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.

29 July 2014

Living with myths I: The Singapore Story

Being a review of the opening act of a year-long project

New Singapore History, its challenges, and its reply

It would be interesting to consider Living with Myths as a counterhegemonic programme to preempt the PAP's self-celebratory propaganda on the eve of Singapore's 50th anniversary as an independent state.

The keynote presentation by Dr Hong Lysa focused on the recent remarks in public by Hong Lysa, Loh Kah Seng and Thum Ping Tjin on one hand and Weichong Ong, Alex Au, Kumar Ramakrishna, Tan Tai Yong, and Kishore Mahbubani on the other about the role and dangers of a revisionist historiography of Singapore.

Is "revisionist history", pace Au, a futile attempt to resurrect old quarrels that are irrelevant to modern Singapore? Or is it, pace Ramakrishna, either a naive and uncritical oppositional reading of history borne out of a desire to oppose at best, or a persistent "cherry-picking of the historical record" at worst? Can the revisionist project poisoned by political intent, according to Tan, or perhaps by insinuations of political intent? Is the place of revisionist historical research only to supplement and strengthen Singapore's success story by telling of its failures and rejects? Does it exist at the expense of national security and social cohesion, as Ong claims but never quite explains how it might happen here or indeed has happened anywhere at all?

By collating these statements and responding to the implied critique to the historical research just resulted in the debunking the PAP narrative of Operation Coldstore, Hong presents not a triumphal project but one whose legitimacy is questioned by the Singapore establishment and purported institutional gatekeepers who speak on its behalf.



Hong's (and Edgar Liao's as well) defense of this project is equally institutional. However revisionist, the research is still based on verifiable historical facts, archival records, interviews, and memoirs; however revisionist, New Singapore History utilises the processes, analytical tools, and logic of good historical research; however revisionist, the project is not political, the researchers being motivated to do good history, not politics - even if the research may have potential, immediate political consequences.

Forgetting the myths of history

We note the delegitimising charges of 'historical revisionism', writing 'alternate history', and the crude political scaremongering of 'Historical Research can be a Threat to National Security or Social Cohesion' are all accusations that assume certain myths of history.

It is all fine for Hong and Liao to present summaries of papers that have debunked certain myths of Singapore's history; I would go further to situate the two camps in the historical-cultural-academic field playing for the stakes of academic legitimacy and reputation, each side investing their position by promoting different myths of History. I would go as much as to say that myths of history are best identified, explained, and debunked by taking an audience through a history of how history has been written.

These myths of history are evoked in the establishment's challenge to New Singapore History and its response:

1. History is written by the victors. That is, only victors have the right to write right history, and legitimate history concerns itself with victors, explains why things are the way they are.

2. History as a dynastic record. That is, one can only pass judgement on a group of historical, political, or social actors when their time in the sun has passed. Evoked in Hong's anecdote about the professor who stopped his volume of Singapore history at 1957 and didn't continue with a second volume because 1957 was when the PAP came to power.

3. History as a master narrative. That is, the idea of a primary, orthodox history that is supplemented by lesser accounts that serve to give a "fuller picture", but can never overturn established consensus and understanding of the past.

4. History as a stable narrative. Implied by 1-3.

5. History as research by historians. That is, it's only a proper history if it's written or directed by academics, but not by political and social actors themselves. Evoked by Hong's description of certain New Singapore History publications as memoirs that enrich the historical record and can guide the research of a historian, but do not qualify as good history.

Ideally, the seminar series needed to open with a brief survey of the development of History as a discipline (i.e. the history of writing history), to expose the role of writing history with the role of mythmaking and ideological formation. These preliminaries are necessary to understand the contention over "myths of history" as a contest over the mythology of history.

More importantly, these preliminaries illustrate that really-existing history, even in Singapore, involves constant, if not periodic revision and often by state actors as a political process of rehabilitation, exclusion, and boundary maintenance; that really-existing history is both political and social; that modern historical research often fills in deliberate gaps of previous narratives and is thus misconstrued as "revisionist" or "alternative".

Enter the myth-killers

Most importantly, these preliminaries would easily disprove the biggest myth of history that exists in Singapore: that history is a master narrative. Hong identifies passages in Lee's political biographies that appear overdefensive about minor issues, only to make sense in the context of recently declassified Colonial Office reports.

I would have used this (and other instances) to establish that there is no such thing as a master historical narrative arising ex nihilo. In the schema of critical theory, all narration and writing (including history as a narration, and the writing of history) is intertextual. Every "primary" text is already influenced, answering to, denying, being undermined by, or delegitimising previous and parallel narratives and discourses. While politicians are committed to maintaining the primal state of innocence of doxa, historians (and the historical endeavor) are committed to treating all texts as co-equal, if not co-complementary, alerting to readers the existence of competing possibles and the sum total of the alternatives not chosen by the established order.

Given that Singapore history appears to have more than its fair share of omissions, and that much of it has been written by a young group of leaders perhaps too eager to justify their actions and policies, and too willing to tie them with the development of a national identity, it is hardly a surprise that the unearthing and declassification of archives has provided material to fuel New Singapore History, and why it has come under attack from the Singapore establishment and its appointed gatekeepers in academia.

28 June 2014

Never again, PinkDot

I'm not attending PinkDot this year. This is coming from someone who has attended every Pinkdot except the one where Broadway Beng was engaged to provide the entertainment. This is coming from someone who has their fair share of gay and lesbian friends.

I made the decision last year after reading Alfian's criticism of the pinkwashing at Pinkdot, after hearing from various friends of the Pinkdot organisers' heavyhanded censorship of community booths and disrespect of the LGBTQI community's diversity and needs.

Which is the real PinkDot mascot? 
Why is PinkDot promoting fear and ignorance?

Why bother attending PinkDot if this is the day where instead of being safe and free, LGBTQI activists suffer the most censorship and oppression, and at the hands of PinkDot organisers?

My activist friends reported the organisers lecturing that this event is not for them, not for the benefit of the LGBTQI community, but for the benefit of appearing safe and unthreatening to mainstream Singapore and their straight allies. And so: a complete gag on safe sex. Straight people will freak out if you give out condoms and safe sex brochures and talk about safe sex! Please say as little about activism on this day itself. It's too confrontational! No one really needs to hear the plight of transsexual sex workers, much less their rights. It's too alternative! And please give us all your brochures to vet. We demand it.

Why bother attending PinkDot if, instead of encouraging diversity and non-judgemental attitudes, PinkDot organisers are the ones who promote the fear and ignorance of real LGBTQIs, and their issues, concerns, needs, diversity?

If Lawrence Khong and the Wear White campaign didn't exist, PinkDot would have to invent them from scratch

We're under attack! Shut up and stop criticising us!

This year, I wonder if PinkDot organisers and the LGBTQI community at large are just papering over issues that need to be addressed and allowing attacks from the religious right to band the community together in the absence of an authentic, living vision.

If not for the wear white campaign and the attacks by conservative Christian pastors, my activist friends would be making more criticisms of pinkdot, inspiring their brethren to actually promote diversity and tolerance within the LGBTQI community, and to question their motives for turning up, wearing pink, or feeling happy that PinkDot has now got corporate banking sponsors.

If not for these attacks, someone would've risen up by now to condemn the hiring of security personnel by PinkDot organisers and exposed it for a fascist, if not a cynical PR move that it is.

Whoever would have thought that a pride event would need to hire its own thugs and goons, who will either harass people who look different or out of place today, or rough up a vocal protestor criticising PinkDot either from the left, or from the right?

No one in their right mind would think for one moment that the "Wear White" or "LoveSingapore" campaigns would be interested to crash Hong Lim Park today. "Wear White" wants to send a signal in the mosques. Lawrence Khong applied to have his event at the Padang. None of them wanted a confrontation, none of them wanted to be in the same space as PinkDot.

And yet PinkDot plays up the so-called attacks, fosters a siege mentality, all to justify the wasteful, immodest, and immoral hiring of mercenary thugs at today's event. Because in their bizarro universe, PinkDot's cheerful and peaceful picnic atmosphere either doesn't exist or is so fragile (despite a turnout of 3000 people on average) that a few protestors would create a riot. What does this say about the PinkDot organisers' perception of the LGBTQI community? That they can be prodded into violence? That they could never react to opposition in a Gandhian manner? What does this say about PinkDot's liberal credentials?

Most of my LGBTQI activist friends have said no to PinkDot's invitations to set up community booths this year. I guess they must be very tired of censorship and oppression. And maybe disappointed that the organisers of the most successful LGBTQI event are themselves the biggest homophobes in Singapore.

Most of them will still be attending the picnic. I will be boycotting PinkDot completely because their KPI is the turnout for the event. Until such time that PinkDot is run by a committee of intellectually honest people whose put the interests of LGBTQI people first, I will not attend any future PinkDot.