A Man and an Island: Gender and Nation in Lee Kuan Yew's the Singapore Story

By Holden, Philip | Biography, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

A Man and an Island: Gender and Nation in Lee Kuan Yew's the Singapore Story


Holden, Philip, Biography


Memoirs are always, to a certain degree, an act of revenge on history.

Georges Gusdorf

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either.

Oscar Wilde

INTRODUCTION

In the last month of 1941, Japanese troops landed in Thailand and Northeast Malaya, and began fighting their way down the Peninsula to Singapore. British capital ships Repulse and Prince of Wales, sent to intercept the invading force, were caught without air cover by Japanese planes and sunk. Singapore was bombed for the first time, and the city and its environs began to fill up with European refugees from the hinterland. British colonialism in Southeast Asia seemed like a mirage which was suddenly dissipating.

Yet in the shady twin quadrangles of the premier Anglophone educational institution, Raffles College, students had other concerns. The members of the college's Literary and Dramatic Society stayed up late into the night, waiting for their English lecturer, G. G. Hough, to return from monitoring radio broadcasts in the Cathay building. The students would then earnestly commence rehearsals on a forthcoming play, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, starring future Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and featuring, in the not inappropriate role of the manservant Lane, future Minister for Law Eddie Barker (Lim).

Published more than a half century after the Japanese invasion of Singapore, Lee's autobiography, The Singapore Story, would seem to rewrite this colonial script. [1] As former Prime Minister of a developed, independent nation-state whose per capita GDP exceeds that of its former colonizing power, Lee writes and acts as protagonist in his own story, no longer the passive performer in another's drama. He is an autonomous subject, no longer governed by a remote colonial instrumentality. Lee's memoirs, as their title might indicate, are about more than merely an individual's life. Like the autobiographies of anti-colonial leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela, Lee's memoirs also write a national narrative--they constitute, in effect, a national autobiography. The Singapore Story draws parallels between the making of a nation and the writing of a life, between disciplinary technologies of power and technologies of the self, [2] between the governing of a city-state and the governing of a male body through a certain style of masculinity. In its stress upon a gendered, disciplinary modernity, the book attempts to interpellate subject-citizens of a new Singapore: it serves as a portable machine for the production of such national subjects. [3] Lee's memoirs, however, even as they revel in national autonomy, unwittingly reveal the extent to which the national narrative is already scripted. All their urged rhetorical symmetries of body, text, and nation only serve to manage two central contradictions: between the autonomy of a national community and the nation's dependence upon global capital flows, and between anti-colonial nationalism and the nation-state's paradoxical realization of the project of the colonial state, in a manner of which the colonial state could only have dreamed in the fullness of time. Although such contradictions are not unique to Singapore, they are perhaps uniquely configured in the city-state. Indeed, the critical study of national autobiographies may reveal profound tensions in na tional self-fashioning within a postcolonial world. [4]

The story that Lee tells in the first volume of his memoirs undoubtedly presents a Gramscian "common sense" narrative of Singapore's national history. Growing up in an affluent comprador class family in colonial Singapore in the 1930s, Lee attended Raffles Institution and Raffles College, the premier Anglophone educational institutions in the colony. Largely unaware of the inequities of the colonial world, his disillusionment, and that of many other Malayans, [5] commenced with the surrender of British forces to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, and the direct experience of the brutalities and privations of the Japanese occupation. …

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