Mon, Dec 28, 2009
The Straits Times
New book on varsity club tells 'untold story' of independence struggle

By Cai Haoxiang

A GROUP of researchers has completed the manuscript for a book about the University of Malaya Socialist Club (USC), a political debating society and student activist group in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dr Loh Kah Seng, visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), told The Straits Times that the group wanted to tell the 'untold story' of the socialist club and its role in the struggle for independence from the British.

Particularly, he wanted to highlight the role played by English-educated student activists in the University of Malaya, which later became the University of Singapore and then the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Formed in 1953 by students mainly from the medical and arts faculties, the USC was a debating forum for students who were against British colonialism.

Eight members of the club who founded the journal, Fajar, were famously acquitted of sedition charges brought against them by the British government in 1954.

The lawyer who represented them was Queen's Counsel D. N. Pritt, who was in turn assisted by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was then a practising lawyer.

In the 1960s, the club clashed often with the People's Action Party government and was eventually deregistered in 1971.

The book's project leader is Mr Michael Fernandez, who was with the USC from 1960 to 1962, and later a union activist.

He was detained under the Internal Security Act from 1964 to 1973.

The team looked for funding for nearly a year, before Iseas agreed to be its backer in 2007, said Mr Fernandez.

For the book, the team relied on face-to-face, e-mail and archival interviews with some 20 former members of the club. These included veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, noted academic Wang Gungwu, and former Barisan Sosialis leaders Lim Hock Siew and S. Woodhull.

Apart from Dr Loh, other researchers in the team include Mr Lim Cheng Tju, who is head of the humanities department at Riverside Secondary School; Mr Seng Guoquan, who is doing a doctorate at the University of Chicago; and Mr Edgar Liao, who is working on his master's thesis at NUS on student activism.

Apart from interviews with past members, the team also relied on past issues of Fajar, and historical records from British and Australian archives.

The book's completed manuscript is currently under review, said Dr Loh.

He aims to have the book published sometime next year, but declined to reveal its working title.

The new book comes hot on the heels of another book on the USC launched last month. The Fajar Generation, the first book to be published on the club, was launched by Dr Poh Soo Kai, Mr Koh Kay Yew and Mr Tan Jing Quee, all socialists in their time.

Commenting on that book, Dr Loh said he was struck by how much work Dr Poh and Mr Tan in particular had put into researching material from the British archives.

'This testifies to their determination to get the facts right, and to try to demonstrate that this is not propaganda, not a 'sour grapes' return to history,' he said.

The Fajar Generation is also a record of a particular ideological group within the club, he added, noting that the club, which lasted 17 years, was not homogenous.

As for the new book's contribution, Dr Loh said: 'Our book is written by historians - the others are either memoirs or in the case of Men In White, a compilation of the perspectives of the participants.

'Our book is empathetic to the history of the club, as an important history which has not yet been told, but above all it takes an independent approach to the efforts and contributions of the University Socialists.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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