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!