First published on 6 Sep 2010. Updated on 9 Sep 2010.
Commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore, this erudite, accessible but at times too cute romp through the bloody annals of the city-state’s history begins in the 14th century, when the island was known as Temasek – Javanese for ‘island surrounded by water’ – and its inhabitants were principally Chinese merchants and the nomadic orang laut (sea gypsies). It’s an ambitious starting point but the book’s real curtain raiser is the arrival of the British four centuries later: Stamford Raffles and his sidekick William Farquhar effectively mark the foundation of modern Singapore in 1819.
If the dubious moral imperatives of British colonialism feel too politely abridged here, a more acidic indictment of foreign rule is saved for the chapter on the Japanese invasion in World War II. General Arthur Percival’s British defence of the island was complacent to the point of being comic and was the precursor to one of the most chilling moments in Singapore’s history: the Sook Ching massacre of 1942.
Rich and fluid, the prose sparkles with varifocal narratives that flit engagingly from anecdotal minutiae of individual life stories to panoramic analyses of the country’s most pivotal moments. A compelling read, and a much-needed reminder that Singapore’s national memory needn’t be singularly owned.