Black Areas: Urban Kampongs and Power Relations in Post-War Singapore Historiography
Seng, Loh Kah, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
"[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]"--popular Chinese saying
After the September 1963 elections in Singapore, the victorious People's Action Party (PAP) government carried out a wave of deregistration of leftwing mass organizations and detentions of their leaders for alleged involvement in "communist united front activities" (Straits Times 1 November 1963). These measures effectively shattered the leftwing movement and paved the way for the government's nation-building project. Among the organizations removed were the little-studied Singapore Rural Residents' Association and the Singapore Country People's Association, which were charged with "agitation on behalf of the Communists" and operating "recruiting and training centres for Communist cadres in the rural areas" (Straits Times 4 October 1963). (2) Their dissolution left kampong dwellers increasingly unable to resist their rehousing to public housing by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) (Gamer 1972, pp. 66-82). In November 1956, two precursor associations, the Singapore Wooden House Dwellers' Association and the Singapore Farmers' Association, had been banned in a similar crackdown on the left by the Labour Front government of Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock. Why these associations were able to organize kampong dwellers, and why the state had deemed it politically necessary to proscribe them are questions this paper will address towards revising the framework of analysis for the historiography of Singapore after World War Two.
This paper also broadly examines the social and spatial dynamics of power relations between state and society in post-war Singapore. The period is typically framed around an idealist struggle involving the political elites, primarily the British colonial regime and the post-colonial PAP (Yeo 1973; Turnbull 1989; Yeo and Lau 1991; Lau 1998), and more recently, the socialist left (Wee 1999; Harper 2001; Liew 2004). As Michel Foucault explained, forms of social discipline which define the uses of space could encompass the general population (Foucault 1986, p. 148). This paper will consequently review not the usual works on Singapore's political history but key texts on social history, sociology, and historical and urban geography.
The focus here is on the urban kampongs of post-war Singapore but they are examined against an evolving continuum of state-society contestations spanning the pre-war, post-war and independence eras. The ideological distance between the British colonial regime and the PAP is not as great as portrayed in most scholarship; while the PAP was far more successful than the colonial regime in implementing its policies, both shared what James Scott termed a "high modernist" philosophy and a "self-confidence about scientific and technical progress" (Scott 1998, p. 4). State efforts at establishing social control in the colonial and independence periods are examined first, and this is followed by a discussion about how these attempts were often contested. In the final section, the paper charts the social and economic developments that transformed the urban kampong into a central site of the state-society conflict in the post-war years. It maintains that the overt forms of contestation employed by urban kampong dwellers were exceptional in Singapore's history.
Urban kampongs were settlements of cheap, densely-built wooden housing with attap or zinc roofs and constructed usually without planning approval. These houses were either owned by a single family or subdivided into smaller cubicles for a number of tenant families. The urban kampongs were mostly but not exclusively inhabited by the labouring class and proliferated at the periphery of the Central Area (the area around the Singapore River) after the war. In 1961, 200,000-250,000 people out of a population of 1.7 million lived in urban kampongs stretching from Pasir Panjang to the west, Siglap to the east and Toa Payoh to the north (HDB 1961, p. …