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Loh Kah Seng
Polytechnicians and Technocrats: Sources, Limits, and Possibilities of Student Activism in 1970s Singapore
Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 2018, pp. 39-63. ( “Rereading Leftist Writings from Southeast Asia,” edited by Jafar Suryomenggolo)
How to Cite: Loh Kah Seng. Polytechnicians and Technocrats: Sources, Limits, and Possibilities of Student Activism in 1970s Singapore. In “Rereading Leftist Writings from Southeast Asia,” edited by Jafar Suryomenggolo, special issue, Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 2018, pp. 39-63.
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Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2, September 2011
Polytechnicians and Technocrats: Sources, Limits, and Possibilities of Student Activism in 1970s Singapore
Loh Kah Seng*
Making a case for studying student activism outside of elite university students, this paper investigates the sources of polytechnic student activism in a tightly controlled society: 1970s Singapore. It seeks to find less obvious histories: the limits of state control, the relative openness of the city-state, and the identity and lived experiences of the polytechnicians. Through the writings and cartoons of the Singapore Polytechnic Students’ Union, augmented by oral histories, the paper traces the contours of student activism as defined by everyday events as well as momentous experiences formed at the intersection between campus, national, and transnational—particularly pan-Asian—developments.
At the national level, the polytechnicians’ identity responded to the state’s instrumentalist view of students, which was to define the polytechnic student in a more expansive way, attacking student apathy toward social and political issues. Some student matters, such as protests against bus hikes, escalated into national issues, bringing the polytechnicians into encounters with state officials and politicians. Political surveillance caused fear and anxiety but also fostered a sense of injustice. Conversely, international contact, such as reading critical literature and participating in pan-Asian seminars, helped the polytechnicians place Singapore in an Asian context and plot themselves on a mental political spectrum. Reading was an experience: universal ideas in books enabled the students to contextualize local issues, just as everyday experiences in Singapore helped them locate the abstract. The international contact thus enabled the polytechnicians to give meaning to concepts such as “students,” “education,” and “Asia.”
Keywords: student activism, Singapore Polytechnic, pan-Asia, Malaysian students, technocrats

Scholarship on the history of left-wing student activism in Singapore has in recent years been invigorated by new research on Chinese-stream middle school and English-stream university student activists (Huang 2006; Liao 2010; Loh et al. 2012). These studies have

* The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway Perth WA 6009, Australia e-mail: [email protected]

Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 2018, pp. 39–63 © Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.1_39

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detached the subject from the frame of Communist subversion that dominated the earlier literature (see Lee 1996), while also questioning the long-accepted dichotomy between English- and Chinese-stream students. However, the role of student activists from polytechnics, particularly the first institution, the Singapore Polytechnic, remains to be written. Established in the late-colonial period after World War II, the Singapore Polytechnic was an instrument of British-led decolonization, aimed at shaping the city-state’s postcolonial future by producing a steady stream of technicians and other blue-collar workers to supplement the administrative and professional elite being groomed at the University of Malaya (later, University of Singapore). The polytechnic’s pragmatic role was subsequently enlarged by the People’s Action Party (PAP) government, which came to power in 1959 and continued to seek British expertise on technical education (Loh 2015).
Polytechnic student activists—or polytechnicians, as they called themselves— comprised a unique category: unlike their university counterparts, they did not occupy a privileged position as the future leadership of an anticolonial or pro-democracy movement, or as a technocratic elite in a developmental state (Weiss et al. 2012). In the hierarchy of political economy in Singapore, the polytechnicians were intended to play a less prestigious middle role, as diploma-level technicians and engineers who would share more common experiences with the working class. The history of polytechnic student activism thus raises questions and approaches that differ from those of university ­students.
The polytechnic’s pragmatic function did not prevent the emergence of bold and critical-minded student activists who looked beyond their studies to the political and social landscape of early postcolonial Singapore under an authoritarian government. In the mid-1960s, alongside fellow activists from the University of Singapore Socialist Club and Ngee Ann College Students’ Union, the Singapore Polytechnic Political Society supported the Chinese-stream Nanyang University against the government’s decision to reform its curriculum and medium of instruction.1) In fact, polytechnic student activism was fueled by such policies imposed from above.
Beyond the 1960s, some of the polytechnicians were connected to another dark chapter of Singapore’s history. Those leaders from the Singapore Polytechnic Students’ Union (SPSU) who continued their activism upon graduation were later detained without trial for their involvement in a state-alleged “Marxist conspiracy” in 1987. The reasons behind this crackdown remain unclear, though Michael Barr (2010) has done good work to trace the international roots of the Catholic activists who were detained. Nevertheless,

1) Ngee Ann College Students’ Union, University Socialist Club, and Singapore Polytechnic Political Society, Memorandum on the Present Nanyang University Crisis (1965).

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the voices of the detained polytechnicians remain mostly unheard. This rather mirrors the roles they played as student and social activists. As former polytechnicians recalled, they were “manpower activists” who, together with activist lawyers and Catholic Church workers, volunteered at the Geylang Catholic Center to help exploited migrant workers (mostly Malaysians). The ex-polytechnicians also supported the Workers’ Party in the 1981 elections, printing pamphlets and writing articles in the party’s organ, The Hammer; they comprised the publication’s “de facto editorial board.”2) As Low Yit Leng remarked, they were so heavily involved in social activism, both as polytechnic students and thereafter, that when she was arrested she did not know the exact reason for her detention.3)
Inter-Nation-Local Singapore and Its Activist Spaces
The polytechnicians provide a glimpse into the underside of Singapore’s social and political history in the 1970s. Unlike the radical university students who formed the vanguard for Thailand’s democratization in the early 1970s (Prajak 2012), their Singapore Polytechnic counterparts had far less political impact in the city-state. The SPSU did not lead or contribute to a nationwide movement for democracy in Singapore: the PAP’s hold remained strong, and the polytechnicians’ activism was largely constrained to the campus, to writings and to conversations with international students. The members of the SPSU’s student councils were never more than a tiny elite of active students who tried but generally failed to mobilize their peers; most of his classmates, by polytechnician Tan Tee Seng’s admission, were not moved by his efforts.4)
Instead, the attempt here is to investigate the nature and sources of student activism in a tightly controlled society, so that we may better see the less obvious histories: namely, the possibilities offered by the activism as well as the limits of state control and openness of Singapore. What follows endeavors to mark out the shape of left-wing polytechnic activism as defined by a combination of international, national, and campus develop­ments in the 1960s and 1970s.
Following recent research, the focus here is on the identity, lived experiences, and worldviews of the polytechnicians—in short, a social history. Rather than taking the terms “Left,” “student activist,” and “student” as givens, such research has demonstrated that they were constructed historically from a range of possible interpretations, and thus contested. I have used a similar approach in my co-authored work on the Uni-
2) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng, January 20, 2015. 3) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng. 4) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng.

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versity of Malaya Socialist Club, with various student groups according competing meanings to key concepts in the postwar years, such as “student,” “socialism,” “university,” and “politics.” The university socialists made a broad and activist interpretation of the role of students, by which they themselves became an intellectual force bridging the university, the Malayan nationalist movement, and the urban and rural society of Singapore and Malaya (Loh et al. 2012). In the case of Malaysia, Meredith Weiss has also argued that university activists there mobilized as students rather than as Malaysians, youths, or Muslims; they were thus a unique group that advocated the interests of others rather than their own (Weiss 2011). Similarly, Indonesian students also mobilized as a moral force, untainted by politics and based on their privileged position as the modernizing elite of the nation (Aspinall 2012). By contrast, radical students in the Philippines had to subsume their student identity to become Communist cadres, whereupon they lost their identity and influence over time (Abinales 2012).
The identity of students was shaped historically by what Fabio Lanza (2010) in his study of Beijing student activists in the May-Fourth-era China calls “lived experience.” Lanza points out that it was everyday interactions with various kinds of spaces—the university, city, neighborhood, and intellectual and political spaces—that set university students “at a distance” from the state, so turning youths attending higher education into modern activist students. This approach shows that, contra previous historiography, “students” in the modern sense did not exist prior to the May Fourth and so the Beijing University students did not merely “change China.” As Lanza argues, it was through the students’ experiences and activism that they defined themselves as a distinctive group of socio-political actors, largely independent of the Chinese regime (Lanza 2010, 5). This paper seeks to build upon Lanza’s work, taking into account both spaces and temporality (events and processes), as well as to explore the international dimensions.
The paper argues that polytechnic student activism stemmed from everyday events as well as momentous experiences formed at the intersection between campus, national, and transnational—particularly pan-Asian—developments. The 1970s was a difficult time for activism of any form in Singapore, and the power of the PAP government and its intolerance of autonomous activism bred a claustrophobic atmosphere of fear—the fear of state surveillance and repression. Yet even in such a context, events at various levels­—be the repeated clashes with the polytechnic bureaucracy, intimidation and arrests of fellow students in Singapore, or crackdowns against progressive movements in another part of the world—encouraged a small number of independent-minded ­students.
The sources used here are largely written, drawn, and orated by the protagonists themselves. Using memoirs, Khairudin Aljunied has likewise traced an ethnographic history of Malay radicals as a productive force and avant garde, sprung forth from big

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historical moments and everyday experiences that defined them (including those in prison) (Aljunied 2015). This paper similarly looks to utilize the students’ writings to map their worldview and responses to the social and political issues that confronted them, and the historical context in which they moved. It does so by drawing upon the numbers of the English-language organ of the SPSU, the Singapore Technocrat, supplemented by a small number of interviews with former polytechnicians.
There is another reason for the lack of sources. The period in question, the 1970s, renders British and other foreign sources relatively less useful, while the Singapore archives on national security issues are still closed to researchers (Loh and Liew 2010). The archives hold records from the Ministry of Education (but not, it seems, the key policy papers), but they remain under restricted access and their use for research requires the work to be vetted and approved by the ministry. Thus this paper, for positive and negative reasons, draws heavily from the vivid reports, commentaries, letters, and political cartoons found in the Technocrat. These are useful in unraveling the lived experiences of students and the various issues that galvanized them.
To explore the spaces for social activism in 1970s Singapore is to map out the local and international factors, in addition to the PAP’s political control and policies. Admittedly the polytechnicians could not, as Beijing University students did during the May Fourth movement, stand at a distance from the state (Lanza 2010). The main political opposition to the PAP, the left-wing Barisan Sosialis—which once possessed a mass base of workers, squatters, and Chinese-stream students—had been decimated by a series of crackdowns in the early 1960s; by 1968 the PAP held all the seats in Parliament. The combination of political repression and great fires in squatter areas also destroyed the strength of left-wing rural organizations. Urban squatters and slum dwellers were thus unable to resist being moved to public housing estates, nor were the lightermen who historically toiled and lived along the Singapore River: these communities were progressively atomized and socialized into homeowning citizen-workers in order to pay for their housing (Dobbs 2003; Loh 2013). The mid- to late 1960s also witnessed Singapore’s expulsion from Malaysia and the closure of British military bases on the island, with alarming economic and security implications for its survival. Although the imagined repercussions did not materialize (Loh 2011), they created a state of crisis that allowed the PAP to push through restrictive laws that weakened the power of trade unions visà-vis employers, namely, the public agencies and foreign multinationals.
These PAP policies mobilized Singaporeans en masse to support the state industrialization program (Rodan 1989). The program was successful at the national level and benefited many Singaporeans materially, but it was driven forward at such a pace without oversight from opposition or civil society groups that it could not fail to have deleterious

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effects at the local level. The changes produced considerable social and economic dis­ locations for various groups of people who lived and worked in Singapore. The move to high-rise housing was a difficult experience for the elderly and low-income families that struggled to pay their rent (Chen and Tai 1977; Hassan 1977); just as crucially, the agency and dynamism of semi-autonomous squatter communities was quickly replaced by a submission to the norms of the imposed social and economic system when they were rehoused in public housing (Loh 2013). With a “tripartite” labor system in place and trade unions no longer independent of the state and capital, low-wage workers also had no power to contest unreasonable employers and poor working conditions. This was the case for migrant workers who arrived in Singapore in the 1970s, largely Malaysians. Both new and older research on the decade also points to widening social and income gaps within the Chinese population—between graduates of English- and Chinese-stream education and between employees in economic sectors differentially linked to Singapore’s industrialization (Salaff 1988; Koh 2010).
University student activism was likewise drastically curtailed by the end of the 1960s. In 1963–66 student groups across different academic institutions led a nationwide struggle for university autonomy and student rights, but this eventually failed (Loh et al. 2012). Between 1964 and 1978, students seeking entry into institutions of higher education, including the polytechnic, had to produce state-endorsed “suitability certificates” to support their application, which barred expressly leftist students. In 1971 the Socialist Club at the University of Singapore, which had been a leading intellectual voice for left-wing socialism since 1953, was deregistered following years of declining membership and activity. These setbacks did not spell the end of university student activism: in 1974 architecture students at the University of Singapore captured the Students’ Union (USSU) and attempted to organize exploited workers in Jurong Industrial Estate—the centerpiece of the government’s ambitious industrialization program. This effort was also criminalized and suppressed by the state, but it nevertheless had a galvanizing influence on the SPSU’s student leaders.
The international dimensions of Singapore’s political economy in the 1970s are just as significant. As Garry Rodan demonstrates, international capital investment, largely American but also Japanese and European, provided the material impetus for the PAP’s export-led industrialization program. Singapore succeeded because it joined the newly formed international division of labor, functioning as the destination for Western companies going offshore to find cheaper factory sites and workers. Indeed, Singapore began to face a labor shortage and had to import Malaysian workers (Rodan 1989).
Yet, the ties between national control and international capital also encountered countervailing international forces. The genesis of the New Left in Europe and a grow-

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ing belief in the power of communities opposed the top-down planning and technical expertise that was previously dominant. In Singapore, similarly, community organization efforts emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, led by Catholic social activists and influenced in part by liberation theology practiced in Latin American and other Asian countries (Barr 2010). The activists worked briefly in housing and industrial estates in Jurong, Toa Payoh, and Bukit Ho Swee, utilizing group-oriented techniques to help residents and migrant workers organize themselves to deal with housing and employment problems. Such activism was politically non-threatening, but its attempt at independent collective action stirred the state enough to quickly stamp it out (Loh 2013). Despite this, the Catholic activists, joined later by lawyers and former polytechnic student leaders, continued their work until they were detained in 1987.
The student activism at the Singapore Polytechnic formed another flank of this “inter-nation-local” triangle of mutual influence in the 1970s. It was precisely the intersection of such varied scales and trajectories of events that defined the activism. This qualifies the categorization of university student activism according to world-historical or pan-Asian trends in the recent edited volume by Meredith Weiss, Edward Aspinall, and Mark Thompson (2012). The editors distinguish between two overlapping periods: first, a “leftist” wave between the late 1950s and early 1970s that was partly influenced by the European New Left. This was followed by a “developmentalist” movement in the 1960s and 1970s that addressed the economic programs of the state and their social effects (Weiss et al. 2012). Such a clear-cut demarcation is, however, problematic. In Singapore (not included in the edited volume), polytechnic student activists straddled both waves: the time frame is the 1970s, with some New Left influences, but the polytechnicians were also critical of the social ramifications of the PAP’s industrialization program.
“Blur Blocks” Becoming Polytechnicians
In terms of identity, were the polytechnicians Communists or students? The charge of Communist subversion has long dominated scholarship on Singapore’s history (Lee 1996). However, recent research into the declassified British archives has traced the purges of the Left in the early 1960s to the desire of Singaporean and Malayan leaders to remove their political rivals rather than to deal with a real threat of subversion (Wade 2013). Another way to move beyond the subversion framework is to fully contextualize left-wing activism rather than to make a simplistic link between the activism and international or Malayan Communism. My earlier work has explored various aspects of the

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history of the Left in postwar Singapore, such as trade unions and rural associations. The left-wing movements were undoubtedly attracted to the Marxist ideology, had Communists in their leadership, and were inspired by such events as the Communists coming to power in China in 1949. Yet, these movements are better understood as local and largely autonomous responses to socioeconomic issues and colonial policy in Singapore and Malaya within the frames of anticolonialism and socialism (Fernandez and Loh 2008; Loh 2013).
The polytechnicians may be likened to the University Socialist Club, which, while inspired by radical socialist and egalitarian ideas, was not a front for the Communist Party of Malaya. The club acted primarily as a student group, working on the basic premise that university students had a role to play in the political and social life of Malaya. This role entailed, on the one hand, upholding the interests of marginalized groups, such as workers, peasants, and other oppressed students, and on the other, articulating the intellectual framework of Malayan socialism that would transform the country into a nationstate (Loh et al. 2012). In a similar vein, albeit in a postcolonial context, the SPSU was concerned over what polytechnic students could do about social and political issues in Singapore in the 1970s.
There was still a spectrum of activism on the social role of students in the period, although the left wing was quickly diminishing. As Low Yit Leng recalled, when she was a freshman some of her seniors were very militant and ambitious, desiring to control all the student clubs in the polytechnic and opposing religion- or welfare-based societies.5) According to Tan Tee Seng, the 15th and 16th Student Councils were extremely politicized, comprising largely mature-age and Malaysian students. By contrast, his cohort was apathetic, literally “blur blocks”: freshly graduated from secondary schools and ­ignorant of social and political issues. As he explained, he became a student leader—the vice-president of the 17th Council in 1976—by default when the Internal Security Department (ISD) arrested the leaders of the previous council.6) It was common knowledge among the polytechnicians that there were polytechnic students with ties to the Communists, particularly in the Chinese Language Society. This was a cultural society that carried out clandestine activities, such as reading banned literature, and some of its members either joined the Communist underground or were detained by the ISD.7)
The polytechnicians’ identity was shaped also by their reading. They devoured what they could lay their hands on, both Communist and non-Communist progressive literature. The students obtained some of the literature from independent bookstores at Bras
5) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng. 6) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng. 7) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng.

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Basah—a source of leftist and progressive literature. Other literature came through networks of book fairs organized periodically by the polytechnicians, who also reviewed the books and brought them to the knowledge of the general student population in the polytechnic.8) In focusing on the everyday spaces and lived experiences of students, Lanza argues that reading in itself does not politicize them (Lanza 2010). While this is a useful primer for examining other factors, reading certainly had an impact. It was not whether reading or experiences mattered more, but the way both factors intersected and influenced each other. In other words, reading was an experience: the external ideas and situations narrated in the books enabled students to contextualize local issues, just as everyday experiences and events in Singapore helped them to locate the abstract. Polytechnician Tan Tee Seng found some of the works relatively easy to relate to, such as the Communist Manifesto, Soviet material on workers, the revolution against the Tsar, and Maoist texts on China’s development and the Cultural Revolution. The students did not read with much self-reflexivity; they were surprised to learn later about the horrors perpetuated by the Gang of Four. However, they did not passively absorb the propaganda, finding the more stridently ideological material difficult to stomach. What moved the students were the emotional stories in the literature as much as ideological imperatives, and universal themes such as heroism, patriotism, and repression resonated strongly.9) Pak Geok Choo of the 18th Students’ Council recounted that, besides leftist material such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, she enjoyed reading the work of Pearl Buck and other progressive American books from the popular publisher Penguin.10)
The polytechnicians’ identity as students was based on their response to the instrumentalist notion defined by the state: polytechnic students were seen as technicians in training who comprised the blue-collar workforce for the industrial development of ­Singapore. The polytechnicians, however, sought to define the polytechnic student in a more expansive and activist way, just as the critical articles in the Technocrat gave the term “technocrat” a wider meaning than merely someone who applies technological knowledge to practical problems. Students, an article in the Technocrat urged, were not “mechanical robots or digits”; neither should the “primary and even the secondary focus [of polytechnic education] are (sic) on science and technology.”11) Disagreeing with a former principal of the polytechnic, the article argued that liberal studies, which was removed from the curriculum by the PAP government in 1959 (Loh 2015), was crucial for treating a person as an individual human being. The article concluded that memoriz-
8) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng. 9) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng. 10) Author’s interview with Tan Tee Seng, Pak Geok Choo, and Low Yit Leng. 11) “The Polytechnic and the Union,” The Singapore Technocrat 3(2) (May 1974): 4, 10.

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Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University