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.