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Edgar Liao



The policing of youth in Singapore, 1945-1965

By Edgar Liao

Welcome to our Featured Student Series. This week we hear from and read about Edgar Liao from the University of British Columbia History Department. If you prefer to listen to Edgar's interview on the go, you can either subscribe to the new SHCY Podcast through Google Play, or listen to his interview here, conducted by Dr. Alicia Altorfer Ong, and Independent Scholar.

My current dissertation project uses a diverse range of sources – colonial records, printed material, pedagogical texts, oral history, memoirs – to trace and examine the construction, socialization, mobilization and policing of youth in Singapore, a small British island-colony that became an independent nation-state in 1965. I hope to uncover the origins of Singapore’s policies, institutions, and programs for youth in modern Singapore, and trace the genealogy of the ideas, discourses and images of youth that underpinned these. In particular, I focus on the period between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and Singapore’s independence as a sovereign nation-state in 1965.

I seek to investigate the extent to which ideas, institutions and discourses of youth in modern Singapore were products of the converging politics of decolonization, post-colonial nation-building and the Cold War in Asia during this period.

Then, different groups and communities animated by different ideologies and nationalisms tussled over different visions of a post-World War Two and post-colonial Singapore. They also constructed new images of youth and articulated new associations between the schooling, mobilization, and policing of youth and the forging of a modern colony and nation.

One year into my fieldwork and archival work, it became clear that I also needed to add a transnational dimension to my dissertation and account for the circulation of financial assistance for youth programs, and experts and expertise on youth work, youth welfare, and youth recreation, between the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore. In addition, youth leaders and youth workers in Singapore were also actively immersed in a global milieu of international youth movements and organizations.

I hope to bring the story of the making of youth in a Southeast Asian context into conversation with the historiography on childhood and youth around the world.

The relative lack of attention on age relations and youth as topics and categories of historical analysis in Southeast Asian historiography belies the significance and visibility of young people as a demographic group and socio-political concern in the region in the 20th century. I believe that Singapore could be an exemplary and illuminating example of a 20th century modern-state where the politics of childhood and youth became implicated in colonial anxieties and imperial designs, anti-colonial aspirations and post-colonial imaginations, and Cold War concerns. At the same time, I believe that age as a category of historical research and analysis has much to offer for Southeast Asian and Singapore historiography, especially in terms of studying the intersection between age relations, politics, culture and social change. I hope to bring the many provocative insights and interesting approaches within the expanding historiography of childhood and youth to bear on Singapore history, so as to unearth new questions and directions, as well as previously un-seen actors and agents, in Singapore history.

Other than my own personal investment in studying the history of my own country, I would like to understand why I grew up the way I did (and didn’t) in modern Singapore. To do that, I try to trace how these discourses, programs, and institutions impacted the lives of the young growing up in Singapore during this period, as adults and the state sought to assert greater scrutiny and influence over the bodies, minds, hearts, and souls of children and youth. I hope to be able to both illuminate and interrogate the positive and negative consequences and effects of these processes, discourses, and programs on the everyday lives and experiences of the young in Singapore.

What kinds of empowerment and disempowerment, hierarchies and inequities, centering and marginalization, valorization and dislocation, pleasures and the pressures, ensue for the Singaporean youth who meet the constructed ideals and expectations of youth in Singapore, and for the youth who do not, for various reasons?

The challenge I face here is the well-known methodological difficulties and challenges of tracing and uncovering sources that allow us to access the thoughts, minds, and voices of the young. At the same time, the unremitting adult scrutiny on youth meant the increased efforts to try to “know” and “understand” Singapore’s youth. This has resulted in a substantial volume of studies, reports, and compilations of different sorts that endeavoured to capture the voices, perspectives, and thoughts of contemporaneous youth. The added challenge for me is how to use these to infer and access the thoughts and views of the young, while taking into consideration that these materials and documents are mostly inflected and refracted through the lenses of the anxieties, desires, expectations and hopes of adults toward the youth of Singapore.

About Edgar Liao

Edgar LiaoI am a Canada Vanier Graduate Scholar with the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, currently into the fourth year of my PhD programme. At UBC, I was trained in the cultural history of colonialism, the history of childhood and youth, and Southeast Asian historiography. I was previously trained in the National University of Singapore (NUS), focusing on Southeast Asian, Chinese, and American history.

After my B.A. and M.A. in NUS, I was employed as a full-time instructor with NUS for about three years, teaching and lecturing modern Singapore history, modern American history, and the craft of history. During this time, I worked on my first co-authored research monograph, which was published in 2012. The totally enjoyable and stimulating experiences of teaching and research convinced me that I could really get used to academe as a way of life and a vocation (that I would not be too shabby at). My current project on the history of youth in modern Singapore is an evolution from my previous work on student activism in Singapore, where I became alerted to the necessity of situating student agency and movements within the wider cultural politics of youth in any particular context.


Co-authored book: Loh Kah Seng, Edgar Liao, Lim Cheng Tju and Seng Guoquan. Tangled Strands of Modernity: The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya. Netherlands; Singapore: Amsterdam University Press; National University of Singapore Press 2012

Book chapter: Liao, Edgar. “Other Kinds of Amnesia – Young Singaporeans and the Internet” in William Lim, Sharon Siddique and Tan Dan Feng(eds), Singapore Shifting Boundaries: Social Change in the Early 21st Century. Singapore: Asia Urban Lab 2011