Singapore in Mid-twentieth Century: The Deep Divide

CN Chen

It is usual not to expect too much of a glossy and beautifully bound book destined to decorate the top of a coffee table but the National University of Singapore centennial celebration publication Imagination, Openness and Courage was an exception. Its lead article was a masterly dissertation by Professor Wang Gungwu on the state and higher education in that century.

Prof. Wang’s paper, “Inception, Origins, Contemplations” [1], prompted me to look back at the flux of history as it was played out in one of the two last small fragments of the British Empire. It triggered my own memories and impressions of that of turbulent period particularly, as he put it so neatly, when “for Singapore the most difficult disconnect was among the Chinese. For (the Chinese-educated) many other emotional strands guided their lives.”

What I have to offer here is just a piece of oral history of this one particular and pervasive aspect of what Singapore had to live with in the midnineteen hundreds.

To me, the story of the Chinese diaspora to the South Seas had many variants, and what happened in Singapore was sufficiently different as to be special. In other countries, much has been made of the sweat and tears and hardearned success of immigrants striving to be assimilated. Books, articles and movies, fictional and documentary, abound.

On looking back at it now, it was different in the case of Singapore. The evidence was there for those who wondered what shaped the fortunes of Singapore. There was a clear-cut division, but not as is usual between immigrants and natives. In sheer numbers, immigrants overshadowed the original indigenous population. Chinese clan based “mutual assistance associations” helped new immigrants arriving from the same clan or village, or those who shared the same surname. So that is not where the difficulty lay. Rather, the stress line was between the more recent Chinese dialect-speaking newcomers and the earlier English-educated settlers.

Since both of these groups were ethnic Chinese it wasn’t racism, obviously. More likely it was the inherent prejudice people harbour against “others” from different backgrounds. It was provincialism, literally and figuratively. There was a time when a son in, say, a Teochew household was threatened with dire consequences if he were to marry a Cantonese girl, both coming from not even different provinces! Neither did it help that the latest arrivals in a country already hosting earlier waves of immigrants, as it naturally happens, began at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. Put another way, the earlier settlers assumed the role of “natives” of the host country.

What of the British colonial government? With their gift for coining euphemisms to disguise embarrassing truths, they established The Chinese Protectorate, presided over by the Taijin who was, notwithstanding his unofficial title, a Britisher. One of his commendable duties was to stop the importation of mui-tsai, little sisters, an euphemism for new prostitutes. But the big stick he carried was his power to deport any non-British subject he considered undesirable, however that was defined. The Protectorate was housed in an imposing edifice, now designated as a heritage building on Havelock Road, smack in the heart of Chinatown.

It was colonial policy to favour English education. There were English “government aided schools.” Chinese schools were left to fend for themselves. The University of Malaya and its two antecedent colleges were government-funded institutions. Knowledge of English was an open sesame to the much sought after civil service. For court interpreters, special branch detectives and the like, fluency in English and in Chinese dialects was also indispensable. They had a reputation for reliability and compliance. Qualification for citizenship, sorry, qualification to be British subjects, was restricted to the local-born, thereby discriminating against the China-born. Whether colonial policies were the result of or resulted in this rift in the Chinese community is grist for a Ph.D. thesis.

Professor Wang has aptly called it the “most difficult disconnect.” “Disconnect” implies two entities not being linked together, whereas “divide” suggests rather the separation of what was once whole, as all of them (actually, all of us) are Han Chinese. What matters is that this dichotomy did exist. It was like an undertow dragging the unwary into the deep. Judging by what it was like in Singapore, a new country where so much had to be done for the very first time, this factor must have animated many a policy debate.

Other manifestations of this are legion and can be generally categorised under the rubrics of personal experiences, anecdotal accounts, some hard statistics and the broader sweep of civic and political events and issues.

As for personal experiences, in the school I attended before the outbreak of World War II, it was “English immersion” from Primary I onwards. Nobody spoke their own dialects except, oddly, the Teochews who would converse openly with fellow Teochews. No one was punished for not speaking English (as Canadian authorities did when they attempted to assimilate the natives in the “residential schools” they were forced to attend), but in time English was the only language spoken in school. The ways of the West were “modern” and were emulated. Cricket Test matches between England and Australia for instance had a devoted following and no one looked blank and asked “What?” when “short stop” and “LBW” were bandied around. Don Bradman was stranger to no one. I knew of only one schoolmate whose father sent him to the Gongshang (Industrial & Commercial) School every afternoon as well. One of my classmates spoke Mandarin at home. I had to study Mandarin twice a week in a night school meant for adults. Otherwise, my classmates blissfully neglected the study of Chinese.

Subsequently at home and whenever old classmates met as friends, English was spoken. Our wives were all English speaking. It is said that the first foreign words you learn are swear words. At a dinner party, one of the wives admitted that she did not know what a common expletive in Chinese meant, and it was hilarious trying to translate the crudities of Chinese profanity into prim and proper English; in truth, an impossible assignment. The key point is that she was that ignorant of her mother tongue.

Attitudes were also those of the British. In school, world history was in fact only history of the British Empire. Amritsar and the Black Hole of Calcutta were depicted as instigated by the Indians and we were meant to sympathize with the British. War was glorious; heroes were Admiral Lord Nelson, Wellington and Clive of India, who made proud the empire on which the sun never set. And we were a part of it. So much a part of it that sympathized with the British (or was it American) gunboat Panay when the Chinese army had the gall to shell it while it made its way up the Yangzi River. I was a good little Brit.

Anglicization was almost total. Our Scottish professor of surgery summed it up when he wondered aloud, “I don’t know how you all do it. You think in Chinese, speak in English and make love in Malay.”

Chinese education could be ignored except when walking past a Chinese primary school. It was faintly amusing to hear the pupils chanting their lessons in unison. It was even possible to make a calculated guess as to which of the two language streams a group of students came from. The Chinese school kids would appear to be deep in thought while walking purposefully (toward some goal?) whereas the English school students would be joking and laughing in a ragged manner. Bemusement is too strong a term but consistent with our built in biases. They seemed to be wrong-headed, for instance, in sympathizing with Communism, an import from China (which was a country virtually foreign to the English-educated).

For the rest of the world, World War II began with the German blitzkrieg in Poland in September 1939 but for China it started two years earlier with the Marco Polo Bridge “incident” on July 7th 1937. For that matter the opening act was the Japanese army’s occupation of its “three eastern provinces” a.k.a. Manchuria in 1931.

As it was for China, “Double Seven” was for the Chinese-educated in Singapore a watershed event. With an outburst of patriotism, the China Relief Fund was quickly launched and siphoned off what would otherwise have been donated to charitable organizations, and much more. For them, China’s need trumped local concerns. The Wuhan Songsters, a youthful choral group from the twin city on the banks of the Yangzi tugged at the heartstrings of folk who had never before seen the insides of a concert hall.

All this feverish agitation left the English-educated virtually untouched. And small wonder. I remember it was not at all edifying for a fifteen year old to see a photo of a woman’s dead body lying naked in the street with a beer bottle crudely eponymous of the “Rape of Nanking.” Only those who looked at Chinese newspapers saw it and English language media did not publicize pictures of atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers. The English-educated were, simply, uninformed.

Among paperbacks widely available and written in elementary school Chinese was one entitled Shaonian Piaobo Zhe, Flotsam and Young Jetsam, which told the harrowing tale of a destitute teenager wandering from village to city to farm. Published in Shanghai while the Kuomintang was in power it depicted the chaotic state China was in, in near total social breakdown. A Chinese university undergrad I met explained that while she had been anti-Japanese she was not anti-Communist because any change would be an improvement. Stories, real and fictional, excited sympathy for the plight China was in and rekindled in the émigré old memories and a resolve to come to the aid of the mother country.

But there was a price to pay for this anti-Japanese fervour. Soon after Gen. Yamashita’s army conquered Singapore in 1942, thousands of Chinese “disappeared.” Few questioned the belief that it was in reprisal for the resistance Chinese put up. Mamoru Shinozaki later wrote that Lt. Col. Tsuji ordered what he called a massacre, with an eventually admitted death toll of 6,000.[2] Ironically, English-educated young men were identified by their inability to write their names in Chinese and were included among those selected to be killed. They were condemned because they were “pro-British,” although they were naively innocent of any anti-Japanese sentiments. The “deep divide” showed up in awkward circumstances and with unpredictable consequences.

With few exceptions, Chinese schools were staffed with newer expatriates from China who had no job openings other than teaching in private schools funded by clan associations. As such they were comparatively poorly paid and were fertile soil for revolutionary ideas from their homeland. The students, after the war were, many of them, overaged, and more likely to chafe under the authoritarian methods of teaching Chinese. Schools were incubators for discontent or worse. When it was the “patriotic duty” to do so, Chinese school students “returned” to China to serve the motherland. No English school student would ever entertain such an idea. The one exception I heard of who was atypical enough to actually follow suit, found himself a pathetic misfit.

Towards the end of the 1960s, when a second language was to be made a requirement for admission to the university it was noted that even the best students in the school I used to attend were performing abysmally in Chinese language exams. In 1969, only a devastatingly rare 14 out of 254 candidates for Chinese and Malay language School Certificate Examinations received grades 1 to 6, while 181 scored the lowest possible grade 9. And these were students who were among the highest achievers in the other subjects. Quite aghast, the school’s board of governors asked me to look into it.

A study was made for the purpose of determining the reason for the unmistakable failure in teaching Chinese as a second language.[3] In order to provide a baseline, and since no statistics were then available, a survey (not just a Gallup Poll-like sampling) of the upper level students was conducted. The survey, with a response rate of 1200/1283, threw up figures that confirmed the extent and failure of language compartmentalisation. When the students were asked what languages they conversed in at home, multiple answers were allowed. 11% replied that they spoke with their parents in Mandarin, 71% in a Chinese dialect and 47% in English. With friends, 18% spoke Mandarin, 33% in a Chinese dialect and 95% in English. Most revealing figures were that 29% of the respondents did not speak any Chinese dialect and 89% were from non-Mandarin speaking homes.

Teaching such students what was essentially a foreign language, Mandarin, with methods and textbooks more suited to native speakers of their mother tongue, was the main reason for its total failure. Another, almost as important reason, was that the textbooks violated the most elementary theories of education. It was no wonder that only about 15% indicated they were “very interested” in studying Mandarin while the rest were “determined to learn, just to pass exams” or “bored” and 2% – 9% found it “hateful.” This was a statistical demonstration of the deep divide.

It wasn’t just in schools where the difference could be discerned.

Once, while discussing how we Chinese had fared in Singapore, an educated China-born woman casually remarked that the local-born were okay, but were gong-tih, Hokien for “stupid and straight.” It was said in a matter of fact tone, nothing debatable about it, and it wasn’t meant to be a compliment.

In the larger world of politics, across the Causeway beyond the other shore of the Straits of Johore, the armed uprising was for independence. Still, even then, the difference between the Chinese-educated and the others was critical. Almost all the Communist guerrillas battling it out during the “Emergency” were Chinese-educated. A member of the police force ventured what he thought was the main reason why the measures taken by the military were successful in defeating them. This police officer, an ethnic Chinese, who would normally not kill a fly, said that he was thrilled when he saw a guerrilla, also a Chinese, killed and carried out of the jungle like a wild boar on a pole slung between the shoulders of two soldiers. It was the English-educated, he said, an oversimplification, but with more than a grain of truth.

Those who lived through the first real meaningful election in Singapore will recall how the People’s Action Party was put on the spot when it was asked whether it was sympathetic with Communism. In an adroit balancing act, it convinced the British that it was “non-Communist” while at the same time satisfying the Chinese-speaking (the majority of the electorate) that it was their best bet. Once, while in a patient’s house I saw a student from a Chinese school painstakingly, almost lovingly, cutting out the Circle and Lightning logo of the PAP from a pamphlet. It was a foolproof indication that the PAP had captured the imagination of the Chinese-educated and that the English-speaking Singapore People’s Alliance, which had not paid them sufficient attention would be swept away by the undertow.

In another demonstration of their recognition of the gulf between the two language groups, at the victory celebration at the Padang, the most important speeches by PAP leaders were in Mandarin, exulting in the humbling of the English-speaking segments of Singapore. Even Goh Keng Swee, Peranakan to the bone, struggled with his newly learnt Mandarin. Among the Chinese-speaking crowd standing in my vicinity there was no sniggering at his dogged effort to bridge the chasm to reach out to the Chinese-educated. One of those in that first batch of newly elected members of parliament was a hawker, selling Chu-chiongfun, and likely not English-educated. It was the PAP’s way of being inclusive of the (Chinese-speaking) masses that had just handed them the key to victory.

After the war, Nanyang University was another issue exposing the interplay of countervailing forces aligned on either side of the language divide. The impetus for its founding was the pent up frustration resulting from the academic dead end that was the lot of Chinese high school graduates. They didn’t have a university they could aspire to enrol in unless they went to one in China. That was very much out of the question with the young being forbidden to travel to Red China. The perception (and the fact) was that the colonial government had favoured the English-educated and neglected education in the vernacular. More specifically, it had only established the two English language colleges for tertiary education. At the founding of Nantah as a private exclusively Chinese undertaking, a surge of pride erupted among the Chinese-speaking. Trishaw riders, taxi drivers and hawkers sported little pennants and donated a day’s takings to the building fund of our university.

Because and symptomatic of the “deep divide,” support for Nantah was uneven. Whatever there was of a contest that might have tugged at the guts of the university, it was not all played out in the public arena. Skipping the language and other issues, economic forces tipped the scales. At a time when its earlier graduates discovered that the piece of parchment wasn’t a passport to a job, stories were told of applicants for jobs concealing their diplomas because would be employers felt they could not afford to pay the salaries that university graduates deserved and yet were reluctant to underpay them. Parents saw the writing on the wall and switched their children to the English language stream. Now, I read that Nanyang University and the Singapore University have merged and all schools teach two languages. English is the international lingua franca and locally it is the language of law, science, government and much of commerce.

Rounding off this piece of what can be called oral history, the differences between the Chinese-educated and their English counterpart were a major determinant of social and political life in Singapore and their resolution was essential if the young nation was not to flounder. Those differences were a fact of life which the nation has largely outgrown.

What influenced their resolution can be the subject of some other paper perhaps by an historian with access to archival material, weighing such factors as popular support for a pragmatic response to the demands of survival as a tiny nation, public policy, the exigencies of international developments, the work ethic typical of immigrants, the experience of suffering in common during the Japanese occupation, the diminishing number, with the passage of time, of those who have an emotional or vested interest in their allegiance to the ways of the old country and finally, very persuasively, yielding to the promptings of Carl Jung’s concept of “the collective unconscious” ties of being “tongbao”, born of the same womb.

This line of thought, strung together with observations of the short period, has cited what appeared, when it was happening, to be inconsequential and mostly taken for granted. It has highlighted one problem that is happily no longer a divisive hindrance to national cohesiveness. Whatever its earlier struggles, the nation is intact and economically flourishing.


[1] Wang Gungwu. “Inception, Origins, Contemplations”. Imagination, Openness and Courage: The National University of Singapore at 100. Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2006.

[2] Mamoru Shinozaki. Syonan, My Story: The Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Singapore: Asia Pacific Press, 1975.

[3] Chen Chi Nan, Yong Ngim Djin and Alan Yeo. A Study of Chinese Education in the Anglo-Chinese School. Singapore: Anglo-Chinese School, 1970.

Personal Statement

Born in 1922, Dr. Chen Chi Nan’s first acquaintance with Mandarin was when he was tutored in it at the age of five just for a year. Although it was well over a decade after Sun Yat Sen toppled the Ching Dynasty, the first page of the reader still carried a picture of the penta-coloured Manchu flag – “hong, huang, lan, bai, hei.”

Carefree English-stream schooling was in the ACS, followed by enrolment in the King Edward VII College of Medicine in 1941. Before the year was out he was introduced to raw reality in the form of the Japanese invasion, sinking of the ship he was fleeing in and a thirty-hour immersion in the sea. He resumed med school after the end of World War II and was in general practice from 1953 onwards. Among his non-medical activities, as a member of the Board of Governors of his old school, he chaired a committee in 1970 to look into and report on the state of teaching Chinese as a second language in the school.

After migrating to Canada and qualifying as a psychiatrist he practised in the Royal Columbian Hospital and in time made the head of its Psychiatric Department till it was time to retire. In retirement, when he was asked what his role had been in post-war Singapore, he replied that it was just that of an ordinary citizen doing what came naturally. He had the leisure to reflect and do more reading, when he came across an observation by William Faulkner, which he thought would be very apt on the masthead of a history journal like s/pores: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

Dr Chen Chi Nan is the the third son of Dr Chen Su Lan (1885 – 1972), who was among the first seven graduates of the King Edward VII Medical School in 1910 that was the original institution of NUS. Chen Su Lan was closely associated with the Methodist Church in Singapore. He founded the Chinese Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1945 and formed the Chen Su Lan Trust in 1947. The Chen Su Lan Trust is still active in philanthropic giving today, particularly in the field of education. (Bio by K.C. Chew)