Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Anchor and the Voice of 10,000 Waterfront Workers: Jamit Singh in the Singapore Story (1954-63)

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Anchor and the Voice of 10,000 Waterfront Workers: Jamit Singh in the Singapore Story (1954-63)

Article excerpt

Introduction: The colourful past behind the mechanised present

As a trade unionist from 1954 to 1963, Jamit Singh inspired the disparate port workers in colonial Singapore to evolve into a vibrant labour movement and a significant electorate at a crucial political juncture. The former university activist became instrumental in uniting the port workers in a series of industrial protests against the Singapore Harbour Board (SHB); more importantly, however, he turned them into a strong political support base for the People's Action Party (PAP). This support in turn propelled the party into government in 1959 under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew. Singh, however, was vilified and subsequently exiled by the very PAP government he had aided, on grounds of his affiliations with opposition political groups that subsequently split from the ruling party. His departure did not simply herald the end of a chapter of active labour resistance and industrial strife; his political demise was also a harbinger of a more dramatic era of exceptional leaders. Principally supported by recently released SHB documents, this article's endeavour to resurrect Jamit Singh's narrative represents part of a broader effort to reconstruct the colourful past behind the presently mechanised Singapore port.

Jamit Singh's legacy will be examined from several perspectives, including his place in Singapore's postcolonial historical writing and the charged environment that propelled both his dramatic entry into, and his painful exit from, the platform of labour politics. More importantly, his experience was a larger reflection of the cosmopolitan ideals of activism in Singapore during the 1950s, whereby minority groups were able to spontaneously and effectively participate in the public domain. Through an examination of Singh's political biography, this article restages the systematic reduction of the waterfront labour movement from a site of political contestation to just another ordinary workplace. It begins with an assessment of the scant attention paid to Singh in Singapore's contemporary historiography, a historiography that has been overwhelmingly focused on the PAP. Political conditions will be highlighted as well, such as the advent of student activism, trade unions' increased reliance on (English-) educated administrators and legal advisors and electoral reforms towards greater suffrage. In this respect, Singh was very much a product and personification of those turbulent times, as was evident in his leading role in uniting the port workers in dramatic industrial protests as well as his dedicated support for the PAP's bid for Parliament and subsequently government. Finally, the article will examine the government's attempts to dismantle Singh's leadership.

The unfinished jigsaw puzzle of the Singapore Story

Singapore's post-war history was dramatically re-conjured by the PAP-dominated government with the launch of the National Education programme in late 1997, supposedly to instruct apathetic youth about their country's past. This initiative was followed by the release of the two highly publicised volumes of Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs in 1998 and 2000. (2) This sudden interest in history was not meant to reconcile the government's speckled and troubled past with its stable and prosperous present; rather, it resembled more of an attempt by the state to pre-empt the search for alternative narratives through its imposition of themes on national 'fragility' against the onslaught of 'communist', 'communalist' or other external threats. Hence, to Loh Kah Seng the Singapore Story becomes a 'tactical selection of facts; those supportive of the party line are highlighted, while others are either marginalised or silenced', their voices drowned out by the contemporary historiography of Singapore so completely dominated by Lee Kuan Yew and the moulding of the Republic into a success story. (3) As historian Hong Lysa has observed, 'The shibboleth of Singapore's nation-building and mainstream political credo governing the direction of political discourse, culture and the institutionalisation and meanings of citizenship in the country, is thus maintained by a certain sense of history--the ways in which alternatives in the past are labelled as dangerous. …

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