An Upfront View
A perspective of the Singapore story through the eyes of a woman who did more than observe from the ringside
By Pamela Ho
Where I Was: A Memoir about Forgetting and Remembering
What was it like to spend time in the company of this memoir? How does it compare to spending time in the company of the author herself (whom I know) and piecing together her life story through conversations and research? Reading a memoir is not the same as knowing someone's life story. While Constance Singam has written about the life she's lived, it's not that life that I am asked to review, but how that life has been translated into a story by words. What was my experience with the storytelling? And did the story matter to me as a reader?
I first read this memoir or rather, the original version published in 2013 eight years ago. Reading this updated version was like reading a different book. Not that the content had been overhauled (most of it has been retained), but rather, I have changed, Singapore has changed, and I am reading this book with the weight of new knowledge and a yearning for answers to new questions.
This book is a curated collection of memories, told through a chronological narration of life events big and small, but all significant. The first half of the book traces her journey from childhood to the 1970s. During World War II, she spent her childhood days at her maternal grandfather's house in a village in Kerala. In 1948, she returned to Singapore as a 12-year-old on a steamship. She writes about her convent education where questions of race and identity surfaced because of how she was treated as an Indian child. These little snapshots of memory make you reflect on why they matter in the bigger scheme of things. It's like collecting clues. But along the way, you're tickled by her observations. There is humour and humanity in her storytelling.
She also mentions her stint as a journalist with The Straits Times, her marriage to fellow journalist, N.T.R. Singam, and her quiet years as a stay-at-home wife. Little is written about her marriage or private relationships. One can't help but wonder how they too have shaped her and what we are missing out by not knowing. This segment ends with the death of her husband. At 42, she was a widow. But the circumstances surrounding his death in the hospital triggered the first of hundreds of letters she would write to the Forum page. In many ways, it marked a beginning and an end.
The second part sees her charting a path forward on her own again, uprooting her life to live and study overseas. As a student of English Literature and a voracious reader, Singam will pepper this book with quotes from literary works that have moved her. Reading a writer who is a reader is always a delight because what has already been articulated well needs no rewriting.
I mention two distinct parts in the book because the updated version has been organised as such: 'Part One: Remembering' and 'Part Two: Not Forgetting'. The subtitle of the book has also been changed from A Memoir from the Margins to A Memoir about Forgetting and Remembering. There is a subtle difference between choosing to remember something and choosing not to forget. What comes to mind is the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks in America and the hashtag that has survived to this day: #NeverForget.
The events we should not forget, in her eyes, are as difficult to read as it probably was for her to write. Central to the narrative is the AWARE Saga, a landmark event in Singapore's feminist history, where a conservative Christian faction hijacked the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) at its 2009 Annual General Meeting, but within weeks, the coup was overthrown by the Old Guards. The event was so unexpected and bizarre, and the experience so powerful and unparalleled, that it shook Singam to the core and compelled her to pen her memoir in 2013.
Last year, a 12-episode podcast entitled Saga was released. Narrated by journalist Bharati Jagdish, it featured interviews with the Old Guards, who recounted the events leading up to the AWARE Saga. The podcast garnered rave reviews and was a finalist in the Anthem Awards, the social impact branch of the prestigious Webby Awards. It captured a fresh audience who knew little about the history of civil society activism in Singapore. For them, this updated edition of the book seems timely.
To approach this book, we will need to be aware of two things: the first is that Singam was the president of AWARE in 2009, when the coup happened, and the second is that she had helmed this women's advocacy group as its president for six terms. In the eyes of many, she is regarded as "the mother of civil society" a title coined by Alvin Tan, co-founder of local theatre group, The Necessary Stage, and a recipient of the Cultural Medallion.
While memoirs are by nature subjective, they each open a door to a specific reality that is at once infused with insight and emotional truth. Where I Was may be one woman's perspective of a history we share, but it is an important lens from which to view it because of who Constance Singam is and the role she has played in Singapore's advocacy movement.
The title of the book is also worth mentioning. On 2 May 2009, at the Suntec City Convention Centre, AWARE held an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) to pass a vote of no confidence against the new Exco. The electrifying event was attended by 3,000 who heard speech after speech on why the new Exco must step down. Amidst the shouts and applause, I remember one voice ringing out:
"Where were you" these three words, repeated seven times in Singam's speech, galvanised the crowd to chant in unison. I am pretty sure the title of this book references that iconic speech. Singam's own answer to her barrage of questions is this memoir.
Many chapters start off with a summary of milestone events in history. This provides context for her personal stories to unfold. She was there in many of these early events sometimes as an observer, sometimes as a participant and her opinions reflected her understanding of political intent in those circumstances. An example was the Graduate Mothers' Scheme, which reeked of eugenics.
She holds nothing back in her views of the People's Action Party (PAP). But taken in context, Singam's criticism of government policies is nothing new. She has always been penning Forum letters, writing cutting commentaries in her newspaper columns or submitting policy proposals on how things could be improved for marginalised women or migrant workers.
Taken in context, her feelings of disappointment were not just directed at the PAP, but also at her fellow AWARE leaders, her old friends, who were absent at that fateful AGM that led to the takeover. Taken in context, her criticisms were also punctuated by moments of deep appreciation for what the PAP has done for Singapore and moments where she had vehemently defended them, especially against criticisms hurled at them by friends overseas.
I found some parts of the book particularly insightful like the choice of Kent Ridge for the relocation of our national university, referencing the student riots of earlier decades but it's hard to discern if these explanations were based on fact or speculation. What I found valuable as a reader, though, were the questions she raised and her attempts to connect the dots. I'd say she took risks to write about them, and she was not without fear. Operation Spectrum (1987) saw people she knew arrested and detained without trial for their alleged involvement in a "Marxist Conspiracy". Such experiences would continue to haunt her throughout her life as a civil society activist.
"I am not fearless and am actually a coward," she admits at one point, much to my surprise. "But there comes a time when fear turns to anger and anger to action. It did not happen to me in an instant. That wasn't how I usually responded. Depression was, and tears came easily."
Through her writing, Singam reveals herself as human and flawed. In such moments, I find her brave. Anyone who writes an authentic memoir, in my eyes, is brave. But it was Dr Kanwaljit Soin, an ex-president of AWARE and former Nominated Member of Parliament, who warned her, "Don't be depressed. Be angry." It was these tough times that changed her perception of the responsibility of a citizen. "Ever so tentatively and ever so fearfully," she writes, "I would become an active citizen."
Singam's thorn in the flesh seems to be the PAP's unwillingness to concede that "alternative views and ideas can grow independently and should be encouraged for the good of the country." Caring for one's country doesn't mean you have to agree with or accept everything it says. Being in any committed relationship entails working through disagreements and not giving up. She explains:
While this memoir feels like a call to action, Singam is ironically in a very different space in life. She says, upfront in the new Prologue, "I am now at a calmer, more serene phase of my life and can even look back and assert that the past is a foreign country! I no longer grieve for that old self, the AWARE activist." Then quoting a beautiful passage from Virginia Woolf's A Sketch of the Past, she explains why this may actually be the right time to revisit her work:
Perhaps it is a call to action because it is time to pass the baton. Unlike an autobiography, which has the writer as the subject matter, a memoir is written for a specific purpose. By discussing themes close to her heart like race and identity, feminism and human rights, and the importance of family and community in one's walk on earth Singam is writing a story that is bigger than herself. And by educating readers on the history of civil society activism, and its manifold struggles and victories, she is elevating possibilities that go beyond her memories.
Perhaps it is in the specifics of her life that we find the deepest resonance. While our lives will take their own course, her writing matters to us because it offers us a way forward if we face brick walls or are plagued with self-doubt or debilitating fear. And if by chance we find ourselves upfront at the ringside, compelled to do more than observe, we too may shape a bit of history.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022