History, Nation, Singapore: Part 3
By Huichieh on 09 Aug 2007 10:15 AM
Haloscan Comments Closed

For the background to this article, see Part 1: A History of History. There was originally a Part 2 ("Nation and Imagination"), but I am least satisfied with most of it; and the parts that I am happy with are mostly from Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities anyway. Part 3, being the present article, is largely written by my friend Mr. Wee Liang Tong, and he has kindly gave permission for the reproduction of this article. I should also remind the reader that this is not a short article.

* * * * *

Telling the Singapore Story: History and Nation-Building in Singapore

Throughout [Singapore's] history, the need to signify has never been too far away. At the start there was the need to give signification to independence and to a multi-racial society pulling the discrete, disparate parts of her population together.[1]

To 'give signification' to Singapore's independence and the ideals of a harmonious multiracial society is to take an active part in the project of nation-building. A nation is not only defined by its physical boundaries and material assets. The nation also belongs to the realm of the imagination. "It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion."[2] A nation must be perceived by its constituent members and also other fellow nations, to exist as a reality. Nation-building is therefore not only defined and measured by the accumulation of its wealth, but also how effectively it articulates its nationhood, how it posits in the mind of its citizens, a sense of belonging and loyalty to it.

It is because "a nation ... is an imagined political community" [3] that it is possible for Singapore to be a state before becoming a nation. W. E Wilmott observes that "Singapore was forced to become an independent state in 1965 without nationalism or national identity ... in Singapore the state preceded the development of nationalism rather than emerging as its political consequence ..."[4] Lee Kuan Yew concurs, "We survived. Later, we prospered. How did it happen? The basic attributes of nationhood were missing. We were groups of diverse and different peoples. We had no common past. We had no common language, culture, or religion. We did not have 'the social glue' to hold together as a nation."[5] There was therefore, a conscious and real need to create a sense of "nation-ness" among the newly dubbed "Singaporeans":

Let us create one nation for all Singaporeans. We are a young country, and we share one future together. Let us build among ourselves a sense of belonging, a feeling of common identity and shared destiny... [L]et us feel instinctly that we are, first and foremost , Singaporeans. This is our home and here is where we belong.[6]

We can thus see that nation-building in Singapore is a very self-conscious and intentional act. Not only does it have a material aspect, for example economic development, it also needs an 'imaginative' dimension to 'signify' itself as a nation. This was, and continues to be, done through various forms of public discourse, like the creation of a national flag, a national anthem and pledge, and also, through the writing of Singapore's history, for a nation's history, or rather, the articulation of its history, reflects how the nation perceives its 'birth' and development. Rajaratnam's famous remarks on why Raffles was chosen as the founder of Singapore provide a very apt point of entry into the examination of the use of history in Singapore's quest towards nation-building, and is worth quoting extensively:

The price we would have to pay for [a] more impressive genealogical table would be to turn Singapore into a bloody battleground for endless racial and communal conflicts and interventionist politics by the more powerful and bigger nations from which Singaporeans had emigrated.
So from our point of view to push a historic awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history; to plunge Singapore into the kind of genocidal madness devastating many undeveloped and even developed countries today. The present government, much to the dismay of local racial and cultural chauvinists, has been careful about the kind of awareness of the past it should inculcate in a multicultural society... After attaining independence in 1965 there was a debate as to who should be declared the founding father of Singapore. The debate was brought to an abrupt end when the government fixed responsibility for this on Sir Stamford Raffles and officially declared him the founder of Singapore... Our decision to name Raffles the founder of Singapore is an example of the proper use of history; the proper approach to the preservation of historic monuments... [7]

History-writing in Singapore is fraught with many difficulties. The historian has to take into account the multiracial, multicultural character of Singapore, a society in which communal misunderstandings might arise through insensitive writing. Yet, while not risk-free, history in Singapore needs to be written precisely because how else could the various peoples from distinct and disparate backgrounds live together--unless they can see themselves as one nation; and how is that to be possible, if there is no common history. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we can see that Rajaratnam was keenly aware of the fact that history-writing involves making conscious and intentional acts of commission and ommision, that it is "mouldable" according to certain determining frameworks.

We should not be too surprised by the claim that the government can somehow "fix" the "responsibility" for the founding of Singapore upon Raffles and not somebody else. Historians have already acknowledged that history can never be a purely and absolutely objective, detached and innocent account of the past. As Hong Lysa and Jimmy Yap had pointed out,

A society's history does not arise spontaneously, it has to be produced, for the range of events that constitute the past is infinite. Those [events] which are considered significant ... are selected on the basis that they contribute to shaping the way a society should, could or would prefer to see itself. The "scientific" historical facts are inextricably woven together by narrative, and narrative involves artistic and literary elements, composition construction, and myth-making.[8]

We can thus see that "'history' is never simply history, but always 'history-for,'"[9] and in this case, it is "history-for-nation-building". What this means is that "nation-building", whichever way it is defined, becomes the underlying paradigm or framework within which the history will be written. History-writing is part of the signification process that makes a "nation". Yet, we do not necessarily have to turn to nation-building or politics for an explanation of why history is paradigm-bound; political propaganda is not the only way in which history is "distorted". In fact, all history is "distorted" in some way. The problem, as mentioned earlier, lies with the fact that history ultimately exists within the domain of language--history needs to be communicated. "[E]vents, reality and what passes as literal and actual are already arranged in a certain way through the rhetoric that presents them. In passing through the terrain of language, the actual is re-structured."[10] All the various facts and figures need to be woven into a coherent whole, structure needs to be imposed on it, it has to be made into a narrative. Narration is crucial to history-writing because it provides "...the sense of a continuous past producing meanings and events without a single break [that] tends to give the impression of an objective series of causes out there in the world."[11]

The main point of noting that history is a narrative, is not that it is never absolutely "objective" but rather that any historical narrative is never complete and final. This does not mean that any version of history is as good as another. Distinctions can still be made on the basis of the scope of research, the depth of analysis, the reliability of sources and so on. It only means that no one can ever pretend to claim that he or she has written the final version of history regarding a certain subject. It also does not matter which genre of communication history chooses to express itself--be it in writing, in speech, in pictures and exhibitions, or in film and multi-media--every genre mediates the way which the message is brought fourth. Or, as Marshall MacLuhan puts it more succinctly: the medium is the message. So, Singapore history explored and expressed through film will necessarily be different from Singapore history expressed in writing or Singapore history in comics or on CD-ROMs. As we shall see later in this paper, the Singapore government attempts to employ different mediums to communicate the history of the nation to the public.

Let us return to Rajaratnam's comments about the historiography of Raffles in Singapore. 1819 was chosen as the beginning of our 'genealogical table' because it would provoke the least contestation among her peoples, a history that would not incite the Chinese, the Malays or the Indians to want to possess or appropriate it as their own. It is a history that does not give to any of the races any political capital to pursue chauvinistic policies. Hence, modern Singapore 'began' in 1819 when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, a representative of the British East India Company landed on Singapore and brought it under British control.

The history that begins with Raffles has most often been written as essentially an economic history of Singapore. In 1972, a memorial was erected on the bank of the Singapore River, with this inscription, "On this historic site Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis."[12] This is how the history of Singapore that begins with Raffles is to be read--as the narration of the transformation of Singapore from a fishing village into a metropolis.

Economic history tends to emphasise the cooperative character of the different peoples of Singapore coming together in the common aim of money-making, and de-emphasises the communal differences and suspicions. Trade bound our forefathers together, and it should continue to do so. The official line puts it this way:

Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures are working within an economic framework which is national in scope and influence. Our economic institutions cut right across racial and communal barriers. Economically, Malays, Chinese and Indians respond to incentives provided by a national, rather than a communal, harmony.[13]

An economic history is not only non-racial in tone, but it also has the effect of neutralising Leftist tendencies and discourses that were deemed to be prevalent in Singapore during the 1950s and '60s. The PAP struggled hard with the Leftist groups, namely, the Barisan Sosialis, to emerge ultimately as the victor. It therefore had to justify and consolidate its economic and political ideals, and convince the nation to follow along, instead of aspiring to some Socialist-Communist ideals. If a Communist Singapore had come to being, "[c]apital and enterprises would have fled our shores to be replaced by centres of inertia called 'socialised enterprises'...... Parks and pavements would by now have been turned over to socialist production of tapioca, sweet potatoes, cabbages and other hardy edibles."[14] Economic history from the colonial days show up the capitalistic character of Singapore, thereby implicitly 'signifying' that capitalism is more suitable for us, as our history tells us, and that Leftist policies seem 'un-Singaporean'. Our history as a capitalistic port and commercial centre does not support the establishment of a Communist state in Singapore; it would be against our historical and economic 'character'.

To notice the fact that our history has taken on a bent towards the economic side of matters does not make it any more or less valid as history. The point is "... to take into account the awareness of the construction of reality, the way that reality is created as well as the description of that reality."[15] History is a narrative, and any narrative necessarily takes a stand, a particular point of view, in this case economic, which would at the same time open up a window to certain facts, and close off avenues to others.

The Old Guards of the PAP are not blind to this fact. Lee Kuan Yew knows that history-writing inevitably simplifies historical reality in some way, no matter how minutely;

It is after forces let loose in tumultuous events have run their course that the historian comes along to mark out neat periods and narrates them in clear-cut chapters.[16]

He concludes that "History is not made the way it is written". History, with its "clear-cut chapters," can never fully capture and convey the valuable experiences and insights that the Old Guards had gained. "[L]earning at second hand," Lee Kuan Yew asserts, "is never as vivid, as deep or durable as that which was personally experienced."[17] Being "in the fray" as it were, makes these leaders valuable as a source of historical wisdom that was distilled from actual political experiences and struggles. The implication of this attitude towards history is that it privileges the discourse of a select group of veteran PAP members as they narrate their version of the history. "As victors of history, they have the privilege of transforming their personal experiences into what really happened."[18] Rajaratnam agrees:

Admittedly my explanation of why things went the way they did is not absolute infallible truth because among other things, I was not an impartial observer but a partisan in the creation of modern Singapore. My colleagues and I make no apology for having been partisans, and not mere observers because had we in the PAP not been partisans, then you would be living in a Singapore vastly different from the one you know today.[19]

These 'victorious' veterans therefore have the authority to mark out what is 'significant' in Singapore's history and useful for the project of nation-building. Recounting personal experience also has the effect of making the people identify with the leaders more as they come to know more about how these politicians steered the country out of times of chaos and into the era of light. There is a sense of shared ordeals and common happiness.

Yet, personal anecdotes by elders usually ring with an echo of the didactic. History narrated by the Old Guards does not seem to be free of this problem. Having 'ridden the Communist tiger' and struggled tooth and nail to establish a cosmopolitan and economically successful Singapore, the Old Guards tend to let their narratives be coloured by a sense of foreboding. The tone is more often than not dark and sombre, making history out to be more like a 'cautionary tale'. Yes, Singapore has come far to achieve what she has today, but, we must not forget the dangers of yesteryears. Disintegrative forces, be it in the guise of Communists, communalists, or economic downturn, can swiftly send Singapore back into the dumps. Rajaratnam provides an example of this sobering 'cautionary tale':

So I come to my final thoughts on "Why" history - there are no such things as permanent prosperity and permanent success. ...... From my study of history, I conclude that decline and collapse appear to be the unavoidable fate of successful nations. ...... Some nations can recover from misfortune. But there is no such option open to Singapore. ... The happy combination of unexpected events, lucky mistakes by our enemies and a fortuitous concurrence of favourable circumstances, which all contributed to Singapore's success, can never happen again. For Singapore, it is a one-way journey, either up or down. Once you are down, you stay down for good.[20]

The fundamental goal of nation-building is to make Singapore become and then stay as one united people, impervious to internal dissection and external manipulation. Yet, too much didactic moralising about the past has its negative repercussions. A cautionary tale over-simplifies matters into clear shades of white and black. It identifies the Other and casts it as a source of danger (hence the ambiguously termed 'enemies' in Rajaratnam's speech?). When a society becomes uptight and fears for its integrity, it begins to develop a sort of tunnel-vision. Arthur Miller's The Crucible portrays very vividly the dangers of this mentality, where the whole town of Salem goes on a mad witch-hunt for imagined witches.

The manner in which the PAP leaders pass comments on the 'Other' political activists contemporary or deceased also reflect how they want the history of Singapore's nation-building to be remembered. David Marshall, who was actively involved in the local political scene from the 1950s, and who became the first Chief Minister of Singapore, passed away in December, 1995. Loh Kah Seng provides us with an analysis of how Rajaratnam paid his 'tribute' to Marshall:

Selectively emphasising Marshall's rhetorical eloquence, Rajaratnam did not mention anything positive and substantial about him. As a "judge" who evaluates and ultimately dismisses another person's role in history, Rajaratnam elevated his position above Marshall's.[21]

Rajaratnam's comments have the effect of framing up Marshall's career as a politician. He gets the last say, as it were, and tries to fit Marshall retrospectively into his version of what happened. "Tributes do not go to the extent of possibly allowing the construction of a version of history alternative to the government's."[22] Instead, they allow the leaders to re-tell what happened by playing judge over the contributions of other politicians, determining who, "...[i]n the conventional historical theatre of contrasts"[23] were "...the major actors and also the minor comedians who participated, with varying degrees of usefulness, in the birth of an independent Singapore."[24]

At the 1996 National Day Parade, this 'historical theatre of contrasts' was made literal. At the celebrations of 31 years of national independence, the audience saw the enactment of a historical drama, in a style and tone pretending towards the epic and spectacular, by narrating the origins of Singapore from 1819 to the present. Scores of actors played the roles of natives who tilled the ground, coolies who crowded around the habours, students and workers who participated in riots and strikes, and finally as earnest and hardworking Singaporeans who worked towards building a modern, successful Singapore. The narrative is demarcated into 'clear-cut chapters': the founding of Singapore by Raffles, Singapore during colonial days, the horrors of the Japanese Occupation, the tumultuous '50s and '60s, and finally, the present days of success. This is history as narrative in its most literal manifestation. History is being 'packaged' as a neat, unified whole, conforming to the literary conventions of a 'Comedy' [25] where an ideal state of affairs are disrupted by conflicts which threaten to upset the harmony, but ultimately, the differences are resolved and order is restored. The cautionary aspects are still strong, as can be seen in the painstaking and expensive efforts to re-enact, with choreographed mock-riots and impressive pyrotechnics, the chaotic times of the 50s and 60s. Nevertheless, as part of the national day celebrations, the performance must end on a high, affirming and inspiring note, and hence, the dramatic narrative ended with the presentation of a economically successful and generally happy modern Singapore, represented by the rapidly emerging cardboard high-rise flats and skyscrapers.

Packaging 178 years of history into half an hour of histrionics is part of the government's effort to make this history part of the average Singaporean's 'heritage', to 'signify' its importance and value to the tasks of nation-building. According to Lily Kong:

[H]eritage requires that there is a certain knowledge of the past, and that past must be perceived to belong to a people by the people in question, and to be a living reality for them, perhaps because some aspects of the past are still practised, or because it provides a shared understanding and serves as a binding force.'[26]

As she has pointed put in her article, historical memory is not equated with heritage, if there is no accompanying sense of a '"ownership" of the past. ... For example, it is entirely possible for young Singaporeans to have a collective memory of the struggle against communism in Singapore without feeling that it is their heritage, and without it contributing to a sense of belonging to Singapore.'[27] It is not enough to just know about what happened; there must also be an evaluative act that follows it, to decide if such a historical fact can be construed as valuable to being 'Singaporean' in some way. Perhaps we can then see the 'cautionary tale' about the '50s and '60s as an effort at trying to instil a sort of 'negative' heritage in Singaporeans, to remember those times as the "dark time" of chaos and confusion. In other words, by identifying 'categories of heritage'[28] in our history (eg. 'the tumultuous '50s and '60s'), it also shapes the way we remember the past, for it forces us to pass judgements on our collective memory.

The recent ideas about telling 'the Singapore Story' as part of a new National Education Programme, launched in May 1997, is another effort at 'packaging' local history for the ready consumption of students:

...our young must know the Singapore Story - how Singapore succeeded against the odds to become a nation...The Singapore Story is based on historical facts. We are not talking about an idealised legendary account or a founding myth, but an accurate understanding of what happened in the past, and what this past means for us today. It is objective history, seen from a Singapore standpoint.[29]

It is a perfectly legitimate claim to say that the Singapore Story will be 'objective' yet written 'from a Singaporean standpoint'. After all, narratives have to have (at least one) point of views. Being based on records and other historical evidence, it can be called empirically verifiable and hence 'objective'. Yet, it can only be an objective history, a story of Singapore. No narrative can achieve a complete closure, no history can claim to be final and unchallengable. Alternative and competing versions of history, based on equally well-researched and reliable sources (hence qualifying as 'objective' as well) can and should be written.

Perhaps having looked at so many examples of how history aids in the signification of the nation and nation-building, we have arrived at a sort of inherent contradiction that exists between history and nation-building. History is an essential component of nation-building, and nation-building is crucial to Singapore. History 'explains' how and why the nation came to being. It gives the nation a sense of origin, and a source of pride. It provides grounds for national cohesion and unity. In short, it is indispensable to the nation's need to articulate and to 'signify' itself , i.e. the presentation of what Singapore wants to be seen by Singaporeans and also to other people. Yet, as its name suggests, nation-building is akin to the construction of a house; it needs a solid foundation. History is this foundation, with all its founding myths and glorification of tales of sacrifices for the nation. For the sake of nation-building, this history should not be challenged, otherwise the whole rationale and direction of nation-building would be called in question. We have seen how Singapore history is constantly being 'packaged', be it as economic history that traces its roots to Raffles; as words of wisdom from veteran politicians who had personal experience in the making of Singapore's recent history, as it were; or even as a neatly summarised, readily 'consumable' dramatic history. A coherent and unified national history gives direction to nation-building. As Rajaratnam, that guru of Singaporean culture and history, puts it, nation-building requires "...a history which is more interested in controlling the yet unrealised future than in a dead past which is beyond change. What has happened cannot be erased. It can only provide lessons for the future."[30] To him, and to nation-building, history is 'dead' and unchallengable. What matters is that it can offer perspectives into the future.

The contradiction lies here. While nation-building requires a monolithic vision for the country as a whole, including its history, history finds itself uncomfortable with such an artificially imposed sense of closure. Ralph Samuel thinks that "[t]he idea of the 'nation', though a potent one, belongs to the realm of the imaginary rather than the real... The myth of unchanging national identity--and one of 'shared values' which allegedly characterise it--is one which it would be more profitable for historians to subvert than legitimate and endorse."[31]

One does not have to agree wholly with Samuel; after all, the need to build a nation of Singapore out of the various races and cultures is a real and difficult task. Yet, one also has to admit that for 'good' history to develop and proliferate, it needs debates and challenges. If history is left unchallenged and taken as the final reality about the past, then it loses meaning to the changing times. New generations need to re-look and re-possess history on their own terms. Such debates are healthy, and contribute to engage the nation into thinking and re-thinking about what constitutes Singapore's past, to constantly decide what they want to include as their heritage and identity, thereby instilling, perhaps through a rather roundabout but possibly more heartfelt sense of national belonging, because it is arrived at after much more struggle; the sense of an 'ownership' of the past is more ingrained and real.

* * * * *


[1] Ban, Pakir & Tong eds., "Introduction", p. 6; emphasis added.

[2] Anderson, p. 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] W.E. Willmott, "The Emergency of Nationalism" in Sandhu & Wheatley eds., p. 581.

[5] Lee Kuan Yew, "The National Exhibition -- Summary of The Past, Glimpse of the Future" in Speeches, vol. 8, no. 6, 1984, pp. 11-12.

[6] Lee Kuan Yew, cited in Ban, Pakir & Tong eds., p. 70; emphasis added.

[7] Rajaratnam, p. 149.

[8] Hong & Yap, p. 31; emphasis added.

[9] White, p. 56.

[10] Ban, Pakir & Tong eds., "Introduction", p. 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cited in Turnbull, p. 324.

[13] Rajaratnam, p. 116.

[14] S. Rajaratnam, "Life-and-Death Struggle with Communists in 1950-60s" in Speeches, Vol. 8, No.3, pp. 6-7.

[15] Ban, Pakir & Tong eds., "Introduction", pp. 2-3.

[16] Lee Kuan Yew, "History is not made the way it is written" in Speeches, Vol.3, No.8, 1989, p. 4.

[17] Ibid., p. 3.

[18] Loh Kah Seng, p. 42.

[19] S. Rajaratnam, "Life-And-Death Struggle with the Communists" in Speeches, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1984, p. 5.

[20] Ibid., p. 14.

[21] Loh quoted an excerpt of Rajaratnam's 'tribute' to Marshall: "He believed in democratic politics, dramatic politics. He was an eloquent man. I have disagreed with him, made fun of him, but I cannot think of anything nasty or crooked to say about David Marshall." (p. 52)

[22] Ibid., p. 54.

[23] Hong & Yap, p. 34.

[24] Quoted in ibid.

[25] See also White, p. 57ff and Loh, p. 66.

[26] Kong, p. 18.

[27] Ibid., p. 17.

[28] Ibid., p. 11.

[29] The Straits Times, May 20, p. 29.

[30] S. Rajaratnam, op. cit. note 14, p. 4.

[31] Cited in Ban, Pakir & Tong eds., p. 60.

* * * * *

Combined References for History, Nation, Singapore

  1. Anderson, B. R. O. G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.
  2. Ang, Ien and Stratton, Jon. "The Singapore Way of Multiculturalism: Western Concepts/ Asian Cultures", Soujourn 10, no. 1 (1995), pp. 65-89.
  3. Ban Kah Choon, Pakir, Anne & Tong Chee Kiong, eds. Imagining Singapore. Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992.
  4. Bhabha, Homi K. ed. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge, 1990.
  5. Carr, E. H. What is History? (2nd edn; R. W. Davies ed.). London: Macmillan, 1986.
  6. Chan Heng Chee and Evers, H. D. "National Identity and Nation Building in Singapore" in Studies in ASEAN Sociology: Urban Society and Social Change (P. S. J. Chen and H. D. Evers eds.) Singapore: Chopmen Enterprises, 1978, pp. 117-29.
  7. Chew, E. T. C and Lee, Edwin eds. A History of Singapore. Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  8. Chiaromonte, Nicola. The Paradox of History: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak and others. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.
  9. Chua Beng-Huat and Eddie K. Y. Kuo. The Making of a New Nation: Cultural Construction and National Identity in Singapore. Singapore, National University of Singapore, Department of Sociology, Working Paper No. 104, 1991.
  10. Chua Beng-Huat. Communitatian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1995.
  11. Collingwood, Robin George. The Idea of History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946.
  12. Elton, G. R. The Practice of History. London: Fontana Press, 1969.
  13. Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983.
  14. Gellner, Ernest. Thought and Change. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964.
  15. Hill, Michael and Lian Kwen Fee. The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore. London: Routledge, 1995.
  16. Hobsbawm, E. J. and Ranger, Terence eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  17. Hobsbawm, E. J. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  18. Hong, Lysa and Yap, Jimmy. "The Past in Singapore's Present", Commentary 11, no. 1 (1993), pp. 31-38.
  19. Kelley, Donald R. ed. Versions of History from Antiquity to the Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
  20. Kong, Lily. The Invention of Heritage: Popular Music in Singapore. Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, 1997.
  21. Lewis, C. S. "Historicism" in God, History and Historians: Modern Christian Views of History (C. T. McIntire ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 224-238.
  22. Lo, Jacqueline. "Myths of Nationalism and Cultural Purity in Singapore", Indian Ocean Review, September 1992.
  23. Loh Kah Seng. The Use of History by Singapore's Political Leaders since Independence. Singapore, National University of Singapore, Department of History, Unpublished Honours thesis, 1996.
  24. Rajah, Ananda and Sinha, Vineeta. "The Myth and Management of Tradition". Paper presented at "Our Place in Time", a conference on Heritage in Singapore organised by the Singapore Heritage Society and the Substation, 17-18 September 1994, Guinness Theatre, The Substation.
  25. Sandhu, K.S., & Wheatley, Paul, eds. Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989.
  26. Shotwell, James T. The History of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1950.
  27. Smith, Anthony D. "Memory and Modernity: Reflections on Ernest Gellner's Theory of Nationalism", Nations and Nationalism 2, no. 3 (1996), pp. 371-388.
  28. Smith, Anthony D. and Gellner, Ernest. "The Nation: Real or Imagined?: The Warwick Debates on Nationalism", Nations and Nationalism 2, no. 3 (1996), pp. 357-370.
  29. Smith, Anthony D. Theories of Nationalism (2nd edn). London, 1983.
  30. Turnbull, C. M. A History of Singapore: 1819 -1988 (2nd ed.). Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  31. White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1982.
  32. Yeoh, B. S. A. and Kong, L. eds. Portraits of Places: History, Community and Identity. Sinapore: Times Editions, 1995.

Primary Sources (Official Speeches and Writings)

  1. Nair, Devan. Not By Wages Alone. Singapore: National Trades Union Congress, 1982.
  2. Rajaratnam, S. The Prophetic and the Political. Chan Heng Chee & Obaid ul Haq eds. Singapore: Graham Brash, 1987.
  3. Speeches: A Bimonthly Selection of Ministerial Speeches. Singapore: Information Division, Ministry of Culture, various volumes.
  4. The Straits Times (various issues).

Comments (7)

Notice: Each writer on Singapore Angle is in control over the comment threads associated with his own posts, to edit or delete individual comments, or to close the thread as he pleases.


Excellent post -- would have liked to read Part Two for completeness, but your contribution attempts to fit History into the Singapore context, which is no mean feat...

I do appreciate the need to frame history according to some common standpoints as a way of building and sustaining a nation. A loss of such a frame would easily result in chaos a la Bosnia/Palestine.

I like your point on using trade/commerce as a common ground upon which to bond Singapore's myriad cultures together, along with the (unintended?) effect of placing Raffles as a visionary footnote. NDP frames aside, would money/capitalism ('opportunity' seems to be its latest name) be a sufficient tool for nation-building 20-30 years into the future?

I value The Singapore Story as a useful tool to gain basic understanding of the Singapore concept. That is not to say that it should be the *only* tool available for public access. History as I have mentioned in my comments in Part One is first and foremost a Story that each and every one of us has to make sense of.

By all means read, listen, watch or otherwise consume any information on Singapore's history. However, I would urge one to pause to ponder on whatever one comes across ;-)

Hey Loy, very meaningful post on a very meaningful day. Happy n-birthday to both you and spursfan. Spursfan, reading your comments, and of course Loy's post itself, gave me the idea to share this with everyone. There is an effort by local historians to write and reflect on alternative histories of Singapore, and part of this effort has crystallized as an online journal called s/pores. Disclaimer: I played a minor part in its set up, a very minor part compared to the journal's main movers, and the piece on National Language Class that I first published here in SA is republished there as an expanded piece. If you are wondering, and I think I can share this, there are concrete plans for the next four issues: two on archive and memory (coincidentally following Tan Pin Pin's recent release of Invisible City), one on religion, and one on Chinese scholarship.

Huichieh [TypeKey Profile Page]:


Thank you for your kind words. Once again, I should point out that my friend Liang Tong did most of the work for this piece and deserves most of the credit.

Your question as to whether "money/capitalism ('opportunity' seems to be its latest name) be a sufficient tool for nation-building 20-30 years into the future" is a serious and substantive one. Tentatively, the answer is both "no" and "I believe the powers that be are quite aware of it...for a while now."

I am not confident, however, that the loss of an unitary frame would "easily result in chaos a la Bosnia/Palestine" (sure there are people in high places who believes that and would like us to believe that). I think a lot will depend on the specifics of what happens, what sort of diversity or plurality are we talking about. In addition, I think that it is inevitable that as Singapore society continues to develop, any shared frame will have to become increasing abstract and malleable to the telling of multiple stories. By then, I suspect that the more pressing issue would not be "how to continue with this unitary frame" or even "which unitary frame should we insist on", but how we can make plurality work for us as a vibrant society. Ok, this is all very airy but barring a new effort at sustain research, I don't think I can say much more.

Once again, thank you for your comment.

* * * * *


Thanks for pointing me to s/pore! It's actually been a long time since I think hard about these issues (since my "rice bowl" research interests are now somewhere else far away). But looking at the list of writers for the first issue is like facing a blast from my own past: both Liang Tong and I learned much from Lysa Hong's class "what is history". Siew Min (who also knows Liang Tong) was the editor of the History Journal before me (all three of us were at one point or other associated with the NUS History Society), and I got to know Hwee Kian because of her. Which makes it that much more meaningful for me personally--and not just because of the grander, national considerations!

Huichieh (Loy?),

Thanks for your considered response to my concern (indeed one of my main concerns) regarding Singapore's future. I'm sure the establishment is aware, and may even be attempting to solve this issue. I would suggest that the key to resolving the matter lies not with the establishment but with each individual i.e. let the people claim responsibility for the opportunity/freedom they currently enjoy (if it may be termed as such).

Regarding the 'unitary frame', all I'm saying is that it may be preferable that there are some common points of reference in order to minimise conflict (pet word) among the populace. If we take the US as an example, there is much debate about the Civil War, race divisions, and to a lesser extent political affiliations -- with the basic premise (some enforced more easily than others) that such differences should be respected.

In Palestine, my view is that this basic respect has broken down (or not was properly established to begin with), so the prevailing point of reference seems to be something like 'He killed my family, so I'll kill his.' In Bosnia, the collapse of the communist regime had resulted in a state of flux, where the point of reference reverted to previously-unresolved racial tensions.

In order to claim ourselves as a nation in a real sense of the word, it is my firm belief that the people must share common reference points that are mutually accepted as such. In a basic sense this has been achieved; more substantive elements other than capitalism/materialism are required in order to mitigate the risk that Bosnia has tragically borne.

Huichieh [TypeKey Profile Page]:


("Loy" is fine; unless you are trying to pick me out from among my clansmen...)

Ok, I think I see your point better. Indeed, if there is going to be any stable and long terms 'solution', it won't be something imposed from on high but grown from below. In that case, I really hope the relevant authorities don't try to help things along by "pulling at growing shoots", only to kill the seedlings.

Anyway, happy national day everyone.

Imminent Immigrantion:

Write so long story for what? History will have to be rewritten again in time to come, possibly in another 20 years, by Malaysians for Malaysians - the true people of this land. Migrants will continue to be migrants when the chips are down. History will repeat itself??? No???


Ideas like Raffles the founder, emphasis on economic history etc--these and others were here long before independent Singapore.

They were already taught way back in the late 1800s when mission schools were teaching Singapore history; our Singapore government merely replaced Straits Settlements history with Singapore history, when dealing with our colonial chapter.

Your sources are postwar. But these historical ideas have been around--check out Sir Song Ong Siang's book--how the educated Chinese in Singapore thought of Singapore's colonial rule, the role of the British.

Post a comment

Please refrain from signing your comment as "anonymous" or "anon": doing that makes it harder for others to refer to your arguments when responding (especially when more than one comment signed this way appears). Rather, make up a unique pseudonym. In addition, note that each writer on Singapore Angle is in control over the comment threads associated with his own posts, to edit or delete individual comments, or to close the thread as he pleases.

About this Post

5143 words | Categories: History

Singapore Angle is a group blog published between June 2006-2009. Copyright to the articles is reserved to the individual writers unless otherwise stated.

All opinions expressed on this site by the authors are strictly expressed by the authors alone and remain the sole responsibility of the individual authors of each post; they are not representative of any third party, except where otherwise attributed and they certainly are not meant to reflect the views of the organizations which the authors are working for. Unless explicitly indicated, the authors neither endorse nor take responsibility for any information or opinion expressed by any third party in any comments, trackbacks or links external to this website.

This blog is no longer updated. The contents therein are purely for archival purposes.

Singapore Angle was powered by
Movable Type 3.34