Book Review: Singapore a Biography

Singapore a Biography by Mark Ravinder Frost, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

”Singapore a Biography” is an enlightening read about Singapore from the era of her founding by Sir Stamford Raffles till the 1960s. The authors use narrative devices like alliterations and metaphors to create a vivid and lively biography quilted together with a large collection of eye witness accounts and photos.

What really sets this book apart from those of a similar genre is the provision of alternative and sometimes contrarian perspectives. The book lends a voice to a diversity of people – commoners, survivors, heroes, antagonists. For example, the account of the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore included anecdotes from Japanese imperial Guard Corporal Tsuchikane Tominosuke’s memoirs, who had described his journey to the ”impregnable fortress” that was Singapore.

Getting to know the Singapore story from different view points helps drive home the reminder that history as told is not necessarily the absolute truth, but a winner’s narrative, and it is important to learn it from multiple perspectives.

Readers will also learn about some interesting anecdotes that would be omitted from the school curriculum for being controversial, such as the Karayuki-san (Japanese prostitutes trafficked from Japan to Asian countries) and how Singapore used to be christened “Sin-galore” and ”Chicago of the East” due to the excessive violence and chaos before law and order set in.

A downside is how this book stops abruptly at the events in the 1960s/70s. Several readers agree that a good concluding chapter could link modem-day Singapore to her past, with a discussion of attitudes that Singaporeans today hold towards the major themes in the book. Singapore a Biography is an entertaining book to supplement your knowledge about Singapore’s past. Even if you’re not a fan of history, the engaging narrative is likely to change your mind.

– This book review first appeared in a lifestyle magazine.