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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

NUS Seminar on Discovery Channel documentary on Singapore

At about 2pm today, Tym smsed me and asked if I was going for some History seminar at NUS convened in the wake of the recent seditious Discovery Channel documentary. Having heard nothing about it (they probably figured no one would come down during the holidays - it wasn't even forwarded to the USP students, as this sort of thing usually is), at first I replied negative, but she eventually persuaded me to come down, and I walked into the seminar room about half an hour late.

"I was very sure it would start with LKY, end with LKY and there would be a shot of him crying in the middle" - One of the panelists on why she didn't want to watch the documentary at first (I only started taking notes at the point where I heard this, so this review is not as long, rigorous or detailed as I would like)

The majority of the panelists who I heard approached it with a typically academic mindset (pouncing on it as if they were critiquing a paper) and seemed dismissive of the documentary, complaining it was reductionist, had omissions and that it was a work of popular culture. But then, what else do you expect of a 3 hour documentary, even if it is screened on the Discovery Channel instead of during Propaganda National Education classes and made by a fair and balanced foreign television company, instead of being a fair and balanced Channel NewsAsia documentary or a biased party political film made by an ordinary Singaporean? A 900 page book would be more intellectually vigorous, no doubt, but definitely not as accessible.

Then again, if what one of the panelists read from was an official announcement from Lion Television and/or Discovery Networks Asia (I would link to it, but can't find it online), the people making the documentary were probably asking for it, with claims of their work being the definitive history of Singapore.

One panelist complained that the documentary was too neat, and the interviews were chopped into pre-fitted jigsaw pieces, to fit nicely into a preconceived idea of Singaporean history. Of course, that's one way to view it. But then, any narrative needs a structure (and a "thesis" - hah!) if it is not to descend into an incoherent and/or interminable rant which only academics have the time and/or training to fully understand and analyse (preferably writing a paper or commentary on it afterwards). Which is why I would characterise the documentary, rather, as being focused, disciplined and clear (I caught only a few clips rather than the whole thing, but this is my 99% confidence interval).

Another was critical of how the documentary started with 1819, the classical date for the founding of Singapore. The panelist pointed out how Singapore's fortunes, being connected to maritime trade, wax and wane according to Chinese trade patterns, and pre-1819 Singapore was no exception to this. This is true enough, but when Singapore was refounded (if you like) in 1819, the older, long-gone settlements had little or nothing to do with the new one. It's kind of life saying that one needs to study the history of Carthago (Carthage) in order to understand modern-day Tunis - the only thing you need to understand is the geography of the area, and how this impacts/impacted on both cities' socio-economic circumstances.

The non-academic who I heard speak was more charitable to the documentary, glowingly noting how they dug up lots of archive footage (including perhaps the earliest known footage of Singapore, from 1905), and managed to persuade many people to speak, including some who have never been interviewed before, or who you don't usually see interviewed in this sort of production, due to fear of defamation suits and the like (the panelist estimated a 95% rejection rate for interview requests).

Unfortunately, I had to run off after an hour to pick up some Exchange material due to more hiccups in the NUS administration.

(I wanted to get Tym to review this review before I posted it, as well as adding her own comments, but she's out getting pissed as usual, so too bad.

She informs me though, though a drunken haze, that "Anyway, to be fair, you missed the meatier parts of the discussion", presumably the Q&A.)

[Addendum: Tym's belated comments:

First off, hello, not in a drunken haze.

Some points to add:

1) Despite the blatant limitations of it being a 3-hour documentary, I think the reason it was so heavily critiqued is because of all the media hype that went with it, all of which built it up to be this purported definitive version of Singapore's history. If it had not claimed to be so "epic" and definitive, then critics could've perhaps gone easier on it. A 900-age tome that sets out, upon first publication, to declare itself THE authoritative history of a particular country (as opposed to one that acquires that reputation/authority because enough people deem it so) would face the same scrutiny and criticism.

2) I don't think the panelist in question was criticising the documentary for being chopped up into jigsaw pieces. I think she was highlighting it as an inherent limitation of the medium (i.e. where such made-for-Discovery documentaries are concerned).

3) None of the panelists made this point, but here's my take on whether to include pre-1819 history: If you include it, you're enlarging the definition of what it is to be Singapore (and, by extension, Singaporean) beyond the 'commonsensical' narrative that's been propagated since 1965. However, if we accept that Singapore is in fact a postmoder, postcolonial, postideological state "with no natural resources" and that has built itself from "mangrove swamp to metropolis", then pre-1819 history is indeed irrelevant to the definition of modern Singapore and bears perhaps the same relation as ancient Carthage to modern Tunis.

(Note: As pointed out by a member of the audience at the forum, the "mangrove swamp" generalisation is grossly wrong as only less than 20% of Singapore was not forested land in 1819.)

So it depends on where you think Singapore --- as an entity, or as a state, or as a society --- begins and ends. And that, of course, comes with its own ideological and cultural baggage.]
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