(On January 1, 2015, I challenged myself to read twelve history books this Jubilee year to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and blog about them.)
May’s read was Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore by Loh Kah Seng and June’s read was Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project by Michael D. Barr and Ziatko Skrbis.
In Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore, Loh, Assistant Professor at the the Institute for East Asian Studies and Sogang University, tells the history of the Bukit Hoo Swee fire, a national emergency that led to the creation of Singapore’s first public housing project, with incredible vividness and sensitivity. Squatters into Citizens attempts to counter the State’s official narrative of the fire as “a blessing in disguise” and set the country on “the right path to progress and modernity” and is a truly excellent account of the stories at the margins of the Singapore’s public housing “success” story. The book relies heavily on oral history (over 100 interviews conducted in 2006 and 2007) and, to a lesser extent, archival and official documents. In the book’s preface, Loh writes that his greatest challenge was in accessing archival materials; he was deemed “the wrong candidate” and was not allowed access materials deemed to be “politically sensitive.” But because of this, some important questions about the fire go unanswered, such as its causes.
Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project was the first Barr-authored book I’ve read. Barr, an Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University, has written widely about crucial institutions of power and shifts in Singapore’s political system. Following the death of Lee Kuan Yew, in March, his piece, “The Son of the Father,” was widely circulated on Facebook. Constructing Singapore largely examines Chinese ethnocentrism as played out in Singapore’s educational system, and is the first book I’ve read as part of this challenge that addresses “a Chinese ethno-nationalism [that] has overwhelmed the discourse on national and Singaporean identity.” This work has roundly been criticized by Singapore academics (see this scathing review by Dr. Daniel P.S. Goh in which he claims, “[The] book has already caught the eye of the dissident fringe, claiming academic validation of their conspiracy theories.”) Still, I found it an informative read, and I’ve put Barr’s latest, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, on my reading list.