Polytechnicians and technocrats: Sources, limits, and possibilities of student activism in 1970s Singapore

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Making a case for studying student activism outside of elite university students, this paper investigates the sources of polytechnic student activism in a tightly controlled society: 1970s Singapore. It seeks to find less obvious histories: the limits of state control, the relative openness of the city-state, and the identity and lived experiences of the polytechnicians. Through the writings and cartoons of the Singapore Polytechnic Students’ Union, augmented by oral histories, the paper traces the contours of student activism as defined by everyday events as well as momentous experiences formed at the intersection between campus, national, and transnational—particularly pan-Asian—developments. At the national level, the polytechnicians’ identity responded to the state’s instrumentalist view of students, which was to define the polytechnic student in a more expansive way, attacking student apathy toward social and political issues. Some student matters, such as protests against bus hikes, escalated into national issues, bringing the polytechnicians into encounters with state officials and politicians. Political surveillance caused fear and anxiety but also fostered a sense of injustice. Conversely, international contact, such as reading critical literature and participating in pan-Asian seminars, helped the polytechnicians place Singapore in an Asian context and plot themselves on a mental political spectrum. Reading was an experience: universal ideas in books enabled the students to contextualize local issues, just as everyday experiences in Singapore helped them locate the abstract. The international contact thus enabled the polytechnicians to give meaning to concepts such as “students,” “education,” and “Asia.”.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-63
Number of pages25
JournalSoutheast Asian Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2018


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