NUS edition

Hi readers, the NUS edition of the book is out!

Tangled Strands of Modernity was discussed at the book launch (15 Dec) in Singapore by Prof Kevin Tan and here is his verdict:

‘We have to thank the PAP for many things. And in some sense, I think we need to thank them for this book that we are launching today as well. Cambridge-based historian Tim Harper argues that the framing of the big national narrative – the Singapore Story – began back in 1961 with Lee Kuan Yew’s radio broadcasts. The attempt to write an official history of the struggle for Singapore culminated in the publication of two books in 1984: John Drysdale’s Struggle for Success and Dennis Bloodworth’s The Tiger and the Trojan Horse; AND the staging of the mega Singapore Story Exhibition at Suntec City in 1998.

Hypothesis must be met with anti-thesis, hopefully leading to synthesis and a new hypothesis. In the past 15 years we have seen an anti-thesis of sorts, with the publication of books like Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s Old Guard, Comet in the Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History, The Fajar Generation, The May 13 Generation, Paths Not Taken, and The Mighty Wave.

It is now time for some synthesis, and this book is an excellent attempt to examine the dominant meta-narrative in light of the latest research that presents an alternative and more holistic view of the past.

The University Socialist Club is significant for a number of reasons. First, it is a unique volume that brings together the talents of four young historians who use the subject of the University Socialist Club – a hitherto much-mentioned but un-studied organisation – as the central subject for the study of one of the most tumultuous periods of Singapore’s modern history. This is not only an institutional history of the Socialist Club in the way that there histories of the Singapore Island Country Club, interesting thought that may well be, for its own sake, but the political history of Singapore between 1953 and 1965.

Second, this new history brings to fore the fascinating role played by many individuals, whose names are familiar to us, but with whom the younger generation may not associate with the political events of those times. Tommy Koh, Wang Gungwu and Edwin Thumboo, who all went on to stellar careers in academia and diplomacy, feature significantly alongside unsung or fallen stars of the old PAP like Ong Pang Boon, Chua Sian Chin, Lim Hock Siew, Poh Soo Kai and James Puthucheary, as well as those of unsung stalwarts like Tan Jing Quee, Koh Kay Yew and Linda Chen. The power and potency of human agency is something few institutional histories capture, but this is done in grand style in this volume. A very useful biographical appendix helps us situate these key figures in narrative.

Third, this book represents a fine example of modernist approach to the writing of Singapore history. The sub-title of the book is Tangled Strands of Modernity, and its authors argue that the aims of members of the University Socialist Club are essentially modern in outlook, they shared rational ‘modernist objectives’ with other student groups and the politicians to ‘create a new society and new citizens’ and a society ‘based on scientific-rational principles’. Its aim was to ‘integrate workers, students, and peasants into a new and much closer relationship with the nation-state, as the socialist state seeks and equitable distribution of wealth to improve their lives.’

It is a scintillating account of a time when ideas and ideals mattered and how both local and international forces shaped the debates and discourses that led to the formation of modern Singapore. As the authors themselves say, the book offers ‘a new approach to understanding the making of post-colonial Singapore and Malaya’ by locating ‘the forces of conflict and change within an ambitious modernist project undertaken after World War II.

It is one of the best books I have read on the history of Singapore in the modern period and a heart-felt and honest attempt to reconcile and explain the multiplicity of forces and ideas that fought for the soul of Singapore’.

Kevin Tan
Professor (Adjunct)
Centre for International Law & Faculty of Law
National University of Singapore


a new book!

Post-war Malaya. Liberal, communal, Fabianist, and left-wing socialist groups rise. Alliances are brokered and broken. Slogans are shouted but their meanings are contested. British decolonisation allows the political flux, then proscribes it. The university nurtures future statesmen before changing to train experts in development. The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity explores the role of a group of university student activists in the contest for a modern nation-state.

“This is an immensely compelling, informative and skilfully written account on the role of a formidable student movement in colonial Malaya and Singapore during the Cold War era and its active engagement in liberal-democratic principles, the socialist ideology and the making of a new nation.”

— Professor Cheah Boon Kheng (retired), Universiti Sains Malaysia

“This study captures a brief Malayan moment in the history of Singapore and throws light on why the moment did not last. It is a strong example of alternative history in which losers’ stories are not only told but also help to correct official accounts. Remarkably, it also shows how historians juggle with memories of pain and regret as they try not to make new myths.”

— Professor Wang Gungwu, East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore