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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