The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity

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By Loh Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Lim Cheng Tju and Seng Guo-Quan

The book, using a small group of left-wing student activists as a prism, explores the complex politics that underpinned the making of nation-states in Singapore and Malaysia after World War Two. While most works have viewed the period in terms of political contestation groups, the book demonstrates how it is better understood as involving a shared modernist project framed by British-planned decolonization. This pursuit of nationalist modernity was characterized by an optimism to replace the colonial system with a new state and mobilize the people into a new relationship with the state, according them new responsibilitiesas well as new rights.

This book based on student writings, official documents and oral history interviews, brings to life various modernist strands - liberal-democratic, ethnic-communal, and Fabian and Marxist socialist - seeking to determine the form of postcolonial Malaya. It uncovers a hitherto little-seen world where the meanings of loud slogans were fluid, vague and deeply contested. This world also comprised as much convergence between the groups as conflict, including collaboration between the Socialist Club and other political and student groups which were once its rivals, while its main ally eventually became its nemesis.

"This study captures a brief Malayan moment in the history of Singapore and throws light on why the moment did not last. It is a strong example of alternative history in which losers' stories are not only told but also help to correct official accounts. Remarkably, it also shows how historians juggle with memories of pain and regret as they try not to make new myths"
Wang Gungwu

“Careful not to dismiss the official state narrative of nation formation as mere propaganda or promote the memories of the Left as gospel truth, the authors succeed admirably in adding a nuanced perspective to the history of Malaya and Singapore. Informative biographical sketches of the club’s members will educate future generations about a group of important individuals in our past.”
Koon Wong Soak

“On the balance, the book should prove to be a compelling read in terms of its rich factual details, fluent prose, thrusting analysis, as well as theoretical framing. It is a handsome contribution to extant scholarship on the history of the island city-state and places the English-educated student activism back into the limelight as the increasingly Anglicized society currently gropes towards a new style of politics.”
Huang Jianli 


Loh Kah Seng is Assistant Professor at the Institute of East Asian Studies, Sogang University. He is also the author of Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore.

Edgar Liao is a Tutor at the Department of History, National University of Singapore.

Lim Cheng Tju is an Educator in Singapore who has written about history, popular culture and the arts.

Seng Guo-Quan is a History PhD candidate at the University of Chicago.


Publication Year: 2012
350 pages, 229mm x 153mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-692-4, Paperback

NUS Press