Tag Archives: history

First look at the WP Manifesto

You can have a look at the WP manifesto here. It is sufficiently broad to cover the concerns of every group I can think of, but in terms of depth, it is lacking, because it is either politically expedient or they are unable to develop their ideas.

Section 14 on the ‘Arts, Media, Information and New Technology’ caught my eye. A few weeks ago, I’d attended a film screening at the Esplanade Library, and the organizer brought up the topic of censorship in the post-screening forum. The director of Tanjong Rhu, Boo Junfeng, mentioned his film was pulled out of a National Museum screening programme without any explanation. No one knows why, but obviously there must have been pressure from “above”. As a film buff, I don’t think Boo’s film, or anyone’s artwork for the matter, should be subjected to the whims of censors or the “above”.

One of the WP’s proposals is this:

The licensing of the arts should be taken out of government control and given to an independent body with representation from the arts community.

Currently, groups which stage any kind of public arts event, be it, dramas, concerts, exhibitions etc MUST apply to the Media Development Authority (MDA) for a license. There are some exemptions, like getai. The government can refuse to grant the license or censor part of the arts event. Examples have been documented by Arts Engage here.

The govt believes itself to be the moral gatekeeper of society, but I think it is difficult to achieve this, nor is it desirable. While moral values like filial piety, integrity, loyalty etc are deemed desirable by most, if not all of us, there are some issues which are ambiguous and controversial. One good example would of course be homosexuality. Many think it is “immoral” because of their religions, “conservative” backgrounds, and there are probably a few who still believe it is a medical condition. But is it that clear-cut? No, my personal belief is that gender orientation is NOT a moral issue at all. It is neither purely good nor bad, it is just there.

I don’t really care if there are others who think that homosexuality is an immoral sin. But I think it is incorrect when the govt, because of pressure from certain groups, over-extends its role as the moral gatekeeper of society, to influence what we can or cannot watch. Hence I’d support this proposal from the WP, that the govt should not regulate the arts, but an independent body which does not bend down from pressure. Yet the WP lacks elaboration on this idea. A deliberate act?

The second note-worthy proposal in this section:

Official secrets should be de-classified after a maximum period of time has passed or as soon as the information is no longer sensitive. This will enable the public to debate the course of history and deepen citizens’ understanding of key events.

This book writes of the difficulties which historians face when they access the official archives. 50 years have gone since the pre-independence struggle between the PAP and leftists, why the need for agencies like the ISD to bury their files like treasure chests? In the foreword of “Men in White”, MM Lee wrote that he asked permission from the ISD to reveal the fact that Lim Chin Siong had met with the Plen (the Malayan Communist Party’s point man in S’pore), so as to prove his claim that Lim was a communist, and by extension, he sought to overthrow the govt through an armed revolt or whatever.

Ordinary S’poreans have no access to the ISD archives. I don’t think most can understand. But the ones who do, the academics, journalists and researchers, need access to these locked files. It’s time for them to be unlocked, for a fuller discussion of events since independence, like Operation Spectrum, which arrested alleged Marxists. I think the PAP govt shouldn’t be too worried about these “secrets” undermining their legitimacy or authority. Or even nation-building. Nope, openness and fairness should be principles consistently applied, including to state archives.

Other than this section, I don’t have any pressing comments. Will blog if I’ve further thoughts.


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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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Some thoughts on our history and identity

I think it’s a sad state for S’poreans if we begin to see Marina Bay Sands IR as our ‘latest’ icon, or that it’s even going to represent S’pore on the world state. As far as I know, MBS doesn’t represent most S’poreans, for all its glam and glitz. While I think the free market rocks, I don’t think a 24-hour casino should be built at all. Unfortunately without the promise of a casino, those IR developers wouldn’t have came here in the first place.

Recently in some city livability survey, a few smart-alec expats commented S’pore needs more green spaces, more room for the arts scenes to grow, and a more lively culture here, whatever their definition of ‘lively’. Yeah, yeah. Personally I feel S’pore as a city-state is increasingly a hotel-state instead, where we provide services for businesses. We’re trying our best – too much, in fact – to court their attention and praise. Then we tell everyone else, including ourselves, that just because some foreigners praise us for good infrastructure or services, we ought to be proud.

Yes, we ought to be proud IF we’re the businessmen. Unfortunately, S’pore is larger than a business – we’re a republic, a country, a home for many peoples. I’m proud of the world-class status which Changi International Airport achieves, but if we just use that to define ourselves, like we’re using MBS to do so, then that is seriously so miserable. Identity should be more than that. Fine, our great MBS and RWS can create a sense of identity among S’poreans, that such a small city can have two beautiful and incredibly expensive IRs, – but it shouldn’t be just that.

I think S’pore has an immense cultural and historical legacy which we’ve forgotten. No wonder Alfian Sa’at titles his collection of poems on Singapore as A History of Amnesia. I was amused when I watched an episode of ‘The Noose’, where Singaporeans are asked to name a bridge christened after a former president. Funny answers like ‘North bridge’ and ‘Woodbridge’ came up (the correct answer is Benjamin Sheares, our second president). Such incidents prove that some S’poreans have either forgotten or ignored our culture and history.

So what, then? Not practical. One doesn’t need the history of our pre-colonial past to conduct business. What should MM Lee’s previous position in government gotta do with us? Life goes on for normal people like us.

But whatever we do today is strongly rooted to the past, and no denial or ignorance of it can break this link. You’re an admin executive in a logistics company. Why were you hired? Why is there a logistics company? Well, because S’pore is a trading port long before it became a republic. S’pore has deep waters, forming a natural harbour. So ships on long-distance journeys will dock here to replenish their fuel and rations. Eventually merchants bring their goods here, store them, before re-exporting them elsewhere. Hence with the development of trade, industries which support it begin to grow. Logistics companies help to facilitate the transportation and storage of goods etc. Thus you can see how so-called ‘modern’ companies or industries are actually continuities from the past.

Oh, you may assume the description above is after Raffles’s landing here. Well, surprise – S’pore has been a port since the 13th century. Yeah, the history of S’pore stretches longer before Raffles. S’pore’s history doesn’t ‘begin’ anywhere. It began since there was this island here, and what happens after are merely highlights.

A soldier in the SAF is probably very far apart from his historical counterpart in Sang Nila Utama’s entourage when he landed here, or Parameswaran’s army when he lost S’pore to the Majapahit Empire, or an Indian regiment of the British Empire, deployed here to defend imperial interests. Surely his purpose has changed. The PAP government rule is definitely dimensions separate from the Temenggong’s rule over a fishing village, or even that of the Straits Settlement. While purposes and functions have changed, there are still a few fundamental continuities. The soldier in the SAF and the soldier in the Indian regiment is still a human, has a family (outside camp vs. in another continent), and protects S’pore, albeit from different enemies. We ordinary jokers are no different from the ordinary fishermen in the 1800s – we still try to make a livelihood, get a family etc on this diamond-shaped island. We’re not superior than them just because we’ve iPods and the Internet.

The past allows us to discover the significance of the present, and so provides us with a larger sense of identity. We’re not just Changi Airport or MBS or S’pore Zoo, but we’re the modern-day successors of those jokers who immigrated here in search of a better life on this island. We need to know our history and the cultures of the major religions and races here to make sense of the present. Sadly, some of us don’t care.

If you want sheer practicality, I’ll show you then. History has often been abused in S’pore by none other than the PAP government. MM Lee has categorically stated that Lim Chin Siong is a pro-communist leftist. But can his word be taken as a simple truth? Historians have been debating if Lim is pro-communist (support some elements of communist ideology), a communist (subscribes to the ideology of communism in full), or a MCP member (dedicated to the establishment of a communist govt here).

What’s the significance? If Lim is really a communist as MM Lee has accused, then what MM Lee has done to him and his associates is fully justified – the use of the ISA for detention without trial. If Lim isn’t, what MM Lee has done is – gasp – unlawful. The PAP’s ascend to power is not as simple as one thinks, but fraught with struggles. History has been used by the PAP to strengthen their legitimacy as a ‘national movement’, the exact phrase used in their revised constitution, and by extension, as a strong reason for us jokers to continue voting them into government.

If we don’t know or choose to ignore some aspects of our history, we’ll be easily manipulated and even deceived by either the PAP or other other opposition parties. The S’pore Story is generally good for nation-building and engendering a sense of belonging to S’pore, but it can be abused by the PAP for its selfish purpose. Hence while we rejoice in the narrative of the S’pore Story, we should also keep one pair of scissors behind our back, ready to snip it into shreds if the need comes. Ironically enough, the PAP govt hasn’t developed the S’pore Story much, so the younger generations don’t know about their pioneers like S. Rajaratnam and Dr Goh Keng Swee.

Well, that’s it on my take. I hope one day S’pore can become a historically-conscious city-state, with a deeper sense of identity, rather than taking proud in stuff which expats label us. Oh yeah, green spaces. Those expats must be blind if they can’t see them around. Ohh, they don’t live in HDB flats, I forgot…

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