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Valar Qringaomis

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

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

(Continued from Part 1)

History Making in Singapore: Who is Producing the Knowledge?

"The poverty of historiography is well illustrated by the selected bibliography of Singaporean historical sources produced by the library of the National University of Singapore; in a volume of over 200 pages, the section entitled ‘historiography’ included only five items...

Syed Hussein Alatas, a Malay scholar, has also discussed the difficulties facing history writing in Singapore. For him, sources were the main problem. He pointed to difficulties with dating Malay materials and to the bias of colonial sources. In his conclusion, he called for historians of Singapore to have a strong sense of objectivity and morality, arguing that reading the ‘wrong’ sorts of sources will corrupt the historian. ‘If you consider the works of a writer who does not have that foundation of morality as a source of historical insight,’ he cautioned, ‘then the history you receive would be a distorted one’. He refers here to Raffles, whom he considers to have written ‘biased’ accounts of Singapore’s early colonial history. Yet it is difficult to write about Singapore without reference to its colonial heritage; exposure to sources with views that reflect their time need to be engaged with rather than ignored because they are polemical.

The problem with sources in Singapore is less Alatas’s fear of contamination by immoral historians and more the censorship by the Singapore government of some archival sources, particularly more recent materials. Even when sources are not at issue, those who are working on Singaporean history show a reluctance to consider post-independence sources, as they are deemed too sensitive and a potentially risky area of research. Consequently, recent research has tended to focus more on the colonial era, merger with Malaysia and then separation...

Singaporean history remains marginal to academic endeavours in Singapore, even in history departments. The most useful analyses of Singaporean historiography often appear as asides by Singaporean scholars, in the course of other research...

Two political comments highlight the shift that has occurred: Rajaratnam’s 1970s statement that ‘knowing where you are going is more important than knowing where you came from,’ and Lee Kuan Yew’s aforementioned proclamation of 1998, ‘Before you discuss your future, remember how we got here’...

History has changed from an antagonist to the state, into a tool of pacification, whilst actually remaining the same. History is of interest to the state precisely because of its usefulness. As a nation building tool, history can, as Benedict Anderson noted, help to construct or validate a myth of origins for the national community. Initial nation building efforts attempted to down play history. Independent Singapore was beset with potential ethnic tensions. A series of race riots in the 1960s made this threat explicit. Many of the early actions of the PAP government were focused on avoiding further racial divisions. The PAP argued that any focus on the past would facilitate greater ethnic tension and was thus threatening and destructive. Nevertheless the project of nation building required a cohesive identity and so the PAP sought to invent that identity.

In constructing a collective past for the nation the PAP has fostered what Heng Chee Chan and Hans-Dieter Evers see as ‘regressive identity’ based on the revival of proud traditions. A ‘return to the golden past’ approach was inappropriate. The PAP was unable to return to the ethnic heritage of its population... instead the PAP focused on themes of survival and struggle and by doing so submerged history. Lian Kwen Fee sees the official view of pre-1975 as being that of a ‘collective amnesia was…most appropriate for Singapore’. The PAP utilized cultural constructions of the past to emphasize the threat of racial tension in this way emphasizing the shared experience of building the nation. The PAP links the past and fear.

The PAP has always accepted a version of events that include colonization. Colonialism is an essential part of the PAP’s rhetoric about economic development. What is new is that since the 1990s the PAP has accepted that Singaporeans have more entrenched ethnic identities. Education policies concerned with mother-tongue language learning and the inclusion of Confucian values in the moral education curriculum are part of this desire to cultivate Singapore as an inherently ‘Asian’ nation. ‘Asianess’ has become significant for the PAP and this requires the inclusion of cultural heritage in the understanding of history.

The official story told of Singapore’s history revolves around race, in particular the threat of racial chaos: the British instituted a policy of divide and rule, which kept ethnic communities apart, but which was good for the economy. When the Japanese occupied Singapore during the Pacific War (1941-5) they treated all Singaporeans badly, which partially unified the populace. At the end of the war there was racial chaos. Merger with Malaysia was needed to stop this. Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia was the greatest threat it faced. There was great potential for rioting, forestalled by the PAP. In this version, the threat of racial violence is in both the present and future and the PAP are the only ones who can prevent it erupting.

Constructing and essentializing the past in this fashion does two important things. First it establishes the necessity of the PAP; secondly it establishes that there is no tension currently. The possibility of tensions is never far away and there are constant reminders. Threat and struggle are the two dominant themes the PAP promotes in its understanding of Singapore’s history, and events and issues are manipulated to fit with this model. Anxiety about the future can be stressed and linked to specific historical understandings of events.

Although the British occupied Singapore for over a hundred years, colonization has been homogenized in the official history into three essentialized experiences: the British race policy of divide and rule, the race discourse of the ‘lazy native’ and the provision of necessary infrastructure. Like the British’s achievements in providing the essential infrastructure, the PAP’s main achievements similarly have been furnishing the necessary infrastructure. Many would argue that the PAP has also kept in place myths about the ‘lazy native,’ which have been re-deployed in, for example, discussions of criminality. The PAP brands colonialism as primarily being about divide and rule yet their own rule can be typified in these terms, albeit it in slightly more subtle ways...

The Singaporean state responded to the rise in nostalgia by trying to co-opt it for nationalist purposes. In transforming nostalgia from something that could potentially undermine the policies and rhetoric of development, to a positive part of a broader and multilayered nation building project, the state is acting in a typically adaptive mode...

[On Yesterday.sg] The banner for the web-page depicts seven historic items—a black and white cut out image of a young Chinese girl, a sepia photograph of a British family, a colour image of glass Fanta bottle, a painted pair of palm trees, a colour photograph of a red VW Beatle, a black and white image of a Chinese Shophouse, and a representation of a film reel and projector. Few of these images are exclusively Singaporean. The shophouse, slightly indistinct at the back of the images, does show washing being hung out on poles, but it is hard to make arguments of specificity for Fanta and VW. There is an obvious absence of historical images of Malays and Indians and a privileging of the colonial image...

Beyond the immediate nation building agenda, the Singaporean state has also found a powerful tool for depoliticizing memory and nostalgia. If nostalgia can be transformed into a collection of images, of shared experiences, it is no longer about wishing the pace of life was slower or that the contemporary way of life was more like that of the 1970s...

Cherian George made the suggestion that the quintessential Singapore T-shirt—‘Singapore: A Fine City,’ a reference to the copious fines and punishments—should be replaced by ‘Singapore: Work in Progress.’112 This is a comment on the constant construction, up-grading and re-invention that takes place in Singapore. ‘The cost of all of this,’ George noted, ‘is an unsettling impermanence. Singaporeans will build and build, faster and more efficiently than other cities, but Singapore will never be finished.’ Physical changes bring about a constantly new environment. In this sense Singapore is always a new city. The language of development and progress is very much a part of the re-building project. The government frames these changes in terms of progress. ‘We are upgrading to serve you better,’ is one example. In response to this, some Singaporeans have sought to slow the pace of physical change through the preservation of buildings...

On the one hand the Urban Redevelopment Authority called for direct public participation: ‘we need you (the public) to play your part. Please share your views, opinions and ideas to help refine the plans’. On the other hand, neighbourhoods were destroyed and buildings with more recent, that is 1970s, significance, like the National Library, were not deemed worth of preservation. Conservation must produce national unity and fiscal rewards. The state is keen to channel nostalgia into appropriate public spaces"
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