Editorial: Men in White

Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore

In January 2010, s/pores together with the Asia Research Institute (ARI) and the venue sponsor, the National Library, co-organized a seminar on the book Men in White: the untold story of Singapore’s ruling party. The seminar was entitled ‘Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore’.

Written by three senior journalists from The Straits Times and commissioned and published by Singapore Press Holdings, Men in White was publicized extensively in the print and cyber media. The media blitz surrounding Men in White turned on its claim to offer an accessible and unbiased history of the ruling PAP government and of post-World War Two Singapore history in general. Yet, this claim quickly provoked challenges and invited critical scrutiny of its contents and research methodology from different quarters in the country. For several months following the book’s launch in September 2009, history took centre stage in the nation’s mass media.

We invited three speakers ― Tan Tarn How, Philip Holden and Hong Lysa – to discuss the book and the sensation it provoked in the mass media. Tarn How dissected the media environment in Singapore that has impacted the laudatory as well as critical reception of Men in White. Notwithstanding the attention the book created, Tarn How was critical of the less-than-satisfactory thickness of the exegesis it has generated. Philip Holden took seriously the book’s claim to ‘tell a story’. He unpacked the social and stylistic story-telling conventions giving life to the book, paying special attention to the gendered-ness of the Men in White narrative. Questioning the book’s claim to depart radically from previous accounts of post-war history, Hong Lysa traced the book’s genealogy to a long list of journalists who were given privileged access to resources and sources to write popular history books that had made similar claims as Men in White. Will Men in White be written over by another Men in White effort at tweaking the Singapore Story while aspiring to new-ness and news-worthiness all over again? Imagining one ‘missing handshake’ between the departed Lim Chin Siong and Lee Kuan Yew, Lysa probed the repetitive compulsion to secure an ‘untainted origin myth’ for the post-war Singapore nation.

In this issue, s/pores is reproducing a condensed version of the papers presented at the seminar as well as a special write-up of the event by Chua Beng Huat who was co-organizer from ARI’s side. Beng Huat’s write-up first appeared in ARI’s newsletter. For those who missed the event, Beng Huat’s article provides an introduction and summary of the day’s proceedings.


Forum on Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore
Chua Beng Huat

From People’s Action Party to Men in White
Philip Holden

What a Book! What a Launch! What a Story!
Tan Tarn How

Men in White and the forever missing handshake
Hong Lysa

Review: Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaya
Liew Kai Khiun