No ordinary students club

Johan Saravanamuttu reviews a book on an extraordinary students club in independence-era Singapore which had a profound impact on events on both sides of the causeway.

university-socialist-club

The University Socialist Club and the contest for Malaya:
Tangled strands of modernity.
By Kah Seng Loh, Edgar Liao, Cheng Tju Lim and Guo-Quan Seng.
Amsterdam: IIAS/Amsterdam University Press, 2012.

This book by four historians fills an important gap in Singapore’s and Malaysia’s political history from the perspective of leftist politics. There has been a surge of writing about the role of the Left in the 1950s and 1960s that has served as a corrective to mainstream work and official histories in both countries.

However, much work of this genre has tended to be personalised accounts or narratives of activists and actual individuals of the Left. One such book of this genre, The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2010), edited by three former members of the University Socialist Club (USC), Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew, should certainly be read in tandem with this book since they delve into same subject, the same historical period as well as the individuals at the forefront of leftist politics.

For contrast readers should also peruse the officially-sanctioned history of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 2010), by Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam, published just months ahead of The Fajar Generation.

Struggle to establish modernity

Early in Chapter 1 of The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya, Loh, Liao, Lim and Seng observe that The Fajar Generation and Men in White are virtual mirror images, one silencing the role of the USC while the other highlights it in an “heroic frame”.

Their own book attempts to locate the role of USC in an “overarching struggle to establish modernity” through the formation of the independent nation-state, Malaya, which then included Singapore.

The authors draw on Partha Chatterjee’s “derivative discourse” of nationalism. They argue that Third World nationalism of the sort espoused by the USC, while resoundingly rejecting Western colonialism and imperialism, nonetheless also derives its fundamental stances from the same discursive terrain of the Enlightenment, and from rational thought and science. The USC’s overall ideological approach was “modernist” tout court.

What is particularly noteworthy is that Loh and colleagues have revisited this period of Malayan history with the keen sense of scholars seeking to unravel what can only be seen as the highly significant involvement of the English-educated Left in a nation-making project replete with the contestation of ideas, ideals, and actions that led to the ultimate emergence of the Singapore-Malaysia social formations. In their rendering of history, the Left played no small part in how these social formations took shape.

The book is dense with details of the events, the activism and the tangled and often tragic lives of individuals, which a book review such as this could only selectively draw on but hardly do full justice. The authors have used an impressive array of sources, including archives, published material, oral histories, interviews, minutes of meetings and correspondence (although some have remained embargoed) to construct the events and debates in which the USC was involved.

The first part of the book provides detailed narratives on the Club’s activities, activism, of its personalities and multifarious political debates in which they were engaged.

Moment of glory

Chapter 3 zooms in on the May 1954 Fajar trial, which won the Club its moment of glory when a young lawyer Lee Kuan Yew, in assisting Senior Counsel D N Pitt, made his mark by defending those who would later become his socialist opponents, the likes of Poh Soo Kai, M K Rajakumar and James Puthucheary, among the eight members and office bearers of the USC who were singled out for arrest by colonial authorities.

The club’s paper Fajar (“dawn” in Malay) had published the article ‘Aggression in Asia’, about the role of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation as a tool of Western imperialism. The authors show clearly that the personae of the Club, as Fabian socialists, who included a much larger group of activists than those charged, became “heroes by accident” (p. 65). The trial proceedings are described in great detail.

The triumph of the Club in averting the conviction of its members inflicted a tactical defeat to the ruling government and launched the Club and its young and English-educated Left intellectuals into the vortex of politics. It was a politics, as it turned out, that was marked by the treachery of erstwhile fellow travellers of the Left who later went on a different route.

The other chapters of the book basically deal with the inexorable plunge of the Club and its individuals into the seminal political events and debates of the formative period of Malayan-Singaporean-Malaysian national history. As the authors aver, the Club’s vision was always to formulate and realise a vision of a Socialist Malaya, which saw in Singapore a convergence of Fabian and other left-wing socialists, notably the Chinese-educated Left, and the reformist People’s Action Party.

Chapter 4 narrates the Club’s forays in party, labour and rural politics of the 1950s, in particular its advocacy of Malay as the national language.

Struggle and strain

The next chapter shows the Club’s failed struggle to unify student politics due to the rise of “centrist” student groups and the collapse of the Pan-Malayan Students’ Federation (PMSF) in March 1956. Among the issues leading to this collapse was the leftist students’ adamance in allowing the PMSF to play the British anthem in formal functions.

The Club’s struggle to provide guidance and leadership on Cold War issues is given focus in Chapter 6.

This is followed by a chapter delving into the Special Branch’s surveillance of the Club bringing severe strain. The Special Branch was at great pains, stretching credulity to show that club members were part of the “nodes and chains” of a global Communist movement (pp. 162-4).

Chapter 8, marking the second portion of the book, provides an important narrative on the resistance of the Club to the “Malaysia” question. It charts the Club’s attempts to mediate between two contending visions of the merger plan and its opposition to the British notion of “Greater Malaysia.” The PAP’s rise to power and prominence is given much play in this chapter perhaps unflatteringly as part of the ascendancy of a new conservative, anti-communist politics in Singapore.

Chapter 9 narrates in brutal detail how the PAP’s anti-leftist politics is played out through its willful use of the “Cold War informational order”, established before the PAP’s rise, in detaining without trial prominent leftists and detractors (former Club and PAP founding members included) in the 1963 Operation Cold Store and Operation Pecah.

Chapter 10 then provides the closing episodes to the Club, its final protracted struggles and its attempt to champion student’s rights and university autonomy in the 1960s.

Prodigous role

In the final chapter, the authors reflect on the Club’s undeniably prodigious role in charting political debates, framing national politics and to a great degree affecting the very character of politics in Malaya, Singapore and Malaysia during the period of the Club’s existence and well beyond.

Let me end this review with a few sentences of the conclusion worthy of note:

  • “What distinguished the Socialist Club from other modernist groups was its identity as a collective of idealistic, socialist-inspired student intellectuals” (p. 257).
  • “The Club had Fabian socialists, democratic socialists and liberals (all discursively and unfairly called ‘fireside socialists’” (p. 258).
  • “Rather than create a society based on established ethnic divisions, the Club envisioned a modern state built upon a national language and culture that was at the same time free of the tint of the coloniser” (p. 258).
  • “The Club remains deeply embedded in the social memories of Singapore and Malaysia in the present day” (p. 263).

This book is imperative reading for all wishing to have any understanding of leftist politics in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s and their relevance for politics today.

Johan Saravanamuttu is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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