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.