29 December 2014

Living with Myths VI: Apathy

Being a review of the 5th in a year-long series of seminars

What sort of counter-narrative can an academic conjure?
Would it be just as false and dark?

As Singapore marches towards its 50th anniversary of its expulsion from Malaysia (but not of independence, because Singapore was declared an independent nation by no less than Papalee himself on 31 August 1963), an anxiety falls onto both its rulers and their subjects.

It is significant that a leader of a modern, prosperous, and successful Singapore would need to bolster his legitimacy, competence, and charisma by invoking the nation's founding narratives, and how a grouping of academics have taken it as their mission to debunk the same founding narrativeespecially if no one in Singapore really believes in the official national narrative despite the lip-service paid to it, thanks to how often it gets camped up and begins to deconstruct itself yearly in the musical numbers at the National Day Parade.

Is the national narrative a totalising narrative? Can histories of Singapore be written without the anxiety of influence of the national narrative? Should histories of Singapore be written without reference to the national narrative?

These were issues raised by Prof. Chua Beng Huat at this seminar, unspoken but lurking in the background of his detailed critique of the individual presentations of all 3 speakers, and ultimately a challenge to the Living with Myths seminar serieswhich still has half a year more to go.

I mention Chua because he is one of the most unapologetically outspoken anti-establishment senior figures in Singapore academia, and a formidable intellectual. That he has chosen to attend a Living with Myths session is significant; that he has chosen to demolish each presentation with precision and accuse the speakers of being irresponsible is perhaps even more significant.

Apathy, or how history is written by the elites

Loh Kah Seng's presentation serves as an introduction to his recently published book on the Bukit Ho Swee fire, Squatters into Citizens. Beginning with the permanent Urban Redevelopment Authority exhibit on public housing, Loh establishes the official portrayal of Singapore's kampong population in the 1950s-70s as apathetic and indifferent to modern housing and who should be so grateful to the city planners, who in turn were grateful that the unfortunate outbreak of fires that destroyed entire urban kampong settlements also solved their problem of promoting public housing.

From his interviews with former kampong residents and newspaper reports, Loh paints a picture of hardly apathetic but very much plucky "smallfolk" - farmers, hawkers, and others employed in the casual urban economy and small-time gangsters who 'protected' them. Loh enumerated the manner in which these heroic smallfolk resisted the authorities, actively and frustrated resettlement and eviction efforts, and inadvertently sabotaged firefighting efforts through what he termed "weapons of the weak".

Chua listed several reasons to reject Loh's presentation of Singapore's urban history: the issue is not about apathy or agency; the historian's job is not about fetishising agency but to make sense of historical events against the longue durĂ©e and in particular, situate the urbanisation of Singapore's population against the transformation of Singapore's postwar economy and workforce.

Further, Loh has been less than careful in his framing of an official narrative: it is only in the URA display that typifies Singapore's 'squatter' population as apathetic. If the Municipal Council and newspapers of the day duly reported on the daily resistance of kampong residents, it follows that the "apathetic squatter" line was never the official narrative. That this forms the narrative of the URA exhibit does not make it a national narrative, and certainly not a totalising narrative that needs to be debunked.

If Loh had wanted, he could have easily repurposed the presentation as a discussion on the myth of the Kampong Spirt (or gotong royong) without incurring the wrath of Chua.

The Myth of the Inert Buddhist: Toward a History of Engaged Buddhism in Singapore

Jack Chia begins with an assertion that the myth of Buddhism in Singapore is that of social apathy: reclusive monks who are most concerned with meditation, and only emerge to engage with society by officiating at funerals.

His counter-narrative consists of running through the career of the abbot Venerable Yen Pei and the various charities the abbot founded and social causes he championed in Singapore as a form of the "engaged Buddhism" movement in the religion.

During the Q&A, Chua pointed the two elephants in the room:
1. Is there even a myth that Buddhism in Singapore is typified by apathy or social disengagement? Is this even how Singaporeans view Buddhism, or the narrative that comes first to mind when the issue of Buddhism is mentioned? If no, it would be extremely irresponsible of any academic to invent such a myth as a convenient straw man to knock down.

2. The manifestation of socially engaged Buddhism in Singapore is identical to the model of religious-run charities, self-help groups, and worthy causes that are promoted by the state, in lieu of a system of social welfare. What is the historical context of the development (and clearly branding) of "engaged Buddhism" in Singapore, where in fact, every other country in Asia with a Buddhist majority and strong sangha has seen often violent monk-led riots and protests? Why would a responsible academic proffer, as a 'counter-narrative' to a non-existent myth, a Big Man Story?

The Trishaw Industry: From Public Transport to Myth

Some time in the final months of WW2, the trishaw was introduced to Singapore and quickly replaced the jinrickshaw as the mode of public transport. Jason Lim began with a picture of a trishaw rider lazing in his vehicle and proceeded to present a well-researched history of the trishaw and its riders in Singapore. This social history intersects with the history of public transport in Singapore, the rise of the labour union movement (and subsequent crackdowns on communist-controlled unions), and the story of Nantah. More than mere labourers, exotic transport personnel, these were flesh and blood people who were engaged in the social and political life of a nation.

While the presentation seemed well-researched, Chua objected to the use of the "lazy trishaw rider" picture. Where on earth did this picture come from? Is it even part of an official narrative? Did Lim's presentation really need to debunk a straw man?

The limitations of doing counter-history

Perhaps the Living with Myths series does require a Chua Beng Huat to serve as a check on the temptation of imperial overreach. That is to say, there are historical subjects that can be studied outside of the contestation between the state and a group of academics on Singapore's official history, and to bend these intellectual endeavours to fit into the narrative of these academics would be intellectually dishonest and irresponsible.