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Men In White silent on key historical issues, say scholars

Posted by theonlinecitizen on January 19, 2010

Wong Chun Han / Pictures courtesy of Asia Research Institute, NUS

Good crowd turnout

Rather than shedding light on the unfamiliar chapters of Singapore’s political history, the authors and publishers of Men in White have kept readers in the dark in some regards, scholars argued.

According to literature scholar Philip Holden and historian Hong Lysa, significant historical silences were evident in the 692-page tome on the history of the People’s Action Party published last September by Singapore Press Holdings.

Particularly noteworthy were the book’s failure to discuss important political issues such as merger with Malaysia and women’s rights, said the scholars at the National Library last Saturday.

Their assessments were well-received by about 150 people in attendance at ‘Men in Black or White: History as Media Event in Singapore’, a public seminar jointly organised by the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute and the National Library.

Billed by organisers as first public forum to examine Men in White as “a sensation generated from the intersection between history and the mass media”, the seminar assembled three speakers – Holden, Hong and former Straits Times journalist Tan Tarn How – to critique the book and the media attention on its publication with their respective expertise.

Approaching from a historian’s perspective, Hong, an independent scholar and former member of the NUS History department, criticised the book’s inadequate discussion of the issue of merger with Malaysia.

The political, social and economic implications of the merger were not discussed, despite their central importance to Singaporean and PAP history of the 1960s, said Hong. Also notably absent were clarifications about the specific motivations of the 13 PAP legislative assemblymen who abstained on the motion of confidence on the government in July 1961.

Hong also noted the book’s particular concern for the political events of the 1950s and 1960s and the question of whether Lim Chin Siong and other Barisan Socialis members were communists. This, she suggested, may represent an attempt by the book’s authors to dismiss the story of the PAP’s “sullied birth”.

The arrest of leading Barisan Socialis members during Operation Coldstore in February 1963 would have blemished the PAP electoral victory in September, if those arrested were not branded as communist subversives. Questions would thus have remained over the legitimacy of the PAP’s victory, which arguably was facilitated by the weakening of the Barisan Socialis, she explained.

The book’s silence on significant political events and themes was also a letdown for Holden, an associate professor with the NUS English language and literature department.

Particularly disappointing for him was the failure to discuss events like the PAP’s resignation from the Socialist International in 1976, Devan Nair’s resignation from the Presidency in 1985 and Operation Spectrum in 1987.

Holden also noted the superficial involvement of women in the Men in White narrative. Issues of gender equality were not discussed, nor were there any mention of the Women’s Charter, which passed into law in 1961. Notable female PAP members such as Dr Aline Wong were omitted altogether.

Women were reduced to mere signs, he argued, serving as symbols of social progress rather than historical actors in the PAP story, and providing a foil for men to define themselves against.

Pannellists at the MIW Forum

Suggesting that this could be the result of an unconscious reversion to gender stereotypes by the authors, Holden further proposed that the book and its title were underpinned by a definition of masculinity as the possession of integrity and character – qualities which those who oppose the PAP are alleged to lack.

Besides these silences within the book, there were also issues with how Men in White was presented and discussed in the media, according to Tan, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, who studies Singapore’s media and arts policy.

Although conceding that the Straits Times was capable of good journalism when not restrained by government and corporate interests, he felt that its reporting in this instance was “mostly PR and not journalism”.

Noting that the total SPH coverage of Men in White amounted to about 50,000 words, he described the effort as “extensive” and “breathless”, carrying “a warm fuzzyness” about it.

In contrast, the SPH coverage of the publication of The Fajar Generation, a collection of essays by former members of the University of Malaya Socialist Club, “never really engaged with what is being said [in the book]” and avoided discussing its content, said Tan.

He argued, extrapolating from the example of the Men in White coverage, that both the local mainstream and online alternative media lacked “thickness” in its content, being in want for richness, quantity and quality.

Tan, who spent 16 years with the Straits Times, concluded his prognosis with a caution, calling for wariness of the media’s “omissions in deed and in writing”.

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6 Responses to “Men In White silent on key historical issues, say scholars”

  1. Anthony Teo said

    That’s is why I did not and will not pay for any books or newspapers published by SPH. It is all one sided. I read them all for free at the library or the bookshops.

  2. Mr Selamat Datang said

    i like to buy one copy. My toilet paper running out.

  3. MIW by 3 stooges said

    The current MIW is by the 3 stooges, so I will give it a piss.
    I can afford to wait for a more accurate version in the future.

  4. lebby said

    I wonder why men in white always live long loves. I was told the whitest white consult a bomoh. Is it true

  5. Anonymous said

    Dear Sir,
    how are you? hope you and wife are fine!
    I am disabled person and I am 32 yearS old. I am cerebral palsy, I study at SCAS and SPD. In 1984 to 2006 I can”t walk and my hand can’t hold things. After my study and I went for many interview like HWA and BZLINK but they can’t offer a job.
    last year, I apply for street hawking license, Because i cannot get work.
    The NEA has reply but my wish didn’t come true. I am really upset with singapore GOV. I have give up on the GOV now. The GOV don’t have the heart for disabled people. The GOV
    doesn’t care about disabled people who are suffering inside our heart all these years. USA or UK disabled people the GOV help them but my own GOV help us but $200. sinagpore dollars monthly cannot sustain my everyday needs bec of my case.for 1 year i do not have the grant for disabled because i asked the GOV to just give me license to sell bec that way i can support my needs everyday.i work everyday because if i need to support my own as no one will. I don’t ask the GOV for help but I ask for one licenses and I ask for specific place where i can sell. but NEA said that i can sell under HDB block. The NEA allow me tosell my
    things at HDB block but I tried many times too bad i dont sell nothing.it is only keychain and pens.if i dont sell in a day i dont eat. I want to sell my things open space but the NEA don’t allow. What is this SIR?I hope for your kind consideration on this matter and will expect your reply as as a singaporean citizen i think i should have that privelage like other people who are striving to work and live.
    Sir. I hope that the singapore Govemment will change and have a kind heart. Take care and God bless!.
    Respectfully Yours,

  6. Anonymous said

    A 32 years old cerebral Palsy case who is striving to live a simple life…trying to let people hear about what a person like him feel…a deprived singaporean citizen who is fighting for what he thinks would help disable people like him…disabled people who cannot express their feelings…one who just wants to earn to live….a cry of a disabled human being who just asked for a little something from the Goverment ….and…… one “WHO” is rejected……

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