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Valar Qringaomis

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Saturday, June 06, 2015

Problematizing Singapore's Racial Riot Discourse

ANALYZING THE PERCEPTIONS AND PORTRAYALS OF THE 1964 RACIAL RIOT IN SINGAPORE

It is not hard for me to see why a lot of younger Singaporeans find Singapore history not an interesting topic worth studying or researching on. Having spent a total of twelve years in public school myself, I find that the curriculum on Singapore history is unilinear and adopted an uncritical approach in uncovering the various perspectives on the different aspects of Singapore’s history. It was only upon being an undergraduate in NUS that I realized that there are scores of alternative historical narratives which are sidelined or silenced to accommodate the dominant accounts on Singapore’s history. A lecturer from the NUS History Department once said that if a Martian is to land on Singapore and be given a school textbook to read up on, he will most probably think that there are only two figures which featured in Singapore’s history, namely Sir Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew! I grew up believing in the authoritative account of The Singapore Story but as I pored through the history books in the library and the various types of sources in the archives, I realized that there are multiple versions of the Singapore Stories that existed. It is with this spirit of inquisitiveness that had led me to embark on writing a thesis in laying out the different types of narratives pertaining to the 1964 Racial Riots in Singapore...

Amongst the official accounts, the outbreak of the Riots was seen as a result of a sustained campaign by racial chauvinists from UMNO who targeted Lee and the PAP, which was aimed at oppressing and exploiting the Malays in Singapore. The outbreak of the Riots was seen as the climax of this racist campaign, which had by then sufficiently whipped up the Singapore Malays into an emotional frenzy. This line of argument became the official narrative in Singapore as well as the dominant discourse on the 1964 Racial Riots...

The works of Azhar, Chan, Lau, and Nordin were rather different from Lee’s memoir which supports the dominant discourse on the 1964 Racial Riots. They were more systematic and thematic in analyzing the Riots even though all the accounts presented the PAP-UMNO conflict as the central focus of their research. Azhar is analyzing the Riots from a larger study of SUMNO and Chan is doing the same for the PAP during its early period in political wilderness. Nordin and Lau is looking at the Riots as one of the contributing factors that eventually culminated in Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. To a large degree, they agree that the outbreak of the Riots was due to the tense politicking between PAP and UMNO over racial-based issues. The conflict between the politicians resulted in spillovers to the general masses in the form of emotional agitations which eventually culminated in the Riots.

There are however scholars who provided alternative accounts on the 1964 Racial Riots. These scholars did not confine themselves merely to the common themes within the dominant discourse such as the PAP-UMNO political conflict or that the Riots broke out due to deep-seated ethnic fault lines. Their findings contributed to the study on the Riots by shedding new perspectives on other approaches to better understand the Riots.

The role of Indonesia was often underplayed in the dominant discourse... There were evidences that Sukarno incited racial tension between the Chinese and the Malay communities as part of the Konfrontasi plot... the “Malay malcontents and Chinese gangsters, some of them almost certainly working as paid Indonesian agents, played a major role in sparking dozens of widely scattered incidents of stoning, slashing and stabbing”. This supported Hyde’s many arguments and evidences illustrating the Indonesia’s deep involvement in the Riots...

Stanley Bedlington studied the development of the Malays and the challenges they faced during those heady periods in the 1950s and 1960s. According to his findings, the legacy of the Riots was institutionalized in later years when the loyalty of the Malays in Singapore was questioned and in playing it safe, Malays were gradually phased out in security apparatuses and high government positions...

The Riots were also revisited by revisionist historians. Loh Kah Seng belonged to a new breed of young Singaporean historians who problematized Singapore’s dominant historical framework and critically analyzed the rationale behind the pursuance of such a linear national historiography. The Riots were part of a larger study in the critical re-examination of the dominant discourse on Singapore’s history. The discourse highlighted themes such as the country’s “vulnerability”, the existence of the presence of “external dangers” and “domestic fault lines”. Loh highlighted how the Riots fitted in nicely within the larger dominant history narrative, which also includes other case studies such as the Hock Lee Bus Riot in the Konfrontasi period and threats posed by Leftists such as Lim Chin Siong...

Ganesan Narayanan analyzed how the Riots were being used by the State as a form of historical precedent which the State utilized in dealing with future cases of racial and religious chauvinists. The tough policies against these chauvinists are justified in the name of preventing an outbreak of violence in Singapore, and past incidents such as the Riots are constantly evoked to highlight how easily situations on the ground can deteriorate as a result of the reckless actions of these chauvinists. One problem in framing the Riots in such a reductivist manner is having the State to use the accounts of the Riots as a tool in justifying some of its policies and institutions...

Kua Kia Soong who did a study on the May 13 riot based on declassified British documents however claimed that in the case of the May 13 Incident, there was meticulous planning behind the riot by members of the Malay capitalist class who were disenfranchised with the policies of Tunku. He categorically ruled out the riot being spontaneous in nature and said that it was in fact a coup d'état...

Based on evidences from the ground, the main hypothesis of this study is that firstly the Riot was not planned by any group, but it was sparked spontaneously by rogue elements such as street corner gangs, secondly the Riot was a localized act of mob violence concentrated in southeastern part of Singapore and most importantly contrary to the dominant discourse, the interracial relationship amongst those on the ground was stable even during the height of the rioting period. This begs the question whether future politics in Singapore and the out of bound markers for discussions on sensitive issues must necessarily be predicated on the management of “ethnic fault lines”, when in fact everyday experience and people- to-people dynamics actually display more inter-ethnic conviviality than tension...

In this study, I attempted to be exhaustive in my usage of sources pertaining to the Riots. However the omission of Chinese-medium sources represents a major limitation in this study. Its limitations lie in exceeding the total word count in this thesis with the inclusion of Chinese medium sources. My sources are therefore limited to either those in English or Malay language...

The narrative that has defined the causes, nature and legacy of the 1964 Racial Riots has been the singular dominant and official account of the State, even now almost fifty years later. The so-called State’s account was heavily influenced by Lee Kuan Yew’s perspective of the event, whereby Singaporeans are supposed to take away key “lessons” from history. The main message in this historical event is that racial harmony in multi-racial Singapore is of upmost importance especially since the Riots was a result of communal politics. There exist deep seated racial fault-lines in Singapore’s society and insensitive remarks could be seen as potential dangers resulting in social disruptions. This has led to politics of fear and this narrative has been used for decades to justify the out-of-bound markers on critical comments that may or may not carry a whiff of racial provocation. This “official” account has been so pervasive that it has been incorporated in Singapore’s history and social studies secondary textbooks to be learnt by thousands of young citizens. This singular dominant account severely impedes Singaporeans’ ability to fully understand the Riots and its consequences. The main problem with this account is the fact that it is singular, told from a single perspective and is an elite account of the event...

Amongst those at the grassroots, majority of them believed that the Riots broke out spontaneously with no planning behind it. Cikgu Latiff echoed their sentiments when he presented a theory on the spontaneous mass effect of members in a religious procession that instinctively resorted to violent means when mocked by the Chinese onlookers. The grassroots’ accounts also showed that life went on as per normal in other parts of Singapore. The violence was largely confined to the southeastern parts of Singapore. Amongst those at the grassroots, majority of them had elaborated on how their interracial relationship with their acquaintances remained firm and cordial during the rioting period. Rationality overrides racialized emotion even when tension was at an all-time high. At the grassroots level, past interracial friendships and relations forged prior to the Riots held sway against primordial instinct. It was noted that interracial relationship amongst those at the grassroots level was positive before, during and after the Riots broke out.

It is clear from this thesis that there are incongruencies between the dominant account and the alternative accounts pertaining to the causes of the Riots. The varying accounts confirm that the different groups viewed and remembered the Riots differently... Lee’s personal interpretation of the Riots in his memoir, which influenced the State’s account on the Riots, caused a stir across the Causeway...

From Singapore’s perspective, Malaysia is viewed as continually poised to exploit Singapore’s strategic vulnerability while from Malaysia’s point of view, Singapore’s economic success has generated a sense of hubris and a condescending attitude towards Malaysia, which is viewed in Kuala Lumpur as “racist based triumphalism”. A recurring pattern of their bilateral ties regularly has one of them emphasizing their point in a particular contentious issue while vilifying the other; The Singapore State’s pursuance of the dominant account of the Riots in emphasizing and suppressing certain historical accounts to reflect badly on the part of UMNO is an example of this...

The causes to the Riots can largely be attributed to political rather than racial motives. Accounts from the Australian diplomatic cables, however, which provide a categorical analysis on the origin of the Riots, give a different account of the Riots. William Pritchett, the Australian Deputy High Commissioner, portrayed Lee as being too opportunistic and aggressive thus making him complicit, in sharing part of the blame for the Riots... The dominant narrative framed the Malays and Chinese as harbouring very strong primordial sense of identity and would instinctively flare up over any racial-based conflict involving both races. Due to the perceived threats based on Singapore’s seemingly fragile society’s ethnic fault lines, the State had positioned race and religion as taboo subjects and acted as the sole authority in demarcating the out- of-bound markers in discussion on such issues. The result is having a society embracing such a discourse without critically analysing the past historical examples used by the State to propagate such discourse in the first place...

In an interview on the Riots with Othman Wok, Othman quoted on Tang during his concluding note. He labelled Tang as a dangerous ethnic chauvinist that is a divisive character who can stir up interracial tension. Drawing on the example of the Riots to highlight this point, he said that such ethnic chauvinists can easily instigate an outbreak of an interracial riot, especially as politicians are able to reach out to a large number of the population. However, based on the alternative accounts of the Riots, the use of the 1964 Racial Riots to illustrate how an ethnic chauvinist can easily instigate a massive interracial riot is misleading. While it is true that irresponsible politicians bent on securing votes would manipulate masses by playing the racial or religious cards such as the Ultras’ passionate emotive speeches that whipped out the sentiments of the masses, the Riots does not show that this will result in massive inter-communal fighting at the grassroots level. This thesis has shown that a critical analysis on the Riots may in fact prove otherwise...

Secondary sources such as Foo Kim Leng also noted that while the whole country was put under curfew, the actual violence itself was localized, concentrated mainly in the southeastern part of Singapore. This account was corroborated by accounts from the grassroots, as almost none of those who lived in the non-hotspot areas had witnessed any form of violence during the period and their only memory of the Riots was staying at home because of the curfew. Therefore it is wrong to contextualize the Riots in today’s context in presenting lessons on the dangers of ethnic chauvinists who are able to instigate massive interracial riots in Singapore...

Despite the tumultuous contexts of the 1950s-1970s in Singapore when riots of a racial or religious nature were more frequent, the overall social fabric proved to be surprisingly rather resilient."
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