Book review: Breathing life into the history of work in Singapore

Singaporean employees of German camera firm Rollei, which had a factory in Alexandra. PHOTO: LIM HONG HIN

Theatres Of Memory: Industrial Heritage Of 20th Century Singapore

By Loh Kah Seng

Non-fiction/Pagesetters/Paperback/269 pages/$32.10/Books Kinokuniya

4 out of 5

Historian Loh Kah Seng breathes life into the often neglected story of Singapore's industrial history in his new book, Theatres Of Memory.

It charts the country's transformation into an industrialised economy between the 1960s and 1980s, taking a social, ground-up lens which animates the potentially dry subject matter.

Through oral history interviews, extensive use of photographs and social media posts complete with emojis, Loh effortlessly weaves together the official, economic narratives and the lived experiences of the many Singaporeans and foreign workers who took jobs in the country's nascent industries.

Though Loh is the main writer, the book credits a number of other authors, notably urban planner Ly Nguyen, who co-wrote a chapter on German camera brand Rollei's manufacturing history here.

Loh consistently enriches the economic and political narrative he constructs on how and why Singapore chose to industrialise with personal stories of how these jobs changed the lives of the men and women who worked them.

To accomplish this, he skilfully employs British historian Raphael Samuel's idea of a "theatre of memory", which refers to history based on people's memories of things, as opposed to official data or other sources.

He uses this idea to illuminate various aspects of how industry impacted Singaporeans through novel angles.

One example is how he considers the graveyard shift - a new concept in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s - as one such "theatre of memory".

He collects and displays workers' memories of the graveyard shift, as opposed to the definitions of employers or the state, and is able to paint a detailed, evocative picture not just of the logistics of work, but also how the nature of the work shaped the social fabric of individual workers and of Singapore's society as a whole.

Historian Loh Kah Seng breathes life into the often neglected story of Singapore's industrial history in his new book, Theatres Of Memory. PHOTO: PAGESETTERS SERVICES

By examining these memories, Loh discusses the dual role of women - who were entering the workforce in large numbers for the first time after Singapore's independence, and had to balance the demands of industrial and domestic work - an expectation not placed on their male counterparts.

Throughout the book, Loh's prose is effective and versatile, at times reaching a poignancy that borders on poetic in communicating people's dearly held memories of their youth.

He invokes nostalgia through simplicity and statements of carefully chosen fact, never romanticising the past or people's experience of difficult, often tedious work.

If there is a quibble, it is that Loh sometimes comes across as too careful, too rooted in reporting history for the reader, occasionally stopping short in his analysis and conclusions and leaving one wanting more.

If you like this, read: Squatters Into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire And The Making Of Modern Singapore by Loh Kah Seng (Asian Studies Association of Australia: Southeast Asia Publications Series, 2013, $38 before GST,, Loh's seminal book on the Bukit Ho Swee fire, which similarly weaves official and oral histories into a cogent examination of the social effects of one of Singapore's defining disasters.

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