Once a year, I get treated to some loud, warbly old-school Chinese karaoke at the annual lunch gathering of the Old Left.
The Old Left generally refers to the members of the post-WWII leftist, anti-colonial movement, many of whom were Chinese-educated students, activists, trade unionists, and politicians. These are the people whose mobilisation and organising pushed back against colonialism and swept the People’s Action Party into power in 1959.
Many members of the Old Left have paid the price for their activism, facing arrest and detention without trial under British rule, and later PAP rule. Today, their role and contributions to Singaporean self-determination has been largely erased from the official “Singapore Story”.
My previous writing about the Old Left can be found on Roads and Kingdoms, and also in Mynah #2. I’ve also written about members of the Old Left volunteering during the 2015 general election, and interviewed some about their experiences for New Naratif.
Every year, on the third day of the Lunar New Year, the Old Left gathers at an old-school Chinese restaurant for a reunion. It’s a tradition they’ve kept alive for decades. Since 2015, I’ve adopted this tradition for myself.
I don’t know most of the members of the Old Left, but I attend year after year—eating my way through largely the same menu every time—because I think it’s important to be present and to eventually become part of this yearly communal activity.
The very first time I attended such a lunch, I was struck by this community—one that I hadn’t even known existed. Their history of activism and political organisation fascinated me, pointing to a period when Singapore was so different from the one that I’ve grown up in.
As I learnt more about the Old Left, I began to feel as if I was rediscovering something as a Singaporean. I’m a big believer in the importance of collective memory—I believe that as communities and societies we’re shaped by past experiences, what we know of them, and how we talk about them. And, by erasing the Old Left from the “Singapore Story”, I felt like we’d lost a part of ourselves, and knowledge of what we were and can therefore be.
It is easy to romanticise Old Left, and I’ve been in danger of going down that path quite a number of times. (Or, if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ve gone down that path before.) But it’s also important to acknowledge things as they are: not to “cancel” them (unless they really deserve to be “cancelled”), but to examine the complexities that exist.
At this year’s luncheon, it was impossible not to recognise that there was a pro-China (as in, the Chinese Communist Party’s China) leaning. One karaoke song referred to the “motherland (祖国 zǔ guó)”—it wasn’t explicitly specified that the motherland was China, but I think it can quite safely be assumed that it is. Another song’s video footage revolved around Tiananmen Square, the portrait of Mao Zedong, and scenes of a developing China. And then there was straight-up a karaoke video of Peng Liyuan (i.e. Mrs Xi Jinping) singing on CCTV1 in military uniform. One of the Old Left, chatting to a friend of mine, referred to protesters in Hong Kong as “rioters”—echoing the framing of the Hong Kong government, police, and the CCP.
I was sitting at one of the tables reserved for those of us who aren’t part of the Old Left, but have come to join their annual luncheon over the years. A rumble ran through the people around me. As younger members of Singapore’s civil society, we tended to find such displays of Chinese patriotism and nationalism uncomfortable. For us, when it comes to politics and activism, the mention of China and the CCP tends to bring to mind ongoing concerns about surveillance, censorship, and concentration camps in Xinjiang.
The first time I’d encountered this divergence in opinion between myself and members of the Old Left, I’d been shocked. Looking back, I’d been naive, assuming that, just because they’d been activists for a cause I now admired, that we would be completely politically aligned. I’d not taken into consideration differences in language, media diets, age, experiences. I’d not thought about the different eras and environments in which people had come of age, and how different influences might have shaped us.
It’s yet another demonstration of the multitudes contained within this category of “Chinese in Singapore”—for more, you can read Amy Qin’s New York Times piece about evocations of the “motherland” among Chinese Singaporeans, and a follow-up to that I wrote for Lowy Institute.
This is not to argue that one side is entirely “right” and the other “wrong”—that would be a far too simplistic and unhelpful formulation. But it’s a reminder that we should always be talking, listening, and not assuming; and that the “long struggle for freedom”—as evoked on the commemorative mug and in the book all attendees were given—is a multi-generational struggle that will always need to change and evolve.
P.S. for bonus content: within different generational and contextual settings, terms like “同志 tóng zhì” also mean different things. To the Old Left, it means “comrade”. But in more contemporary Chinese, it’s used to refer to the LGBT community.