Invitation to an Insurrection

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Dueling Narratives About Colonial Rule

In the early morning of September 28, 1901, Filipino revolutionaries, led by local police chief Valeriano Abanador, attacked the American garrison stationed in Balangigi, on the island of Samar. They killed 36 and wounded 22 in action. In retaliation, the Americans swept through the island, burning villages and killing anyone, men and women, above the age of 10. Their order was to make Samar "a howling wilderness." Estimates of the number of casualties range from 2,500 to 50,000.

In her new novel INSURRECTO, Gina Apostol approaches this historical incident of colonial brutality through the dueling narratives of an American filmmaker and her Filipino translator. In the process Apostol also tells the stories of women artists and revolutionaries, daughters and lovers, coming to an understanding of the truth of their lives, including one Casiana Nacionales, who is usually relegated to the margins of traditional historiography of the Filipino struggle against American rule.

Thinking about Apostol's upcoming reading this Saturday (see below), I cannot help but remember a similar incident of colonial violence in British-occupied Malaya. After World War II, the British had declared emergency rule to fight against communist guerillas. On December 11, 1948, around 4 or 5 pm, a troop of British soldiers entered a village near Batang Kali, Selangor, in an army truck. They interrogated the rubber plantation workers, separated the men from the women, and took the unarmed men away. The next day, rapid gunfire was heard and, later, 24 bodies of husbands, fathers, and sons were found dead. The Batang Kali massacre has been described as "Britain's My Lai."

Given this history, which Singapore shares with Malaysia, what does it mean for Singapore to commemorate this year the 200th anniversary of its so-called founding by the British? What does it mean to say, as it has often been asserted, that Singapore's independence from the British was achieved peacefully? Or when colonialism's apologists point to benefits, such as the British law, with no regard for how the law has been adopted and expanded by the current regime to quell opposition and dissent?

2019 began with the trial and conviction of local activist Jolovan Wham for illegal assembly. His crime? Skyping in a foreign speaker, Joshua Wong of Hong Kong's Umbrella movement, to speak at an indoor meeting. Why are Singaporeans not turning out into the streets, like Hongkongers and Filipinos, to protest this outrage against their liberties? Perhaps it's because they are way too busy taking selfies with the newly refurbished statue of Stamford Raffles, their colonial master.

Jee Leong Koh
January 10, 2019


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