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.