Monthly Archives: August 2010

S’pore Story Revised & Reloaded

The Straits Times has a good article today, titled “In Search of the Other S’pore Story”. In short, it reported on why Singaporean or ‘home’ academics are now interested in researching ‘leftist’ accounts of history. It also highlighted that research, even today, remains politically sensitive, as “many leftists were detained without trial on security grounds”. More importantly, it pointed out that historians face a challenge in accessing state archives for their research. If access is limited or barred, then it’ll seriously hamper efforts to build a more comprehensive history of Singapore.


I was extremely disturbed by a comment in the article. It’s from K. Kesavapany, director of Iseas (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies).



(With historians) “encouraged to feel it is now possible to revisit some of these periods which hiterto were taken as taboo”

“All of these accounts will enrich the history of Singapore”

“the purpose of these accounts must not be to reinterpret history and attempt to vindicate the roles and contributions of certain players, or inject a note of triumphalism”


What’s my response to the last quote? Nonsense!


If these accounts are not used for the revision of history, then what are they used for? To waste paper and kill more trees ah? He is right when he claimed S’pore’s history will be ‘enrich(ed)’, but he’s contradicting himself when he argues that history shouldn’t be reinterpreted and vindication of past actors shouldn’t be carried out.


If I guess correctly, his idea of ‘enrich’ is simply the spamming of more books i.e. published work by academics or autobiographies. It’s like a river with many tributaries; the volume of water is increased, but no one cares about the numerous tributaries, they only know the name of the main river. This is quite senseless, because history doesn’t work this way.


The addition of new works, like Lim Chin Siong’s biography, the Fajar Generation etc, if we believe that joker’s idea, are simply clutters of books underneath the altar of the ‘official’ S’pore Story, with MM Lee’s memoirs occupying the central position. I think most historians will disagree, and in fact elevate some of the books on ground to the altar, albeit in a less prominent place.


The historian’s task is to revise history and indeed, vindicate the ‘roles and contributions of certain players’ i.e. BS members who were detained without trial for decades. With the addition and creation of primary and secondary evidence, the historian is better able to construct a representation of the past. And when he does that, he is subjected to two main influences – himself and the concerns of the present. The historian doesn’t work in a vacuum. Like a writer or poet, he writes within a context. For example, present concerns over a Singaporean identity vis-a-vis the immigrant influx will spill over into his interpretation of past events. Depending on his view, he may recreate a rosy picture of the past with immigrant contributions, or he may focus on the divide between the core and non-core populations.


Right now, because of the tendency of the S’pore Story to dominate every aspect of the past (and other reasons too), historians have reacted to this by revising past characters and events. Historical actors like Lim Chin Siong are increasingly given a 3D portrayal, unlike a flat ‘pro-communist’ label, and my hunch is that in the future, he will be elevated to become an important nationalist leader. Already in lower secondary textbooks he is given a one-page biographical profile, with other key characters like MM Lee. That, I think, is a more well-rounded view and supported by research.


Past events are also given new interpretations. The Hock Lee Bus riots, which used to be explained in terms of communist agitation, is now seen as a consequence of a several causes – poor working conditions, breakdown of talks between management and workers, trade union solidarity and rivalry, anti-colonialism, the influence of personalities like Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, mobilisation of Chinese schools in support of the workers and against colonial rule – and all these causes overlap in some areas, challenging historians to draw lines between the political and non-political.


Past actors who were detained without trial have written their stories, though not all have done so. The former detainees of the Marxist Conspiracy have written theirs, and I think historians haven’t managed to examine their significance. But biographies from Chin Peng, Said Zahari, Fang Chuang Pi etc give historians real headaches. The government has labelled people like Dr Lim Hock Siew as posing a “security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past”. “security threat” probably refers to armed rebellion, terrorism and the like. But Dr Lim was a BS politician, and I doubt there is evidence if he’d possessed a cache of arms to overthrow the government then.


Hence historians have to determine the difference between a ‘security’ and a ‘political’ threat, and Dr Lim probably belonged to the latter. If this is so, then where is the justification for the government to see him as a ‘security’ threat? Instead of being a subversive figure, as the government insists, evidence may suggest he is just a leftist politician, or sympathetic to communism. So in the future, as more research and evidence appear, and the past is reconstructed again, so-called ‘security threats’ will be rehabilitated. Instead of the hero vs. villian storyline as espoused by pro-government writers, it is likely a more sophisticated hero vs. fallen hero storyline will evolve.


I think K. Kesavapany is just plain wrong when he gave that comment. Who is he to decide if history shouldn’t be reinterpreted? I guess that he’s trying to protect the official S’pore Story. Again, I stress that it’s not a Bible. MM Lee’s memoirs are not S’pore’s Bible. The revision of S’pore Story is an on-going process, and eventually we’ll have a more rounded history, and not just a dumb MediaCorp script.


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NDP and Singapore Story

The NDP is here again, and the Singapore Story will be ritualistically retold tomorrow evening. The Singapore Story emphasizes the progressive nature of Singapore’s history since independence. In other words, out of nothing, something. This is not a wrong interpretation, because post-independent Singapore was tremendously concerned about its survival and viability. This interpretation must be read in such a context. The Singapore Story offers a romantic view of the triumph of a tiny city-state, and this view is still beloved by many Singaporeans.

But loving a particular perspective devoutly and unquestioningly is never good. We tend to overlook some issues and underestimate the importance of others. This is especially so when we ask ourselves about the origins of modern Singapore. For example, some born after independence have a notion that Singapore was just a swamp or fishing village in 1965. This is clearly untrue. Singapore was in fact a largely urban country by 1965, with growing importance as a supply depot-cum-military base to the British, who were fighting the Emergency in Malaya.

Why do some, or maybe many, of us have such an inaccurate portrait? According to the Singapore Story, everything which happened after 1965 was progressive. So after building primary schools, we build secondary schools, then universities ah? Obviously not. NTU and NUS didn’t pop up, like, “Oh, we’ve built many secondary schools, now we need a university, so let’s build one now!” Both universities traced their origins way before 1965; NTU used to be Nanyang Uni, founded in 1955, while NUS was never called as such in the first place – it used to be Raffles College, University of Malaya and University of Singapore.

Responsibility must lie with the popularization and perhaps ineffective communication of the Singapore Story. As we know, when a person or story is popularized for commercial means, the veracity of the actual event decreases. What we then know is what is sold to us, which is very superficial. NDP celebrates the independence of Singapore, but it has perpetuated an extremely simplified representation of the Singapore Story (as if this isn’t already quite simplified). Successive generations have watched or participated in NDP, and they are fed a simplistic view of the Singapore Story’s progressive narrative. Hence I bet not many of us have a good understanding of historical, or even contemporary, events.

This is further complicated by the fact that the Singapore Story may be seen as propaganda, especially since it is taught in secondary school social studies. This has two outcomes: people do not question it and accept it; and others reject it and simply do not bother. Both outcomes are not ideal. Well, the Singapore Story is not exactly propaganda, but neither can it claim to be solely the word of God. Maybe this whole social studies should be scrapped, to be replaced by a proper history class. I don’t know, but when I was studying in school, I didn’t really care. Probably what’s more important was the grade than anything. If they said that Merlion is real, I’d have written it as such and get that one point, regardless if it’s an artificial creation or an actual animal.

My dream for Singapore on its big birthday? To be a more environmentally-conscious society! But the Mobile Column seems to be producing loads of CO2… I’ll enjoy watching the NDP, albeit in the comfort of the medical centre (-:

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