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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written as always. The idea of a socialist PAP that works is a fantasy stoked up by LKY. He was never a socialist but a closet Thatcherite before Thatcher. But being the Machiavellian that he is he used the real socialists like Lim Chin Siong, et.al. to cultivate that image. Having taken over control of the Party with the connivance of the Colonial masters he proceeded to run it in his own image. The late Lennox-Boyd said it as much when he was here some years back at the invitation of LKY. He was reported in the Sunday Times interview with the headline "We had a secret pact with the PAP", sending the poor reporters to re-interview him for clarification.