Governor G E J Gent had declared a state of emergency in Malaya in response
to the murders of three European planters and their Chinese assistants by the
CPM. The armed insurrection mounted by the CPM spread to Singapore where
a United Front strategy against British imperialism and colonialism mobilized
Chinese school students and CPM controlled union workers to launch a series
of protests and strikes which escalated into riots in confrontations with the
police. Concurrent with police suppression of the Communist left was colonial
collaboration and cultivation of non- or anti-communist groups and fledgling
political parties the British promised limited self-government in elections. But
for Parkinson and his students these events were not yet the past they could write
as history. It was their present in which they were active participants in an anti-
colonial and anti-imperial struggle. In May 1954, several students editing the
Socialist Club newsletter Fajar were arrested for an editorial arguing against the
formation of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as a continuation
of Western aggression.19
Documenting their present as contemporary history would have challenged
Parkinson and his students on at least two counts. The first would be whether
as historians they would be sufficiently detached to be able to provide an
objective account of the events they were witnesses to, or participants in. It is a
challenge that confronted historians from Sima Qian and Thucydides to Winston
Churchill who was from 1951 publishing his multi-volume history of World War
II and his role in it. The other challenge would be the documentation of their
reconstruction of the past. For Parkinson and his students, their understanding
and practice of history would have been through the documents which, according
to traditional archival practice, would not be open until at least 25 years after the
events they want to write about.
This reconstruction of the past through the documents, preferably official
documents of the era, is grounded in nineteenth century concepts of history.
'L'histoire se fait avec des documents' [history is made with documents]' is the
opening sentence of the classic French manual Introduction aux etudes historique
by Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos published in 1898. In this
practice of history, the archivist who kept the records was the hand-maiden to the
historian. Sir Hilary Jenkinson, one of the founding fathers of twentieth century
archives enunciated this role of the archives:
'The Archivist's career is one of service. He exists in order to make other peo
ple's work possible...His Creed, the Sanctity of evidence; his Task, the conser
vation of every scrap of Evidence attaching to the documents committee to
KWA CHONG GUAN AND HO CHI TIM ARCHIVES IN THE MAKING OF POST-COLONIAL SINGAPORE
14 See for example, Charles Dyce's 35 watercolour paintings accompanied by 22 pages of descriptions reprodu
ced in Lim, Sketches in the Straits. See: Liu, Nineteenth century prints of Singapore, for reproduction of other
15 Stamford Raffles is arguably better remembered through his various busts and statues than through the:
Memoir by his wife, Lady Sophia Raffles which is a 'cut-and-paste' of Raffles' voluminous correspondence.
16 See: Lau, 'Nation-Building and the Singapore Story', pp. 21-250.
17 Former Prime Minister (now Minister Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew narrates The Singapore story: memoirs of Lee
Kuan Yew and From Third World to First: the Singapore story: 1965-2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew.
18 See Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli, The Scripting of a national history, and Barr and Trocki, Paths not taken.
19 The trauma of this event is recalled by its participants in Poh Soo Kai, others, The Fajar generation;
The University Socialist Club.