Book Review: Singapore, My Country: Biography of M Bala Subramanion by Nilanjana Sengupta

Reviewed by P N Balji


When you talk about this book, you have to talk about two people: Asia’s first postmaster general, Bala Subramanion, and the writer, Nilanjana Sengupta.

The story of Subramanion, 94, is a throwback to a Singapore that doesn’t exist today. He grew up in a forgotten past when the British, Japanese, then the British and finally Singaporeans ruled the country. It is a grandfather’s war story that many must have heard their old folk talk about. Subramanion’s story is interwoven with those of his struggles in a country torn apart by incendiary politics, abject poverty and big power rivalry. A combination of luck and smart instincts saw him rising up the ranks to reach the very top of the job he chose to be in. That profession is fast disappearing in a familiar narrative of disruptive technology. Singapore, My Country is a useful documentation of not just how the ubiquitous the post office was at one time.

It was a place we went to not just to post letters and parcels but buy stamps, paste them
on cards and start the habit of saving money. That little effort spawned into what is today a part of our lives, the Post Office Savings Bank.

A few years ago, there was an effort to do away with POSB’s ATMs because of the high cost of maintaining them. The protests were loud and that move was scuppered. Unfortunately, the book has very little about how the establishment was out of touch with a population that was still rooted in an institution like the POSB.

The person sharing space in the book is the author, Nilanjana Sengupta. Her prose is brilliant, her descriptions of a time forgotten almost haunting. She has tried to weave in the historical context of Bala Subramanion’s early life. Those parts read like a captivating account of early Singapore and inject a wonderful understanding of Balasubramanion’s struggles. But that is also where my problem with the book is. In bringing back those memories, the author goes overboard and drowns out the voice of Subramanion. In the tussle between history and his story, Subramanion is shunted into playing second fiddle. My one other peeve with the book is its title: Singapore, My Country. It is a put-off, especially as it comes across as another how-good-Singapore-is narrative, a narrative that stifled the country with conversations, books and TV shows as it marked its 50th anniversary. Remove these points and the work is a valuable addition to every bookshelf in a Singaporean’s household.