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  • Studying Singapore's Past: C. M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore ed. by Nicholas Tarling
  • Michael Montesano
Studying Singapore's Past: C. M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore Nicholas Tarling (editor) Singapore: NUS Press, 2012. ix, 261 pp.; note, bibliography of Turnbull's work, index. ISBN: 978-9971-69-646-7

At the centre of this valuable, engaging book stands an irony. As P. J. Thum notes in his appreciation of Constance Mary Turnbull, the 'enormous restrictions and stultifying, politicised atmosphere of the University of Singapore' (pp. 10-11) led Turnbull to decamp in 1971 to the University of Hong Kong. Half a dozen years later, not least as a challenge to the People's Action Party government's conviction that history had no relevance to the Singapore that it would build, Turnbull published her landmark A History of Singapore, 1819-1975. That conviction would soon fade, to give way to 'the purposeful promotion of [Turnbull's] work by the Singapore government as orthodoxy' (p, 12). The link between that work and this orthodoxy gives the five core contributions to Studying Singapore's Past their historiographical importance.

Noting that Turnbull's earlier work had considered Singapore's history in the contexts of the Straits Settlements and then of Malaya, Karl Hack writes that her 1977 book 'framed the entirety of the island's history with reference to the post-1965 nation [that] it would lead to'; it was 'a teleological exercise in endowing a modern "nation state" with a coherent past' (p. 18). Turnbull stands in relation to Singapore rather as did the early David Marr to the Democratic Republic of Vietnamor David Wyatt to Thailand. Just as scholars have proposed alternatives to the official-nationalist frameworks that these men reinforced, so has the work of Turnbull's successors in the field of Singapore history proposed alternatives to her framework and to the PAP government's closely allied 'Singapore Story'. Surveying Singapore historiography as it has advanced these alternative frameworks, Hack argues that the PAP state has focused the debate over alternatives to its view of history on the place of 'the radical left' in Singapore's history, thus 'deflect[ing] attention from the new wave historians' agenda of putting all areas of life . . . back into the picture' (p. 50). He contends that Singapore's history has reached a state of '"postmodernisation" ... with innumerable ways of "framing" it' (p. 52). But is it accurate to label this condition 'postmodern'? Or does it reflect the rivalry among historiographical visions inevitable in any context in which the study of the past is active, dynamic and accorded importance?

Kevin Blackburn deftly treats the impact of Turnbull's A History of Singapore on the teaching of history: official Singapore's belated recognition that national identity was linked to the teaching of history in the schools, the fit between Turnbull's historiography and the state's pedagogical goals, and the Ministry of Education's pursuit of those goals.

In his excellent second contribution to the book, P. J. Thum examines Turnbull's treatment of issues of moment in the Singapore of the 1950s and early 1960s: education and student activism, labour and merger with Malaya. Drawing on Chinese-language sources, he associates Turnbull with the 'elitist English-language [End Page 103] nationalist narrative' that dominates the historiography of Singapore. While Thum's treatment of late-colonial education policy and the way in which it disadvantaged Chinese schools will surprise few readers of this journal, his account of the 1954 student demonstrations over National Service serves to give Singaporean nationalism roots in broad-based anti-colonialism of the sort that Southeast Asianists more often associate with Burma or Indonesia. Turning to labour, he makes explicit reference to 'working-class anger and frustration over systematic oppression and exploitation' (p. 99) in the Singapore of the 1950s. This factor does not, however, inform his treatment of student activism in equally explicit fashion. Surely class was crucial to the story, no less than to the story of Thai student activism during the 1970s.

In emphasizing his use of Chinese-language sources, Thumrisks overplaying his hand. Just as it appears excessive to note Turnbull...


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