Daniel PS Goh
I wrote this piece for my now-defunct blog a year ago, almost to the day, on a sleepless night when time was suspended by the eternal flight of introspection. I was going through the week’s newspapers trying to write a regular column for another blog but got stopped in my tracks by the halting image of David Marshall. I remember sipping on a single-malt and listening to the Verve; it just seemed appropriate while I struggled to find why I couldn’t take my mind off Marshall. This is my experimental prose in search of a memorial, when words are all we have against the monuments of the powerful. Lysa recently rediscovered the piece and convinced me to publish it here, as a coda or companion, maybe a rejoinder or a fugue, to her article on national heroes in this issue. My thanks to Lysa. – D.G. 24 March 2009
I can’t write a ticker. Reading the Straits Times, after the budget hot air, Singapore seems to have gone placid, flat, even flaccid. That is not true. Go out into the heartland streets and the shady corners of downtown, and one could tune into the energies of a people, their faces and eyes giving off dreams, hopes, fears, fantasies, joys interspersed with moments of ennui. The people, ever complex, ever changing, almost struggling to break free of a humdrum existence: Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to money then you die. But the cobblestones of a numbing colonialism of the mind disrupt the melody shine. Something is really wrong when the press and all the other intellectual organs of our society do not quite resonate with the body politic.
There was something in the news the week before that got me hooked on a feeling that rocked between blue, red and white this week, and I have been playing the Verve non-stop. A symposium was held to honor the late David Marshall’s birth centennial, and the President paid his tribute, “In our early years, under colonial domination, he made us, in Singapore, aware of who we are and made us dream of independence. He was a giant of a man in that he sought to inspire in us a sense of hope and what we needed to be”. There were the usual platitudes, of course, from appropriating his Jewishness to affirm skin-deep multiracialism to depicting him as a towering and flamboyant national hero, and the long and wide shadow of Mentor Lee as Marshall is remembered for crediting Lee’s leadership just as Lee honors Marshall, saying that the Singapore government is indebted to Marshall for life (see Straits Times 13/3/08).
The Singapore government?! Somehow, along the way, it seems that the people have been forgotten, as though this dance of ours for the past fifty years of becoming the nation has been a tango between the Party and individuals. Well, not really, somehow we have forgotten we are the people, allowing ourselves to be consumed, our action engineered into the great big machine of the Party. In an interview with lawyer Dharmendra Yadev in 1994, a year before he died, when asked how young Singaporeans have changed, Marshall said, “What has changed? The self-confidence of our people has grown immensely, and that is good to see. Our pragmatic abilities have grown magnificently, and that is good to see. Very good to see! You are very able. You’re ambitious, and the government has heroic plans for the future. It hasn’t finished”.
I can almost feel his piercing gaze on me, with his deep, wizened voice challenging me on my destiny, your destiny. It hasn’t finished, with me, with you. I see my very body, the shape of its heroic plans, past and future, from national service to annuities. I see my very thoughts, the wiring of its heroic plans, as I come to accept the boundaries and alternatives set out for me, always followed by hallucinations of carrots and the pleasurable apprehension of the stick. I see my very emotions, the echo of its heroic plans, from the desires of suckling to the anxieties of separation into the fantasies of security. I am able, I am ambitious, I am the government’s heroic plan.
But I’m here in my mold, I am here in my mold. From one day to the next. And I’m a million different people from one day to the next.
I remember Marshall, on a hot weekday morning, walking practically unannounced into my classroom, an old boy visiting his alma mater and meeting the youths that were being fashioned in another time. I remember my eyes lighting up to this strange man that seemed to have stepped out of the time machine and my history textbook, the first Chief Minister who boarded the plane to safari-jacket London for merdeka, the lawyer who marched through the workers’ streets with a hammer in his hand, now the ambassador to France, his body and posture tamed by the tactical cooptation of repressive honors. But there was that burning fire in his eyes, as he looked personably at us boys too shocked to know what to ask, while our teachers stood by red-faced by our pensive silence. He broke into a smile and obliged us a short speech. The eloquence was implacable, but there was a moment when his heart poured into a quick sequence of words, challenging us on our destiny, “don’t let anyone deaden your passion and courage; you are Singapore”.
I am Singapore. These words sunk into the deepest recess of my consciousness that hot morning and took root in my being. The values of passion, courage and independence have guided me since. But there is a certain discomfort that lingers on, as though Marshall is still prodding me, “It hasn’t finished.” After all, this is what the Party has been nurturing in the new century, the new Singaporean, with self-absorbed stories and glossy images of passionate heroes, courageous mountain-climbers and independent entrepreneurs, where even the mercurial Marshall, critical to a fault, is run through the “lapdog” media mill, installed in the pantheon of national saints so that litanies of platitudes can be sung and the congregation transfigured. “We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security”, said Marshall in 1994. In the turn of irony, he is now inducted into the creation of good post-revolutionaries seeking attention, publicity. Not Guevera, but Che emblazoned in a million tee shirts. Marshall remembered for his colorful flamboyance not his uncompromising spirit of human freedom and dignity.
But his voice, his challenge continues to loom large. “I take off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but there is no soul in our conduct. It is a difficult thing to speak of because it is difficult to put in a computer, and the youth of Singapore is accustomed to computer fault. There is no longer the intellectual ferment, the passionate argument for a better civilization. … Tell me I’m wrong, come on”. What is soul when we lie no longer lie in “crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities”, as Marshall described in 1994, but in colorful pods papered with acclamations of awards and narcissistic displays of self-worth?
Commenting on the centennial commemoration to Marshall’s wife, his daughter said, “Oh mum, can’t you just hear dad’s snort and chuckle, and his ha ha do they feel it safe to do it now that I’m safely dead?” When asked about how young Singaporeans have changed, his first words were “The role of youths! Ha!” His safari jacket insulted the sensibilities of London and inspired a minister’s wearing of sandals to the legislature as a mark of anti-colonial protest. Soul is irreverence. In the age when everyone demands respect and respect is the main currency of power, this is how I remember the prescient Marshall, an intellectually fermenting, passionately arguing, but most of all, an irreverent Marshall. The President is right, but wrong in using the past tense, Marshall makes us, in Singapore, aware of who we are and makes us dream of independence.
I can change, I can change, ‘cause its a bittersweet symphony this life.>
Daniel PS Goh is assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. He teaches Race and Multiculturalism, and Environmental Sociology, but researches on state-formation and culture. He is a member of the s/pores editorial collective. (Jun 2009)