New review by Carol Leon

Asiatic, Vol. 6, No. 2, December 2012 196

Loh Kah Seng and Liew Kai Khiun, eds. The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History. Singapore: Ethos Books & Singapore Heritage Society, 2010. 347 pp. ISBN 978-981-08-6357-9.

The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History is an immensely interesting read on notions of history making, recording and keeping. The book is an exciting collection of essays which challenges the official Singapore story which, for a long time, had been entrenched in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. The Singapore Story, the title of the second volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir, has been a text set in stone, so to speak – an immutable narrative about Singapore’s past and its growth as a nation. The authors in this collection tell us that Singapore’s history is multilayered and cannot be told in a linear fashion. They explore the ways in which the history of the island nation should be researched and presented which, they assert, must highlight diversity, multiplicity and a vision of the past which is necessarily generous in its embrace. Indeed, The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History compels the reader to be aware of the various narratives and threads which shape the past of Singapore. Importantly too, the book underlines the fact that the past of any nation is a palimpsest, constituting different layers, and to close the door to this awareness would provide for a stunted understanding of self and society which could only be detrimental to the meaningful growth of any nation. The essays in the collection demonstrate that Singapore’s past is profoundly pluralistic.

The Foreword, written by Professor Garry Rodan, quite succinctly puts down the intention of the book: “The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History represents a major intervention in the study of how Singapore history is created and reproduced. It highlights systemic and deep-seated impediments to independent research” (iii). The book adopts a innovative approach, i.e. it assembles the views and ideas of a multidisciplinary group of researchers looking at Singapore’s pasts from varying angles and using different genres. Some of the essays explore what resides in archival resources and state-sanctioned discourse, while others move beyond the realm of the carefully documented to include oral history and personal memories. Underlying all the essays however is the sense that history-writing is highly problematic and that there are many obstacles “hindering academic research on the political and social history of post-war Singapore” (vii). Even when it comes to personal accounts and oral histories, there are many dimensions that the researcher must be alert to. For example, to what extent is individual memory shaped by public imagination and discourse? Despite best efforts, how authentic is personal recounting? What challenges face the historian using oral history as a research field? Indeed, The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History puts forward numerous questions about history making, keeping and writing, and tries to answer these questions – some of which, however, remain unanswered because, as the authors discover, there can be no simple clarifications or explanations in history. History, the essays assert again and again, is dynamic (contrary to common, misguided views) and one must carefully think out the process involved when undertaking its research.

The individual figures prominently in this book. The book was inspired by attempts by the authors to research Singaporean history and the obstacles and challenges they individually faced in their endeavours. Some of the essays like “Perils and Prospects of Researching the Maria Hertogh Controversy,” “An Insider’s Research into Buddhist History” and “Digging up the Past in Singapore, Mainland China and Taiwan: Research into the Overseas Chinese Merchants in the China-Singapore Trade” detail the processes involved when the individual writers of these essays undertook their research. Actually, almost all the essays in the book, at varying degrees, highlight the personal experience of researching history. As Loh Kah Seng writes in his engaging Preface: “The contributors to this volume have, in their own creative ways, made concerted attempts to unlock the gates to Singapore’s multiple, multi-faceted histories and obtain access to vital historical sources” (8). Apart from that, the focus on the individual experience is also apparent in the way the essays demonstrate that the private narrative is a valuable part of the Singapore story, underlining the idea that the personal always imbricates on the public.

Motifs of gates and gatekeeping provide the conceptual framework and shape the structure of the book. These are really interesting motifs and all the essays are involved in teasing out the various notions inherent in them, i.e. securing information, custodianship, the dangers, both exciting and worrying, about what enters through and leaves the gate, what possibilities lie beyond the gate, etc. The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 – History and the Gates lays out the foundation and inspiration for the book. Part 2 – Front Gates discusses the “front gates” of history making and keeping in Singapore, i.e. archives and institutions. Part 3 – Side Gates refers to foreign archives, and Part 4 – Memory Gates revolves around personal memories and oral histories. The ideas come together very well and the purpose is to learn about history making and keeping and possibly dismantling some of the gates.

The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History is an informative tome and would be especially beneficial to the historian or student of history, particularly Singapore history. But, because of its wide range of references it would appeal, really, to any person interested in the way any historical narrative is remembered, written and kept.

Carol Leon
The University of Malaya, Malaysia

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New review at JMBRAS, Vol 84 Part 1, June 2010, No. 300

This collection of 23 papers is a bold attempt to unlock the gates on official and alternative archival sources and the impediments to independent research on Singapore’s history. The contributors are a young, dedicated and multi-disciplinary group of Singapore historians and researchers who have decided to make a timely intervention against years of professional and official indifference and censorship towards historical research. Basically, they argue for a more open, fair and balanced approach in which not only the voices of the ‘victors’ in history, but also those of the ‘losers’, be made accessible in the government’s archives through a loosening of official controls on documentation.A substantial number of the papers were initially presented in 2008 at a symposium at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. Additional papers since that forum include interviews with filmmakers working on Singapore history and memory, and a transcript of the proceedings of a 2006 forum on political detention.

Until recently, Singapore’s academic historical research on the island’s history lagged woefully behind in terms of sources, new fields of investigation, theory, and methodology, when considered with historical works and the general standards of other areas of Southeast Asian history. In the 1980s an Australian scholar observed that Singapore’s mainstream historians were still writing in the ‘colonial’ tradition, due to their methodology, the questions they asked, their reliance on ‘colonial’ records, and the way they were read. They wrote mainly in English on the colonial and the nationalist elites, and relied heavily on English language sourcematerials. They neglected, or were unable to use, indigenous source materials in Malay, Chinese or Tamil, the languages of the three major races in Singapore, to write the ‘vernacular politics’ and narratives of these respective communities.

As Singapore’s ageing political leaders realized the need to write their memoirs, stake their legacies and narrate their roles in and contributions to nation building for posterity, they became increasingly aware of the importance of history. Their discovery that one young generation had grown up without history being taught in the schools led to history being re-introduced in the schools. To record their own accounts for the young generation the leaders offered themselves for interviews and oral history recordings at the National Archives. They allowed select researchers access to confidential and secret official records to assist them in the writing of their memoirs. With this opening up of the gates to the official records in the archives, no wonder Singapore’s young professional historians took heart. They, too, began to clamour for access.

The book’s co-editor Loh Kah Seng and another contributor, Huang Jianli—in their respective papers—cited as an example how the gates of the government’s archives were specially opened to a favoured group of researchers in the writing of the book Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore’s Ruling Political Party, a 700-page history of the People’sAction Party (PAP),which was published in 2010 and said to have taken seven years in the making. The book was produced and written by a large teamof commissioned writers and researchers, sponsored by Singapore’s The Straits Times publishing group. Loh claims that Men in White was held to be ‘ground-breaking in striving manfully (pun intended) to capture the views of not just thewinners, but the losers, and interested bystanders as well’. Consequently, doors to the National Archives and other government department archives were unlocked, making available oral history interviews and classified documents of the Singapore government. Several former opponents of the PAP government (including ex-political detainees) were even allowed to lend their voices, memories and reflections to the project.

However, Huang Jianli, who reads Chinese language materials, notes that the 25-year ruling for files to be opened and for access to be given to official records is hardly ever observed by the National Archives for independent researchers although it has the discretionary power to grant access. In studying student activism in three Chinese schools and at Chinese-medium Nanyang University in the 1950s, he was disappointed to gain access to only ‘a miniscule quantumof accessible government records’ in the case of the three schools, while files on the Nanyang University had apparently yet to be declassified and listed. Other contributors who also experienced problems in gaining access to classified
government documents on their research topics included Loh Kah Seng (on the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961); C. C. Chin (on the left-wing politics of Chinese-dominated rural associations in the early 1960s); Stephen Dobbs (on the Chinese lightermen’s union at the Singapore River in the 1960s); Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied (on the Maria Hertogh riots in December 1950); Ang Cheng Guan (on Singapore’s diplomatic history since independence in 1963); and S. R. Joey Long (on U.S. involvement in Singapore’s politics during the 1950s and 1960s). To appear even-handed, however, Ho Chi Tim and Kwa Chong Guan (chairman of the NationalArchives Board) in their paper argue that even if historians get past the ‘gatekeepers’ to the archives they may not find ‘the grail they seek’, and that the complex issue may be how to ‘read’ the archival records ‘along the grain’ for its multiple social memories.

Nevertheless, Singapore’s historiography is suddenly changing. Many among this group of young historians are moving away from studying elite nationalist politics to ‘vernacular politics’. They are more interested in the lives of ordinary people asmakers of history, such as tea merchants, the lightermen of the Singapore River, the Chinese construction samsui women, or artists who painted Singapore. P. J. Thum reveals in his paper the need to use alternative sources, such as declassified U.S. State Department papers, to study the Chinese-led labour movement and counter-subversion in the 1950s to tease out versions of Singapore’s postwar historywhich differ fromthe versions presented in British colonial archives and those of the ruling PAP.

On the National Museum as a repository of history, Kevin Y. L. Tan says in his paper it is no longer a true keeper of Singapore’s history, but ‘a mere storyteller’. It no longer even publishes its own scholarly journal, and has no active scheme to engage scholars in its work. Derek Heng notes the absence of legislation and genuine interest in archaeological research of Singapore’s pre-modern past. All in all, these papers reveal that, despite the city-state’s impressive social and economic transformation, there are still degrees of official indifference to Singapore’s history and a need to engage and capture the historical imagination of the younger generations.



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New review!

reCollections / Issues / Volume 6 number 1 / Book reviews /

review by Anne-Marie Condé

This multi-authored volume comprises 23 chapters that narrate, analyse and reflect on the production of history in Singapore in recent years. Its origins lie in the frustrations of its two editors, Loh Kah Seng and Liew Kai Khium, in gaining access to the archival records they needed for work they were doing on some little known aspects of Singapore’s past. This led to a symposium in 2008. The current book, The Makers & Keepers of Singapore History, is the result of that symposium.

At the symposium there emerged the idea of the three themes — the ‘gates’ — around which the book is framed. There are the ‘front gates’ (official archives in Singapore), ‘side gates’ (foreign archives), and ‘memory gates’ (oral history). In his opening chapter, co-editor Loh Kah Seng observes that ‘gatekeeping strongly influences the process of researching present-ing [sic] the past’, and this is particularly so in Singapore. This is due to the influence of Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore and, as Loh observes, ‘the most important maker and keeper of Singapore’s recent past’. There is the so-called ‘Singapore story’ through which many of this book’s contributors have lived: the officially sanctioned linear narrative of post-war progress ‘from Third World to First’. As Loh remarks, it is about ‘always looking ahead, looking for bigger and better things’. Even when a history of Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party was published in 2009, under the title Men in White, it was Lee and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who made possible the authors’ access to access to government records and who enabled the stories of Lee’s political opponents to be told. Hence the constant probing in this book on who controls the past — on who are the ‘makers’, ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘safekeepers’ of the nation’s past — and how fluid and interchangeable those roles can be.

The scope of the book is broad. There is an absorption in the early chapters with archives, those traditional sources for the writing of history. But also included in the consideration of ‘front gates’ are the National Museum of Singapore, and the official custody of archaeological material from which a more complex history of Singapore could be written, if that material was more accessible. Kevin YL Tan describes the long complex history of the National Museum of Singapore, and remarks that the current iteration of the museum, which emerged in 2006 after three years of renovations, devotes comparatively little space to the history of Singapore. Moreover, various parts of what had once been nationally significant collections relating to natural history, ethnography, art and science were hived off into other museums. Damningly, Tan concludes that the National Museum of Singapore is more a ‘lifestyle space’ and ‘interpretative centre’ than a repository of historical artefacts and that it fails in its roles as both keeper and maker of Singapore history.

The section of the book covering the ‘side gates’ to Singapore’s history — researching via foreign archives in cases where local official records are inaccessible — includes a number of chapters on the process of research and the personal journey of the researchers who have travelled abroad in order to recover aspects of Singapore’s past. Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied found it necessary, when researching the history of racial and religious riots in 1950, to travel beyond Singapore’s national shores to unearth ‘truths’ that would liberate Singaporeans from ‘national ethnic and political myths’ that had shaped their lives. Other historians sound a cautionary note, that material in foreign archives is inevitably created from a Western perspective. In an earlier section of the book, Kwa Chong Guan and Ho Chi Tim warn that even if historians get through the so-called ‘front gates’, the official archives in Singapore (including the National Archives of Singapore), the problem of perspective is still present. Historians — all historians, not just historians of Singapore — need to understand the complex processes by which records are created in the first place. What is in the archives, and why? What records are not created, or collected? The challenge for historians, these authors believe, is not so much getting past the ‘gatekeepers’, as maintaining awareness of the different and divergent social memories embedded in the records they are seeking.

Oral history and film-making dominate the last section of the book, ‘Memory gates’. Ernest Koh Wee Song describes fieldwork he undertook between 2005 and 2008 among Singaporeans whose stories were, not surprisingly, different from the official narratives of Singapore’s past. For film-maker Eng Yee Peng, finding those voices was her explicit intention in making her film, Diminishing Memories (2005) about her family’s forced relocation in 1986 from a village in Lim Chu Kang, to make way for redevelopment. The voices of the people in her community are lacking in official records, she says, so she focused on recovering those voices and decided to exclude the voice of authorities. She realised, she said, that the authorities ‘have many channels to say what they want to say. We are the ones that haven’t got the platform to do that.’

Eng Yee Peng’s contribution to this book is in the form of an interview with Loh Kah Seng. It is a form that suits the subject and an example of the diversity of perspective that the book encompasses. The book should find a broad readership not just among people interested in Singaporean history, but all who are interested in how history is researched, produced and consumed.

Anne-Marie Condé is a curator at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

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A Unique Book: Prof Prasenjit Duara, 24/7/10

24/07/2010.  Comments at the book launch, Singapore National Library.
Professor Prasenjit Duara

This is a unique book in the field of history. While it is about historical matters and also about historical materials and historiography to some extent, it is really about something else: it is about how a society is able to produce its history.

It is about the conditions of historical knowledge production— political, institutional, global, social and epistemological. It is organized around three gates: the ‘front gates’ of institutions, the ‘side gates’ of transnational sources, and the ‘memory gates’ of oral histories.

As such it registers a high degree of historical reflexivity—a coming of age when a field of knowledge can look upon how it constructs itself and its influence.  Given that the notoriously anti-theoretical historical profession is also a powerful gate-keeper, I once wrote an essay called “Why is history anti-theoretical?”  In a way, this work bypasses the fraught question of theory and history, and asks how can history be self-reflexive?

Initially, I thought this book was going to be quite a radical critique of the relatively closed nature of the archives and unavailability of sources. There is a fair critique of those limitations but it is not a rant. But there are 23 essays covering a range of positions and angles on the problem of historical knowledge production.

The volume is a serious reflection on the limitations that affect archives as an institution nationally and globally, but also about the limits and demands of historical sources, about the relationship between history and memory, about the conflation of individual and national memories, and about ways to get around all of these problems—at least partially.

I will spend the rest of my time trying to locate such a unique work in a wider historical canvas about historical production.  I work principally on China and some Japan and India. For many years I worked on history and nation. In 1995, I published Rescuing History from the Nation which made the bold claim that the two were tied at the hip from late 19th c.

I argued about the role of modern historical consciousness for the emergence of nations. In national histories, societies no longer claim their legitimacy or sovereignty from God or Heaven’s mandate or the ideals of sage kings. Rather they claim their sovereignty by alleging the evolution of an originally, if often mystically, united people and culture. History then is a way of documenting their progressive evolution to modernity. The conception of history creates the conditions for a sleek national body of entitled, but also sacrificing, citizens who are propelled by virtue of existing in linear, progressive time, into a competitive modernity.

Of course, Singapore cannot make such a mythical claim of primordialism, but the problem of national unity may become that much more important.

What has happened in the last 30 years or so, especially in the West, is that the national narrative has become relatively less important than it was for the hundred years or so before that. Globalization, migration, multiculturalism, and relative weakening or withdrawal of the state in neo-liberal economic model, were some of the factors behind this.

These trends also affect the non-Western new nations of the post-war era, but less so. The new nations are at a relatively early stage of nation-building and this process has been accompanied by a fair amount of external and internal violence. Nonetheless, for various reasons, this violence has been more moderate than the violence of Western powers at a similar stage in the 19th and early 20th c. Note for instance the two World Wars or the brutal US conquest of American territory.

But real time complicates the temporality of historical stages.  Newer nation-states are forced to engage simultaneously in nation-building and globalization.   What this means is that they may be driven by concerns about nation-building but also exposed to all the forces of globalization which is also an imperative for them nowadays.

How does one deal with this issue?  The three societies I know which are faced with this problem are China, Japan and India. Although Japan is not a new nation-state it has special problems because it never came to terms with  decolonization  after WWII (because of the Cold War) and was faced in the 1990s, by massive demands on its national, criminal past whether by the Comfort Women or charges levelled in China.

In China, we know, and Jason Lim and others in the volume make the point, the archives are notoriously inaccessible although your connections can get you quite far. Now monetization too, of archival services is a problem.  While, as a democracy, India is more open, it keeps its archives away from people by being disorganized or decentralized—they refer you from Ministry to Ministry.

It is interesting to see how the Japanese Foreign Ministry dealt with the problem. They digitized their entire archives by 2002-2003.  I have not researched this problem, but I hypothesize that it has to do with the increasing demands made upon it.  Of course, much had been destroyed during the War and much carried away to US. We also don’t know what they kept classified, but they made it largely available in the public realm. Other ministries and archives are also doing that. It was a pro-active stance that may have disarmed the demanding neighbours.

On what to do in this situation, I am in basic agreement with the thrust of this book.

1) Documents should be made publicly available since the institutions also have a mandate to serve the public.

2) General public availability during these globalized and multi-cultural times makes information usage more pluralized and put to individuated uses rather than for political mobilization. Historical information is most often sought by individuals and groups to create cognitive and affective maps for a reflective and moral life – to come to terms.

3)  There is a co-existence of state narrative with individual ones. They are often linked to each other, at some angle,  but mostly not as fully alternative.

4) While it may sometimes prove irritants for the state, by and large, dissemination, diffusion and dispersion of information create goodwill for the state and its projects, especially among professional historians.

5) In a globalized era, narratives of national history produced from transnational sources (the side gates) can be more risky and damaging. Having the national historical profession more identified with state project is the best defence against such destabilizing efforts.

Professor Prasenjit Duara is a historian of China and more broadly of Asia in the twentieth century. He also writes on historical thought and historiography. Duara spent a major part of his career teaching at the Department of History of the University of Chicago, where he was also chairman of the department from 2004-2007. Since then he has been Raffles Professor of Humanities at the National University of Singapore where he is also Director of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences. Several of his books and essays have been translated into Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

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Book Launch: The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History

Invitation to the Launch of The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History

24 July Saturday, 2-5 pm, at The Pod, Level 16, National Library Building

The Singapore Heritage Society and Ethos Books cordially invite you to a launch of an important new book on researching and writing Singapore history.

In exploring the past, researchers labour in the present: to locate the archival document which is located somewhere – behind a gate with its keeper; or to find that elusive participant who will throw light on a gap in our knowledge, and convince them to speak. The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History meditates on this relationship between past and present in a developmental city-state. It discusses how researchers seek to gain entry to archives and memories, in endeavours which crucially shape the imagination of Singapore as a nation and the identity of its people as citizens.

Due to limited seats, registration is required & can be made via and surf on to “Singapore”.


13:30 – 14:00 REGISTRATION
14:00 – 16:30 COMMENTARY & DISCUSSIONModerator: Dr Loh Kah Seng
14:00 Welcome by Professor Kevin Tan, Singapore Heritage Society
14:10 Professor Prasenjit Duara, National University of Singapore
14:30 A/P Kwok Kian Woon, Nanyang Technological University
14:50 A/P Huang Jianli, National University of Singapore
15:10 A/P (Adj) Kwa Chong Guan, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies
5:30 Responses from other book contributors
16:30 – 16:45 LAUNCH OF THE BOOK
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Meditation on History: A New Book!

History has never been more alive in Singapore, as we can see from new books on our political notables to works containing the voices of those who had been silent, from the interest shown by both the participants as well as young Singaporeans born after the period.

The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History does not join this growing chorus of voices and noises. It is, rather, a meditation on the making of history, and often on the difficulty of the making. It begins at the cusp of history, where past and present meet. Every book on the past has to negotiate with the present – to find the archival sources which are located somewhere, possibly behind a gate and keeper; or to locate the elusive participant who will throw light on a major gap in our historical knowledge, and convince them to speak. So much of the research on history is predicated upon the present that it is important, and timely, to examine the gates which stand between researchers and the information they seek. The contributors to this book, including a diverse group of historians, social scientists, film-makers, and public intellectuals, reflect on their encounters with the gatekeepers, and how they have or have not been able to enter or circumvent the gates.

This book is about three types of gates, the first of which are the front gates, the local state archives in Singapore. Access through these gates is strongly mediated by the influence of the makers of Singapore history: the political elites who have charted the historical course in the last half-century. The makers have a controlling influence on the gatekeepers of the archives, which often remain closed to most researchers. The second type of gates are the side gates. Researchers rebuffed at the front gates are often able to find archival sources on Singapore history in the foreign archives, for instance, in Britain, the United States and East Asia. At the side gates, the makers of Singapore’s pasts are rendered at least partially impotent. The final set of gates exist not in institutions but in the mind, determining whether a participant decides to speak or remain silent. Due to the controlling influence of the makers of history, these memory gates have long hampered oral history work in Singapore. But they are also starting to slide open, as both defeated politicians and ordinary Singaporeans begin to articulate their experiences. The growing body of academic and public histories in recent years is a sign of these unlocking memory gates, which has important implications for the continued shutting of the front gates.


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