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.