06 April 2015

Living with Myths VIII: Danger and Development

Being a review of the 8th in a year-long series of seminars

Openness and reform under the shadow of danger

An authoritarian regime often resorts to a national narrative that begins with an existential threat to the State and ends with a taboo on certain discourses. Don't tempt fate by talking about race and religion in Singapore; these topics are so sensitive, any discussion will bring down our truly great but simultaneously fragile state.

Ian Chong turns his gaze away from Singapore, where this rhetoric hasn't yet been laughed out of society, to 1987 where authoritarian regimes in Taiwan and Korea ended several long-held taboos to free up political discourse and democratic participation. It is worth noting these measures did not lead to riots in the streets or the fall of South Korea or Taiwan, or even the ruling parties governing them. Roh Tae-woo succeeded Chun, while Chiang Ching-kuo's anointed successor, Lee Teng-hui, became president.

Chong argues what had changed was a recognition at the top that society had outpaced the state's ability to regulate its politics. Society had become so complex with multitudinous identities and loyalties, that anyone at any one time could be in a minority—and that the best path forward was to let people negotiate, compromise, and negotiate their rights, recognition, roles and responsibility in a more democratic mechanism.

Chong did not provide economic and social indicators comparing the trajectories of Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan post-1987. The trade-off might actually have paid off handsomely.

Lucius Sulla seized dictatorial powers, reformed the Roman constitution
then stepped down voluntarily.

Rethinking racial categories

Laavanya Kathiravelu recycles the keynote presentation she gave at the Singapore Heritage Society's Anatomy of a Riot seminar in September 2014. Which is resembles nothing like the writeup for Living With Myths VIII. But we'll deal with the presentation she gave, not the presentation she promised.

From her anthropological research on migrant labourers in Singapore, Kathiravelu magically takes aim at the nation-state's "CMIO model", even though their identities as migrant labourers here are shaped by both ethnicity and class. She shows powerpoint slides of recent controversies in ethnic relations (the Little India riot, STOMP complaints, etc) and presumes they are self-explanatory, and embody all that is wrong with the CMIO model, which somehow is the root of everyday racism in Singapore.

Yet listening to her speak, it is unclear if she even knows whether it is the act of classification, the inadequate description of finer, more sophisticated ethnic identities, or the very fact that master identities in Singapore are ethnically based that is her bugbear aside from her conviction that racism is bad; and it's all CMIO's fault.

Even the academic audience had fun with her unpresentation at the Q&A, where several postgraduate researchers suggested other readings of recent controversies, including the class divide, the growing disconnect between global migration and local identity, or even neocolonialism. Kathiravelu was unable to respond in a meaningful way, ironically privileging race discourse instead of rethinking it. Those interested in actually knowing about what the CMIO model really means and why it's a Bad Thing and inadequate for a modern Singapore may consult Nirmala PuruShotam's Negotiating Language, Constructing Race.

Innovation: smart nation, technology, and governance in Singapore

Arthur Chia's presentation is commendable; it is a close reading of state rhetoric from the past 3 decades on technology and innovation. He proves that it's never been about technology or innovation per se, but about attempts to define and demarcate Singapore's place in a globalising economy using the preferred frames of reference of its managerial elites on one hand, and on the other, to buttress the ruling party's technocratic, meritocratic virtues and hence right to rule.

Chia's presentation was so circumscribed to proving this point, we almost suspect the paper he's currently researching and writing on this topic has far more to say, such as correlating each attempt at reinventing technocratic discourse to earlier failed attempts at climbing the tech/innovation/productivity ladder. We wish him best of luck, and hopefully a return to the Living with Myths seminar before the end of the series.

30 March 2015

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew IV

Lee Kuan Yew, the political realist and chameleon

The pre-merger consensus in Singapore in the post-war decades was for a pan-Malayan identity. Post-merger, Lee Kuan Yew the populist democrat honoured the desires of Singapore's populace and fought the battle for a Malaysian Malaysia and lost.

Therein lies a historical problem that is tangential to our study of (if you haven't guessed by part 3) Singapore's evolving language/bilingualism/multiculturalism policy: Why did the sage and political genius of Singapore fail to recognise the MCA-UMNO political contract—the foundation of the Federation of Malaya and hence the Federation of Malaysia—was not for a Malayan Malaya, that a Malaysian Malaysia was not what the populace in the peninsula wanted, and why did he fail to politically outwit and outmanoeuvre the ruling coalition?

As it so happened, Singapore was independent—booted out or amicably divorced, depending on Lee's initial, long-term narrative or his new retelling on Goh Keng Swee's funeral. Whereupon Lee insisted on a Singaporean Singapore but somewhere along the years, became a Sinicised Singapore.

Multiculturalism in Singapore before sinification
If the Chinese elites had ultimately won the war for the soul of Singapore despite losing the battle for its political compass, it was a victory that was borne out of a significant defeat and thus could not be acknowledged as a victory. We will prove that the brand of Sinification pushed by the elites has been reactionary, essentialist, and ultimately radical, then argue further that with the passage of time, changing demographics and shifting geopolitical realities have overwritten the initial appeal of Sinification to Singapore’s Chinese population, alienating this elite and its cultural programme from not just Chinese Singaporeans but Singaporeans at large.

Take for example the idea that a Chinese Singaporean who does not speak and write fluent Mandarin is somehow un-Chinese and not worthy of respect. In the years 1959—1965, this axiomatic statement and the assumptions it makes linking language, culture, and ethnicity (in effect, the assumptions underpinning modern ‘bilingualism’ in Singapore) would not have made sense.

Pre-merger bilingualism as promoted by the PAP consisted of Malay (the national language then and still today) plus either Tamil, Mandarin, or English, depending solely on one’s medium of education. The ‘second language’ one spoke did not have any bearing on one’s ethnic identity, and was not expected to.

Parangolés, Helio Oiticica
In the late 1960s, Brasil embarked on an experiment of cultural fusion and creation
called Tropicalismo

Post-independence, Singapore multiculturalism was, under ministers Lee Koon Choy and S Rajaratnam, a matter of creating a fusion culture to create a distinctive Singaporean identity. The present-day understanding that bilingualism ‘preserves cultures’ and ties one’s identity to a ‘mother tongue’ would have been alien, if not an affront to the vision of multiculturalism and bilingualism agreed upon in the early days of Singapore. In the view of S Rajaratnam, a multicultural Singapore could not exist as a Singapore populated by hyphenated Singaporeans. A Singaporean identity could only arise out of the deliberate distancing of Singaporeans from their ‘ancestral’, ‘ethnic’ loyalties and identifications.
As a Singaporean I have no difficulty, in a single lifetime, forgetting in turn that I was a Ceylon Tamil and Sri Lankan though I was born there. I had no difficulty forgetting that I was a British subject, or the formative years as a Malayan and where most of my kith and kin are... Being a Singaporean is not a matter of ancestry. It is conviction and choice... Being Singaporean means forgetting all that stands in the way of one’s Singaporean commitment, but without in any way diminishing one’s curiosity about the triumphs and failures of one’s distant ancestors.
Witness how this radically opposite this hews from the PAP's latter-day concept of multiculturalism. It has been revisioned as an initiative of the elite, to build mini-sages and "bi-cultural elites" to trade, to enter a regressive, if profitable transaction with the now ever-present, pressingly relevant land of ancestry. It is a multiculturalism where the state prescribes and polices race and cultural identity, a multiculturalism completely at odds with Rajaratnam's race-blind Singaporean Singapore.

23 March 2015

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew

The Apotheosis of Washington, 1865
"Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up."
-- Lee Kuan Yew, 1988 NDRS

As the authority and competence of the People's Action Party wanes, historians are starting to point out that Singapore has no proper history, only a hagiography.

While the authoritarian leader eschewed a personality cult, it did not stop generations of Singaporeans speaking of him in hushed, deferential, even reverential tones. Neither did it stop him from making a nation in his image, from adopting the rhetoric of the enlightened despot. Leaders like him do not pass on; they apotheosize.

Lee Kuan Yew is dead. We commemorate his passing not by declaring his divinity and author of all that is good in Singapore, nor by painting him as a folk-devil responsible for all the woes of Singapore. We are guided here by a firm sense of proportion, empiricism, and grounded theory that puts the man in his proper place.

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew III

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's populist leader

What can a politician do to win the votes of a demographic whose popular leaders were jailed, exiled, and taken out of the political process? We argue that as the purges against Singapore’s Chinese political elites continued, the PAP had to make an increasing number of cultural and social concessions to Singapore’s Chinese—in effect, to valourise “Chineseness”—in order to maintain their electoral competitiveness.

National Language Class, by Chua Mia Tee
In their push towards the merger in the post-war decades, Singapore’s Chinese elites on both the left and right had advocated a pan-Malayan identity for the future state of Malaysia. As the price for Singapore’s admission into an independent Malaya, they would go so far as to adopt Malay as a lingua franca.[1] Regardless of political affiliation, the political narrative of the Chinese population up to 1963 had been that Singapore and Malaya were “flesh and bone” which were destined for a reunion, that the Chinese people of Malaya would lead the way to forge a national identity that was not Chinese, not Malay, not communitarian but “Malayan”.[2]

Despite its growing unpopularity and near collapse in the initial years of self-government, the PAP outmanoeuvred its main political rival, the more popular Barisan Sosialis, by championing the merger—a pet issue of the Chinese community and its leaders. While the merger project would prove to be a failure, it was easy for the PAP to continue down this path in order to remain electable as the bearer of Chinese culture and politics in an independent and democratic Singapore, especially when its ‘anti-communist’ purges against the Chinese elites (who had been building an alternative power base in Singapore’s schools, newspapers, and trade unions) intensified.

This was achieved through the PAP government’s selective appropriation of the cultural and social agendas of the defeated Chinese political elite to fashion a “Chinese” identity that was acceptable to the PAP’s nation-building project, and the absorption of the Chinese cultural elite into the civil service and the surrender of ‘soft policy’ areas to this group.[3]

Relatively early, the PAP government discarded its idealist socialist rhetoric and fashioned Singapore’s national narrative in terms that would appeal to its Chinese elites. Singapore’s war on “yellow culture” took its cues from Mao’s appropriation of national self-strengthening initiatives to combat the moral decrepitude and corrupting influences of “Western” culture, and intensified in the 1970s to become a crusade against long hair, hippies, rock music, and drug culture. By the 1980s, a barely disguised neo-Confucian “Asian Values” was touted as the root of Singapore’s exceptionalism. And by the mid 1990s, Singapore made its play on the world stage as a “Third China”, laying claim as the heir of authentic Chinese culture and identity by recreating the Tang Dynasty as a theme park in Singapore for the benefit of Singaporeans and an outside world yet to access the real China.

A rare, if not only non-Sinocentric staging of Kuo Pao Kun's Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education became the employers of last resort for graduates from Singapore’s only Chinese-language university[4]. The brazen purges and undisguised proscription of the Chinese political elites (largely Nanyang graduates as well) had deterred the private sector from employing Nanyang’s best and brightest, while the English-educated civil service saw them as no less suspicious than the alleged pro-communist Chinese political elites whom they were purging.

Barred from contesting the economic future or any substantial policy direction of Singapore from within the system, it is hence in the “soft” ministries of culture and education that Nanyang’s graduates were allowed to refashion themselves as Singapore’s Chinese cultural elite, protecting Chinese culture and values, subject to what the PAP government felt was necessary to its nation-building project.

In the crucial years of 1969 to 1989, the mandarins at the Ministry of Education had instituted or enacted policies that would shape an essentialist Chinese identity in Singapore: the wholesale adoption of the PRC’s Chinese orthography reforms, the bilingual policy, the intensification of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, and the promotion of tough standards for Mandarin education. Far from being seen as radical, most of these moves would have been comfortingly familiar to Singapore’s Chinese elites—who had looked to China as a harbinger of the modern and kept abreast with innovations in politics, culture, and education—and signalled the commitment of the PAP government to progressive and modernising ideas that were in vogue in China[5] and hence in vogue with Singapore’s Chinese elites.

From this, it can be argued that through the process of democratic politics and political accommodation, Singapore’s Chinese elites have won the battle for Singapore despite their political defeat, just like how the South had in fact won America despite losing the Civil War. As with the American case, the dominance by Singapore’s Chinese cultural elite goes unrecognised by that same elite, and cannot be spoken of or acknowledged. It is a victory shrouded in the myth of defeat, fought in a neverending war, by oppressive victors who forever see themselves as oppressed.

The literary output of one Wong Meng Voon, former civil servant, Cultural Medallion winner, and literary grandee, illustrates this point. An anthology of Wong’s short stories[6] invariably paint a caricature of English educated Chinese Singaporeans as race traitors who have lost their essential Chineseness and in so doing become less than human, and suffer, shamed, or are otherwise punished for it. The tentative advances of a Singaporean Chinese student in the States is rebuffed because the object of his affections, a Shiksa Goddess, is turned off by his poor command for Mandarin.[7] An English-educated civil servant feels shame when he miswrites his own name in Mandarin in a calligraphic piece for visiting Chinese officials.[8] A graduating class holds a vote to select a suitable country for a cultural tour; the sole student to vote for China is the sole non-Chinese student of the class.[9] Two Singaporeans who spurn China for New Zealand for a tour discover that their souvenirs are all made in China.[10] The haughty king of the monkeys demands his entire race undergo blood transfusion to develop superior, snowy furs; the entire race dies of leukaemia.[11]

Such essentialist notions and visions of a perpetually threatened Chineseness and Chinese identity would be alien and unrecognisable in the literature of Malaysian Chinese authors, whose literary output on Chineseness is centred on hybridity, self-refashioning, and ultimately nativist. These short stories from Wong and his literary colleagues cannot exist and would not be elevated as a dominant discourse if not for the cultural and ideological groundwork laid out by his fellow cultural elites at the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture.

1Chua Mia Tee’s 1959 painting, “National Language Class”, is typical of the willingness of Singapore’s Chinese elites to create a popular discourse for and about an imaginary, future Malayan/Malaysian identity on the island, which was not shared by the Chinese in the Federated Malay States.
2PJ Thum, “Flesh and Bone Reunited as One Body” in Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, Volume 5, 2011-12.
3Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli, 2008. The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its pasts. I am indebted to the authors’ account of how under specific policies and initiatives, Singapore acquired its very specific “Chinese” identity in the post-independence years. While the authors narrate the roll-out of Singapore’s “Sinification” cultural policies as a product of an ideological process of negotiating with historical identities, this essay argues for a materialist critique that exposes the social, political, and most importantly, institutional roots of this negotiation process.
4Ibid. The founder of Nanyang University, the philanthropist and entrepreneur Tan Lark Sye who had lobbied for Singapore’s Chinese population to be granted citizenship, was accused by the People’s Action Party government of “supporting communist activists” and had his citizenship revoked in 1963.
5Preliminary studies for orthography reform had in fact been kickstarted under the KMT government in the 1930s as a means to increase literacy. It was only the KMT’s loss of mainland China and the CCP’s championing of the simplified script that put all orthography reforms in Taiwan on permanent hold.
6Wong Meng Voon, 2012. Under the Bed, Confusion Singapore: Epigram Books
7Ibid. “The Foreign Girl”.
8Ibid. “Michael Yang”
9Ibid. “Leisure Tour”
10Ibid. “Fine Print”

11Ibid. “Transfusion”

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew II

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's unsung democrat

Singapore's first prime minister has been called a dictator, not least by William Safire and other young, educated Singaporeans over the decades. Lee was not ashamed of the term; the statesman revelled in the patrimonial image of a strongman who did what was necessary for the nation.

Recently, the declassification of the British colonial archives has resurrected, or given credibility to an old charge against Lee: a politico whose undemocratic, underhanded, and cynical plottings leading to the Merger have poisoned the foundation of Singapore.

The undeclared civil war of Singapore between the alleged communists and the PAP (or as Dr Thum Pin Tjin might say, between the Chinese socialist left and the PAP's non-communist socialists) has left enduring scars on Singapore's political landscape, so much so that PM Lee Hsien Loong recently argued that Singapore could not afford to be divided along the red state, blue state lines of the US.

Political polarisation or political accommodation?

The younger Lee’s conceptualisation of America’s Red State, Blue State problem is not unorthodox; the discovery and subsequent branding of this phenomenon occurred in 2000 to describe what looked to be a state-level ‘sticky’ voting preference in the US presidential elections. Even though the stickiness dissolves and a “Purple America” emerges once the polling data is refined on county and district level, the longevity and appeal of the Red State/Blue State discourse can be explained as a conceptual extension of earlier political realities, namely the “Solid South” of the Democratic Party and “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party.

These political phenomena should be understood as the legacy of the American Civil War. Following the complete military and political defeat of the Confederate States (which had half the population of the Union), Reconstruction was initially proposed to disenfranchise the South[1] while reunifying the nation. If successive Republican presidents had stuck to the grand plan, the ironically-named Reconstruction project would have turned the United States of America into a nation where a quarter of the population would live and work in federally-administered or even military dictatorships.

Despite these plans, the victors of the civil war eventually accommodated the defeated South to preserve the legitimacy of their victory in a free, open, and democratic America—with all the elections that this entails. It is the necessary cultural concessions, the valourisation of the South and its agrarian values and religiosity[2] that when accreted over close to two centuries, looks like a Red State, Blue State “divide”.

In Singapore, the leftist purges conducted by the People’s Action Party from 1959 to the late 1970s were no less devastating and widespread. Pre-dawn arrests by the secret police, decades of detention without trial, televised confessions and recantations ensured the wholesale removal of several generations of political elites from the Chinese community.

Far from being the arrogant, bullying, conceited, dictatorial, egotistical folk-devil of popular imagination, Lee did not suspend democracy, impose martial law, and transform Singapore into a dictatorship. Unlike Latin America, Singaporeans were not kidnapped by paramilitaries and disappeared forever. Unlike Taiwan's White Terror, Singaporeans were not executed for treason. Lee's methods, however infamous, were not internationally infamous, and kept Singapore's place within the British Commonwealth.

Elections went on as normal, and that meant the PAP had to pay a heavy price to ensure its continued successes at the electoral box. Like Lincoln’s successors, the PAP had no choice upon winning its war against the Chinese political elites on the left but to politically accommodate Chinese voters in Singapore, then numbering over 70% of its population. As the purges against Singapore’s Chinese political elites continued, the PAP had to make an increasing number of cultural and social concessions to Singapore’s Chinese—in effect, to valourise “Chineseness”—in order to maintain their electoral competitiveness.
1The Radical Republicans had demanded a loyalty oath that would have disbarred the majority of state electorates and their representatives, while the moderate Lincoln would have accepted a 10% electorate plan that would render the ‘new’ Southern states undemocratic minority-run pro-Republican regimes. Under Johnson, the South was broken into 5 military districts.

2In popular narratives, every winning presidential campaign needs a Southern candidate, the metonym for America is not New York or DC but small town America (which is why Superman, defender of the American Way, is a farmboy), The Hunger Games is an allegory for the tyranny of Reconstruction, Gone with the Wind is the highest grossing film adjusted for inflation, etc.

18 February 2015

Living with Myths VII: Discipline and proscribe

Being a review of the 7th in a year-long series of seminars
From HBO's ROME: Julius Caesar surveys a map of the city
Maps and narratives are the product of power/knowledge relations
through discipline of the self and proscription of the body politic

Narratives exist in an "always already" tense; they retroactively over-determine and limit the sum total of competing possibilities and strategies of reading history. Yet without a narrative, there is no subject to be constructed, to be made known, and ultimately deconstructed...

The myth of Singaporeanness: values and identity in Singapore education

Taking the audience through the succession of "moral education", "好公民" (literally: good citizens), "civics", "religious knowledge", and "national education", subjects taught in schools in Singapore, Christine Han's presentation is a rudimentary introduction to the academic critique of citizenship education. That is, the ideas of citizenship and civic-mindedness are the products of discursive formations within the institutions of state-directed education. To simplify even further: social engineering creates the next generation of Singaporeans who believe in a unique and exceptional Singaporean nation and Singaporeanness, and know how to conduct themselves as decent Singaporeans.

Han identifies rigid morality, resorts to prescriptive teaching, and cherrypicking of history as some of the major weaknesses of Singapore's model of citizenship education. Unfortunately without a proper introduction to just what citizenship education is about, or a cross comparison with other countries, it is impossible to say conclusive what Singapore is doing wrong, even if it's easy to say what's so annoying about Singapore's citizenship education efforts.

We would have recommended Yeow-tong Chia, who has actually written several comparative studies on citizenship education, to take this presentation.

Political lawyers: The development and clampdown of the Law Society in the 80s

Teo Soh Lung limits her narrative to the year of 1986, between the election of Francis Seow as Law Society president to Parliament's amendment of the Legal Profession Act to remove the statutory duty of the Law Society to publicly comment on legislation, white papers, and bills.

The tenor of her presentation centres on the dissatisfaction of young lawyers over the lack of open and transparent consultation between the legislative body and the bar association. Given their interpretation of its "statutory duty" and the supermajority of the People's Action Party in government, it appeared that laws were bulldozed through parliament without due consultation with lawyers and legal experts.

The fury of Papalee and his perception of an activist, political Law Society is understandable considering what is known of his philosophy of government. Left unsaid is the fact that the legal profession everywhere else has access to legislators, whether mandated through the charters of bar associations or as a result of activist activity from the lobbying arms of law firms, precisely because of lawyers are experts at legislation and the legislative process.

The banning of a film

Chua Beng-huat offered a sociological analysis of the banning of Tan Pin Pin's To Singapore With Love. Chua posits that the government's response and rhetoric to Tan's film hardened and became more extreme over time (culminating in Minilee's declaration that it was an insult to the people who lost their lives in the struggle against Communism) only because there anti-Communism (i.e. "Socialism that works") is the founding narrative of Singapore, and that the PAP has failed to develop a popular successor ideology to keep itself relevant. Without a new ideology modern Singaporeans can believe in (witness the quick succession of citizenship education models in Singapore!), the PAP is forced to keep alive antiquated enemies, to continue to define itself in oppositional terms to long-defeated enemies.

Chua suggests that the ban is self-defeating and yet inevitable; it jibes with the PR/makeover campaign the PAP has embarked on after losing Aljunied GRC, but yet is the logical endpoint of holding on to an outdated ideology.

29 December 2014

Living with Myths VI: Apathy

Being a review of the 5th in a year-long series of seminars

What sort of counter-narrative can an academic conjure?
Would it be just as false and dark?

As Singapore marches towards its 50th anniversary of its expulsion from Malaysia (but not of independence, because Singapore was declared an independent nation by no less than Papalee himself on 31 August 1963), an anxiety falls onto both its rulers and their subjects.

It is significant that a leader of a modern, prosperous, and successful Singapore would need to bolster his legitimacy, competence, and charisma by invoking the nation's founding narratives, and how a grouping of academics have taken it as their mission to debunk the same founding narrativeespecially if no one in Singapore really believes in the official national narrative despite the lip-service paid to it, thanks to how often it gets camped up and begins to deconstruct itself yearly in the musical numbers at the National Day Parade.

Is the national narrative a totalising narrative? Can histories of Singapore be written without the anxiety of influence of the national narrative? Should histories of Singapore be written without reference to the national narrative?

These were issues raised by Prof. Chua Beng Huat at this seminar, unspoken but lurking in the background of his detailed critique of the individual presentations of all 3 speakers, and ultimately a challenge to the Living with Myths seminar serieswhich still has half a year more to go.

I mention Chua because he is one of the most unapologetically outspoken anti-establishment senior figures in Singapore academia, and a formidable intellectual. That he has chosen to attend a Living with Myths session is significant; that he has chosen to demolish each presentation with precision and accuse the speakers of being irresponsible is perhaps even more significant.

Apathy, or how history is written by the elites

Loh Kah Seng's presentation serves as an introduction to his recently published book on the Bukit Ho Swee fire, Squatters into Citizens. Beginning with the permanent Urban Redevelopment Authority exhibit on public housing, Loh establishes the official portrayal of Singapore's kampong population in the 1950s-70s as apathetic and indifferent to modern housing and who should be so grateful to the city planners, who in turn were grateful that the unfortunate outbreak of fires that destroyed entire urban kampong settlements also solved their problem of promoting public housing.

From his interviews with former kampong residents and newspaper reports, Loh paints a picture of hardly apathetic but very much plucky "smallfolk" - farmers, hawkers, and others employed in the casual urban economy and small-time gangsters who 'protected' them. Loh enumerated the manner in which these heroic smallfolk resisted the authorities, actively and frustrated resettlement and eviction efforts, and inadvertently sabotaged firefighting efforts through what he termed "weapons of the weak".

Chua listed several reasons to reject Loh's presentation of Singapore's urban history: the issue is not about apathy or agency; the historian's job is not about fetishising agency but to make sense of historical events against the longue durée and in particular, situate the urbanisation of Singapore's population against the transformation of Singapore's postwar economy and workforce.

Further, Loh has been less than careful in his framing of an official narrative: it is only in the URA display that typifies Singapore's 'squatter' population as apathetic. If the Municipal Council and newspapers of the day duly reported on the daily resistance of kampong residents, it follows that the "apathetic squatter" line was never the official narrative. That this forms the narrative of the URA exhibit does not make it a national narrative, and certainly not a totalising narrative that needs to be debunked.

If Loh had wanted, he could have easily repurposed the presentation as a discussion on the myth of the Kampong Spirt (or gotong royong) without incurring the wrath of Chua.

The Myth of the Inert Buddhist: Toward a History of Engaged Buddhism in Singapore

Jack Chia begins with an assertion that the myth of Buddhism in Singapore is that of social apathy: reclusive monks who are most concerned with meditation, and only emerge to engage with society by officiating at funerals.

His counter-narrative consists of running through the career of the abbot Venerable Yen Pei and the various charities the abbot founded and social causes he championed in Singapore as a form of the "engaged Buddhism" movement in the religion.

During the Q&A, Chua pointed the two elephants in the room:
1. Is there even a myth that Buddhism in Singapore is typified by apathy or social disengagement? Is this even how Singaporeans view Buddhism, or the narrative that comes first to mind when the issue of Buddhism is mentioned? If no, it would be extremely irresponsible of any academic to invent such a myth as a convenient straw man to knock down.

2. The manifestation of socially engaged Buddhism in Singapore is identical to the model of religious-run charities, self-help groups, and worthy causes that are promoted by the state, in lieu of a system of social welfare. What is the historical context of the development (and clearly branding) of "engaged Buddhism" in Singapore, where in fact, every other country in Asia with a Buddhist majority and strong sangha has seen often violent monk-led riots and protests? Why would a responsible academic proffer, as a 'counter-narrative' to a non-existent myth, a Big Man Story?

The Trishaw Industry: From Public Transport to Myth

Some time in the final months of WW2, the trishaw was introduced to Singapore and quickly replaced the jinrickshaw as the mode of public transport. Jason Lim began with a picture of a trishaw rider lazing in his vehicle and proceeded to present a well-researched history of the trishaw and its riders in Singapore. This social history intersects with the history of public transport in Singapore, the rise of the labour union movement (and subsequent crackdowns on communist-controlled unions), and the story of Nantah. More than mere labourers, exotic transport personnel, these were flesh and blood people who were engaged in the social and political life of a nation.

While the presentation seemed well-researched, Chua objected to the use of the "lazy trishaw rider" picture. Where on earth did this picture come from? Is it even part of an official narrative? Did Lim's presentation really need to debunk a straw man?

The limitations of doing counter-history

Perhaps the Living with Myths series does require a Chua Beng Huat to serve as a check on the temptation of imperial overreach. That is to say, there are historical subjects that can be studied outside of the contestation between the state and a group of academics on Singapore's official history, and to bend these intellectual endeavours to fit into the narrative of these academics would be intellectually dishonest and irresponsible.

28 November 2014

Living with myths V: Linear narratives

Being a review of the 5th in a year-long series of seminars

Strange things happen when maverick revisionist historians and the writers of national history textbooks collaborate. According to Lysa Hong and Huang Jianli in The Scripting of National History, this is how national history has been done in Singapore, and has come to be accepted as normal despite its unorthodox, almost anti-academic roots:
Both Rajaratnam and Devan Nair shared the view enunciated by Lee Kuan Yew that as individuals making history (momentous events of the past), history should be their account of events, for they would know best what really happened. Through understanding and accepting their history as told by its makers, Singaporeans would also understand and accept the vision of the future proffered by them...
Even Doctor Doom knows the power of narratives!
(excerpt from Loki: Agent of Asgard #6)

The Living With Myths series can only seen as a revisionist history project from this point of view; but how does Singapore's national history project look from the view of academia?

Mythic Proportions: Raffles, Free Trade, and the Rise of Modern Singapore

Southeast Asia specialist Dr Kok Keng We's presentation reconsiders the figure of Raffles in the national history of Singapore, in the light of historical research on British, Dutch, Bugis, and Malay interactions both before and after the founding of Singapore.

Aspects of Raffles's key claims establishing himself as the founder of Singapore were examined and found wanting by historical evidence: He was not the first person to advocate founding a colony in Singapore (Farquhar and others had been laying the ground and negotiating with the sultans); free trade was not the chief reason Singapore succeeded in its first decade (Farquhar and Swettenham engaged in diplomacy to entice the Bugis away from Batavia); nor was Singapore founded to establish the principle of free trade (it was to establish a British monopoly protect British traders against the VOC monopoly in the East Indies).

Someone should write the founding of Singapore as a heist film
where the team of Raffles, Farquhar, Swettenham steal the Dutch blind

Of course the concept of national history as one big man's one-sided, self-serving narrative is as old as mud. Yet an evidence-based, "historical revisionist" appraisal of the role of Raffles in Singapore history wouldn't consign Raffles to the bin of history or condemn him as a liar either; it is likely he would be seen as a political and ideological genius who could sell a project that bland administrators and planners like Farquhar or Swettenham wouldn't have sold to the establishment in England.

It's a little like how The Singapore Story really is about Lee's Lieutenants, or how even in 1961, Lord Selkirk acknowledged that while Goh Keng Swee was the far more competent administrator, Singapore needed a political talent like Lee Kuan Yew to head the government and run the show.

Kok's presentation suggests that any revisionist history would actually be quite modest in their revisionism; that as very selective cherry-picking of established facts, official histories aren't a bunch of lies. The real lesson to take away would be a need to examine Singapore in the longue durée of Southeast Asia, or alternative Singapore and Southeast Asia from a world-systems perspective.

Before and Beyond the Banyan Tree: The Myth of Civil Society in Singapore

Historian turned NTU communications and information don Liew Kai Khiun spent half his presentation talking about his experiences globetrotting and mucking around in various archives. It's a very detailed presentation, insofar as his experience as a researcher goes. It'd be perfect if that's what we came to listen to him for.

Yet when it came to civil society in colonial Singapore, it's a shame that Liew offered completely no details whatsoever about how varied civil society was (claim made, nothing offered), which groups operated here (only actual mention: Rockefeller Foundation), who participated (claim made: not just the Brits, not just the middle class, yet no details offered), what interests they took, which ideologies they subscribed and advocated (claim made, no examples given), and more importantly, why colonial civil society flourished.

It was a damn shame and embarrassment to sit through.

I could write several blog posts about early colonial Singapore, the governance of Singapore as a colony, why it took more than 50 years to establish a Raffles Institution, the invention of clan associations and the arrival of secret societies, the early newspapers, the founding of the Tongmenhui in Singapore, the pro and anti-opium movements, and the rise of Chinese gentlemen's clubs. Yet in this sketchy paragraph, I would have said (and hinted at) more than Liew presented on "civil society" in early Singapore.

Questioning ‘From Third World To First’

More like from lower middle class country to first world country

Philip Holden isn't a historian; he teaches literature in NUS. Yet it makes sense that one can study national narratives from the viewpoint of literary analysis, instead of historical analysis. It's an established field of study, and yes, Holden has already analysed the first volume of The Singapore Story along these lines.

So: if we treat our national history as a narrative, what kind of story does the PAP's version of Singapore story tell? What kind of story is it? Who are the heroes and villains? Where does it begin, where will it end? What is the quest ("Towards the First World" incidentally is something both the PAP and WP make use of in their propaganda), the challenge, and the moral of the story?

From The Singapore Story and other political memoirs and parliamentary speeches, Holden finds a consistent theme: Singapore was seen as a socialist state by its leaders, who believed, despite their authoritarianism, in a "Socialism that works", up till the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is only in the late 1980s that Lee and the next generation of PAP leaders reinvented themselves, Singapore, and the account of Singapore history to reflect a more neoliberal theme.

It is amusing to note that Holden's alternate version of Singapore's national history still has the socialist PAP as the central character in a romantic quest, just with the neoliberal episode as a hubristic second act in a comedy where a Will Ferrell style protagonist loses his principles upon success, leading to troubled times and his return to original values and triumph in third act.

It would be more interesting to see Holden use the same theory and method to deconstruct the historical narratives of Singapore as written by Lim Chin Siong, Tan Wah Piow, and other former detainees.

17 November 2014

Living with Myths: First quarter quell

 Nobody expects the QUARTER QUELL!

A monthly, mostly episodic review of the Living with Myths seminar series is all dandy but leaves out the big picture: the evolution of state-academia ties in Singapore.

Before Living with Myths, academics in Singapore's universities functioned as the dominated fraction of the dominant class: they were counted on to lend their intellectual capital to burnish state policy, and to collaborate if they wished as consultants on ministry-approved research projects, to voice their dissent in approved, closed doors arenas, and to remain silent in public if they disagreed with official policy, especially if they had in their possession solid evidence and research.

Before Living with Myths, the only public dissension from academia came from NTU economists Lim Chong Yah, Chen Kang, and Tan Ghee Khiap in 2003 when the trio attempted to construct employment figures and trends for the non-resident workforce in Singapore at a time when this statistical data was not available. The dons were forced to recant and apologise for suggesting that "out of four jobs created, only one job went to a Singapore resident, three jobs went to the intake of foreign workers."

It took Lim Chong Yah almost a decade before he would yet again challenge the state on its economic policy, this time on the distorting effect of Singapore's stalled, or rather aborted, productivity reforms of 1982 on our modern economic growth model.

In between, foreign academics who were roped in as labour consultants have lost their shirts in Singapore for pointing out, with best intentions that our overwhelming foreign labour import policy was in fact not good for Singaporeans.

In light of the past dissension of academics, Living with Myths is striking for several reasons:

1. Dissenting academics come from the softer side of the social sciences

Who would have thought that history and representations of history would present a bigger, more popular challenge to state authority and legitimacy than economics and labour statistics?

It's all fluff, all superstructure. Karl Marx of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte would probably be proud to know that right here and now, the base of the state is being chipped away by the attacks on the superstructure, far more effectively than direct attacks by economists and hard data bloggers on the state of Singapore's economic management.

2. Dissenting academics are increasingly from the mainstream, if not the establishment itself

To be sure, Lysa Hong and Thum Pin Tjin are outsiders, even mavericks as far as Singapore academia goes. Yet Living with Myths has attracted presenters and moderators who are establishment figures who have played their part over the past decades in state consultation and policy-making. And what did they have to tell us?

Kwok Kian Woon said in passing that the authorities' stand on Tan Pin Pin's To Singapore with Love was indefensible.

Huang Jianli said as a historian, the ban on Tan Pin Pin's To Singapore with Love was embarrassing.

Lai Ah Eng felt that the foreign talent and immigration policy of the last decade has been wrong-headed, and the "ZOMG XENOPHOBIA" defense even more wrong. And even remarked that a decade ago, she and other academics would not have been able to talk to the public, that Living with Myths would have been impossible back then.

What does it mean when establishment figures who have been cooperating quietly, obediently with the state start making telling remarks in public? What does it mean when Minilee makes a snarky remark questioning the professionalism and intellect of "revisionist historians" and is told off by Tommy Koh? And make no bones about it: it is a telling-off!

"You shouldn't be so disrespectful to academics!"

Living with Myths is contested by the state apparatus and its political appointees and grandees in the academia as revisionist history. What breathes life into Living with Myths and drives more and more establishment academics to make telling remarks of dissension though is the state's pure incompetence at grasping the simple elements of history. Or social science. Or human nature. That is: Papalee's memoirs and writings are not, will not, and will never be seen as Word of God, and are to be read with equal distance and skepticism as the memoirs of other self-interested, similarly one-sided accounts by Lim Chin Siong and his party).

The more the state contorts itself, giving indefensible and nonsensical reasons to ban documentary films, the more the dominated fraction of the dominant class is compelled to take a stand - if only because their legitimacy lies in being correct and intellectually defensible rather than being in power.

What Minilee, his clown show cabinet, and their political appointees in academia have done this year is not just an overreaction to the threat of "historical revisionism". In little less than a decade, Minilee's clown show cabinet has gone from provoking the odd academic to say, "With all due respect, but I think your policies are wrong on this very complicated issue that only 3 people in this country understand", to provoking establishment academics to say, "With all due respect, you're either insane or plain stupid if that's your response to this simple topic." That's an achievement, even for Minilee!