Editorial: “Being Young in the 1950s”

Edgar Liao

The Young Ones
Darling, We’re the Young Ones
And Young Ones
Shouldn’t be Afraid
To Live, Love
While the Flame is Strong
‘Cause We May Not Be The Young Ones
Very Long…

…goes Cliff Richard and the Shadows’s chart-topping song “The Young Ones”, which was on the soundtrack of the British film musical (1961) the Young Ones. The song and the film are markers of a historical milieu in the English-speaking world between the 1950s and the 1970s in which the youth dominated media headlines and popular culture in many countries around the world as they eschewed traditional patterns of living and expressed their new desires and aspirations in unprecedented ways and forms.

Consequently, their socio-political activism, lifestyles, and cultural iconoclasm drew much anxiety and attention from national governments to related adults. In Singapore in the 1950s however the young were burdened with expectations that the new nation-to-be had of them. Responsibility, duty and society rather than carefree individualism, emotional gratification and living for the day in the song. All the more “The Young Ones” may have been popular for the escapism it offered.

The young also entered a less visible domain – historiography. The advent of social history and “histories from below” in the 1960s drew scholarly attention to the question of children and youth. In addition to questions like “what about women?”, “What about the working class?”, “what about powerless people or the subalterns”, some scholars began to ask, “What about children and youth?” In particular, Philippe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood : A Social History of Family Life (1962) is regarded as the seminal text that ignited the field of the history of children and youth by arguing that childhood and youth were historically constructed categories. Since then, the field has been greatly enriched by a growing body of literature that traces and interrogates the changing lives of the young, and the changing meanings and significances assigned to children and youth. Many of these endeavour to recover the voices and experiences of the young in the face of the methodological difficulties presented by the paucity of sources.

This issue of s/pores seeks to ask similar questions: What about the young in Singapore history? What were their stories and their experiences of growing up in Singapore? More specifically to the time period chosen for this issue: What did being young mean in the 1950s?

This is not the first time these questions have been examined in Singapore. In our very first issue of s/pores, our s/pores editorial collective member Francis Lim introduced a landmark exhibition “‘Education at Large: An Exhibition on Student Activities and Activism in Singapore, 1945-1965”. Organized by the Tangent collective, the exhibition showcased and highlighted the popular culture and activities of students in many schools in Singapore. This issue gives us the perfect opportunity to recall this exhibition. Documentation of the exhibition and oral history accounts of some former Chinese schools students can be found in the resulting publication – Lee Huay Leng, Chan Cheow Thia, and Teng Siao See (es).Education-at-large : student life and activities in Singapore, 1945-1965(World Scientific Publishing Co. 2012).

The first two articles in this volume examine the attempted socialization of the young in Singapore, during a formative and turbulent period when local communities on the island could not avoid being embroiled or implicated in the powerful winds of decolonization and Cold War political and ideological battles then. They suggest that governments and adults in Singapore and Malaya tried to shape how children and youth should live, think, work and play so as to build their envisioned Malayan or Singaporean nation.

“An introduction to Constructing Nanyang Childhood” introduces a recent collection of essays examining publications in Chinese for children and youth – comics, magazines, and educational materials – produced during between the mid-1940s and the 1970s. Put together by faculty and students from the NUS Chinese Studies department, the essays contribute significantly to our understanding of the Chinese-language publishing scene and the aspirations and anxieties that adults bore towards Chinese children and youth in Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

“Civics for Young Malayans: Colonial Educator E H G Dobby in Singapore” contextualizes an English-language civics primer written by a British Professor of Geography within the British colonial authorities’ pedagogical project to socialize “young Malayans” into developing desirable “Malayan” civic values and identities. It complements the preceding article by illuminating what a colonial educator, endorsed and supported by the colonial governments in Malaya and Singapore, wanted the young ones in Malaya and Singapore to know and believe.

The third article in this issue is an interview with Arthur Yap, whom I met in Vancouver. As Arthur enjoys sharing his memories about the Singapore he lived in before he moved to Canada in the mid-1960s, I took the opportunity to capture some of his memories for this issue. In this interview, he shares his recollections of being young in the 1950s. We get a peek into his life as a young boy from an English-medium school, including the subjects he studied and the leisure and extra-curricular activities he pursued. At a time when cyclists are re-appearing on the roads and streets of Singapore, he reminds us that bicycles were a common mode of transportation, especially for young people then.

“In His Own Words: Writings of the young S. Rajaratnam” by Ho Jin Yee, which is based on her graduating Honours Thesis, returns us to the younger days of S. Rajaratnam, one of Singapore’s first-generation leaders and co-founder of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Through an examination of some of S. Rajaratnam’s writings and articles during his journalistic career, first with the Malaya Tribune and then the Singapore Tiger Standard, Ho brings us a taste of Rajaratnam as a young sardonic and witty journalist-intellectual and critic of colonialism.


Introduction to Constructing Nanyang Childhood
Edgar Liao

Civics for Young Malayans: Colonial Educator E H G Dobby in Singapore
Edgar Liao

Interview with Mr Arthur Yap – an English-educated youth in 1950s Singapore
Edgar Liao

In His Own Words: Writings of the young S. Rajaratnam
Ho Jin Yee