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The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya

The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity

Kah Seng Loh
Edgar Liao
Cheng Tju Lim
Guo-Quan Seng
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  • Book Info
    The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya
    Book Description:

    The book, using a small group of left-wing student activists as a prism, explores the complex politics that underpinned the making of nation-states in Singapore and Malaysia after World War Two. While most works have viewed the period in terms of political contestation groups, the book demonstrates how it is better understood as involving a shared modernist project framed by British-planned decolonization. This pursuit of nationalist modernity was characterized by an optimism to replace the colonial system with a new state and mobilize the people into a new relationship with the state, according them new responsibilities as well as new rights. This book, based on student writings, official documents and oral history interviews, brings to life various modernist strands - liberal-democratic, ethnic-communal, and Fabian and Marxist socialist - seeking to determine the form of postcolonial Malaya. It uncovers a hitherto little-seen world where the meanings of loud slogans were fluid, vague and deeply contested. This world also comprised as much convergence between the groups as conflict, including collaboration between the Socialist Club and other political and student groups which were once its rivals, while its main ally eventually became its nemesis.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-1589-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 11-14)
    The authors
  2. 1 The Socialist Club and the Modernity Project
    (pp. 19-40)

    The making of modern post-colonial Singapore, according toMen in White, a book on the history of the People’s Action Party (PAP) published in 2009, began at Cromwell Road in London in 1948, when a trio of students formed the Malayan Forum with the aim of creating an independent, socialist Malaya, including Singapore. They were Goh Keng Swee, Maurice Baker and Abdul Razak Hussein. Lee Kuan Yew, then at Cambridge University, kept in touch with them. These students, we are told, were exceptional among the English-educated students, who were concerned only with “girls, movies and sports ”. Yet, in the...

  3. 2 Awake in the Bowl of Night
    (pp. 41-60)

    The University Socialist Club was formed on 21 February 1953 at an inaugural meeting held at the Physics Lecture Theatre on the Bukit Timah campus of the University of Malaya in Singapore. This was an important moment for the various nationalist groups that would emerge to contest for the shape of modernity in Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s. For left-wing socialists, the Club represented a valuable opportunity to propagate socialist thought and carry out socialist activities on campus and beyond. However, the Club was confronted by two realities which were to constrain the reach of its radicalism....

  4. 3 The Fajar Trial
    (pp. 61-80)

    The Special Branch had no sense of irony when arresting the eight student members of the editorial committee ofFajar(“dawn” in Malay) in the wee hours of the morning of 28 May 1954. The arrests and the trial which ensued were to mark a major turning point in the history of Singapore and Malaya. They invigorated the left-wing movement in Singapore, gave the Club a greater ideological unity and led to the formation of the People’s Action Party. At the same time, the collaboration of the Fabian and left-wing socialist groups within the PAP was also a positive step...

  5. 4 Visionary of the Nation, Voice of Stifled Malayans
    (pp. 81-104)

    The political history of 1950s Singapore is often held to begin after the trial of the Fajar 8. In the usual narrative, political developments now moved swiftly beyond the Socialist Club. The historical spotlight falls on the Labour Front government under Chief Minister David Marshall, whose party had won the 1955 general elections and who would seek full self-government for Singapore. Outside of the Labour Front, attention is often focused on the uncomfortable alliance within the People’s Action Party between the Fabian socialist group led by Lee Kuan Yew and the left wing headed by Lim Chin Siong, who with...

  6. 5 A Beacon of Light on the Campus and Beyond
    (pp. 105-126)

    The University of Malaya campus in the 1950s and early 1960s was a miniature world where opposing visions of a new Malaya were articulated and contested. In attempting to mobilise the students, the Socialist Club encountered much conflict but also achieved some degree of success. This chapter focuses on its attempts at collaboration with other student leaders. The University Socialists were not the only leaders and activists within the student community, but they were often the most vocal and passionate. They won for themselves, their club and their causes due attention, if not always respect and support. As student activists,...

  7. 6 Frankly Partisan in the Struggle for Student Leadership
    (pp. 127-152)

    Haniff Omar’s recollection of campus politics in the post-war period highlights the contestation between socialists and their opponents at the University of Malaya. While the Socialist Club was able to leave its mark on national politics, its relationship with other student leaders was frequently fraught with ambivalence, rivalry and conflict. While there was convergence and cooperation between the Club and other student groups in the University, and between individual Club members and other student leaders and activists on campus on some issues and matters (as covered in Chapters 5 and 10), there were collisions and contestation over others. Notwithstanding the...

  8. 7 The Shadow over the Club
    (pp. 153-166)

    The contestation on campus between the Socialist Club and its critics was not the only arena in which the Cold War had a defining effect. Surveillance, harassment and curtailment of the left, driven by fears of communist manipulation and empowered by the Emergency and successor legislation, were not incidental to the Second Malayan Spring experiment, but integral to it. The surveillance of the University Socialists by the Special Branch (after independence, the Internal Security Department, ISD) throughout the 1950s and 1960s was just as pervasive, and ultimately more harmful to the Club’s activism. The early shadowing of the Club from...

  9. 8 Resisting Malaysia, Swansong for Malaya
    (pp. 167-190)

    The University Socialists’ campaign to resist the formation of “Malaysia” between 1961 and 1963 was at once the culmination and final act of the Socialist Club’s political activism on the national stage. From its inception, the vision of a socialist Malaya that included Singapore had provided the Club its chief existential identity, and guided the Club’s activism on campus and beyond. However, the drastic turn of events in 1961 posed such a threat to the Club’s fundamental values that it propelled the University Socialists to intervene more directly and robustly in the political process than in previous years. The sudden...

  10. 9 Long Night after Coldstore
    (pp. 191-208)

    In the September 1963 elections in Singapore, Tan Jing Quee contested as a Barisan Sosialis candidate against the PAP Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam at Kampong Glam. Tan lost narrowly by 220 votes, conceded the fight and shook Rajaratnam’s hand. The following month, as Assistant Secretary-General of the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU), Tan helped organise a two-day protest strike against the move of the Registrar of Trade Unions to deregister the association for alleged “communist front activities”.¹ The SATU comprised seven major left-wing unions in Singapore, including the Singapore General Employees’ Union, and formed a crucial mass...

  11. 10 In Defence of University Autonomy and Student Rights
    (pp. 209-232)

    In the 1960s, the Socialist Club frequently found itself engaged in defending the autonomy of the one remaining arena where its voice was still ringing out loud: the campus. The collision between the state and students over the issues of university autonomy, academic freedom and student rights in the 1960s grew out of the tensions over the university’s role that had existed since its inception in 1949. Yeo Kim Wah has noted how the very first cohort of student leaders in 1949-1950 “felt it their duty to vigilantly guard” these principles and even occasionally oppose “the sizeable presence of government...

  12. 11 Entwined Memories and Myths
    (pp. 233-254)

    M.K. Rajakumar passed away on 22 November 2008 in Kuala Lumpur due to heart and lung complications. He was seventy-six. His family members, friends and fellow medical practitioners, politicians and University Socialist Club alumni gathered to pay tribute to his memory and life’s work on two separate occasions, the first in the Malaysian capital on 4 January 2009, followed by a second in Singapore on 14 February. Among them was Poh Soo Kai, Rajakumar’s old friend since 1951. At the Kuala Lumpur memorial meeting, Poh emphasised the recurring themes which underpinned Rajakumar’s life and work: his concern for the poor...

  13. Conclusion: Modernity in Singapore and Malaya Reconsidered
    (pp. 255-264)

    By charting the history of the University Socialist Club, this book has offered a new approach to understanding the making of post-colonial Singapore and Malaya. The period has typically been viewed as one of ideological conflict, between the British and nationalists, between the nationalists and communists, between Singapore and Malaysia. It is also one where the necessity of social, economic and political change which the contending parties advocated has been accepted without question, where the “old order” and the “culture” of the masses were held to be not only obsolete but injurious to the making of new states and societies....

  14. The University Socialists: Biographical Sketches
    (pp. 265-280)