Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Folding History, Facts and Time : (Ab)Use of History in Singapore Politics

I am XenoBoy. I am the Political Savant.

In the past months, History has been evoked for various causes in Singapore. Take the feel-good NDP speech and the refrain of that famous rain-drenched parade 30 years ago. Take the latest ruling by Judge Magnus on the seditious blogs and the invocation of the need never to repeat the riots of 64 and Maria Hertogh. Take the most recent proud proclamation of home ownership in Singapore and the reminder of how good things are now.

Now, pick up the school’s history book belonging to your children or younger siblings. Flip through the pages and look for these historical events. There will be no more than a paragraph on these events if they are mentioned at all.

More importantly, each of the aforementioned historical event, isolated and upheld as so unique in our modernity, has been folded into a larger narrative of Singapore history. The riots of Maria Hertogh, 1964 and 1969 (which remains un-mentioned by many prominent Singaporeans) have been folded into a Narrative of a wildly communalistic past of Singapore. These three events are deemed as pivots in modern Singapore’s triumph over the spectre of communalism, a past in which we shall never return. The home ownership issue is folded into a general narrative of Singapore’s successful transition into a modern nation state with high percentage home ownership. Remember, my secondary school readers : History can be folded. (Gyanendra Pandey)

Read the history text books and tell me the Singapore story. The themes : pre-modern to modern. Immigrants to citizens. Poor to rich. Illiterate to literate. Bad to Good.

In each cited event, the basic assumption is that the Present represents a qualitatively better break from the Past. Ontological Progress. Good, better, best.

What if we have never been modern?

What if I tell you, in the past the various Singaporean races mingled very well with each other. Racial relations were absolutely fine. There was no difference then than now in the threshold between racial peace and racial violence? That the threshold to racial violence is breached only when there is deliberate political provocation coupled with media collusion and fertile social conditions?

To cite the Maria Hertogh and racial riots without the context is a folding of history into another narrative. A folding that does little justice to the events. In fact, such folding silences the events. Such folding smoothes these events onto a temporal and factual history-line when the events themselves have little respect for Time nor Facts. A simple example: a survivor of the riot will tell you, he had no sense of time during the violence … a survivor will tell you, all they had were rumors of things happening here or there.

The history text books will tell you otherwise. On 1964, at this time, this thing happened. A Fact. But it is a produced fact obtained from an ‘official source’. A policeman on the scene, recording the event in his notebook and subsequently filing it as a report. But what is the differe(a)nce between the historical Testimony of this Policeman and the injured rioter hiding in his house? The Testimony of the Policeman usually makes it to the history books while that of the rioter if lucky, makes it to a drama script.

How can I say that the spirit of Singaporeans were stronger 30 years ago when 90% of the parade participants could well have been cursing their luck that it rained just as much as participants cursed today?

What if I tell you, all the pre-modern Singaporeans were already staying under a roof ever since the first day immigrants have stepped foot onto Singapore?

What gives us the right to abrogate History? To appropriate the Past? To cite History outside of Time, outside of Space? The conquerors of the Political.

What stops us from looking beyond the presentation of Singapore’s History as it is?


I am XenoBoy. I am the Political Savant.

Quote of the Day,

“The moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it were really abolishing the past behind it. They all take themselves for Attila, in whose footsteps no grass grows back … they want to keep everything, date everything, because they think they have definitively broken with their past … maniacal destruction is counter-balanced by an equally maniacal conservation.” – Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern


Anonymous Libertas said...

When I read your entry, I was instantly reminded of a quote from Nietzsche, which I learnt during my History S days - "It is not whether the facts are true or false but the question is how far is it life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-creating."

Isn't this the purpose of National Education, to create a more patriotic and loyal Singaporean who has a deep sense of rootedness in his country through his history, albeit the blatant contrivance of historical facts as well as the "folding of history"?

What I find most disturbing is the lack of historical research and argumentation on our history, especially these well-quoted examples in our textbooks or during national campaigns. Why are we only given such views of history through the eyes of a singular individual (aka the government)? More importantly, is it not possible that there is (shock!) an alternative voice? Grappling with the orthodox cold war historians, the marxist historians of the Russian revolutions as well as the "Great Power conflict" theories of the New imperialism, I realised that there will always be historical discourse over every event, no matter how simple or problematic it can be.

The inclusion of Social Studies is an important example (something which I, as the pioneer batch of Guinea Pigs as my friends called ourselves, had to go through) that deserves careful mention. What other purpose does it serve other than to instill a more "positive" appreciation of our history, to be thankful for our success and to work harder for the future? The irony is that while it espoused critical thinking (through the evaluation of sources as well of cross-referencing of events), a clearly sanitised version of history was created with the aim of inculcating a sense of National pride.

"In the end, history us theory and theory is ideological and ideology is just material interests... knowledge is related to power... within social formations, those with the most power distribute and legitimize "knowledge" vis-a-vis interests as best as they can." - Keith Jenkins. Though I am a firm believer that history is not a hopeless cause, the current state of Singapore history is.

Where is the discourse?

6:08 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

Hi Libertas,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. Yes, Nietzsche, part of this entry owes a bit to his essay "The Use and Abuse of History" which is another classic interpretive nightmare for critical theorists.

We can spin this discussion onto many layers of historiographical discourse and how history is misapplied. But I think you hit the point when you question : where is the discourse? Misapplication of history is common enough, and it is naive to say that it should not be so. However, what is really lacking in Sg is the strength of Sg historians to step up and question key events, though I suspect this is due as much to lack of access to "official records" as to motivation.

But as I suggest at times, why this fixation with an "official record" or an "official source"? When the controls on historical production is as refined and sophisticated as in Sg, historical resonance will still seep through, for example, via the Arts, vua Literature (Kuo Pao Kun).

History is never a hopeless cause even in Sg, especially today. You negated your call for discourse by initiating this discourse actually, hehe.

What troubles me more is when there are students who say "Sg history is so boring". This kills the spirit to question where and how we came about. This kills a Singaporean who when faced in a global social situation cannot articulate Singapore without either being a blind essentialist (all you ang mohs do not know about Sg and have no right to call it authoritarian) or a hopeless cynic (Singapore sux, pap control everything blah blah).

Sg history is boring insofar as you treat Sg History as presented in the textbooks. But need we confine our historical inquiry to the textbooks? Herodotus is revered as the father of History but his history-books contains fascinating hi-stories. Khaldoun is another illuminary on Muslim historiography who wrote great hi-stories with a verve lacking in much modern academic history.

In the end though, this spins out to the spirit of the education system. We arm Singaporeans with a blinding set of logical and rational skills but we leave them devoid of soul. This is the contradiction built into "Social Studies" as I understand your explanation of it (Yes I am very old haha). Imagine, we have to teach "social" when social comes from within the spirit. If I put an undergraduate Greenpeace activist and pit her against our top PSC undergraduate scholar, the former will win any social discourse hands-down. This was why MOE wanted "Social Studies" but they cannot get out of their own conundrum. You have to free the students' minds first if not they just become shells without the ghost in them.

7:04 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

Ohh, as an aside, I was tempted to veer the entry toward another angle pertaining to "National Memory and Collective History" and "Collective Memory and National History" -- how the regime employs memory and history ... but figured it would lengthen the entry by way too much. You are welcome to take this thread up!

8:44 AM  
Anonymous Libertas said...

Hehehehehe... I guess I also negated my call for discourse by being hopelessly cynical of Singapore History. :D

I was surfing around and actually found a website under the NUS scholars programme which actually has modules on Singapore studies which studies Singapore history. So it is almost not a hopeless cause. (much more can be done..)

A definition of National education: "It is an exercise to develop instincts that become part of the psyche of every child. It must engender a shared sense of nationhood, an understanding of how our past is relevant to our present and future. It must appeal to both heart and mind." - PM Goh Chok Tong, Teacher's Day Rally, 8 Sept 1996.

Got that from a student project on National Education itself. It sounds really ambitious. But coupling NE with playing up of key events (like the Maria Hertogh riots, the communist insurgency, merger and separation) in a highly one-dimensional and structured manner makes it sound so hollow and repulsive to some, at least to me at times. (Especially so when the ST took up PM Lee's reference to the 1968 NDP in a multi page editorial with pictures and interviews of people involved in the parade itself. It just shows how overly-efficient our system is!)

I guess the reason why people find Singapore history so boring is the incessant use of such key events to the extent they become mere platitudes by the government and media. Ironically (hehehe. I love ironies and paradoxes!) such events actually become boring whereas in actual fact, its very very interesting and significant. (Hence my call for discourse which would definitely reignite the passion in some to question and reflect upon)

I'm not too familiar with the fixation on "official source" and "official record". Does the government exert pervasive control over the release of such sources? (Are we talking about statistics?)

Interesting that you brought up the idea of "National Memory and collective history" and "Collective memory and national history". I actually studied it in A level history (through the study of Nationalism in Italy and Germany) and in History S (on the use and abuse of History).

When discussing it in the context of unification and creating of a nation state in Italy and Germany, somehow it felt justifiable but when the case of Japan and the whole controversy over their textbooks was introduced, it brought a new dimension to the whole debate - to what extent is the use of history and memory permissible or justified? I was quite shocked when I learnt about a controversy in Europe over the Holocaust Denial which uses postmodernism to justify that the holocaust did not happen!

Wanted to keep it short but it became longer as I thought about it. Hehehehe..

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Holocaust Denial in summary :

Post-modernist history-writing by Hayden White places emphasis on the interpretation of the text as a valid source. If this is so, than the text can be re-interpreted. When trasnlated by vulgar post-modernists, ultimately boils down to the fact that all History is interpretation of text and hence a free-for-all. Hence, denial of holocaust.

I cannot resist a call for discourse in history.

Libertas is correct to say that our intepretation of Sg history is always one dimensional and highly unsohisticated. Any such interpretations are probably gathering dust in the NUS Hy or PS thesis sections.


11:09 PM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

hi libertas,

Well on official sources,the Rankean method of historical research relies much on official records, like government papers, minutes of meetings etc etc to construct history -- official history. This is the case too in Sg. Lets take the 1969 riot. no one historian has ever done any meaningful research on this event because no official sources have been released. Unlike in UK where Govt papers have to be declassified and released to the Public Archives after a period of years, this is not the case in Sg and the National Archives.

On the other hand, not having this access should not deter the dogged researcher. But have yet to see some really challenging historical views on post independence Sg political history.

Besides history, what is lacking in Sg academia is probably memory studies. It is like History a foray to the past but its motivations are different and its products are different. Memory studies and its relation to history writing would definitely help unlock some of the "memorialization" attempts we see employed by the regime.

Funny to that you mention the Sg Studies program. Had a friend, Unic Chicago phd, who was offered teaching post in this prgram but he declined on the same grounds as Warwick declined Sg. A pity really.

Hi T.T. -- Now you show your true colors! lolz

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Zyl said...

I believe it is in Orwell's 1984 that it is said that who controls the past, controls the present and thus is able to control the future.

Shameless plug: I also reflected on the uses and abuses of Sg history, specifically contrasting Sg and British interpretations of the Fall of Sg during WW2 as well as suggesting some alternative pedagogies for teaching history in our schools and why they are prob not encouraged.

6:48 AM  
Blogger xenoboysg said...

Hi Zyl,

Oh yes, it was the conversation between the main character and his friend in the canteen , I believe. The entire book is a fascinating exposition of a deliberate erasing of the past at the collective History part. The only "hope" to be read from that book is really Memory. The character remembers some things. The plane. A life before New-Speak.

Teaching of history in Sg. It is up to each teacher and his/her idiosyncracies; whether they dare plant doubt in the students' minds.

9:13 AM  
Blogger Agagooga said...

As long as alternative voices exist, the torch of truth can never be totally extinguished.

"History... Singapore is a nation which has gone through very tough times, race riots... a harmonious
society today... During the race riots a very small proportion of people were racist. A lot of people helped people of other races out... Again let me re-iterate. I'm not anti-PAP." - Assorted NUS people

8:32 AM  

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