Thursday 31 March 2022

Oral History as a Practice of Care: Theatres of Memory from Singapore's industrial history


Block 115 Commonwealth Drive, Singapore's first flatted factory.

Editor's note: Our poetry column takes a break this month as I dip into a new, brilliantly-told industrial history of postwar Singapore, published by Pagesetters

Last weekend, I found myself in a cavernous stairwell at Block 115 Commonwealth Drive, tiptoeing to see through the high, grid-like windows as a faint mustiness settled over me. The banisters were cool to the touch, smooth with decades of use, while cigarettes flattened into corners told of the building’s more recent occupants. I followed the tinkling of a windchime onto one of the upper corridors, where a door swung open to reveal shelves of clay figurines and – hunched at a long table – a potter at work. Save for the glossy poster on the wall outside, I could well have imagined men and women arriving in neatly-pressed uniforms for an afternoon shift at Roxy Electric, Wing Heng, or another of the many tenants to have occupied Singapore’s first flatted factory since it opened in 1965.

As the authors of Theatres of Memory – a new industrial history of post-war Singapore – record, Roxy Electric began its local operations with only thirty-four workers, almost all women from the newly-built public housing estate of Queenstown. Like their colleagues at the better-known Singapore Electronics (‘Setron’) factory a stone’s throw away, Roxy’s employees assembled television sets: first for the Japanese firm Sharp Electronics, and later the German Telefunken. Life on the assembly line was far from easy; as one former employee mused, “people have to be hardworking in order to enjoy a better life”. But what emerges is more than a tale of drudgery. The story told here, of Southeast Asia’s most unlikely manufacturing country, is spun from the recollections of a young, hungry generation that put their shoulders to the wheel, and retains a generous dose of their hope and resolve.

Theatres of Memory owes its title to the historian Raphael Samuel, whose provocative volume reshaped debates about the role of “heritage” in Western societies three decades ago. Following in Samuel’s footsteps, the authors – historians Loh Kah Seng, Alex Tan, Koh Keng We and Tan Teng Phee, as well as visual artist Juria Toramae – revisit the much-vaunted narrative of Singapore’s economic success through memories that remain “little-studied or unheralded”: those of the technicians, engineers, clerks and production workers who kept production lines running, and food on the table. Beyond a survey of industrialisation’s various “theatres” (from flatted factories like the one at Commonwealth Drive, to the Singaporean home of the 1970s, newly-stocked with ‘Made in Singapore’ products), they pay particular attention to the cultures and communities of female night-shift workers, Malaysian contract workers, and many others, whose lived experiences often get short shrift in official accounts.

A history like this, told from the factory floor, is most illuminating in its accounts of how workers sustained themselves through the gruelling (and frequently unrewarding) hours of labour. The more familiar story – that of a nation thriving on good luck and location – hardly does justice to the grim determination of mothers turning up for night shift after putting their children to bed, or the heartbreak of Rollei employees learning that their company had gone into liquidation. Recorded lovingly in these pages are hundreds of conversations recalling moments of solidarity and sisterhood at the assembly line, or a supervisor’s unexpected kindnesses; all brought to life by vivid photographs shared by the protagonists themselves. In an early chapter, the authors even invite us to step into the theatre’s “set”, with a suggested route for a bus tour winding its way to the iconic Jurong Town Hall building, all the better to place these memories in context of the lived geography of industrialisation.

As co-author Ly Nguyen reflects at the end of her chapter on Rollei Singapore, the workers’ voices remind us that once we look beyond the “familiar tropes of the Singapore Story”, the past is as rich and heterogenous as our experience of the present. Certainly, the recollections here – especially those of Singapore’s early migrant workers, who began to arrive in larger numbers to fill the labour shortages of the 1970s – put paid to the idea that those now known as the “Pioneer and Merdeka Generations” were singularly driven by some rarefied ideal of nation-building. But these stories, with their “sometimes ambivalent relationship to power” (as Loh has suggested elsewhere), do much more than simply present a counterpoint to top-down narratives. They point us to ways of living and working in Singapore that are fast disappearing, beginning with the wave of deindustrialisation in the 1990s, and now accelerated by the shift towards digitalisation and the exigencies of COVID-19. And as we read of how these men and women looked out for each other on the factory floor, finding community during the brief lunch-hour, there seems to be more that we can learn from our pioneers yet.

By preserving and sharing their voices in so readable a form, the authors restore long-overdue dignity and recognition to lives which, at many points, have gone unseen. The oral history they undertake is a practice of care: something evident in the palpable excitement of their interviewees as they narrate long-cherished memories, as well as the gratitude of family members who have, through the process, found new reasons to love and admire a mother or grandmother. One cannot help but feel that it falls to us as readers, too, to reciprocate this care – not only by attending to the stories here, but making time to listen to and remember the other, invisible stories of labour that surround us today.

Theophilus Kwek is poetry editor of the Asian Books Blog.