“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen...and friends from ISD,” the associate professor began his speech with much laughter from the audience. (A bit of a shaky sort of laughter though, if you know what I mean.) And in one segment of his very broad speech, he very humorously outlines “The Singapore Story in kindergarten terms“– a story where we start of once upon a time in turmoil before living happily ever after. It is this “hegemonic master narrative” that he critiques — because there’s so much more.
The book, The Fajar Generation, is supposedly quite critical of the government given that it presents a leftist view of history. To put it in simplest terms, it is a rebuttal to how the Singapore Story treats the University Socialist Club. It will assert that the USC never did collude with communism, nor did it incite racial violence.
Yet despite such a critical contrarian view, the earlier-mentioned associate professor highlights that the book was not banned. He saw it as a sign of hope for the writing of alternative histories, such that “we can now say anything”. Perhaps he meant it with a Singapore perception of what that means. In any case, most people probably took it with a spoon of salt — who can foresee getting arrested for writing?
caCophony — with a capital C — in the middle. The previous time during the launch of the ‘Makers and Keepers of Singapore History’, I heard about the manifold difficulties as the national archives remain inaccessible while oral sources have the tendency to self-censor. If the previous talk showed a bit too much pessimism, this one showed a bit too much optimism.
I was most amused when a political filmmaker who recently had a banned film and another video recording removed off youtube had a point to raise. ..of course he had a reason to disagree.
So who’s right? Both actually. Both presented facts. Yes, a controversial book was allowed — in fact, I think parts of Makers and Keepers could fall into the same category. But at the same time, it is true that some there are sriking examples of banned speeches/books recently — of which I still can’t see the rationale for banning.
Both contradictory signals are present — which makes things complex. This is a point that the entire talk emphasises: there is more than just black and white. It never is about just black and white apart from the history of Slavery. The Second World War was painted as an outright clash between good and evil, overlooking the fact that the West allied with Stalin. The American War of Independence was likewise seen as a combined effort against the colonial imposition of taxation without representation, when in actuality, there were many Americans who chose loyalty to king and country over “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It is what lit studies would call a round rather than flat character.
Things really aren’t that simple. The counter-narratives to the Singapore Story is probably the most interesting bit of Singapore History that appeals to youths but as the introductory speaker mentioned this preoccupation is something to be concerned about. When the historian tries too hard to find an alternative history, he ends up starting with a preconceived notion shaped by the present and attempts consciously or subconsciously to fit/filter the facts into the mould. This distorts the truth in the process.
After all, the information we get is never complete. It is impossible to get a full picture — even less so if you were to go back in time to experience everything first hand. As John Lewis Gaddis puts it, you’d be too busy trying to run from the Inquisition and survive black death to have hindsight of the greater context.
I mean…this post only shows one to two small aspects of the entire talk. There are denser parts on how the British used colonial nationalism and language as a political tool and the disagreement among older members of the audience during the dialogue (since they were actually participants previously).
On a side note, I think I got a taste of how some history lectures might feel like — to this day, I have a disdain for powerpoint and female teachers. Not to be chauvinist, it is just by coincidence -objectively speaking- that i’ve never really had any enjoyable lessons by female teachers, maybe apart from one. Maybe its just me and luck of the draw. … I hope none of my female teachers read this…in which case, they should just assume they’re that special one ><