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Singapore: A Biography

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The cityscape of modern Singapore is in a constant flux, all in the name of development and progress. A sense of the physical past is consequently imited. This new work, based on research done in collaboration with curators of the National Museum, seeks to invigorate links to Singapore's past by weaving a cohesive narrative out of fragments of eyewitness accounts, correspo The cityscape of modern Singapore is in a constant flux, all in the name of development and progress. A sense of the physical past is consequently imited. This new work, based on research done in collaboration with curators of the National Museum, seeks to invigorate links to Singapore's past by weaving a cohesive narrative out of fragments of eyewitness accounts, correspondences and descriptions. Taking readers through the earliest Ming dynasty Chinese accounts of the island, the founding of modern Singapore, its growth as an emporium and port city, the Japanese occupation, and finally self-determination and independence, this book lets the experiences of historical individuals speak to a modern audience, allowing them to reconnect with and find meaning in the past.


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The cityscape of modern Singapore is in a constant flux, all in the name of development and progress. A sense of the physical past is consequently imited. This new work, based on research done in collaboration with curators of the National Museum, seeks to invigorate links to Singapore's past by weaving a cohesive narrative out of fragments of eyewitness accounts, correspo The cityscape of modern Singapore is in a constant flux, all in the name of development and progress. A sense of the physical past is consequently imited. This new work, based on research done in collaboration with curators of the National Museum, seeks to invigorate links to Singapore's past by weaving a cohesive narrative out of fragments of eyewitness accounts, correspondences and descriptions. Taking readers through the earliest Ming dynasty Chinese accounts of the island, the founding of modern Singapore, its growth as an emporium and port city, the Japanese occupation, and finally self-determination and independence, this book lets the experiences of historical individuals speak to a modern audience, allowing them to reconnect with and find meaning in the past.

30 review for Singapore: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    Back in high school, we had to make a decision at the end of our second year as to which humanities subjects - literature, geography or history - we wished to continue with in our third and fourth year. Choosing to drop history from the list was a no-brainer for me. I loathed the dry history textbook that seemed little more than a collection of meaningless dates and supposedly seminal events that seemed irrelevant to me a few decades after they'd first taken place. I dare say that if Singapore: A Back in high school, we had to make a decision at the end of our second year as to which humanities subjects - literature, geography or history - we wished to continue with in our third and fourth year. Choosing to drop history from the list was a no-brainer for me. I loathed the dry history textbook that seemed little more than a collection of meaningless dates and supposedly seminal events that seemed irrelevant to me a few decades after they'd first taken place. I dare say that if Singapore: A Biography had been my history textbook back in high school, I might not have been so quick to drop history in favour of literature and geography back then (even though as a pragmatic student, I might have been a little intimidated by the weighty tome). History in secondary school was a dry collection of dates and facts, a definitive version of events as endorsed by the curriculum planners, to be memorised and regurgitated during the exams. It never occurred to me until years later, perhaps when I had just started college and began reading more non-fiction, that perhaps history was very much a man-made construct, coloured by our perceptions, motivations and biases. And that an accepted narrative wasn't necessarily the truth, it was simply the winner's narrative. Singapore: A Biography tries hard to convey this complexity and to help the reader see a particular event from various perspectives. Whereas the history textbooks presented Sir Stamford Raffles as the Hero and Great Man who Founded Modern Singapore (what would we do without him!), Singapore: A Biography gives a much more complex rendering of the man - his battles with the East India Company, his relationship with William Farquhar and raises the question of whether lionising Raffles and giving him all the credit is really justified. Then of course, there's the writing. The writing in Singapore: A Biography is vivid and lively, using devices like alliteration and metaphors to pull the reader along. Phrases like: "Leap ahead to the 1930s and we find ourselves in an altogether different world" and "in the late 19th century, rickshaws had to contend with bullock carts, gharries and then steam trams, by the 1920s, they shared the roads with omninbuses, trolley buses, motor cars and lorries - all of which easily outstripped the pace at which the humble rickshaw could safely manoeuvre" help keep the reader engaged. It's amazing how the same dates and events can be communicated so differently. And let's not forget that Singapore: A Biography offers the uncensored version of Singapore's history when compared to the secondary school curriculum. It would never do to let secondary school students learn about the karayuki-san in Singapore, or the fact that Singapore was once such a violent and chaotic place that it earned itself the monikers of "Sin-galore" and the "Chicago of the East"! A great read for anyone who's interested in Singapore history. And for those of you who aren't, this book might just do the trick.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Simon

    A fascinating and illuminating read on Singapore from pre-1819, to Raffles' scheming and founding of Singapore to the Japanese invasion and occupation, to the roots of merdaka after the Rendell Commission, to the independence struggle among the colonialists, communists and nationalists. The well-researched book is seldom dry, and often exciting to read with its story-telling style. For example, the chapter of the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, "Fortress December 1941 - February 1942", A fascinating and illuminating read on Singapore from pre-1819, to Raffles' scheming and founding of Singapore to the Japanese invasion and occupation, to the roots of merdaka after the Rendell Commission, to the independence struggle among the colonialists, communists and nationalists. The well-researched book is seldom dry, and often exciting to read with its story-telling style. For example, the chapter of the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore, "Fortress December 1941 - February 1942", was peppered with the accounts from Imperia Guard Corporal Tsuchikane Tominosuke's memoirs, how he journeyed down south all the way to the "impregnable fortress". In the chaper "Emporium 1820s-1860s", the Malay poem "Syair Dagang Berhual Beli" was the hook to reel in readers to appreciate the tension between the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities under the British divide and rule policy in the 1800s. The book is rich with contrarian narratives, reminding readers that history is often contested and varies depending on whose point of view. Stamford Raffles, the founder of "modern" Singapore, was described as a scheming, ambitious risk-taking adventurer from the East India Company. Major William Farquhar, the "Raja Melaka" as he was affectionately termed by Malacca residents, was the first Resident of Singapore. He steered Singapore to a commercial and trading success, and was the real founder of Singapore as can be inferred from the chapter "Settlement 1819-1824". Sophia Raffles, Stamford's wife, had published in 1830 "Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles" which posthumously projected Stamford Raffles as a visionary-explorer and servant of the Empire, sweeping Farquhar's accomplishments into a dusty corner of Singapore's history. On controversial Operation Coldstore where communists and leftists were caught in a dragnet in 1963, the book described that the British far from being reluctant participants, wanted the left-wing movement in Singapore crushed but waited for an excuse to give their actions a semblance of "fair play". This opportunity was provided when Lim Chin Siong had lunch at the Rendezvous Hotel with the leftist leader of the North Borneo National Army, A M Azahari, two days before he launched his rebellion in Brunei. The book is enjoyable to immerse into. It is also well stocked with endnotes e.g. when Lord Selkirk, the British Commissioner General for Southeast Asia, asked Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan whether they were communists during the Eden Hall Tea Party, the book cited the overlooked story that the two "seemed to be embarrassed by this question and failed to give a clear reply" and hinted that they might be communists despite their denials, and old engaging photographs of places and people, windows into Singapore's roots e.g. a 1965 picture of the UMNO building (now PKMS) in Changi Road, a 1950s picture of the riot squad where the police truck displayed prominently a sign "Disperse or We Fire" and with policemen in shorts.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Harris

    A illustrated history of Singapore from the 1300s to 1965, incorporating images from the History Galleries of the National Museum of Singapore. The book discusses the history of the region before the establishment of the British colony including the mysterious fire that destroyed an earlier settlement, the goals of Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquar in creating a British outpost there, the cultural and social history of the Island, trade and commerce in the region, and the effects of the J A illustrated history of Singapore from the 1300s to 1965, incorporating images from the History Galleries of the National Museum of Singapore. The book discusses the history of the region before the establishment of the British colony including the mysterious fire that destroyed an earlier settlement, the goals of Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquar in creating a British outpost there, the cultural and social history of the Island, trade and commerce in the region, and the effects of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The illustrations include London Illustrated News coverage of the royal visit to Singapore by the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1901. A fascinating and engaging book that presents Singapore's rich history from a variety of perspectives.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Priscillia

    I loved this work. Reading on my own country's history has never felt more delightful. Most of SG history started from 1965 - as though nothing happened before then. This text not only covers 1819, but most of all, way before that, as early as 1300s. I have read other texts detailing this portion of SG history but never have I encountered such detailed and multi faceted work on this area. I have recommended this text to my friends, for themselves, and for their children, our future generation.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    The perfect book if you want to find out about Singapore in story telling manner. it is a breezy read covering they city state's history from 1300s to 1900s. the personal stories provide an interesting perspective of how life was lived in different era, without neglecting the major historical events.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Nicola

    Great overview of the history of Singapore, using lots of eyewitness accounts and photos. Would have been better if the book had devoted another chapter to Singapore today and spoke about the current attitudes of Singaporeans to major themes throughout the book such as their relationship with Malaysians, the British, Japanese and Chinese rather than letting events of the 1960/70s have the last word.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Gareth

    Provides the full depth of a serious historical study with a sense of narrative and place uncommon to similar books. this is perhaps the result of co-authorship between a museum/public history oriented historian and a travel journalist. Absolute must read for anyone interested in the history of Singapore, or East Asian history generally.

  8. 5 out of 5

    michaelben

    The authors made a glaring error early in the book when they stated Europeans used spices to cover up the taste of spoiling food. This storyline has long been debunked. For me then, every historical fact or claim they made was suspect. Otherwise, I would have given this book 5 stars. It's an excellent read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Sean Holland

    3.75 stars. A flawed, if lovely, story of Singapore's history. I could do with the WW2 section being about 10% of what it actually was, and readers should know the book basically ends on independence day. but, it's a useful guide to the history of such a wonderful place, and the book itself is gorgeous.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nat Shirman

    Excellent review, readable, with a lot of pictures, objective. A pity it ends in 1965. Has strengthened my interest to live in Singapore someday.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Good easy digestible history of Singapore. Read after moving here and wanting to understand the history of this island city.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Anna Groves

    An excellent overview of Singapore's history, complete with interesting illustrations!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Gonzalez

    A highly entertaining, well-written history of Singapore from the 13th century to 1965. This book is certainly not without bias, but it helps to understand going in that the book was funded by the National Museum of Singapore to accompany an exhibit in the museum that celebrates Singapore’s long, winding journey to achieve self-government and eventually to establish itself as a ‘sovereign, democratic, and independent nation’. I found myself quite sad to finish the book...a testament to the author A highly entertaining, well-written history of Singapore from the 13th century to 1965. This book is certainly not without bias, but it helps to understand going in that the book was funded by the National Museum of Singapore to accompany an exhibit in the museum that celebrates Singapore’s long, winding journey to achieve self-government and eventually to establish itself as a ‘sovereign, democratic, and independent nation’. I found myself quite sad to finish the book...a testament to the author’s clever storytelling technique. Thank you Mark Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, it was a pleasure to read this book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    David Hull

    A wonderfully presented publication about a fascinating country.

  15. 4 out of 5

    T

    This is a beautifully well-written book about Singapore's history from inception up to shortly after it's founding as a modern nation. Includes detailed pictures, anecdotes, and first hand sources. It progresses in chronological fashion similar to a history textbook but is anything but dry. It starts with the relatively unknown history pre-Britain and then progresses into the history of western expansion into the region and local Sultan politics. It then quickly transitions to city planning, gov This is a beautifully well-written book about Singapore's history from inception up to shortly after it's founding as a modern nation. Includes detailed pictures, anecdotes, and first hand sources. It progresses in chronological fashion similar to a history textbook but is anything but dry. It starts with the relatively unknown history pre-Britain and then progresses into the history of western expansion into the region and local Sultan politics. It then quickly transitions to city planning, governance, and growth as a trading hub under successive governors. The period of pre-world war is well covered through the lenses of immigration, social dynamics, economic trends, and broader political winds. The WW2 and Japanese occupation period of Singapore is well documented due to being relatively recent and serves as a turning point for it's history. The book then goes into the Merdeka movement and establishment of modern Singapore as various factions joust for political power. The book ends with the PAP securely in power and Singapore separate from Malaysia. I would highly recommend "From Third World to First" by Lee Kuan Yew for an account of Singaporean history after this. All in all - this book is a gripping read that provides some important context to a dynamic and vibrant modern city and unique society.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Susu

    The history of Singapore through the centuries, wired into personal details and all told in a very readable way

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

  18. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Banks

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jos Huerta

  20. 5 out of 5

    Zach L

  21. 4 out of 5

    A.K. Kulshreshth

  22. 4 out of 5

    Xing Yi Ngiam

  23. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Lim

  24. 5 out of 5

    Carlyn Booi

  25. 5 out of 5

    Angela Ohrn

  26. 4 out of 5

    Sophia Ong

  27. 4 out of 5

    Paul Bouzigard

  28. 5 out of 5

    Richard Schey

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dave

  30. 5 out of 5

    DD

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