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Valar Qringaomis

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Friday, November 29, 2013

History Making in Singapore: Who is Producing the Knowledge? (1/2)

History Making in Singapore: Who is Producing the Knowledge?

"‘Before you discuss your future,’ Lee Kuan Yew exhorted the citizens of Singapore in 1998, ‘remember how we got here.’ This statement heralded a dramatic departure from the previous animosity of the Singaporean government towards the study of history. During the 1960s and 1970s, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was overtly hostile to history, fearing its potential to divide Singaporean society. In the 1980s, this hostility gave way to ambivalence and, by the 1990s, the PAP had been forced to address a growing interest in and nostalgia for, the past. Singaporeans—in letters to the editor, in poems and newspaper columns—started publicly expressing a sense of nostalgia. For most, it was the 1970s that was being remembered. The significance of this lies precisely in the period of time. Nostalgia was not being expressed for pre-independence Singapore, or even newly-independent Singapore. By the 1970s Singapore had already experienced many of the advantages of economic development.

For a state devoted to economic development, in which ‘people are the only resource’, and physical resources minimal, nostalgia for the 1970s was an inherent criticism of the fast pace of change and the goals of that state...

Drawing on the work of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Marc Ferro maintained that the study of history ‘pinpoints the problems of its own times more fully even than those of the era about which it is supposed to be concerned’. In drawing attention to the difficulties facing Singaporean historiography, this chapter raises issues concerning the study of Singapore more broadly. The failure of Singaporean society to theorize, or come to terms with, its own past, constitutes opaqueness in the study of Singapore...

Early histories of Singapore were, unsurprisingly, produced by the colonizers. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) himself wrote what could be seen as Singapore’s first history, although it is actually an autobiography...

In Raffles’ view, Singapore is brought into existence by his actions: the story of Singapore is thus the story of Raffles...

If for colonial writers Raffles was the great man, for Modern Singapore Lee has become the equivalent. Lee, himself, has written two autobiographies that mirror the approach Raffles took... Phillip Holden has written that the ‘continued memorialisation’ of an imperial founder in a postcolonial society is unique to Singapore. He suggested that Raffles’ place in contemporary Singapore should be understood in the context of ‘a genealogy of his historicisation within the narrative of Singapore’s history’. By this he means that just as Raffles understood himself as establishing a new order, so too did Lee. In this sense Raffles and Lee can be read as the same kind of great men.

The history of Singapore has often been told in terms of the life of Lee Kuan Yew, not least by the man himself. A number of detailed accounts of Lee’s life published by Alex Josey conflate Singapore’s national history with Lee’s personal history. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas, similarly draws the national and the personal into a single narrative. Holden argued that these texts are attempts to ‘build a national mythology’ and contrasted them with T.J.S. George’s account and James Minchin’s more critical biography...

It is, however, problematic to tell a national story through the life-story of an individual, regardless of how significant that character is. As Lysa Hong argued, ‘Singapore’s history cannot be simply reduced to an account of his [Lee’s] career or a study of his pronouncements, as he himself has done’. Biography and autobiography provide an incomplete picture of a national history. Hong maintains that ‘the notion that Singapore is no more than what Lee Kuan Yew wants it to be lies at the heart of endeavours to unmask the man whose name is almost synonymous with the assertive city- state’...

Lee is not unique in identifying his life with his nation’s life. Kwame Nkrumah after all, named his autobiography Ghana, claiming that the story of his life was the story of the life of the nation.

The political biographies and autobiographies of Lee have a specific social function, that is, to reinforce the national narrative. Lee’s autobiographies have been represented as Singapore’s national history. Their inclusion in the national education curriculum is evidence of their place as ‘a form of hegemonic popular historiography’. The autobiographies have become central to the scripting of Singapore’s national history. A national history that is linear ‘in which a unified actor—the nation—moves forward in time and conquers uncharted territories’...

For Singapore the national narrative remains ‘unrealized and projected into the future’...

In calling his autobiography ‘The Singapore Story’ Lee effectively claimed that his experiences and actions are analogous to, or even synonymous with those of Singapore. The experiences of the elite are thus incorrectly presented as the experiences of all Singaporeans. This version of history is highly exclusionary.

Referring to the first part of his autobiography Lee acknowledged that it might be subjective in parts, because he had not kept a diary during the 1950s and 1960s. The implication, of course, is that his diary would have been completely objective, had he but kept one. Lee unquestionably sees himself as not just the ‘Father of the Nation’ and thus responsible for the state, but as the very essence of the nation. He made the extraordinary statement: ‘Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.’ Singaporean history under the PAP works to make such a statement unremarkable.

It is said that in 1942 during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, a Japanese soldier hit the young Lee, who spoke back to him, questioned his authority and then ran away. Sometimes described as the founding moment of independent Singapore, this incident has iconographic significance. No longer, it is claimed, would Lee accept colonialism in any form. The Japanese occupation, Lee asserted, prompted him to become a lawyer and fight for justice and to see Singapore independent. The construction of this event proposes a very particular understanding of history, offering the conclusion that a single action by an individual can form a nation. In this sense, Lee is not only writing national history, he is endorsing an approach to history that began with a colonial project and emphasizes a linear progression, navigated by great men.

Taking Robert Yeo’s play, The Eye of History, as his example, William Peterson argued that Raffles and Lee are often conflated as great leaders and great men... In the context of the play ‘Raffles equates Singapore’ is extended to ‘Raffles equals Lee Kuan Yew equals Singapore’. In The Eye of History, Raffles is characterized as a great man who had a vision for Singapore, albeit a colonial and imperialist one. According to Peterson, ‘by demonstrating that Lee has fulfilled a sacred national dream, Yeo upholds one of the great myths that provides a foundation for the nation of Singapore’,46 that of realizing a dream...

Yeo had Raffles speculate about a worse future: ‘who knows what will happen if someone else should come along, some anti-history, anti- British demagogue and altogether denies my part in the founding of Singapore’. Lee is very much a product of colonialism, educated in a British tradition. He is often described as ‘a Chinese mirror of the perfect Anglo leader’. Holden described Lee’s autobiographies as works of mourning, in which British Imperial masculinity is simultaneously celebrated and mourned. While Lee is anti-history in the sense that he wishes to control public understandings of history, he is pro-history when it constitutes colonial history. He readily accepted the necessity and benefits of British colonialism that Yeo has Raffles articulate...

The PAP argued that history is best told by its participants. Lee claimed that it is not possible for academics to write the history of Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, as ‘history does not happen in clean cut units’. He believes that ‘it is after forces let loose in tumultuous events have run their course that the historian comes along … and narrates them in clear-cut chapters’. As it is unclear when it will be acceptable for historians to narrate Singapore’s history, ‘legitimate’ history dictates a ‘great men important events’ approach, since the ‘participants’ are such men. Understanding history in these terms excludes historians and defines as illegitimate any recent history not written by participants.

Lee’s son and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, also has a very specific understanding of the past, evident in his claim that the National Education programme, introduced in 1997, could not be propaganda because ‘if it’s truth and facts, then it is objective’. In the same context he maintained that The Singapore Story, a Ministry of Information and the Arts (MITA) publication, was based on ‘historical fact’. ‘We are not talking about an idealised legendary account or a founding myth,’ he said but about ‘objective history, seen from a Singaporean standpoint’.

These attitudes have left a scar on the practice of history writing in Singapore. Hong described the two most notable Singaporean historians, S Rajaratnam and Devan Nair as the ‘midwives of the Singaporean nation- state’. She noted that their greatest contribution to Singaporean history was to set the template for the writing of history in the future. This template had several features. The first is a theme of struggle, which dominates how Singapore is understood—with reference to past and current struggles and those struggles that are yet to emerge. The second is an emphasis on the role played by great men and a focus on great events, inherited as we have seen from a colonial discourse. As a template it provides limited scope for exploring social history, the experience of women and minorities, or examining events with regards to categories such as gender, class and race.

For historians, both Nair and Rajaratnam were remarkably ambivalent about the past. Nair argued that looking to the past for inspiration was both dangerous and backward. In his view, industrialization, together with the associated modernization and progress, divided history into those who look to the past and those who look to the future. He argued that for Singaporeans the past was a poor guide, stating that ‘Unlike the pre-modern man who dreamed of the world he had left, modern man must dream of the world he will make’. History was thus defined as the antithesis of modernity and of future-looking peoples.

Rajaratnam saw history as a linear narrative that could be perverted by ‘wrong’ choices. The rise of opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam, posed a threat, in Rajaratnam’s view, to the very course of history and he argued that if Jeyaretnam or other members of the opposition were successful then a ‘different history’ would begin for Singapore. His anti-opposition stance should come as no surprise from a man who described his role as a historian as being a ‘public relations man’ for the PAP, ‘the chap who projects the PAP’s image’. Public relations, in this context, should be understood as providing a positive spin on the past, evidenced by Rajaratnam’s comment in 1990 that, ‘Being Singaporean means forgetting all that stands in the way of one’s Singaporean commitment’...

Although the PAP has endeavoured to avoid ethnic ghettos, certain places are read in terms of ethnicity. Serangoon Road, for example, represents Singaporean Indianess. In producing a pictorial history of Serangoon Road, Siddique and Purushotam are typically depicting and reducing history to heritage, ethnic identity, and place...

Histories of ethnic groups, particularly ethnic minorities, are common and tend to trace the development of the community and stress their contribution to Singapore society. The function of these accounts is to locate minorities within a broader Singaporean framework and as such pose little threat to Singaporean historical orthodoxy. While past hardships are described, the general tone of minority histories in Singapore is positive, stressing community and economic contribution"
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