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Bird’s eye view of cloud cuckooland: a Writer’s tale

March 31, 2010

Those attending events held at NLB’s Pod are routinely ushered into the lift which serves only the 16th floor of the building, and directly transported into a huge room with a panoramic view of the surroundings. On the morning of Saturday 6 February 2010 the 100 or so people who went up that lift perhaps also found themselves stepping into cloud cuckooland.

The event was a talk given by Member of Parliament Irene Ng, author of the biography of S Rajaratnam, as part of NLB’s series Experience Singapore Literature. The book had been launched two days earlier by the prime minister, and was not available for purchase till then, so most of us, myself included had not read it.  As a member of the audience keen to learn about how the book was put together, I was treated to an insight of being a Writer in Singapore which took my breath away. The air in the stratosphere was so refined that the ivory tower of academia paled in comparison.

For a start, the audience was treated by the Writer (as the author sees herself as being) to the fascinating insight that writers are given scant recognition  in Singapore unlike say, in UK where journalists have long been respected for writing biographies of the country’s leading political leaders. One wishes she would go into the reasons why this is so. Perhaps it is because well-researched political studies have not quite been encouraged, and/or that what has been written so far has really not been deserving of respect?

At any rate, Our Writer thinks that her work is deserving of such respect, for she is serious about Writing. She had resigned from her job at the NTUC (which presumably she held after leaving SPH as a journalist on becoming an MP), so that she could dedicate herself to the task. By her account, when she handed out her name card which identified her as ‘Writer”, she would get quizzical looks, and be asked if it was a real job. It is! she assures us emphatically. She is very particular about use of words and slaves over her sentences, working till 3 am when she was holding her 3 jobs; is committed to writing a book for the people that is easily readable, unlike academics, who use ‘ponderous’ language, though of course she herself has had to plough through the requisite tomes. She wrote countless drafts, which her husband faithfully went through over and over again, giving invaluable comments. Her original manuscript, which Our Writer assured us we won’t want to read, was returned by her editor, with the comment that it should be reduced to a quarter of its length. While it is probably the case that not all writers have a spare job to give up, or a suffering spouse to go through their manuscripts, Our Writer is nevertheless probably not alone among writers in being particular about choice of words, burning the midnight oil or working through countless drafts.

At  the revelation that Our Writer had  been asked by the editor to make revisions a member of the audience who was apparently at home in cloud cuckooland leapt to her feet. She asked of Irene Ng, Member of Parliament, former Straits Times and New Paper journalist, and commissioned author of S Rajaratnam: The Singapore Lion, if at any point she faced censorship. Those of us not qualified to inhabit that fantasyland were aghast. How could it cross anyone’s mind that a person with the political qualifications of Our Writer would face censorship problems?  What on earth could she possibly say that would be considered subversive or unacceptable to the powers that be?

This question certainly took the prize hands down for its unreal quality, but it was not the only instance. An academic in the audience asked almost painfully: Our Writer had mentioned using an array of sources, including Internal Security Department records. How does one gain access to materials listed in the book such as Cabinet records and ministerial files, which most researchers have found impossible to. The explication given by the author was stunning in its simplicity—the files are in the National Archives—just fill up the form for permission to use them–that’s what she did! Some in the audience chuckled, while others smiled at the reply. Was it a neat, deadpan acknowledgment of her privileged position, or a charming ignorance of that fact? In any case, I will regard works which have used ISD files and the like with a degree of skepticism until the day arrives when such documents are routinely available to researchers.

As for Cabinet papers, which the academic noted was mentioned in the bibliography, but not used much in the text, well, Our Writer tells us that they are actually not really all that informative—the minutes only recorded decisions taken, not discussions that preceded that, nor do they record who said what. If that is the case, are there other files which would have served Our Writer better? Surely there must be records which document Rajaratnam’s work as Minister of Culture from 1959?

Academics certainly had a lot to learn that morning. Another hapless one found herself rebuked by Our Writer for having got it all wrong—’Raja’ did not think that Singapore history started in 1819 as this historian had written. Our Writer had been asked by a member of the audience for her view on Rajaratnam’s choice of 1819 as the starting point of Singapore’s history. Bursting with indignation and pride, she revealed that she had found ‘Raja’s’ writings done in the 1940s which talked about there being stone age civilization in Malaya. ‘Raja’ had also written that there were Indian and Chinese in this part of the world before 1819!  The thoroughly discredited academic in question, who happened to be in the audience, could only meekly point out that surely the question was not whether when Mr Rajaratnam believed Singapore history really started, but that as PAP visionary, how far back he thought Singaporeans should trace their history to, and that to him 1819 was the most sensible date to start for the building of a new nation out of a population the majority of whom were recent migrants with their different ancestral histories. Indeed, how they do waffle on, these historians!

Yet another come-uppance for academics was in store. Our Writer revealed that she had a scoop, which no scholar had managed to obtain so far. Fong Swee Suan, former Barisan Socialis member had revealed to her in an exclusive interview that there had been a meeting held over the question of merger between leaders of both factions of the PAP.  The team on the one side included Lee Kuan Yew and S Rajaratnam, and on the other, Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and S Woodhull. Lee’s ultimatum was that the ‘other side’ had to support him on the question of merger, or else they would have to leave the party. The three decided they could not go along with the merger proposal.

If only Our Writer had explained to the audience just how earthshaking this revelation is. For it confirms what the left had been saying for decades, and what Dr Poh Soo Kai had asserted in his recent interview with the Straits Times (27Dec 2009): that the dissident MPs did not walk out on the party and cause the split in the PAP—they were expelled.  One would of course assume that Our writer, a veteran journalist, would have checked Fong Swee Suan’s story with Lee Kuan Yew, who called the meeting.

But yes, yet again the academics present must really have felt that they had been thoroughly outclassed by Our Writer, though the more uncharitable among them might have wondered where the glam factor of having interviewed Fong is concerned, if Our Writer had not been pipped to the post by the three Straits Times journalists of Men in White fame.

S Rajaratnam: The Singapore Lion is published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), an academic research institute, whose publications are peer reviewed.

But surely this Writer-in-residence of theirs is peerless.


From → history

  1. Sharon Siddique permalink

    Thanks. Sorry I missed the event. Sort of reminds me of Rita Skeeter and her Quick Quotes Quill of H. Potter fame.

  2. Derrick Goh permalink

    Here we go again. Another writer endorsed by the “wannabes” to shine up their historical legacy. Before her, there was Men in Black “journalists” dressing up “Men in White”.

    I was there listening and watching Irene Ng with awe! It was awesome! Another “clean” journalist in Singapore???

    We know that the Straits Times was (my young days) and is ( my old days) controlled. Therefore all the writings of “ex-reporters” or “ex-journalists” of the Straits Times writings are “unclean”, especially if they are funded by people with “conflict of interests”. It must be audited and authenticated by “clean” people.

    Rajaratnam of my young days was an impressive and charming man. Certainly his book must be written. But by a person with a “clean” slate.

    When questioned on how she was able to look at documents and get the information she needed from the government to write her book, she said ” we had to ask /write correctly”. Everybody knows there is no “freedom of information” from the government unless you are approved by “you know who”. Mama Mia!

    How dare she makes us look stupid!

    You simply got to be an approved Nominated Member of Party to get your desserts.

    Her writing is not worth my desserts.

    I am getting real excited about her Book 2 on Rajaratnam which she keeps talking about. Its almost like advertising “Clash of the Titans” sequel. We know how movie sequels work. Bad.

    The March of the Titans will stimulate the sequel though.

  3. A L R Joseph permalink

    I have neither read the book nor was I at the launch event, but I am familiar with Ms Ng from her ST contributions. I take the view that her attitude to life – which was much involved, as I recall, with her erstwhile spinsterhood, independence and liberation (especially from a fond but happy-to-leave Malaysia) – did change over the last, say, 10 years at least: more impressed with a newly-found “exotic” husband, a deeper resentment of Malaysia (and her past), a closer rapport with the powers-that-be and a deeper association with fundamental Christianity. The final upshot of which was her performance at the launch event.

    She has perhaps been swept too quickly into a whirlwind of many dimensions which has resulted in her forgetting who she was 10-15 years ago: a very different person, I think!

  4. kevin blackburn permalink

    I was the historian who asked about Irene Ng’s unprecedented access to cabinet records. She is the only writer who has been able to use and publish from them. Her future Rajaratnam volume 2 means there will be more from them, as it covers most of Rajaratnam’s career as a cabinet minister. Cabinet records are not kept at the National Archives of Singapore as far as I know but with the Cabinet secretary.

    I attended the dialogue thinking that perhaps there was a possibility that Irene Ng, who having had the privilege to use these archival records, might feel that these and other government archival records are important for Singapore’s past and should be available on open access for everyone. Why cite these sources if no one can check out the footnotes? That is the purpose of footnotes after all.

    If this happened, many ordinary people could also gain the similar insights into Singapore’s past that Irene Ng has been privileged to have gained. Learning more about the history of the nation helps foster national identity. So there is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost if there is open access.

    However, her responses where those that I half expected from a politician ‘staying on message’ rather than a ‘writer’ discussing an issue openly. This was not surprising, so I did not pursue the matter in any follow up questions.

    If the Australian and British governments can have most records on open access after 30 years, including cabinet records, then I don’t see why Singapore cannot, given that it prides itself on high standards of ‘governance’ and ‘transparency’.

    When the national archives in these countries release these documents on 1 January every year they see it as fulfilling their role in making the nation’s past available to the public and contributing to fostering a sense of national identity.

  5. Jeyaraj Christopoher Rajaraoi permalink

    I did know Mr. Rajaratnam when he was with the Tiger Standard and I was a young student and ardent member of the Unversity of Socialist Club, and thereafter on odd occassions . He was of a different vintage then, clearly committed to the finest ideals of socialism, freedom of thought and human rights. But no sooner the PAP came to power on the backs of the Socialist Club and the Trade Unions largely led by Lim Chin Siong (November, 1954), he turned into a different animal, no doubt as goaded by Harry Lee and even Devan Nair!

    Versatile in the use of words and creating imageries, he was very critical of the Socialist Club and its supporters and by 1958 had subtly warned academics and professionals to be wary of the Socialists. He even openly condemned Prof. Enright when he, together with myself, criticised Rajaratnam for his concept of “creating a culture” for the new Singapore! He villified the eminent Prof. for making “asinine remarks” and much else. He was also sharply critical of James Puthucheary,. S. Woodehull, Lim Chin Siong, Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai while he was attempting to swing them over to fully support Harry Lee. Rajaratnam together with his many PAP colleaugues, including turncoats from the Socialist Club who became Ministers, by the time of his retirement had become a “faithful, obedient and loyal servant” of Harry Lee and supported Harry Lee in his many oppressive acts of curtailig freedom of thought, freedom of assembly and human rights that has kept much of a whole generation in fear.

    I have not read the book but congratulate the author of this review of the “WRITER” and the meeting at the sacrosanct upper region of the Library for this dissemination of information. Much of Singapore’s history has to be rewritten and certainly one has to go beyond 1819!

    J.C. Rajarao

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