms of the newly-enthroned PAP government’s cultural policies in November 1960, published in then colonial-owned Straits Times. Decades after Enright had left the University in 1970, the occasional mention of his name in the press would invariably evoke his ‘connection with the so-called ‘Enright Affair’’, for example in a Straits Times special feature on the event of his candidacy for the British Poet Laureateship; during a week-long visit in 1994; and in eulogies in remembrance of Enright by two of his ex-students, Robert Yeo and Ban Kah Choon.[1] Enright’s name also merits an entry in the recently-published Singapore: The Encyclopedia:

….he angered the newly elected People’s Action Party (PAP) government in his inaugural lecture when he attacked the government’s plans to curb so-called ‘yellow culture’ by banning jukeboxes and pornography…he almost lost his work permit; but a conciliatory letter to Lee Kuan Yew and mediation resolved the controversy, and Enright remained in Singapore until 1970.[2]

This representation of “the Enright Affair” belies its complexity. The politics of decolonization and culture during the tumultuous post-Japanese Occupation period provoked a vehement governmental response to published comments by a renowned British writer-academic who believed that culture and cultural production constituted a domain distinct and separate from politics. The cultural policies Enright derogated were aimed at forging a homogenous ‘Malayan culture’, synthesized from the cultural traditions of the main ethnic groups in Malaya and Singapore with Malay as the national language, in order to resolve the twin menaces of communalism and chauvinism which the PAP moderates viewed as the most pressing impediment to their desired political goal of achieving Singapore’s independence through Merger. Concomitantly, the public rebuke of an impertinent Englishman was consistent with the PAP’s constantly-voiced hostility towards foreign interference in local politics, and necessitated by its fierce anti-colonial stance, demanded by the fervently leftist and anti-imperialist Chinese-educated masses that constituted the party’s support base.

Crucially, the Affair subsequently involved the English-educated students of the University of Malaya. A section of this group had already been politicized by the Japanese Occupation and the tide of decolonization in the region. Other than overt political activism, another expression of their politics was their staunch defence of the inter-woven ideals of university autonomy and academic freedom. Governmental violation of the two principles had been a subject of the students’ ire since at least 1951, when British authorities raided the university’s grounds to apprehend members of the Anti-British League. After ascension to power in 1959, pointed gestures by the PAP directed at the university only exacerbated the students’ fear of the university losing its autonomy. Perceiving the rebuke of a professor as another intolerable infringement of academic freedom, over five hundred students voted at an Emergency General Meeting to publicly condemn the government’s action against Enright.

While the Enright Affair is one of many incidents in Singapore’s past which has remained absent from the official discourse of Singapore’s history, the event had acquired historical significances within a diverse yet inter-related range of discourses. It is occasionally extricated from its context and evoked as a metaphor and symbol by different individuals and groups who attached different meanings to the event in accordance to their own identification with the underlying issues. For the PAP for example, the Affair became an occasional metaphor for the students’ over-idealistic defense of abstract principles that hindered their participation in nation-building. In a speech to University students in 1966, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew invoked the Enright Affair to express his frustration with the students’ persistence in defending an abstract notion of academic freedom.[3]

The Students Mobilize [Extracted from The Malayan Undergrad, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Dec., 1960), pp.4-5]
On the other hand, the Affair is remembered generally as a trace of the PAP government’s paternalistic style of governance. For the staff and student members of the University, it is embraced as a symbol of increasing governmental interference in the university and the PAP’s infringements of university autonomy and academic freedom. In his Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor, Enright complained about the unremitting persistence of people he met, within and without the University, in associating him with the Affair, and about being taken by the University ‘as a symbol of academic freedom in its quarrels with an increasingly intrusive government.’[4] On the occasion of a University of Singapore lecturer alluding to the Enright Affair at a university forum on university autonomy and academic freedom in July 1966, which was reported by the Straits Times, Enright sent the Straits Times a letter in which he sought for ‘remission of symbolism’ and expressed his wish that the battle for the two ideals be waged on ‘firm and on firmly remembered ground’, instead of an event that had become ‘mythical’ in his opinion.[5]

The entrenchment of the Affair’s symbolism accompanied the government’s assertion of its authority over the University, from the Sreenivasan Affair in 1963 to the eventual modifications made to the Constitution of the University and the Students’ Union in 1976 that marked ‘the end of student activism’.[6] Roland Puccetti depicts the Affair as one of the ‘Ghosts from the Past’ that illuminated the tensions between the university and the state as he recounted the demonstration of PAP belligerence within the University during his tenure in the University’s Philosophy Department.[7] The Enright Affair would also continue to be referred to by the students during clashes with the government over university autonomy. University of Singapore Students’ Union Handbooks, presented to freshmen every new academic year, laud the Students’ Union’s place in defending the University from threats to its autonomy, and unwaveringly cite the Enright Affair as the first of several rows with the government.[8] In 1966, a writer in the Malayan Undergrad, the organ of the university’s Students’ Union again invoked the Affair as an example of the government’s continued violation of the university’s autonomy.[9] Professor Koh Tai Ann, herself part of a generation of English-language writers and cultural commentators who continue to bear fond memories of their erudite Professor of English, sees the Affair as ‘another instance of student opposition’ in the series of conflicts between the PAP government and the University’s student body, which made university and academic freedom ‘very lively issues’ among the students.[10]

With the effective depoliticization of the University of Singapore after 1976 however, the Enright Affair’s relevance to the University faded, along with radical student activism that perturbed relations between the two institutions of state and university. In reflecting on his days as a student activist in the early years of University of Malaya, Dr M.K. Rajakumar spoke of his amazement at his cohorts’ ‘idealism and innocence’, which contrasted strongly with a prevailing sense of apathy among university students today.[11] Similarly, Professor Koh would compare Singapore’s university students today with the students of her era who ‘did not have the same total awe of politicians who came to persuade us to support what they were doing.’[12] Yet, more than four decades after the Enright Affair, and in a radically altered environment of student political activity, the event would be deployed as a meaningful metaphor, ‘perhaps the most high-profile clash between an academic and the Government’, invoked in a newspaper review addressing the question of the existence of academic freedom in Singapore after Britain’s Warwick University decided against establishing a local branch campus in October 2005 because of the ‘worries over the lack of academic freedom.’[13]

Enright’s memorialization within the institutional memory of the University itself encounters dissonance and hints at the shifting identities of NUS. An earlier commemorative history focused on charting the University’s growth and development in tandem with the Singapore nation-state planted responsibility for the initial conflict squarely on Enright’s shoulders, for ‘taking a dig at the policy to create a national culture’, which was unacceptable to a new government ‘full of fervour for social reform’. In this representation, the dramatic aftermath and involvement of the students were whitewashed by a single statement that ‘in the ensuing fracas, the Enright camp appealed for the right to speak freely in an academic institution.’[14] It was only in a recent centennial commemorative volume, significantly titled Imagination, Openness & Courage, that he was embraced as one of ‘Three Wise Men’, and a more balanced portrayal of the event presented.[15] This depiction may have been enabled, and in fact welcomed in light of the Warwick University issue, by NUS’ re-corporatization and acquisition of greater autonomy from 2005 onwards, and its interest in formulating and privileging an institutional heritage in which to root, buttress and accompany an identity as a global knowledge enterprise which transcends, without necessarily sacrificing, its role as a ‘national university’. One pervasive theme is ‘openness’ and NUS would naturally be interested in reconciling itself with chapters of its history in order to exorcize ghosts from its past which may haunt it, for example its record with university autonomy and academic freedom, even as it projects an image of being an open institution which encourages intellectual ferment and creative freedom.

Another retrospective reading of the Affair would see it become associated with the Singapore government’s repression of oppositional voices. In a book which emphasizes the PAP’s record of crushing dissent, Chris Lydgate presents a slanted representation of the Affair to suit his scathing condemnation of PAP’s assault on “yellow culture” as an ‘assault on free expression’. He also portrays Enright as a dissenter who was ‘upbraided’ by the PAP.[16] The Affair is also remembered in relation to the government’s restriction of intellectual space. Political scientist Chan Heng Chee had written a harsh piece criticizing the PAP’s treatment of intellectuals critical of government policy in the 1970s.[17] Twenty-four years later, Professor Koh would refer to Chan’s article to comment on the role of intellectuals in civil society. She locates the Enright Affair together with the Catherine Lim Affair of 1994 to underline a lack of alteration in PAP’s intolerance towards intellectual criticisms of state policies with regards to cultural or political governance.[18] More poignantly, local poet Alfian Sa’at alludes to the Enright Affair in a section of his poem “Singapore you are not my country”:

How dare you call me a chauvinist, an opposition party, a liar, a traitor, a mendicant professor, a Marxist homosexual communist pornography banned literature chewing gum liberty smuggler?…[19]

Although he knew little about the Affair, it had acquired significance for him because of how ‘it seemed to presage the Catherine Lim affair’ and resonated with the banning of performance art and Forum Theatre in 1994. He identified with the issue of the curtailment of intellectual space engendered in the Affair in two principal ways – firstly that ‘one could apparently be discredited if one is not somehow a legitimate commentator’ and secondly that ‘the Enright case can be seen as one of those episodes which in a sense pitted the artist against the State’, including the Josef Ng case.[20] Thus, despite being unaware of the details of the Affair, Sa’at read both political and cultural meanings in it and positioned it within a series of state repressions of cultural producers and intellectuals.

While the Affair was remembered by others for its political implications and ramifications, other cultural commentators position the Affair in relation to the cultural concerns that had provoked the altercation between Enright and the PAP stalwarts in the first place – the campaign against yellow culture and the attempt to forge a national culture. After the turn of the century, when the issue of culture seemed to be re-invigorated with a new intensity, Yao Souchou and C.J.W.-L Wee situate the Enright Affair within a discourse of PAP’s search for ‘a new Asian identity’ and a ‘“East Asian modernity”’ in a postcolonial world via modifying or discarding cultural and ideological traditions inherited from the West.[21] Similarly, Professor Philip Holden sees the debate between Enright and Rajaratnam’s positions on culture decades ago as resonant with ‘the current debates over East Asian modernity and “Asian values in embryo.’[22] Wee too discusses the Affair as an incident which revealed PAP’s rejection of ‘any organic thinking on national culture’ and preference for a view of culture as ‘a key part of what nation-building meant and still means in the country’ – the creation of a national culture ‘is a matter of practical politics… [and] nation-building.’[23]

The “Enright Affair” resonates within several intersecting discourses which reveals tensions within and between the Singapore state and society across different domains and contexts. As an example of PAP’s interference with university autonomy, the Enright Affair had been positioned as the first major clash between the PAP and the University, not least because the students viewed their strong stand in the conflict as a mark of triumph. Others viewed the Affair as a precedent demonstrating PAP’s disdain for foreigners’ intrusion into domestic politics or for dissenting voices, and its strict insistence on cultural management and keeping tight reins on cultural production. How different subjectivities have remembered and connected this past event to the present illuminates both their positions and concerns in the present and the relevance of discovering the multifarious connections between Singapore’s national university and the broader state and society through examining the hitherto marginalized moments of the University’s past. Some salient issues underpinning and engendered by the Enright Affair remain starkly alive and relevant today, albeit within differing contexts and circumstances, for example the ideological distance between the government and local university students that seemed to have re-opened in recent years and the divide between Singapore’s cultural producers, and the state on certain aspects of cultural production in Singapore. It becomes fitting to recount an anecdote told by Professor Holden, from the same department Dennis Enright headed decades ago. In a class on the place of writers in Singapore, his students were asked to consider Enright’s offending remarks and views on cultural freedom and to participate in a discussion of two positions. The first was Enright as a ‘residual colonialist’ who did not understand ‘the importance of cultural autonomy in Singapore’ and thus was ‘unwittingly patronizing’, and the second ‘an idea of artistic liberation or autonomy that transcended the immediate specifics of the case’. Despite having made known the historical circumstances surrounding the Affair:

What I was surprised by was that no one in a quite active class was willing to entertain position 1), and there was a great deal of sympathy for Enright’s views, despite the fact that we’d already been over and critiqued Arnoldian views of the transcendental nature of art. When I pushed students further, I remember one saying that if you looked at today’s context in Singapore, Enright’s views were still very relevant and indeed correct–coming to a Singapore situation, students (and not all were Singaporeans–we had a couple of quite good international students) tended to prefer not to read the incident in its historical context but rather in terms of how it related to present-day policy in the arts.[24]


[1]Straits Times 23.10.1994; Straits Times 24.10.1994; Straits Times 11.01.2003.

[2] Tommy Koh [et al.], Singapore: The Encyclopedia. (Singapore : Editions Didier Millet, 2006), p. 143.

[3] Speech by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, On Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility at the Historical Society, University of Singapore, November 24 1966.

[4] William Walsh, D. J. Enright : Poet of Humanism (London: Cambridge University Press 1974), p. 18; Koh Tai Ann, “The Mendicant Professor” in Jacqueline Simms (ed). Life by Other Means: Essays on D. J. Enright (New York : Oxford University Press 1990), p. 21.

[5] Dennis Joseph Enright, Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (London : Chatto & Windus 1969), pp. 147-148.

[6] C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore: 1819-1988 (Singapore : Oxford University Press 1989), p. 309. The Sreenivasan Affair of 1963 saw the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Dr. B.R. Sreenivasan, fiercely resisting the government’s attempt to force the University to reject students deemed or suspected of being subversive from admission into the University. Sreenivasan’s justification was that university admission should be based on academic merit and not political considerations. He eventually resigned after the government, in response, made unmasked threats about the severance of funding to the university.

[7] Roland Puccetti, “Authoritarian Government and Academic Subservience”, in Minerva, Vol. X No. 2 (April 1972), p. 224.

[8] USSU Union Handbooks 1961-1972.

[9] Malayan Undergrad Vol. 15 No. 3 March (April 1966), p. 7.

[10] Koh Tai Ann, “The World of the English-educated in the 1960s and 1970s: An Interview with Koh Tai Ann”, transcribed by Teng Siao See; translated by Lee Chih Horng, Sng Tuan Hwee, Goh Sin Hwee. Tangent, No. 6 (April 2003), pp. 265-267.

[11] Dr. M.K. Rajakumar in P C Shivadas (ed), University of Malaya : 1949-1989 (Kuala Lumpur : Organising Committee of the Fortieth Anniversary of the Founding of University Education in Malaysia and Singapore 1989), p. 64.

[12] Koh Tai Ann, “The World of the English-educated in the 1960s and 1970s”, p. 267.

[13] Straits Times 22.10.2005.

[14] Edwin Lee & Tan Tai Yong, Beyond degrees : the making of the National University of Singapore (Singapore : Singapore University Press 1996), pp. 131-132.

[15] NUS, Imagination, openness & courage : the National University of Singapore at 100 (Singapore : NUS 2006), p. 143. See Appendix 4.

[16] Chris Lydgate, Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent (Melbourne : Scribe Publications 2003), pp. 34-36.

[17] Chan Heng Chee “The Role of Intellectuals in Singapore Politics: An Essay” in Verinder Grover (ed), Singapore: Government and Politics, (New Delhi : Deep & Deep 2000), p. 126.

[18] Koh Tai Ann , “The Role of the Intellectuals in Civil Society: Going Against the Grain?”, in Gillian Koh & Ooi Giok-ling (eds), State-society relations in Singapore (Singapore : Institute of Policy Studies : Oxford University Press 2000), p. 14. The Catherine Lim affair refers to the case of local writer Catherine Lim being chided by the government for writing an article criticizing the government for being more authoritarian than consultative.

[19] Alfian Sa’at, One Fierce Hour (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998), p. 38.

[20] Email correspondence with Alfian Sa’at. The Josef Ng case refers to the incident where a performance artist, Josef Ng snipped his pubic hair in public as a protest against punitive police tactics. He was fined by the government, which also banned all performances without fixed scripts.

[21] Yao Souchou. Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess (Oxon : Routledge 2007), p. 62; C.J.W.-L. Wee, Culture, empire, and the question of being modern (Lanham, Md. : Lexington Books 2003), p. 204.

[22] Philip Holden, “On the Nation’s margins: The Social Place of Literature in Singapore”, in Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 15, No. 1, (April 2000), pp. 37-38.

[23] Wee, Culture, Empire and the Question of Being Modern, p. 204.

[24] Email correspondence with Professor Philip Holden.

Edgar Liao is currently pursuing his M.A. in the Department of History, NUS and is studying the political, ideological and cultural dimensions of student politics and activism in the University of Malaya/Singapore.

4 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time, a Mendicant Professor in Singapore: Remembering the Enright Affair (November 1960)”

  1. D J Enright passed away seven years to the day on New Year’s Eve, 2002 and as a former student of his in the early sixties, I recall on this New Year’s Eve (2009) his meticulous attention, both as teacher and poet, to meaning and sense with regard to everything one wrote and consequently, the importance of getting the details right, for the sum depends on the exactness as well as the fullest implications of its parts. It seems to me that several statements and arguments in Liao’s piece could be more nuanced (but there’s no space here to go into this). A symptom (or perhaps cause) is the neglect of significant detail and thus its implications: eg, in Note 4, the full title of my essay included in the festschrift for Enright’s 70th birthday is “The Mendicant Professor: a Self-confessed Liberal in Singapore, 1960 – 1970”. His being a liberal in Singapore was at the heart of his critique of the PAP’s then anti-“Yellow Culture” campaign (the many implications of which Liao’s article does not explore and to which Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s own Memoirs make ironic reference — going some way towards explaining why no further action was taken against the ‘politicallyinnocent’ Professor at the time: he was both wrong and right). My essay published in 1990, 30 years after the event intended to put the whole “Affair” into perspective by looking at the issue from both sides in the context of the times, in terms of ideology (Enright’s as much as the PAP’s),local politics and (post)colonial sensitivities. I also noted that years after Enright had made his call for Singapore to be more culturally open, Mr Rajaratnam (who was once Minister of Culture) was to make the same call — something that Enright was later to mention as having vindicated him. (He would find much to be ironic about in the current ‘liberal’ cultural scene, of which government-encouraged bar top dancing to raise Singapore’s “buzz” quotient, is not among the most eye-brow raising.) Liao also fails to note and cite (perhaps did not know) that Enright published a new edition of his Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990) where he deleted a chapter and added an Epilogue. There in retrospect, he characteristically questioned the liberal stance; but he none the less thought it preferable to ‘the alternative’ (ie, being illiberal).

  2. Thanks a lot Prof Koh for all the heads-up and pointing the way towards a more nuanced reading!

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