Monday, October 6, 2008

A key role in telling the S'pore story

Oct 6, 2008

By P.J. Thum
CONSTANCE Mary Turnbull contributed more to the idea of a distinct Singaporean nation than almost anyone else.

Such a bold statement may seem excessive. But the fact remains that until Turnbull published A History Of Singapore in 1977, Singapore had always been perceived as part of the Malayan peninsula, separated by the accidents of history and political expedience from its hinterland, the border between the two an artificial line drawn on water. Turnbull's groundbreaking work conceived Singapore as a distinct nation with historical roots stretching back in time. She gave Singaporeans a history to anchor themselves to.

Therefore, it was unsurprising that when the Singapore Government introduced a national education programme, it was Turnbull's understated, matter-of-fact historical narrative that became the basis for the official 'Singapore Story'.

Her work was more than convenient. Her values, forged in the Great Depression and The Blitz, emphasised stability, hard work and thrift. These values influenced her work and were exactly the values that the Singapore Government wished to inculcate. Her conservative approach to history, which told the story of Singapore based upon the lives of politicians and leaders, mirrored the Government's own view of that history.

However, the institutionalisation of her work as orthodoxy has also meant that the 'Singapore Story' inherited its shortcomings. In particular, it rejects the possibility of alternative contexts for Singapore's history. Turnbull herself, having been witness to much of that history, gave great weight to personal experience and was doubtful of the merit of other perspectives. Her staunch defence of that approach has helped to legitimise the exclusion of other frameworks for Singaporean history.

Turnbull grew up in Coventry, but was forced to leave it often. An only child, she was sent away several times to live with relatives as the family struggled to make ends meet. During World War II, she was evacuated thrice as Nazi Germany made a determined attempt to wipe Coventry off the map. Her family, fortunately, survived, as did her spirit of defiance. Her school's headmistress told the pupils that in order to beat Adolf Hitler, they were all going to have to get As in every subject in their School Certificate examinations. A gasp went around the room, but when the results were announced, Turnbull had done her part to defeat Hitler.

Opportunities for women in Britain were nonexistent then, and the poverty and rationing of the post-war years depressed her. Her heart longed for more. One morning, having arrived early for an appointment in London, she walked into the Appointments Board office near Euston Square.

'Have you got something exciting a long way away where the sun shines?' she asked.

'What about Kuala Lumpur?'

'Well, that sounds perfect!'

The only problem was that no one in the office knew where Kuala Lumpur was. They had to look at an atlas to find out.

When the Chief Secretary of the Federation of Malaya, Sir David Watherston, learnt women were being recruited, he cancelled the scheme, arguing that the natives would never work under women. Turnbull, however, had already been dispatched, one of only two female officers in the Malayan Civil Service then.

Coming from grey, spartan England, Malaya seemed to her a Technicolor land of plenty. She arrived during the height of the Malayan Emergency. She witnessed the Federation's independence in 1957, Singapore's achievement of self-government in 1959, the formation of Malaysia in 1963 and Singapore's independence in 1965.

In Singapore, she met many of the future leaders she would write about later. Dr Toh Chin Chye, the first chairman of the People's Action Party, occupied the room next to hers at the University of Malaya in Singapore, where the PAP's Old Guard would hold late night discussions. 'If only walls could talk,' she would later muse.

Academia had come calling in 1955. The glass ceiling prevented any promotion in the colonial civil service, so when she was offered a position to teach history at the university, she took it. She had intended to teach for only a year or two, but history became a 53-year love affair.

Cyril Parkinson, the head of the history department then, felt a responsibility to educate local students to lead their own country, and so accepted as many capable students as he could. Consequently, Turnbull taught many who later became among Malaya's and Singapore's first civil servants.

Parkinson also believed that students should learn their own history. He divided Malayan history amongst his department to research. From this came the beginnings of modern Malayan historiography, including Turnbull's first book, The Straits Settlements, 1826-67. She continued writing and researching right up to the end of her life, completing the final revisions for the third edition of A History Of Singapore the week before she died.

She retired from the University of Hong Kong in 1990, moved to Northamptonshire, and finally to Oxford. She remained active, holding visiting professorships and fellowships at many universities. She spent much time promoting South-east Asian studies.

A tireless advocate of Singapore, she was a mentor to many Singaporean students who passed through. But with typical grace and humility, she always felt surprised when they came to her doorstep, looking to meet the Grand Old Lady of Singapore history. A teacher to the end, she would read and critique their work, and tell them stories of Malaya as it had been, when she first stepped off the aeroplane, a young woman looking for a little sunshine and adventure.

C. Mary Turnbull, historian, born on Feb 9, 1927, died on Sept 5, 2008, aged 81. Her husband, Leonard Rayner, an accountant, predeceased her. She is survived by two daughters and three grandchildren. A fund to benefit South-east Asian studies in the University of Oxford is being organised in her memory.

The writer is a DPhil candidate in Modern History and teaches South-east Asian history at the University of Oxford.

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