Book Review: Exile in Colonial Asia: Kings, Convicts, Commemoration
Ronit Ricci, ed. (University of Hawai’i Press, 2016. vii + 294pp.)
Reviewed by Craig Reynolds@www. newmandala.org
Exile in Colonial Asia is a compact book, but it’s a large book in its treatment of forced migration, prisoner resettlement, and exile across the globe from East Asia to Africa. The ten essays cover people up and down the social hierarchy: rulers (kings, princes, sultans); pretenders to thrones; convicts; and a few pirates and smugglers.
The life of a slave might be better than that of a prince, and a prince one day might be a rebel the next, and soon after on a ship to another part of the world. Commemoration in the subtitle means memory. To restore lives lost to the historical record, the authors pick their way through grudging source material—letters, notes, trading company documents, and lists. It’s amazing what a detective-author can resurrect from the dry lists of people and objects buried in archival records.
In the period covered by the book the world was mapped not by countries but by empires: Portuguese, Dutch, British, French, Belgian, and Italian. Colonial authorities and trading companies like the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a quasi-state, removed people from their homelands and exiled them to foreign lands. The globe is criss-crossed with the movements of these people shown on maps drawn by Robert Cribb. Exile was not a peculiarly Western imperialist measure. Indigenous political systems—the Chinese and the Vietnamese, among others—also used exile and prison colonies to expand their territories. Not all the people sent into exile became alienated in their new surroundings. Some adapted by converting to a new religion, or by seizing opportunities in commerce or agriculture.
From ports in the Indonesian archipelago the VOC transported prisoners to the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. From the French colonies in Indochina 600 prisoners were sent to Gabon on the west coast of Africa and the Congo. The French also sent prisoners from Indochina to French Guiana, New Caledonia, Madagascar, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. High-level political prisoners in the French colonies went to Algeria, Tahiti, and the Marquesas. The British sent Indian convicts to the Andaman Islands which became a penal colony after the Great Indian Revolt of 1857–58. Rebels against British rule in Ceylon were sent to Mauritius.
Prisoners built and fed European empires. Convicts laboured as brick and tile makers, blacksmiths, boatmen, cart drivers and grass cutters, or were engaged in experimental industry and agriculture. Convicts worked in tin mines in Burma, and in Mauritius in silk and cotton production and the cultivation of sugar and coffee.
This historical study on Asia is one of the few that sees fit to include Australia, in this case to illustrate a place that was both colony and penal settlement. In Asia proper we find ourselves in India, Lanka, Java, Singapore, the Malay world, Vietnam, and Burma. Siam is not among the case studies, because it was not colonised, but when the king of Siam visited Java in the early 1870s he saw what might become of him if the British and French decided to take away his crown and carve up his realm. He observed the sultan of Jogjakarta being marched around and guarded by troops. The Javanese sultan displayed the paraphernalia of royalty, but he was a prisoner in a gilded cage, dethroned and demoted within his own country. Native rulers could be packed off to other outposts of empire. Amangkurat III was exiled from Java to Ceylon. The last king of Kandy in Ceylon was sent to Madras. Maharaj Singh was banished from the Punjab, where he was considered a threat to colonial consolidation, and then sent to Singapore. Sultan Hamengkubuwana II of Yogyakarta was exiled to Penang after he opposed the British takeover of Java in 1811. Some exiles became submissive, some were moderate. Some became militant, some were already militant.
The book is not sentimental, but exile, banishment, and forced migration are melancholy topics. I came away empathetic not only with the individuals affected by dire circumstance but also with the authors’ struggles to salvage memories of those uprooted and sent away. Exiles pined for home, and if they were rulers they dreamed of regaining their thrones. Several authors discuss the emotional pain in the exiled life of their subjects. Anand Yang refers to his chapter as a meditation, and Ronit Ricci’s story of the return to Batavia of Amangkurat III’s remains after his death in Ceylon is told with sorrow.
The final essay by Penny Edwards is a fitting end, if not a conclusion, to the volume. Prince Myngoon, the son of a modernising Burmese king in the mid-nineteenth century, was an embodiment of the Burmese monarchy the British had just eradicated. Edwards calls him a trickster who outwitted the British as he darted from Rangoon to Pondicherry to Benares to Saigon. The prince was a subversive figure able to elude colonial administrators trying to keep track of him. His story is shaped by subterfuge that challenged colonial surveillance. Colonial power had its limits.
The book is not divided into sections, a bold decision by the editor assisted by Maria Myutel. Cross references cite other essays within the volume to make comparisons and contrasts, but not in a false or jarring way. The book began life as a workshop, that familiar factory of academic production, and the authors apparently arrived soon enough at a consensus about what to discuss. Clare Anderson’s introduction is a masterful account of exile as a global phenomenon that ties the essays together, and the book’s striking cover depicts wayang figures on a Dutch ship that conveys movement, one of the volume’s themes. No surprise that the International Convention of Asian Scholars this year awarded Exile in Colonial Asia an accolade for the best edited volume.
Readers of this book cannot fail to reflect on today’s accounts of refugees forced from their homelands by repression and civil war. History is present knowledge, and each author in his or her essay reaffirms human possibility in an inhumane world.
Lately the pace of news has felt so fast and its volume so overwhelming that the very idea of a political book seems quaint, a relic of the gentler and more carefree time before we were all pinned to the floor by the social media firehose. Naomi Klein has written No Is Not Enough at near internet speed, a warning of the enormous toxic potential of the Donald Trump presidency and a call to oppose it. As the title suggests, Klein wants her readers to move from refusal to resistance, from a passive stance of opposition to engagement in a programme of action. If the convulsions of the last year have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t wait for the dust to settle and clarity to emerge. Turbulence is, at least for the foreseeable future, our new condition, and we must learn to function within it. We have to teach ourselves to stand upright on a moving deck.
Klein emerged as a star of the 1990s social movements that were trying to frame a politics of opposition to capitalist globalisation. Was exchange value the only kind of value? What about the environmental, social and cultural formations that were being reorganised (and in some cases damaged or destroyed) by the logic of the market?
Klein’s widely-read 2000 book No Logo packaged and synthesised ideas that had been circulating in anti-capitalist circles during the previous decade, helping a general readership to understand changes taking place in corporations, which had begun to outsource many of their functions and view themselves primarily as “brands”, deployers of intellectual property that did not need, for example, to do their own manufacturing or distribution. It was, as she puts it in No Is Not Enough, “a race toward weightlessness; whoever owned the least, had the fewest employees on the payroll and produced the most powerful images as opposed to things, won the race”.
Klein points out that Trump’s business has followed that trajectory. As a property developer, the future President was (by Manhattan standards) only moderately successful, his primary distinction being an above average appetite for seeing himself in the media. His innovation, helped by his position as host of The Apprentice, was to brand high-end real estate – not just hotels and resorts, but office towers, apartment buildings and golf courses. Klein dissects the values of the Trump brand, noting that it doesn’t stand for quality or innovation or taste, but for “richness” itself, associating the consumer with wealth in its most direct and uninflected form.
In Trumpworld there are only two existential categories: winners and losers. Trump stands for winning, and if you oppose him, you are a loser. His support is curiously immune to scandals and failings that would have sunk other politicians. The President has shown that “you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created”. Trump’s brand is that he’s the boss and part of being the boss is that the rules don’t apply to him.
In Trumpworld there are only two existential categories: winners and losers. Trump stands for winning, and if you oppose him, you are a loser. His support is curiously immune to scandals and failings that would have sunk other politicians, a curious fact that Klein ascribes to the migration of branding into politics. Trump has shown that “you don’t need to be objectively good or decent; you only need to be true and consistent to the brand you have created”. Trump’s brand is that he’s the boss and part of being the boss is that the rules don’t apply to him. One strategy for opposing him is to attack the brand. It’s why, for example, a red line for interviewers has always been any suggestion that his fortune is not as large as he claims.
The most consequential part of Klein’s analysis stems from personal experience. The social movements were gaining traction when 9/11 happened. “The era of the so-called War on Terror pretty much wiped our movement off the map in North America and Europe,” she writes. Intimidated (or seduced) by the rhetoric of the “clash of civilisations” and the harsh new security environment, many participants withdrew their support.
“Antiglobalisation is so yesterday,” ran a headline in Canada’s National Post, a few days after the attacks. The shock of 9/11 was exploited by various actors to inaugurate a “security bubble”, in which police and security powers were extended and vast resources were diverted from other uses to fight the war on terror. In The Shock Doctrine (2007), Klein argued that there is a playbook for exploiting shock events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war.
As she puts it in No Is Not Enough: “Wait for a crisis (or even, in some instances, as in Chile or Russia, help foment one), declare a moment of what is sometimes called ‘extraordinary politics’, suspend some or all democratic norms – and then ram the corporate wish list through as quickly as possible.”
This wish list may include the seizure of land and resources, increased military spending, privatisation of public goods and economic deregulation. The “shock doctrine” doesn’t require the machinery of conspiracy to function. It is a collection of political techniques and impulses, the dark underside of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” and the Silicon Valley injunction to “move fast and break things”. The result is “the decimation of the public sphere and the public interest”, and the tendency to move wealth rapidly upwards into the hands of a tiny minority.
Klein notes that Trump’s cabinet is packed with “masters of disaster”, men whose careers have been based on exploiting shock. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s Exxon profited handsomely from the spike in the oil price after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has done more or less everything in its power to ensure global inaction on climate change. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin is known as “the foreclosure king”. Vice-president Mike Pence played a particularly ignominious role in the aftermath of Katrina when, as chair of a group of conservative lawmakers called the Republican study committee, he promoted a slate of what Klein terms “pseudo relief policies”, including reduction of labour standards, “making the entire affected area a flat-tax free-enterprise zone” and (staggeringly) repealing environmental regulations along the Gulf Coast.
Trump’s unself-conscious reaction to 9/11 was to see it as a marketing opportunity, remarking to a journalist that he now had the tallest building in Manhattan. Intentionally or not, he has shown himself adept at creating instability, not least in his own workplace, and the fear, as Klein underscores, is that he will be tempted to deliver the ultimate shock in the form of another war. Then, perhaps, he will be able to test out his armchair quarterback opinion about Iraq, that America “should have taken the oil”. Go to war, take the oil. It’s a foreign policy of a sort.
If you spend your days glued to your phone and have 30 political tabs open on your browser, much of the material in No Is Not Enough will be familiar. The book’s chief value lies in synthesis. Klein’s particular background and expertise allow her to pull together the disparate threads of what it would be misleading to call “Trumpism”, if only because of the unwarranted suggestion of system and control. How you view her political proposals will depend on your politics, particularly on the value one ascribes to what used to be called “the extra-parliamentary left”. She insists, rightly in my view, that there is a need to promote a positive alternative social vision, and that ostensibly “utopian” aims and proposals are a way to avoid being caught in a politics that is merely reactive or timidly reformist. Partly, I think, because she believes (again, I’d argue correctly) that a lightly greenwashed version of the status quo will never save us from the catastrophic consequences of climate change, Klein skims over the terrain of legislative politics. She has little practical advice for people engaged in the sort of dull, incremental political action – lobbying, attempting to influence legislation – that is aimed at turning the oil tanker that is the US Congress. Nor does she advocate particular aims or tactics for organisers. The book ends with a document called The Leap Manifesto, drawn up by Canadian activists in 2015, a “platform without a party”, which is a powerful statement of alternative principles that feels as though it needs a thread to connect it to today’s largely defensive struggles.
Leaving aside the thorny issue of electoral subversion, it is notable that Russia provides a possible model for the Trump administration. Its rulers are men who profited from the cataclysmic shock of the end of communism, reaping fortunes in the violent, turbulent 1990s. The order they have imposed has brought about the near destruction of politics as a public activity. This is not an easily reversible condition, and its spread to the US would be a catastrophe. The supreme court has, in its wisdom, decided that corporations are people and money is speech, and free speech cannot be limited. In an environment where the amount of money in politics is truly staggering, the only safeguard left to the public is rigorous transparency. If public scrutiny is ended, Trump and his “masters of disaster” may also be able to put an end to ordinary people’s ability to shape the forces governing their lives. Klein’s book is ultimately optimistic, because she believes the power to make change lies in the popular will. She calls on us to recognise that this will has enemies, and they are making havoc.
•No Is Not Enough is published by Allen Lane.
Hari Kunzru’s White Tears is published by Hamish Hamilton.
When compiling the first volume of Malaysian Politics and People: Misplaced Democracy, we brought together a group of Malaysian specialists to reflect on the aftermath of the 13th General Election. We argued that Malaysia was moving towards a change whose nature was yet to be determined. Three years later this has been confirmed, but the changes are by no means linear. The opposition has become emboldened while new forms of resistance have emerged in arts and activism—but they have also become more fractious. The government has been plagued by financial crises and scandals but has been able to maintain its hold on power, drawing PAS outside of the opposition coalition.
In our latest volume, we once again bring together a collection of international and local researchers to take stock of the nature of Malaysian politics and society the lead up to the much anticipated 14th General Election. Reflecting on the changes of the last three years and firmly rooting our analysis in the reality of Malaysia as a semi-democratic state, we once again find that change will remain a certainty but that the direction of this change has become all the more acute and urgent in the face of political scandal and state authoritarianism. Could Malaysia fall deeper into authoritarian tendencies, as many worry with the passage of the National Security Council Bill 2015 and the detention of opposition figures and restrictions on their travel? Will the Prime Minister be willing to relinquish power in the event of an opposition electoral victory? Or will change emerge more incrementally? Could an opposition party take power with a radically reformist agenda to democratise Malaysian society or will the elitist tendencies in Malaysian politics continue? Finally, what other forces—be they in the field of foreign policy, the economy, minority & LGBTQI rights, the environment, education or migration—will shape the future of Malaysia’s politics and its people?
A desire to answer these pressing questions led us to publish Illusions of Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People Volume II. We hope that it contains the beginnings of an answer to these questions, and serves to promote critical interrogations of Malaysian politics and society from a variety of fields and areas of study.
Pieces by Delphine Alles & Louise Perrodin, James Chin and Tricia Yeoh, build upon and bring up to date their analyses in the first volume regarding Malaysian foreign policy, non-Malay bumiputera and Malaysia’s oil and gas sector respectively. Divided into four sections, this latest volume covers the manipulation of ethno-politics, the role of Malaysia in the international system, the place of ‘Others’, from LGBTQI to Shia minorities and finally the mismanagement of Malaysia’s resources, both financial and natural. In doing so, they develop important new areas of research from Lawrence Ross’s study of silat martial arts to Amanda Whiting’s detailed study of emergency legislation, Dominik M. Müller’s study of anti-Shia hatred in Malaysia and Alessandro Uras’s study of Malaysia’s South China Sea dilemma. Other pieces reflect more contemporary concerns—Kerstin Steiner provides an important account the of 1MDB scandal at the intersection of economics, politics and law in Malaysia, whilst Aida Arosoaie and Mohamed Nawab Osman explore the impact of ISIS discourse on Malay-Muslim society in an analysis rooted in the long-term trajectory of Islamisation. Azmil Tayeb and Yew Wei Lit provide an up-to-date account of the developing environmental movement in Malaysia while in another chapter Azmil Tayeb analyses the dynamics of federalism in Malaysia in the case of Islamic education in Kelantan. Finally, other chapters return to well-covered ground in Malaysian studies, bringing new and fresh perspectives. Gerhard Hoffstaedter and Louise Perrodin’s piece on refugees in Malaysia, through a case study of Chin and Rohingya refugees, exposes the connections between Malaysia’s ethno-centric political and social life and the lives and organisation of refugee groups. Angela M. Kuga Thas takes up the study of LGBTQI minorities in Malaysia alongside the ‘Islamic State’ issue and the attempts to unite Malay Muslims to maintain UMNO’s electoral dominance, while Mohd Nazim Ganti Shaari analyses Malaysian constitutional identity formed by the constitutional role of the Malay rulers, Islam and Malay elements.
Malaysia’s Scandal Ridden Prime Minister Najib Razak–Mugabe-like Fate awaits him
Put together, these chapters grapple with what it means to study a country caught between democracy and authoritarianism and what it means to study politics outside of liberal democratic norms. They contribute towards the deconstruction of Malaysia’s political structure and its political, economic, social and legal system. They challenge the illusions which continue to sustain a semi-authoritarian democratic system.
Finally, the extraordinary participation of the political cartoonist Zunar in our discussion and reflection is, to us, a way to actively include artistic activism at the heart of intellectual and academic debate. Zunar’s work, which offers a passionate yet sharp account of the current situation, is a perfect symbiosis between a reasoned analysis of contemporary Malaysian politics and the more intimate voice of perceived reality. It is all the more precious as an expression of an authentic Malaysian voice which will continue to be heard through time and across frontiers.
Sophie Lemière is the Jean Monnet Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. She holds a PhD and a Masters in Comparative Politics from Sciences-Po (France). She is the author of Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People.
President Harry S Truman with General Douglas MacArthur
Harry S Truman ascended to the presidency of the United States on April 12, 1945, a plain-spoken career politician and product of the political machine of Boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City. It is clear that Douglas MacArthur, regarded arguably as the greatest American general of World War II, regarded him as little more than a cipher.
Over the next six years almost to the day when Truman fired the general — April 11, 1951 – MacArthur made Truman so furious that 60 years later, historian H.W. Brands, examining Truman’s papers, found handwritten documents in which the President gouged the paper with his pen out of anger.
Brands has written a boisterous history of the long series of confrontations that led up to the firing. It would be tempting to call the episode comical if MacArthur hadn’t been attempting to start World War III and Truman, whose authority as President the General ignored, overrode or deliberately snubbed, was hard-pressed to keep him from it as the supreme commander of United Nations forces in Korea following invasion by the north.
From the very start of their relationship on the death in office of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, MacArthur simply ignored the entire American diplomatic and political establishment. The General, already 65 when Truman became President, was a five-star officer regarded as a military genius for his prosecution of the so-called “island-hopping” campaign to rid Asia of the invading Japanese and their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The iconic picture of the tall, imposing general wading ashore at Tacloban on Leyte Island in the Philippines, followed by staff members and diminutive Filipinos, was one of the most-printed photos of the war and resulted in a diorama that stands to this day on the beach where they landed.
It was MacArthur and not Truman who dictated the terms of the Japanese surrender, leaving Emperor Hirohito in place, creating the Japanese pacifist constitution that governs the country and fostering the somewhat imperfect democracy that runs the country to this day. MacArthur would never return to the United States until his firing, forcing the country’s leaders to fly to Asia to consult with him.
The world for the general and the President sputtered along well enough until June 25, 1950 – although Truman was quoted later as having said “I should have fired the son of a bitch a long time ago” – when troops of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current ruler of North Korea, spilled over Korea’s 38th parallel, driving the Republic of Korea troops and a skeleton US Army garrison south into a tiny perimeter around the city of Pusan.
Brand treats the initial reaction by MacArthur and his command considerably kindlier than other historians, including David Halberstam in his 2008 history of the Korean War,” The Coldest Winter.” Halberstam was scathing in his assessment of the early attempt to counter northern troops, calling MacArthur out of touch and arrogant at age 70, with his Tokyo staff sacrificing lives for policy.
Whatever the conduct of the war, it is inarguable that MacArthur’s decision – his alone, to stage an amphibious invasion at Inchon, far north of the Pusan perimeter – was one of the greatest military decisions of the century. MacArthur’s troops cut the country in half, decimated the north’s supply lines, and resulted in the surrender of hundreds of thousands of confused and demoralized North Korean troops. His forces drove north, culminating in a humiliating defeat for the fleeing North Koreans.
The diplomatic slights MacArthur delivered to Truman and other great World War II generals including George Marshall and Omar Bradley paled in comparison to his actions from then on and make it almost seem the general had taken leave of his senses.
He “sketched out a breathtaking vision of American hegemony over the world’s greatest ocean,” calling the Pacific a “vast moat to protect us as long as we hold it. Indeed, it acts as a shield of all the Americas and all of the free lands of the Pacific Ocean to the shores of Asia.” Eventually that vision would encompass recommendations of atomic war with both the Russians and the Chinese.
Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, growing concerned about the general’s grandiosity, proposed a meeting. MacArthur insisted the meeting be held on Wake Island rather than Hawaii, meaning Truman and the assembled leadership of the US would have to fly more than 7,000 miles to meet with him while he would only have to fly 2,300 miles. After he gave a picture of the situation on the ground in Korea over two days, he again broke protocol, abruptly saying he was departing, leaving a fuming Truman and his party on the island with more business to transact. Truman abandoned the meeting and flew home, exasperated. That began a long list of snubs meticulously catalogued by Brand.
As he had in Japan when he allowed the Emperor to remain in place, MacArthur reinstalled Syngman Rhee as South Korea’s leader, without waiting for consent from a reluctant Washington, DC.
Unfortunately, MacArthur badly miscalculated, ignoring the advice of the President’s advisers, driving toward the Yalu River and the border with China, ignoring repeated warnings from the Chinese to back off. In October 1950, the Chinese had had enough. They poured across the Yalu in hordes, sustaining devastating losses but enveloping United Nations forces and driving them into a humiliating retreat that cost thousands of lives.
MacArthur responded by demanding the resources to destroy the Chinese Army, including bringing in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army, which had been forced to retreat to what was then Formosa. All of that possibly would have brought the Russians into the war. He not only moved on his own course, he began making addresses including a memo to the Veterans of Foreign Wars basically saying Washington was filled with cowards, vacillating politicians and incompetents.
Eventually, Truman had enough. He removed MacArthur from his command, setting off a political firestorm in the US that would envelop the Democratic Party and result in deep losses in the 1952 election. It destroyed Truman’s popularity and he chose not to run again for the presidency.
Nonetheless, it would be Truman who emerged as history’s champion. As Brand concludes: “Six decades after the general and the president, standing at the brink of nuclear war, wrestled over Korea and China; six decades after their contest brought to the head the issue of whether a president or a general determines American policy…it was hard to find any knowledgeable person who didn’t feel relief that the president, and not the general, had been the one with the final say in their fateful struggle. Truman’s bold stroke in firing MacArthur ended his own career as surely as it terminated MacArthur’s, but it sustained hope that humanity might survive the nuclear age.”
From a young age, the average Singaporean is exposed to tales of the island’s catapulting itself from third world to first, and then fed a constant stream of pride-inducing narratives designed to demonstrate the nation’s success in overcoming abandonment by Malaysia, racial strife, economic struggles, and a constant siege by unfriendly neighbours. To be a citizen of Singapore was to delight in the tiny state’s ability to overtake others in the region in terms of development, economic progress, and “civilisation”. The larger and more unwieldy members of ASEAN were always depicted as those who were envious of Singapore’s progress, and constantly in need of assistance and advice from the island’s growing pool of local and resident international experts in countless fields.
Philip Holden (in Chapter 7) defines myths as “our way of telling a common sense story of the past”. The editors cite Roland Barthes as they point out that the distinguishing mark of myths are their “naturalness”—in other words, myths are stories that are taken as true and “historical”. But “history”, whether people realise it or not, is man-made. Singaporean stories taken as “history” seem to dangle off the edge of reality—and once unpacked, are revealed to be nothing more than myths created, embellished, and perpetuated for whichever use best suits national institutions, the state, and the media at the time.
I was born in Singapore but didn’t grow up there. Instead I travelled the world in a Singaporean bubble, perpetuating the national myths that engendered respect and awe. The occasional holiday in the homeland had the same impact on me as it did any foreigner. We were taken in by the sheen and shine; the spotlessness, safety and efficiency—and we all believed the myths. As an adult, spending my work hours in the “star” of Southeast Asia after decades abroad, the sparkle seems to dull a little. Murmurs on the ground help peel away the layers of flawless cling wrap to reveal the wrinkles and scars of those who lived all their lives in the Little Red Dot.
Surely this is the real thing–since separation from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has made great strides in terms of governance, economic development, social progress and politics.
Living with Myths in Singapore cleared all the doubts that couldn’t be publicly proclaimed and confronted. The book unpacks the myths to reveal the reality hidden beyond the singular “history” that is perpetually propagated. It fills in the fissures of the fables that niggled because the “common sense” didn’t quite make sense—but couldn’t be questioned. The book’s use of researched, academic histories based on multiple sources, facts, and evidence counters the myths and provides previously obscured insight into the truth behind the tales.
Thum Ping Tjin (Chapter 2) and Gareth Curless (Chapter 12) break down governance in Singapore from World War II to the present, and show how the threat of communism was a bogeyman invented to maintain power and quell dissent. In the 1980s, the Law Society was also curtailed to prevent it from truly representing the people. According to Teo Soh Lung (Chapter 13), its efforts to provide independent legal aid was tarred with accusations of political interference, and laws were sped through to ensure that the society remained focused on approved and apolitical cases. Singapore’s popular political economy narrative attributes the island-state’s success to its leaders’ ability to consolidate power and pursue the “authoritarian Singapore model” of development through foreign investment. This is dissected by Seng Quo-quan (Chapter 9), who posits an alternative take on political freedom and social democracy through the eyes of James Puthucheary.
The Singapore Story, as scrutinised in the book, slides effortlessly from effective governance to economic success, and chronicles the island’s speedy ascent to First World status from the doldrums of a native fishing village and coolie slums. Philip Holden (Chapter 7) suggests an alternative narrative that is a tragedy; one that recounts unparalleled and unexpected initial success, but then struggles and falls in its pursuit of economic growth and wealth at considerable social expense. “Economics is about getting rid of poverty; it’s not about making people richer”, was a statement Holden attributed to Professor Thomas Silcock, whose students included Goh Keng Swee and Lim Kim San.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew devoted his life to make Singapore what it is today. He wanted his country to remain a rugged and competitive society, not a static and complacent one.
As Singapore skyrocketed to unparalleled heights, the national narrative emphasised the need for self-reliance and family support before social welfare. Ho Chi Tim (Chapter 8) points out that on the contrary, other histories and scholarship detail myriad examples of social support positioned under the framework of justice and equal opportunities. At the time, these were not deemed to undermine a fair society. Yet, in spite of the reminder by Professor Silcock, as some Singaporeans become wealthier, poverty persists—albeit made invisible by popular myths. Teo You Yenn (Chapter 23) lays bare the realities of poverty in Singapore, where capitalist exploitation is compounded by assistance eligibility criteria that brands hard working low income citizens as failures, instead of victims of adverse social conditions. Temporary migrant workers are the unseen backbone of Singapore’s success. Charanpal S. Bal (Chapter 24) unpacks three popular myths surrounding these labourers, and explains how the myths have stood in the way of effective legislation and protection for the very people who literally built the island nation.
Part of the Singapore public relations package is its position as a global media hub and the centre of innovation and technology. Terence Lee (Chapter 6) traces the evolution of media in Singapore through its political history and brings to light a “media hub” that is politically well-managed yet deemed apolitical, and used as a tool for economic growth rather than for communication and discourse. Arthur Chia (Chapter 11) likens innovative projects in Singapore to a performance “in the global theatre of science and technology”, both to govern nationally and to ride international technological winds for economic benefit.
Beyond myth-making to boost its international reputation and generate economic gain, Singapore also has domestic myths which help to control and manage its citizens. The book assembles these myths in sections that portray a vulnerable and deficient people who need top-down intervention to protect them from themselves. Lee Kah-Wee (Chapter 10) explores the issue of the casino and exposes the economic truth behind both the claims of morality and the “new business model” of the Integrated Resorts.
Issues of race, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and culture wars make up another mythological hotspot that requires scrutiny. Laavanya Kathiravelu (Chapter 15) deconstructs the perennial threat of racially-instigated violence and the myths of racial harmony and meritocracy that hinge on colonial categorisations of “Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others” (CMIO). Lai Ah Eng (Chapter 16) reflects on the difficulties of navigating Singaporean multiculturalism through shared spaces, employment and citizenship and highlights the need for cohesion, inclusion, exchange and appreciation in order to transition from myth to reality. Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho (Chapter 18) and Liew Kai Khiun (Chapter 19) discuss the crises of affinity and loyalty of new immigrants and at the same time, the dilemma of imported values and beliefs that are deemed contrary to Singapore’s “conservative family values”. In much the same vein are chapters on public apathy and the lack of activism and critical civil society. Loh Kan Seng (Chapter 20) and Edgar Liao (Chapter 21) show that contrary to popular beliefs, civil movements are alive and well in Singapore, and that the accusation of apathy had historically been used to prevent dissent and discontent from boiling over into decisive action against those in power.
All countries use myths to nurture a national storyline for identity formation. Mark Baildon and Suhaimi Afandi (Chapter 3) question the effectiveness of the singular history taught in schools, and Christine Han (Chapter 4) provides evidence of the ineffectiveness of the existing school-based citizen education. All the writers in this edited volume appeal for a revolution in Singapore’s national narrative—one that allows for open discussion of alternative histories and evidence-based scholarship on historical events, as well as true inclusivity in policies and economic plans.
Singaporeans of the future should be able to perceive as “common sense” the possibility that there are many views, and should be able to find it natural that there is more than one narrative given the complex evolution of this island nation of immigrants. That Living with Myths in Singapore was allowed to be written, printed, and distributed is a huge step in this direction. It is also, hopefully, a positive indication of more accurate “myth-making” to come.
Serina Rahman is a Visiting Fellow in the Malaysia Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, conducting research in the fields of sustainable development, environmental anthropology and the economics of the environment. Serina co-founded Kelab Alami, an organisation formed to empower a Johor fishing community through environmental education for habitat conservation and economic participation in coastal development. She received her PhD in Science from Universiti Teknologi Mara in 2014.
“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” This philistine wisecrack is often attributed to Air Marshal Hermann Goering, or some other Nazi notable. Benjamin Martin sets us straight on its source: the 1933 play Schlageter by the Nazi Party member Hanns Johst, in which a character says: “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I release the catch on my Browning.”
Martin’s illuminating book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture shows how badly astray this famous quip leads us: cultural concerns were in fact vital to the imperial projects of Hitler and Mussolini. We do not normally associate their violent and aggressive regimes with “soft power.” But the two dictators were would-be intellectuals—Adolf Hitler a failed painter inebriated with the music of Wagner, and Mussolini a onetime schoolteacher and novelist. Unlike American philistines, they thought literature and the arts were important, and wanted to weaponize them as adjuncts to military conquest. Martin’s book adds a significant dimension to our understanding of how the Nazi and Fascist empires were constructed.
German power and success gave the Nazi case particular salience. The special meaning of Kultur in Germans’ evaluation of themselves is an important part of the story. According to a famous essay by Norbert Elias, the meaning of Kultur for Germans is hardly comprehensible without reference to a particular historical development.*Kultur, he explains (along with Bildung, or education), denoted in pre-unification Germany those qualities that the intellectuals and professionals of the small, isolated German middle class claimed for themselves in response to the disdain of the minor German nobles who employed them: intellectual achievement, of course, but also simple virtues like authenticity, honesty, and sincerity.
German courtiers, by contrast, according to the possessors of Kultur, had acquired “civilization” from their French tutors: manners, social polish, the cultivation of appearances. As the German middle class asserted itself in the nineteenth century, the particular virtues of Kultur became an important ingredient in national self-definition. The inferior values of “civilization” were no longer attributed to an erstwhile French-educated German nobility, but to the French themselves and to the West in general.
By 1914, the contrast between Kultur and Zivilisation had taken on a more aggressively nationalist tone. During World War I German patriotic propaganda vaunted the superiority of Germany’s supposedly rooted, organic, spiritual Kultur over the allegedly effete, shallow, cosmopolitan, materialist, Jewish-influenced “civilization” of Western Europe. Martin’s book shows how vigorously the Nazis applied this traditional construct. Hitler invested considerable money and time in the 1930s, and even after World War II began, in an effort to take over Europe’s cultural organizations and turn them into instruments of German power. These projects had some initial success. In the end, however, they collapsed along with the military power they were designed to reinforce.
In a parallel and even less enduring effort, Mussolini’s Fascist regime tried to establish the primacy of Italian culture under the umbrella of Hitler’s conquests. Mussolini’s cultural executives, such as his Minister for Press and Propaganda Dino Alfieri, asserted that the Mediterranean and classical tradition of Italy was the proper foundation of a European “cultural Axis.” Having thrown in their lot definitively with Hitler, the Italians could hope to be the contemporary Greece to Germany’s new Rome, but the Nazi leaders never entertained the slightest doubt that German Kultur was the foundation stone of the “new cultural order” for Europe.
An extensive network of international cultural organizations already existed before Hitler came to power. They had been greatly expanded after 1919 in the orbit of the League of Nations. Hitler saw them cynically as instruments of French cultural influence and as a reinforcement of Allied hegemony. Just as he planned to overthrow the political system set up by the victorious Allies after World War I, he was determined to overthrow the democratic cultural network. He intended to replace it with his own organizations headquartered in Berlin and dedicated to spreading throughout Europe the Nazi conception of the unique racial character of each national culture.
The word “international” acquired a special meaning in its usage by Nazi and Fascist cultural officials. The Allies’ international cultural associations had rested on a set of liberal democratic assumptions: that works of art and literature should be evaluated by universal standards of quality; that masterpieces were the product of individual creativity; and that no national culture deserved hegemony over another. The Nazi and Fascist dictators reversed all of these assumptions. They measured the merit of works of art and literature by their significance within unique national cultural traditions. Masterpieces, in their view, grew out of community roots. And national cultural traditions were ranked in a natural hierarchy, with the German and Italian ones at the top.
Hitler concerned himself with cultural matters as soon as he became chancellor of Germany in January 1933. He purged the German section of PEN International of “leftist” and Jewish writers. When PEN International protested, Hitler dissolved the German section altogether at the end of 1933. During this dispute the president of the Italian PEN club, the provocateur Futurist intellectual Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, supported the German position. Thus from the earliest days, Nazi cultural projects proved capable of enlisting foreign support.
Hitler made his ambitions for German culture clear from the beginning. At a Nazi Party Congress on Culture in September 1933 he promised that the Nazi state would intervene more actively in cultural matters than the Weimar Republic had done, in order to make art an expression of the “hereditary racial bloodstock” and to transform artists into defenders of the German Volk.
Hitler left the daily tasks of his bid to reorganize European culture under German dominance to his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels—another would-be intellectual and a failed novelist—threw his frenetic energy, his ideological passions, and a generous budget into spreading abroad the Nazis’ racialist and nationalist approach to the arts.
Disaster strikes when men do nothing about tyranny and abuses of power
Cinema was the Nazi leaders’ first cultural target. Goebbels and Hitler were as obsessed with movies as American adolescents are today with social media. Convinced that cinema was their era’s main engine of cultural influence, they tried to control filmmaking as far as their influence could reach. At the Venice Film Festival in 1935, at Goebbels’s instigation, delegates of twelve nations agreed to create an International Film Chamber (IFC) designed to establish a continent-wide system of film exchange and regulation. As the possessor of the continent’s largest and most powerful film industry, Germany became the dominant force in the IFC. Fascist Italy, however, assured for itself a strong second position by exploiting its considerable film-producing assets, such as the technologically advanced studios of Cinecittà and the Venice Film Festival, which continued to be the main venue of IFC activities.
The IFC was a genuinely European organization, and even had a French president in 1937. Its inspiration had been German, however, and its organizational form was less international than something Martin usefully calls “inter-national,” a federation of national arts organizations on the model of the Reich Film Chamber, which Goebbels had formed in July 1933 on corporatist principles. Corporatist doctrine required that capital, management, and labor abandon their separate advocacy groups and sit down together to find their common interests, alongside state representatives. Corporatism smothered internal conflict in film production and gave determining influence to the state rather than to the market.
Each IFC member nation was expected to have a national film organization similar to the Reich Film Chamber. Within Germany the Reich Film Chamber became the instrument through which the Nazi regime controlled an increasingly concentrated German film industry purged of Jews. In 1942, the largest production companies, such as UFA and Tobis, were merged into one state-controlled entity.
Benjamin Martin shows most interestingly that the Nazi and Fascist “inter-national” organizations had authentic appeal to some European intellectuals and arts executives who were not themselves Nazis or Fascists. These organizations promised material as well as intellectual advantages. The IFC provided access to a market of continental dimensions, a feature particularly attractive to European filmmakers who all suffered from the limited size of their national audiences. It also simplified thorny problems of cross-boundary payments and differing copyright laws.
The main role of the IFC was to combat the Hollywood menace. The dominance of American films had troubled European filmmakers and intellectuals from the beginning. By 1928 54 percent of all films shown in France, 72 percent in Britain, and 80 percent in Italy came from Hollywood. Already in the 1920s most European countries had imposed quotas on American films or limited them by reciprocity agreements. The respite given to European films by the arrival of “talkies” in 1929 had been brief, as expert dubbing soon allowed Hollywood films to predominate again. Many Europeans endorsed the IFC position that American films were trivial entertainment designed to make money, while European films were artistic creations that deserved protection. Although the British and Dutch refused to join, IFC membership extended by 1935 “from Belgium to Hungary [and] revealed a Europe,” according to Martin, “ready to accept German leadership.”
German military conquests early in World War II enabled the Nazis to tighten even further their control of European cinema. In August 1940 they banned American films altogether in the territories they occupied. A similar ban within Germany itself followed in 1941. The Fascist regime had already reduced the number of Hollywood films shown in Italy by the “Alfieri law” of 1938 that created a state monopoly with sole authority to buy and show foreign films (Hollywood’s four biggest studios withdrew from the Italian market in response). The unintended result of such protectionism was to give Hollywood films the allure of forbidden fruit and to prepare their triumphant return to Europe in 1945. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance film Army of Shadows, two underground leaders are smuggled out of France to consult personally with Free French leader General Charles de Gaulle. The first thing they want to do in London, after eating a filling meal, is to go see Gone with the Wind.
Beyond cinema, the Nazis meant to reorganize the whole range of German cultural activities along corporatist lines. The Reich Chamber of Culture contained subgroups for music, literature, theater, press, radio, and so on. The Nazis soon tried to extend the reach of these cultural corporations to the entire European continent, according to their geopolitical vision of a world divided into blocs, or “great spaces,” continent-scaled, self-sufficient economic systems aligned with the appropriate cultural associations protected by authoritarian states. Their European “New Order” was meant to be cultural as well as economic and political.
Music was a realm that Germans felt particularly qualified to dominate. But first the German national musical scene had to be properly organized. In November 1933 Goebbels offered Richard Strauss the leadership of a Reich Music Chamber. In June 1934 Strauss invited composers from thirteen countries to the annual meeting of the German Music Association in Wiesbaden. The delegates created a Permanent Council for International Cooperation among Composers.
The Permanent Council grew by exploiting an aesthetic rift in European musical culture. Since the early twentieth century a generation of gifted innovators had created new musical languages, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Organized in the influential International Society for Contemporary Music, the avant-garde had come to have a powerful influence on the European musical scene. Traditional composers resented the modernists’ celebrity, and the Nazis (Mussolini remained more open to modernism) attracted conservative support by attacking the avant-garde as internationalist, rootless, and Jewish. In a famous speech in December 1934 Goebbels derided “an atonal noise maker,” by whom he was generally assumed to mean the composer Paul Hindemith (who was not Jewish). Goebbels organized in Düsseldorf in 1938 a presentation of “degenerate music” following the better-known 1937 exhibition of “degenerate art.”
Most of the composers who were affiliated with the Permanent Council, advocates generally of a national, rural, or folklorist approach to musical composition, are forgotten today. The council did draw some prestigious composers who were not really Nazi or Fascist, like Jean Sibelius and Albert Roussel. The presence of Richard Strauss, a onetime moderate modernist who resented the decline of his fame, gave legitimacy to the IFC. He continued to preside over it even after he had been removed from the Reich Music Chamber in 1935 in a dispute over his continued association with Stefan Zweig, who had written the libretto for his opera Die schweigsame Frau.
The Permanent Council’s attention to composers’ material problems was an additional attraction. These included inconsistencies among different national copyright codes, problems of international royalties payments, and droit moral—the right claimed by authors and composers to assure that their work was not presented in a deformed way or with offensive associations. Thus the Permanent Council was able to fill a busy schedule of concerts in various European capitals through the late 1930s.
The Nazi organization of European literature came later, but by similar tactics: a federation of national corporative bodies. German authors already gathered annually in Weimar. In connection with the 1941 Weimar authors’ meeting, Goebbels invited fifty foreign writers to visit the city of Goethe and Schiller at the expense of his Propaganda Ministry (an indulgence that caused many of them trouble after the war). The following October authors from fifteen European countries met at Weimar to found a European Writers’ Union.
As with music, the Nazis were able to attract writers outside the immediate orbit of the Nazi and Fascist parties by endorsing conservative literary styles against modernism, by mitigating copyright and royalty problems, and by offering sybaritic visits to Germany and public attention. Some significant figures joined, such as the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, but most were minor writers who employed themes of nationalism, folk traditions, or the resonance of landscape. Martin unravels these multinational connections with clarity and precision, aided by research and reading in at least five European languages.
Painting and sculpture, curiously, do not figure in this account of the cultural fields that the Nazis and Fascists tried to reorganize “inter-nationally,” perhaps because they had not previously been organized on liberal democratic lines. Within Germany, of course, modernists could not show or sell their work, but this was not the case in occupied Paris, where Picasso and Kandinsky painted quietly in private and Jean Bazaine organized an exhibition with fellow modernists in 1941. Nazi cultural officials thought “degenerate” art appropriate for France.
Hitler made effective use of some German intellectuals’ resentment at being shut out of international cultural institutions after 1919. Martin seems to accept this sense of victimhood as legitimate, but it is difficult to square with the prestige of German cinema, music, and science in the 1920s.
Science would have made an interesting case study, a contrary one. Germany dominated the world of science before 1933. Germans won fifteen Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine between 1918 and 1933, more than any other nation. Far from capitalizing on this major soft power asset, Hitler destroyed it by imposing ideological conformity and expelling Jewish scientists such as the talented nuclear physicist Lise Meitner. The soft power of science is fragile, as Americans may yet find out.
Without specifically setting out to do so, Martin casts interesting light on soft power and the conditions for its success. Nazis and Fascists turned out to be poor at it. Inherent contradictions undermined their attempts at cultural dominance. Dictatorial methods clashed with literary and artistic independence. Nazis had burned books, and both Germany and Italy had excluded prominent writers and artists. Their evident desire to put their own cultures first undermined their lip service to “inter-national” cooperation.
Within the “cultural Axis,” the relationship between Germany and Italy was strained. Martin was right to include the Italian case, even if Mussolini’s parallel bid for cultural power, like his parallel war, accomplished little. Hitler always accepted that Mussolini was his forerunner—the Duce’s bust stood on his desk—and while always ready to try to upstage him never let him drop. And so his “inter-national” organizations often attributed a strong second role to the Italians. But the Italians worked from within to subvert German claims to primacy.
A major obstacle to the success of Axis “inter-national” cultural organizations—especially with the Nazis—was their ideological narrowness. While an alignment with militant antimodernism attracted conservative writers and artists, these generated little excitement compared to the modernists. Hitler’s efforts to stem the mass appeal of Hollywood films and jazz only made them (as Martin suggests) more seductive and, in a final irony, prepared for the triumph of American music, jeans, and film in the postwar world by trying to make them taboo.
Soft power seems to have thrived best without direct military occupation. The global influence of French language, manners, and ideas began in the seventeenth century, and depended little on the conquests of Louis XIV and Napoleon. The ascendancy of the English language began with the commercial and financial power of the City of London in the nineteenth century, and owed little to conquest or colonial occupation, though those helped. The soft power of the United States, the most successful yet, spread far beyond direct American military presence. It prospered by appealing to mass popular tastes in music, dress, and entertainment, while the “cultural axis” aimed at conventional forms of high culture. The United States government did not ignore high culture—consider the activities of the United States Information Agency and the Congress for Cultural Freedom after World War II. But American soft power thrived mostly through the profit motive and by offering popular entertainment to the young.
Far from reaching for a revolver to deal with “culture,” Hitler (with Mussolini struggling behind) tried with at least some initial success to use international cultural organizations to enhance his military power. This story has been approached mostly, if at all, in individual national terms, but Martin has brought the whole Axis cultural project admirably into focus.
Norbert Elias, “Sociogenesis of the Antithesis Between Kultur and Zivilisation in German Usage,” in The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, revised edition (Blackwell, 2000). ↩