At under 200 pages, Clement Mesenas’s “Dissident Voices: Personalities in Singapore’s Political History” is a quick crash course of 10 individuals who appear to have run afoul of the established political order in Singapore – of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in particular – but this brevity could also be a disservice. For one, Mesenas does not actually define dissidence in the beginning (besides the mere willingness to “challenge authority”) or explain how the individuals were shortlisted, resulting in 10 disparate narratives without common themes. These short memoirs make for informative reading for the uninitiated, yet may not provide new information for those familiar with developments.
The lack of coherence across chapters is therefore striking. Likewise, dissimilar modes of storytelling means the structure of these chapters – of different lengths – varies too.
I was given this book by the blogger behind “Thoughts of a Cynical Investor” two years ago when I was on exchange in Helsinki, Finland, and it has been sitting on the bookshelf, though the recent death of former Solicitor-General Francis Seow – one of the 10 “dissidents” featured in the book – provided the prompt to pick it up. Mesenas says in his synopsis that he glorifying the “tough stances” of these individuals is not his intent, but adds in the start that “Dissident Voices: Personalities in Singapore’s Political History” celebrates some of these unique individuals who had the courage to stand by their convictions, and be radically different and brave”.
Better segments of the book, in my opinion, feature when he recalls personal experiences or interactions with these “dissidents”. References to his own articles are engaging too, though this should be of little surprise, since Mesenas has spent decades in journalism. For instance, when he was tasked to telephone Dr. Lim Hock Siew’s wife in 1971, after the Dr. Lim was detained, and when he met Mr. Chia Thye Poh in the 1990s, during a family daytrip to Sentosa. Otherwise the disproportionate reliance on secondary sources – many gleaned conveniently off the Internet – in the other chapters, unfortunately, results in the absence of a distinctive perspective.
In other words, what is Mesenas’s view of these individuals, and perhaps how these “dissidents” compare to one another? Who are the other “dissidents” who should be considered in these conversations, and what are the corresponding characteristics? More importantly for the future, with the recent electoral victory of the People’s Action Party (PAP) last year, what are the perspectives of some of these surviving “dissidents”, and even the thoughts of PAP office-holders or parliamentarians? Securing access would be hard, though going beyond the well-established facts is necessary to advance such socio-political discourse.