Month: April 2020

Yogi’s Verdict: State of Emergency

The twin anniversaries of SG50 and the Singapore Bicentennial have stoked intense interest in Singapore’s history. Well-worn narratives have been questioned, dissidents have published books telling their side of the story, overseas archives have declassified material on Singapore’s past, and ministers have clashed with academics for allegedly dabbling in “revisionist” history.

The history of left wing activism and its suppression casts a long and often unspoken shadow over Singapore’s state approved rags to riches story. Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel, State of Emergency, is a bold attempt to explore this unwieldy chunk of the past through the streamlined perspectives of six family members.

Beginning in the heady days of left wing agitation in the 1950s, the characters grapple with the chaos of the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, the mass arrests of leftists in 1963, Operation Coldstore, the terror of 1965’s Macdonald House bombing, hushed memories of the New Villages built by the British to stifle communist influence, and the chilling arbitrariness of the alleged Marxist Conspiracy in 1987.

Some of the characters draw inspiration from real life personalities. For example, renegade politician Lay Kuan’s story mirrors that of Barisan Sosialis MP Loh Miaw Gong, who won a seat in the 1963 elections but was detained under the Internal Security Act before she could take her oath. Church volunteer Stella is clearly a composite character of those accused in 1987 of using the Catholic Church as cover to engage in leftist activism.

In explaining his inspiration for the novel, Jeremy told the Straits Times, “We know historically that one point of view prevailed and Singapore became a certain way, and nobody can say it was for better or worse. But I wanted to show that at one point, it really was up for grabs.”

Indeed, the book shined such an uncomfortable light on unspoken history that the National Arts Council withdrew its grant after seeing his initial draft (cementing its reputation as a legit piece of “subversive” work). The novel also won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018.

State of Emergency is a superbly researched work that marries fiction so effortlessly with fact that the reader often has to pause to contemplate each chapter’s nuances before continuing. It will delight any fan of local fiction and history.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★

No need to specify fixed periods to fly national flag

By Dhevarajan Devadas

I commend the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s announcement that the rules for displaying the national flag have been amended so people can fly it from now until September as a rallying symbol during the Covid-19 pandemic (Amended rules allow people to fly national flag from now till Sept 30, April 26).

However, I wonder if there is a need at all to specify fixed periods during which Singaporeans can display the national flag.

Many other countries allow their flags to be displayed in homes, businesses and vehicles throughout the year, as long as the proper protocols are observed.

Full Letter

Historyogi Post Issue 71

The 71st issue of The Historyogi Post is out now!

  • Singapore’s deadliest ever pandemics
  • Lim Yew Hock delivers where David Marshall failed
  • Yogi’s Verdicts on two unique books on histories of sex & sexuality

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Yogi’s Verdict: Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong

This is a landmark publication that provides an original contribution to queer research in two ways. Unlike most literature that looks at the experiences and issues facing youths, this book gathers that of older gay men who spent most of their lives in the closet. Secondly, it adds a non-Western perspective to a field dominated by the Stonewall narrative and other liberation movements in the West.

The author, Travis Kong, presents the stories of thirteen men who have been living in Hong Kong for at least 30 years of their lives. Before we read their stories, we are first introduced to the concept of the tongzhi (a queer appropriation of a term originally meaning “comrade”). It has been widely adopted by LGBT communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China from the late 1980s onwards.

Through the use of oral history interview techniques, we get to hear the unfiltered voices of these men, many who had heterosexual marriages while having relationships or flings with other men. In some cases, they had raised children and were seniors themselves before deciding to act upon their same sex desires. Vivid recollections of Hong Kong’s heady days of industrialisation in the 1960s, cruising spots, courting methods and sex combine to provide readers with a treasure trove of primary sources. Two heartwarming love letters are also included, showing what considerations and feelings were prioritised when seeking relationships.

These memories also highlight two key research areas that oral history methods excel at uncovering: (1) a narrative of the men’s pasts growing up, exploring their sexuality, forming relationships with other men, managing family expectations, careers and heterosexual marriages; (2) how they negotiate ageing and sexuality, isolation and ageism from both the straight and tongzhi spheres, and relations with family members and partners.

This book is a good starting point to greatly expand research into ageing and sexuality, with more openly LGBT people easing into their senior years. At the same time, it is a homage to the pioneers who grappled with these issues during a time when silence was best. As its subtitle states, these stories were “unspoken but unforgotten”.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★✩

Yogi’s Verdict: A Curious History of Sex

This book by Kate Lister is stuffed with anecdotes, scandalous excerpts from centuries-old texts, vintage erotica and a comprehensive list of slangs for describing genitalia in both rude and delicate ways.

The author states upfront that her book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive study of sexual practices and quirks, but rather “a curious history of sex and some of the things we have done to ourselves and to each other in the pursuit (and denial) of the almighty orgasm”.

Living up to its promise, the chapters successively dish out historical dirt on the words “whore” and “cunt”, genitals, the concept of virginity, anaphrodisiacs (the opposite of aphrodisiac), attitudes toward public hair, vintage sex dolls and even the Victorian moral panic over women riding bicycles and possibly orgasming from it.

A common theme running throughout the book is evidence that the desire to control female sexuality extends far back into time. Particularly distressing are the chapters on virginity tests, which have zero scientific basis and yet plague women to this day, and the clitoris, which has been mutilated through the ages out of fear that women might enjoy sexual pleasure without a man.

The author balances such painful accounts with a healthy serving of smutty humour. My personal favourite is her conclusion to the chapter on impotence, where she pays homage to Viagra: “If you ever pop a blue pill, please remember to give a full salute to all the ‘useless members’ who entered the history books because they were accused of not being able to enter anything else.”

As the creator of the popular Whores of Yore twitter account , Lister dedicates space for the history of sex work, dispelling the common myth that it’s the world’s oldest profession (originating from Rudyard Kipling). She sensitively highlights the racial fetishisation of native women by colonial officials, as well as the conditions faced by male and female sex workers throughout history.

The book draws largely from Western sources, although Lister makes efforts to include some Indian, Chinese and Islamic ones. Rather than an academic textbook on sexuality, she has produced an easy-to-read introduction to all things historically smutty, sexist and sexual.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★★

Historyogi Post Issue 70

The 70th issue of The Historyogi Post is out now!

  • The fascinating 130-year history of handwashing in medicine
  • The Vietnam War protests that led to caning for vandalism
  • Enduring Malay heritage in little-known Pulau Penyengat (A guest article by Amanina Hidayah)

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