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!

03 November 2014

Living with Myths IV: Multiculturalism

Being a review of the 4th in a year-long series of seminars

The previous Living with Myth seminars showed that despite exuberant accusations of historical revisionism by the political establishment, there exists an abundance of theoretically sound, evidence-based research within Singapore that easily refute the PAP government's ageing master narratives, and even catch the state and the political leadership in the process of rewriting and reinterpreting history.

Yet doing history isn't just about calling out Papalee on his national narrative of struggling with a series of communist plots in the 1950s to the 1980s but recognising the role these narratives have in the building of an authoritarian security state that run on rule by law rather than on rule of law. Similarly, doing history isn't just about identifying the triumphalist "rags to riches" narrative but understanding how such a narrative has been used to justify Singapore's plunging levels of social spending since the 1980s, how welfare exists in Singapore but is not acknowledged as welfare, and how programs for the poor more often than not become poor programs.

And if the New Singapore History project is about challenging the master narrative and expanding the space for other historical viewpoints and analyses, then the result is surely a more robust debate on public policy. That seems to be the case for this seminar's theme on multiculturalism.

Myths of Race and Place in the Fragments of Old Singapore City

From a critical perspective, the creation of heritage is equal parts remembering and forgetting, of elevating the heritage of the right people and diminishing the heritage of people who are out of place, out of time. In his presentation, NUS prof Imran bin Tajudeen presented a series of historical maps and city plans by the colonial government and maps them onto the modern day heritage spaces of Singapore, i.e. Little India, Chinatown, Geylang.

From the historical maps and plans from Singapore's early days, it is clear that today's heritage sites are designed in accordance to the modern CMIO model (that is, Singapore's official racial policy of recognising Chinese, Malays, Indians, and "Others"). What is unacknowledged is the larger diversity of ethnicity and space within these areas, the expanse and importance of these ethnic quarters (apparently the Bugis took up half of Singapore Town in the early days and had the most developed section next to the European quarters), and the urban roots of the word "kampong" and the sophistication of the kampong house, which was only eclipsed by the shophouse style later in the 19th century.

While Dr Imran uses maps of the colonial government and modern Singapore to identify the shrinkage of ethnicity, heritage and identity, one should be more suspicious and questioning of these tools. By planning and ordering space, and spatialising communities, a map is an instrument of governmentality, of claiming and exercising control over its subjects. Yes, there was much wider recognition of ethnicity by the colonials but the maps seem to suggest they're the first in Singapore to racialise space. A fuller, more counterhegemonic account would have to correlate these maps to accounts of life written by residents, merchants, laborers living in Singapore Town in those early years.

Maze and Minefield: Reflections on multiculturalism in Singapore

Instead of presenting from a piece of research, the presentation of Institute of Policy Studies and Asia Research Institute prof Lai Ah Eng began by identifying the first principles of her field of cultural anthropology and applying them almost extemporaneously to the current debate on multiculturalism in Singapore.

She argues that if one accepts that ethnicity is an elective, situational, and performative identity, then the state-approved CMIO model, if taken way too seriously and unquestioningly, will lead to a racist, over-racialised, or over-determined multiculturalism where reified, static concepts of race are offered as the first explanation or even solution to really-existing problems when other perspectives such as class, globalisation, colonialisation may be more appropriate. Singapore's success (and social problems like drinking, gambling, drug abuse, etc) are seen through racial lenses, defeating the purpose and spirit of multiculturalism.

Singapore's immigration policy is accused by minority groups as stealth Sinification; by liberals as racist xenophobia; by reactionaries as anti-national, but by no one as bad, unsustainable economics and development. The failure of new immigrants to integrate cannot be understood by a government who sees these people as the same race and ethnicity as the Singaporeans who choose to reject them. For Lai, belonging and identity exist as real things, even if they are mediated by self-representation, subject to state narrativisation, or are reified and simplified for consumption.

As a policy consultant to the state, Lai is naturally reluctant to divulge actual instances where a racial approach to dealing with a public policy issue turned out to be entirely appropriate, though she hints at it. As a counterpoint to the popular notion that class matters more than ethnicity and culture, I would offer the story of how Le Corbusier's layout of apartment flats in Chandigarh offered challenges to its inhabitants due to his lack of exposure to Indian culture and living.

Cosmopolitanism: Aspirations, Risks or an Everyday Disposition?

If Lai sought to illustrate how first principles of history and anthropology could guide our responses to Singapore's multiculturalism debate, Ho's presentation illustrates how a lack of theoretical and methodological foundations can easily lead one astray. Ho read aloud a commentary she wrote on the same set of debates as Lai, notably the Hong Lim Park protests against Minilee's population white paper. Like her fellow panelists, Ho has no love for the CMIO model. She however sees all narratives of identity and belonging (especially claims to being "local") as xenophobic and alienating the cosmopolitan immigrant.

By way of introduction, the presentation begins with a quote from Goh Chok Tong about multiculturalism and then launches into a theory-free, evidence-free, opinion-laden commentary on multiculturalism in Singapore. The Goh quote plays no significance in her commentary; it is neither a zero point of a state-sponsored understanding of cosmopolitanism, nor it used to contrast the multicultural vision, mode, and experience of people living in Singapore in the colonial and pre-colonial era.
Her fellow panelists were not convinced of the rightness of her presentation or commentary. I have excerpted their comments in the Q&A section to contrast their very polite, even passive disagreement.

Elaine Ho: Singapore is an immigrant society. What identity, belonging?
Imran bin Tajudeen: Actually the Malay-Nusantarans will laugh at today's debate over immigration. They were here 300 years ago and by the 1800s and 1900s, we get memoirs and accounts of how alienated and pushed out they felt by the new Chinese immigrants. It's the same thing today!

Lai Ah Eng: If we want to ask how Singaporeans should be more multicultural towards immigrants, shouldn't it be fair to ask that foreigners and immigrants be multicultural towards us?

A theoretically-sound and evidence-based response to the immigration controversy may lie in studying the historical narrative of Malayanisation process and contrasting it to the present-day narrative of what Lai Ah Eng identifies as the foreign talent-foreign immigration phenomenon. This will allow us to deconstruct the very ideas of "natural economic development", "nationalism", "xenophobia", "cosmopolitanism" that Ho raised but failed to examine critically.

29 September 2014

Living with Myths III: Beginnings

Being a review of the 3rd in a year-long series of seminars

Even as the Singapore state and its proxies in academia and the newsroom charge the Living with Myths project and various historians associated with recent historical research with the thoughtcrime of "revisionism", it is heartening to note that the seminar series had, despite a shaky start, has consolidated its theoretical position by turning the spotlight and the charges back towards the state.

Academics are stepping up to the challenge to show that "The Singapore Story" is always in a state of flux, that the state itself is always reinventing and reinterpreting history in response to changing political and policy environments.

Consequently, if there exists no unbroken history, no always-existing stable subject, then there must have been a Beginning in the form of a violent rupture and reconfiguration in terms of thinking and seeing things, the establishment of a master narrative that attempts to portray itself as orthodox, natural, and arising out of nothing.

"Beginnings" then is a reference to Foucault's zero point, the introduction of a particular discourse that has since shaped how we see the world, describe it, and picture ourselves in itsuch that we can scarcely think of any other way to see the world, describe it, that it appears as though from time immemorial we have always been seeing the world this way... naturally. (As an example, see the invention of kiasuism and observe how Singaporeans can't seem to talk about themselves without using the word.)

It follows also that Living With Myths, as a historical project, is a form of discourse analysis that studies such historical breaks to demonstrate that certain paradigms of thought, of social perception, of the ideology-ladenness of historiography weren't always so, and should never be taken as natural or commonsensical.

Living with the Myth of Rags-to-Riches in the Nanyang Diaspora

In his presentation, NUS prof Huang Jianli examines the rags-to-riches narrative of the captains of industry in early 20th century colonial Singapore, and the place of this biographical genre in popular culture. The popularity of this discourse corresponds to the intersection of multiple interests: the subject who seeks validation in self-aggrandizement (and denial of setbacks), the reader who seeks validation that perfect social mobility exists (and denial of class), and a capitalist social order that requires validation of narrow economic rationality and methodological individualism (and denial that people act, negotiate, and compete in groups).

Huang argues that the national histories that document the "rise of the nation" are in fact the same genre writ large. The unspoken implication is that national histories also suffer from the same anxieties of influence and defensive denials and narrative blind-spots and lacunae as "big men of industry" narratives.

Huang points out also the depoliticisation of the subject in rags-to-riches narratives. The rehabilitation process of Tan Kah Kee and other Chinese businessmen in Singapore history involves an agreement to write out their involvement and interests in the politics of their time; what's more interesting and unmentioned is how the politics of many Straits-born Chinese and Chinese who made their fortunes in Malaya involve (or indeed problematise) issues of national allegiance, citizenship, and loyalty—in an age where the nation was not quite a thing, where Malaya (or Singapore) were not quite colonies and not quite nations either.

The Myth that the Battle For Merger was a Battle against ‘Communists’ and ‘Pro-communists’

The Battle for Merger is a series of radio talks given by Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister between September to October 1961 in the immediate aftermath of the split in the People's Action Party that led to the left wing of the party joining the vote of no confidence against the PAP government and the subsequent formation of the Barisan Sosialis. (The entire series is available on the National Archives of Singapore website, just search for the exact phrase here)

Seng Guo-quan performed a very close reading of the first speech in the Battle series, where Lee sticks the Communist label onto Lim Chin Siong (alleging that he had always been a communist and that his renunciation of communism as part of his negotiated release was insincere) and the pro-Communist label onto Woodhull, Fong, et al (alleging that their renunciation was real but they were influenced by Lim to rejoin the cause).

Of course Lee uses the meaning of pro-Communist vaguely and in variance with how the phrase had been reported by Singapore's newspapers previous to 1961, when it had actually meant, pro-"Communist Party" or pro-Soviet. Seng points out how Lee in this speech is creating history ex nihilo by inventing categories from scratch, turning his political opponents into subjects via classification into these categories, and making these categories inform their political identities in the eyes of an obviously politically illiterate populace.

Where Seng doesn't go (and Dr PJ Thum, an organiser of Myths, almost picks up in the Q&A session) is how this exercise of governmentality, categorisation, and classification is really an attempt by Lee to carve up a safe zone for his party in the political context of the 1950s and 60s. Thum points out this was a time where the electorate was largely left-leaning and voted for socialist and redistributive policies and parties, and where virtually all the parties in the political landscape—PAP not exemptedwere left of centre, leftist, or radical left.

Following Thum's logic, Lee's move is equivalent of declaring his rump-PAP as the acceptable Decent Left of the 1950s. Where the popular, unofficial narrative has Lee "betraying" the Left or the official narrative has Lee "riding" the tiger of the Communist Left, what Seng and Thum inadvertently prove is that Lee's rump-PAP, despite its actions against the Barisan, remained firmly on the Left even through that difficult decade.

Casino Debates Revisited: Learning from History and Las Vegas

Thanks to tools like Newspaper SG, it is possible to go back in time to see that for all the national angst, calls for a referendum, a parliamentary debate (with the whip lifted!!!) about building a casino in Singapore that really isn't a casino, that we've actually been here before. In the early days of independence when a Sentosa casino was earmarked, as in officially planned and approved. With appearances from PM Lee expounding his vision of how a neo-Spartan Singapore will not be corrupted by a casino in Sentosa.

NUS prof Lee Kah-wee examines the 'modern' debate surrounding the RWS and basically comes to the same conclusion as Ho Chi Tim in the previous seminar: that for all the neo-Spartan rhetoric about the government being against casinos (and welfare) and promoting a rugged, tough, individualistic society, it has ironically been administering national gambling (in the form of the Sentosa Casino planning as well as the institution of Toto) and social welfare schemes even as it dresses them up to conform to its official anti-welfare, anti-gambling ideology.

25 August 2014

Living with Myths II: Silent spaces of history

Being a review of the second in a year-long series of seminars

As a counterhegemonic project to the PAP's master narrative of Singapore history, the first Living with Myths seminar needed—and failed to establish—the strong case against the establishment's accusation of "revisionist history"; that is, the state itself is always reinventing and reinterpreting history, rehabilitating historical villains and excluding inconvenient heroes, re-imagining its core and boundary in response to changing political and policy environments.

It is only through a demonstration of the varied historiography of an assumed 'stable subject' like a nation that an audience is sensitised to the link between history as a narrative (or historical narratives) and ideology, as well as the various myths (history as grand narrative, history from above and below, history by academics, politicians, or people), and more importantly, all good history (hegemonic, counterhegemonic, naive, or otherwise) is based on a vigorous, evidence-based questioning and testing of what is currently known.

Imperium: Myths and the Nature of Governance in Singapore

Thum Pin Tjin's opening presentation in Myths II redressed the problem we identified in Myths I. Instead of presenting a paper or a piece of research, Thum embarks on a thought experiment (or what we might call a brief thesis proposal) to compare the self-historiography of the final days of the Roman Republic, the final decades of British administration in Singapore, and the early decades of the PAP administration in Singapore.

It is a thought experiment in the sense that Thum does not delve into or even quote the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, the Colonial Office archives, documentary reels, or newspaper reports of speeches. Neither does Thum compare policies or policies or even histories (official, authorised, popular, and suppressed) between these eras.

But given what is broadly known, Thum makes the case for a historiography of Empire based on the myths of exceptionalism and vulnerability (of the polity, which justifies unprecedented legal oppression), and meritocracy (legitimising the party as "fit to rule").

There are three pitfalls to this approach, none of which are the fault of the thought experiment approach. It is one thing to identify Rome, the British Empire, and Singapore as grounded in Thum calls imperialistic myths, quite another to identify or prove they resorted to employing imperialistic narratives of history. Thum suggests how the 3 groups of  "illiberal imperialists" and their narrative of the polity created and controlled the historiography of the polity, both enabling and circumscribing citizens and subjects to experience the polity-as-written, but evidence is presented for legislative control of public discourse of the polity, not for the analysis of this public discourse. Most importantly, the chance is missed again to point out that grand narratives are anything but; beneath the veneer of mastery lies an anxiety of influence, a conscious revisionism of previous narratives, a defensive reaction against contemporaneous competing narratives.

Social welfare in Singapore

Ho Chi Tim's presentation examines the gap between the PAP government's rhetoric on social welfare (it is invariably a very bad thing, being financially unsustainable and encouraging indolence and discouraging self-sufficiency in the people) with the very real social welfare programmes it runs.

A former social worker turned historian, Ho sets up an ironic dichotomy between the PAP ideology on welfare and the very concrete policies, ministries, semi-government bodies and social organisations that make up the social welfare ecosystem in Singapore—and identifies the ecosystem as a largely intact inheritance from the Labour colonial administration from the 1950s, and its laissez faire "administration" of Singapore's varied populations.

What Ho leaves unexamined is most interesting: Where does the PAP's anti-welfare ideology originate? How are the originating societies faring now in terms of the "dangers" of social welfare? Does the PAP's anti-welfare rhetoric affect the extent and implementation of social welfare? How well does the colonial era structure of social welfare serve the needs of an independent and modern Singapore?

Heritage in Singapore

Freshly minted with a PhD, Wong Chee Meng attempted to summarise his thesis paper in the space of 20 minutes for a lay audience.

Had Wong possessed better time management or the audacity of Thum, he would have reworked his presentation on the heritage sector to focus on its role in the invention of tradition, to apply Hobsbawn's concept of how national tradition and culture is always a modern (re)invention to the "Singapore story".

The varied case studies which Wong had insufficient time to expound on would show how Singapore as a very recently independent polity has had to invent and repurpose its colonial history (as part of the Straits Settlements, as a Crown Colony, as an administrative idea called Malaya, or even part of an intended Dominion of Malaya), its subjects and heroes (who as naturalised citizens of the British Empire and dual citizens of two empires by right of Manchu, KMT, and early communist China's jus sanguinis law never actually belonged to it) to give a "national" perspective to an era where Singapore was not a nation and not thought of as a nation, and to create Singaporean citizens and subjects where none actually existed.

It is Wong and his research which attest that history in Singapore, as elsewhere, involves constant, if not periodic revision and often by state actors as a political process of rehabilitation, exclusion, and boundary maintenance. He and Thum should have answered the existential question of 'revisionist history' in Myths I more directly.