Don’t Miss the Grass for the Trees

Lime Green tree

Our eyes first catch sight of the towering, majestic tree, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s the grass that fills the landscape with vibrant colour.

A few articles have been published in the wake of Dr Nadia Wright’s recent book, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow, which supposedly offers an iconoclastic revisionist account of Sir Stamford Raffles’ legacy (I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to soon). This article in The Spectator, for example, highlights the superb administrative competence of Raffles’ right-hand man, William Farquhar, who is  commonly thought to have played second fiddle to the trailblazing Raffles.

On the flip side, this article in Rice paints a shocking picture of Raffles as a deceitful, hypocritical, narcissistic “monster”.

I must say at the outset that I find the writer’s tone quite vulgar and discomfiting, but I suppose such sensationalist language serves the purpose of capturing a wider audience. (It also got me wondering if being called an Old Rafflesian is such a good thing after all…)

Nonetheless, after excoriating Raffles for his scandalous behaviour and sullying the halo above his head, the writer draws a very important lesson that resonates strongly with me. In criticising the “Great Man Syndrome” – a tendency to attribute monumental social and political change to several notable individuals, such as Raffles or LKY – he writes:

“Everything good that happened to Singapore is credited to the heroes, and we choose to ignore our own part in nation-building. As a consequence, we overestimate their ability to shape the course of fate and underestimate our own agency.”

This observation is not only true of our treatment of history. I think the Great Man Syndrome still colours our vision today. We marvel at the brilliance of politicians and scholars, the business acumen of successful CEOs, the military decorations of high-ranking officers – and then we sometimes get overwhelmed by such excellence and retreat into our caves, fearful to venture out in case we stumble and fall.

Of course we should celebrate those who have achieved excellence in their fields and have made exceptional contributions to society. But they should serve as examples to inspire us, not to deflate our own ambitions (“I’ll never be as good as her”), absolve us of our personal responsibility to society (“That guy is already doing so much, I don’t need to contribute”), or minimise our own agency (“I don’t have as much influence as her, so I might as well do nothing”).

We are the nation, everyone of us. Even our most mundane decisions shape our culture everyday – when we greet or ignore each other in the morning, when we use our free time to play mobile phone games or read a book, when we say thanks for our food or complain about how tasteless it is, when we congratulate our kids for scoring a 90 or demand an explanation for the missing 10 marks, when we crib incessantly about work or appreciate our gainful employment.

But beyond moulding an amorphous national culture, we have a very distinctive and tangible effect on the people around us, whether we realise it or not. Our words and actions can demoralise or edify, infuriate or elate, attract or repel, deaden or inspire. We are all influencers, not just the social media gurus.

This vitriolic critic of Sir Stamford Raffles makes an excellent point – let us not underestimate our individual and collective agency. Don’t miss the grass for the trees.



Cosmopolitan from Day One


The Maghain Aboth Synagogue – the oldest synagogue in Singapore and Southeast Asia

I recently popped into the public library for a quick browse, and a title in the Singapore Collection piqued my interest. The Jews of Singapore, written by Joan Bieder, explores the history of the Jewish community in Singapore and traces the development of its unique identity from the 1840s till today. It begins with an explanation of how Jews from Baghdad ended up in our neck of the woods, helpfully situated within the wider narrative and migratory patterns of the Jewish Diaspora.

As Baghdadi Jews fled from persecution under Ottoman rule, they found refuge and bountiful economic opportunities in the British trading posts of Calcutta and Singapore, where business interests obscured racial and cultural differences. These Jewish traders brought their families over to Singapore, petitioned the British colonial government for land to build a synagogue, and kept their traditions alive through the celebration of festivals and adherence to kosher laws.

As I was casually flipping through the pages, I chanced upon a fascinating account of an Englishman’s encounter with the patriarch of the Jewish community in Singapore in the 1840s. This Englishman was John Turnbull Thomson, a surveyor for the East India Company in Singapore from 1841 to 1853. Many Singaporeans are probably unfamiliar with this man, but they definitely know the roads, condominiums and shopping centre named after him.

Thomson was once invited to share a meal with Abraham Solomon, who was regarded as the leader of the Jewish community in Singapore in his time. Apparently Thomson was so impacted by this episode that he included a rich and vivid description of his experience in his memoirs, written years after his time in Singapore. Bieder notes, “In the 1840s, it would be unimaginable in either England or Baghdad that a young English surveyor and an Orthodox Baghdadi Jewish trader would sit down to a meal together. However, in Singapore, where trade trumped prejudice and habit, traditional barriers dissolved.”

Thomson was accompanied by one of Solomon’s friends, as well as Solomon’s brother. According to Bieder, since the Baghdadi Jews did not speak English, the four men actually conversed in Malay throughout their meal! Of course, this phenomenon must have been very common back then, but I imagine it would intrigue many Singaporeans today.

What did they speak about? Thomson wrote that his host spoke nostalgically about the dates, grapes and figs back home that he could not find in Singapore. As I learned later on in the book, another enterprising Baghdadi Jewish man made a living in Singapore by filling this gap in the market. Saul Nassim Mashal realised that the Muslims in Singapore did not have dates with which they could break their fast during Ramadan, so he imported them from the Middle East. His son, David Saul Mashal (or David Marshall), would later become the first Chief Minister of Singapore.

As Thomson’s host, Abraham Solomon, continued his walk down memory lane, he also described the oppression that he experienced under the Ottomans. According to Thomson, Solomon recounted, “The soles of my feet were beaten until they were raw; for they wished to torture me into disclosing treasures that I had not.” Bieder writes, “As a result of this mistreatment, Solomon left his father’s house and fled, first to Calcutta and then to Singapore in search of religious tolerance and economic freedom.”

Encounters like this inspired Thomson to write an evocative (and slightly pompous) description of the cosmopolitan reality of life in Singapore, which was merely in its second decade as a colonial trading post. He wrote, “Subject of nations at war are friendly here, they are bound hand and foot by the absorbing interests of commerce. The pork-hating Jew of Persia embraces the pork-loving Chinese of Chinchew. The cow-adoring Hindu of Benares hugs the cow-slaying Arab of Juddah. Even the Englishman, proud yet jolly, finds it to his interest to unbend and associate with the sons of Shem, whether it be in commerce, in sports or at the banquet.”

Singapore has been a global nexus since Day One. It still is. But whether it will remain so depends on the human initiative and creativity of successive generations of Singaporeans.


September Sixteenth

malaysia day

Source: National Archives of Singapore

On this day in 1923, a pioneer was born. Mr Lee Kuan Yew would grow to become a fervent advocate of racial equality, meritocracy, and the unifying power of civic nationalism.

Exactly forty years later, under the guidance of this pioneer, a new political creature would be formed (purportedly) on the basis of these values. Malaysia officially came into existence on 16 September 1963 – a federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

From this day onward, Singapore was no longer under British colonial rule. The residents of Singapore were told that they were now Malaysians, that they shared a common identity and destiny with their fellow citizens from Perlis to Johor, and that they were co-builders and co-owners of this brand new nation. The PAP and their partners in the Malaysian Solidarity Convention issued the clarion call to build a “Malaysian Malaysia”, in opposition to special privileges and quotas for Malays.

Alas, the political experiment faced a road bump in 1965 when Singapore was ejected from the Federation. The residents of this island once again experienced an identity change – they were now told that they were Singaporeans, not Malaysians or Malayans. The spirit of “Malaysian Malaysia” lived on in the new Singaporean identity, exemplified in the words famously penned by Mr S Rajaratnam: “regardless of race, language, or religion”.

A half-century later, I believe that our leaders and the vast majority of our population are still strongly devoted to the ideal of racial equality. Undoubtedly, there are worrying aberrations. Off the top of my head, I am concerned about socioeconomic inequality along racial lines, discriminatory deployment of National Servicemen, extremist views, suggestions that Singaporeans vote along racial lines, the unrepresentative nature of the upper echelons of the civil service, and homogeneity in elite/SAP schools. The idea of a Reserved Presidential Election has also been roundly criticised as an unmeritocratic form of affirmative action (let alone the fact that there was no election at all).

But I also realise that these concerns pale in comparison to the problem of emboldened white supremacists in America and the massacre of Rohingyas in Myanmar. This fact should not encourage an attitude of complacency with regard to strengthening our social solidarity. Instead, it should remind us that our society could easily slip into chaos and disarray if we do not constantly watch our words, review the intentions and content of our social policies, and weave new threads in our social fabric through interacting with people who are different from us.

Happiness in the Hermit Kingdom


Is happiness a right or a privilege? Upon googling this question, almost every response is along these lines: “Happiness is neither a right nor a privilege – it’s a choice”.

This cliche self-help-book answer actually makes a lot of sense. Before we can even ask if a state should guarantee its citizens “happiness” in the same way that it guarantees economic well-being and security, we should ask if happiness is something that can be guaranteed.

The US Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that all men are entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It is not happiness itself that is guaranteed, but the individual’s right to pursue it, in recognition of the fact that happiness is defined by the individual and not by the state. If happiness is self-defined, it cannot be guaranteed by an external agent, and thus the cliche Google answer is right after all. The terms “right” and “privilege” are irrelevant if no one other than the individual can decide if he/she is happy. Perhaps all a state can and should do is to protect the right to chase that happiness.

The North Korean regime doesn’t seem to believe that. In the Hermit Kingdom, happiness is defined by the regime – along with its pursuit, its expression, and its limits. It is the most extreme example in the world of total subjugation of the individual in the (supposed) pursuit of collective prosperity, dignity and well-being. In North Korea, the logic appears to be that the individual is happy if the collective is happy. In reality, the word “collective” can easily be substituted with the word “regime”.

While reading Barbara Demick’s journalistic tour de force on North Korea, Nothing to Envy, I couldn’t help but ponder the tragedy of the imbalance of happiness in the world. I realise that since happiness is self-defined, there cannot be a perfect basis for comparison between the happiness of different individuals, and it is theoretically possible for a poor villager in Cambodia to be as happy as a real estate tycoon in Hong Kong. But am I really to believe that a North Korean citizen who has been cut off from the rest of humanity and is treated like a cog in the world’s most repressive state machinery can ever be as happy as a middle-class American?

Through her interviews with North Korean defectors living in South Korea, Demick provides a harrowing account of the callousness, brutality and obstinacy of the North Korean regime. The book reads like a thriller and stabs like a dagger to the heart. Her raw delivery of horrific stories of famine and repression in North Korea in the 1990s dredges up the darkest emotions of the reader’s soul. Unsurprisingly, the last time I felt a similar level of anger and despair was while reading Orwell’s 1984.

Demick uses an unconventional but relatable love story between two North Korean students to ease the reader into the book. This is soon followed by a litany of agonising anecdotes about life in North Korea – or lack thereof. But a love story is a good, lighthearted starting point – even if this story involves a boy and girl separated by social class in a supposedly classless society, who resort to secret dates in the pitch-black darkness of North Korean suburbs and are afraid to hold hands for three years.

After this unnerving introduction to life in North Korea, Demick illustrates the paradoxical inequality of North Korea’s communist society through the story of Mi-ran, a girl whose life prospects were restricted by the regime simply because her father was originally from South Korea. To her dismay, she was rejected from several educational institutions despite her merit and studiousness. When she was finally offered a job as a kindergarten teacher in the middle of the famine, her job was essentially to feed starving children with scraps of food and regime propaganda. Her class size slowly shrank from 50 children to 15.

The famine remains the tragic overarching theme of the subsequent chapters. Demick’s interviewees claim that the famine was so severe that people were searching for undigested corn in animal droppings, and mixing sawdust into their meals of ground corn and tree bark. At some point, Demick writes bluntly about “tales of cannibalism” – at which point I had to put the book down momentarily.

The most intriguing chapter to me is “Mothers of Invention”, which narrates the stories of entrepreneurial women in a country dead set against individual enterprise. Sitting here in Israel, “entrepreneurship” is associated with the glitz and glamour of the cutting-edge startup ecosystem. But the author writes about innovation in a completely different context. During the famine, North Koreans had to come up with the most creative ways of making money, growing crops, and salvaging food in order to feed themselves, let alone their families. For instance, an electrician read a book and taught himself to make herbal medicines, and a textile factory worker learned how to bake cookies in a makeshift oven and sell them on the street. We’re told in Singapore that our economic growth is spurred by innovation – in North Korea, daily innovation is literally a matter of life and death.

One of the most painful stories recounted in this book is that of a young university student, Jun-sang, returning to his high school. Jun-sang loved reconnecting with his teachers, who were proud of his academic achievements. But his homecoming visits were soon overshadowed by reports of former teachers and classmates who had died of starvation. He couldn’t handle the stress and stopped going back.

That particular story tugged at my heartstrings because I’m about to head home to Singapore and catch up with old school friends. But almost every story provokes anger and dismay, whether it’s hair-raising stories of people scavenging for rotten pears in orchards, or sickening accounts of electricity being diverted from homes and factories to light up statues of Kim Il-sung. What’s even more disturbing on an emotional level is that North Koreans’ emotions are controlled as well – when Kim Il-sung died, people’s lives and career prospects depended on their ability to cry, or else their loyalty to the regime would be questioned.

Through telling the stories of North Korean defectors, Demick invites us to take a good look at our own lives. Imagine the psychological and emotional stress that these defectors felt upon learning that they had been fed a lifetime of lies. Every book they had read, film they had watched and song they had heard had been in exaltation of the regime. They had been completely sealed off from the Internet and satellite television. Of course, the fact that you’re reading this blog post means you have access to the largest repository of information in the world, but it’s still worth asking ourselves – are we truly making good use of our freedom to information? We may not be living in hermetically sealed nations, but are we limiting our intellectual horizons through fear, stubbornness, or laziness?

Even after decades of brainwashing, thousands of North Koreans have seen past the lies of the regime. I was struck by how the simplest of items could spark enormous epiphanies. Demick relates the story of a North Korean soldier who discovered America’s technological superiority in a humble American-made nail clipper. It dawned on him: if his own country couldn’t produce a simple item like that, how could their weapons rival America’s firepower? A nail accessory pushed him from caution to defection.

Another North Korean student was pushed over the edge when he saw a picture in the official media of South Korean workers on strike. The picture was meant to highlight the oppression of workers in a capitalist society, but the student was astounded that one of the workers had a jacket with a zipper and a ballpoint pen – items that we take for granted but are luxuries in North Korea.

Back to the original question: what is happiness? It’s not a right, it’s not a privilege, but is it even a choice for North Koreans? Or is it just an absurd masquerade coerced by a ruthless and pig-headed regime that teaches its citizens to sing, “We have nothing to envy in the world”?

One thing’s for sure – it is a privilege to think that the pursuit of happiness is a right.

The Bukom Bombers of 1974

What is the Laju hostage situation that the late Mr S R Nathan played a crucial role in defusing?

Mr S R Nathan was an extraordinary man in numerous ways. His formative years were marked with hardship and tribulation. His father committed suicide when he was 8. He dropped out of school twice. He ran away from home when he was 16. He lived through the horrors of the Japanese occupation.

But through tenacity and grit, he rose above his circumstances. Although he lacked educational qualifications, the rough and tumble of life became his teacher. While many would be paralysed by tragedy upon tragedy, he kept trudging on. He eventually earned his diploma in the University of Malaya, entered the Civil Service at one of the lowest rungs and, after one of the most diverse and illustrious careers in the Singapore Civil Service, reached the highest office in the land.

In my books, Mr Nathan’s story is one of the most inspiring that I know. I don’t think many younger Singaporeans realise just how much of a hero he was. I knew nothing of his story until I read his book, An Unexpected Journey: Path to the Presidency, in 2011. And I had seen his portrait in school everyday for 12 years – literally from P1 to J2.

Mr Nathan was not only one of a kind – he was an extremely kind man. Every single tribute that I’ve read has highlighted his warmth and generosity. He has been described as grandfatherly, loyal, merciful, charitable, and most of all, selfless. According to many accounts, he demonstrated his selflessness not only in personal interactions, but in his willingness to place the needs of the nation above his own, even to the point of risking his own life during the Laju hijacking incident.

What is the Laju incident? I suspect that before Mr Nathan’s passing, many young Singaporeans had no idea about this terror attack and Mr Nathan’s role in resolving the crisis. It was never taught in Social Studies class even though it is a defining moment in Singapore’s history and a story of Singaporean heroism. I only learned about it from Mr Nathan’s memoirs.

The Laju incident is Singapore’s second experience with terrorism, the first being the MacDonald House bombing in 1965. On 31 Jan 1974, four armed men attempted to blow up a number of oil tanks at the Shell Oil Refinery on Pulau Bukom. After setting off a few explosive charges, they hijacked a ferry, the Laju, and held five crewmen hostage for the next eight days. The hijackers included two members of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The local press dubbed them “the Bukom bombers“.

Why on earth did two Japanese men and two Palestinian men team up to attack an oil refinery in Singapore? The JRA and the PFLP were closely-linked militant organisations based in Lebanon that shared a common communist revolutionary ethos. (I only recently learned that the JRA worked with the PFLP to carry out the Lod Airport massacre in Israel in 1972… Japanese terrorists in Israel?) Although the JRA focused on overthrowing the Japanese government and the PFLP focused on resisting Israeli occupation, they stood in solidarity with other revolutionary “anti-imperialist” groups. In this case, the Laju hijackers had acted in solidarity with the Viet Cong. They claimed that the bombing was an attack against imperialism, and their aim was to disrupt the flow of oil from Singapore to American-backed troops in South Vietnam.

Mr Nathan was roped into the Singaporean negotiation team as Director of the Security and Intelligence Division (SID). This must have been a very confusing and nerve-wracking situation for him and the other negotiators. Singapore was less than a decade old as an independent republic and had never faced a high-stakes hostage situation before, let alone one involving militants from such far-flung nations. The attack had been carefully planned – the men had begun planning the attack in Paris a month earlier, and then travelled to Singapore through Belgium, Thailand and Malaysia. They had meant to do serious damage – by one account, the Bukom bombing could have caused a shortage of oil in the region for a few years if the entire oil refinery had been destroyed.

Mr Nathan’s diplomatic and negotiation skills were severely tested. The hijackers had demanded safe passage to the airport and a plane to fly them to an “Arab” country. Over the next eight days, he and the other negotiators had to defuse the situation without conceding too much to the terrorists, or else Singapore would look like a pushover. They had to keep the situation within their control despite pressure from the Japanese government to intervene. In the meantime, five innocent lives hung in the balance. Mr Nathan must have known that Singapore’s international reputation was at stake.

The situation changed rapidly on Day 6. Thousands of kilometres away, the overseas backers of the Laju hijackers stormed the Japanese embassy in Kuwait and took the Japanese ambassador hostage, along with 15 of his staff. They threatened to kill the hostages if the Japanese government did not send a plane to Singapore to pick up the Laju hijackers and fly them to Kuwait. The Japanese government quickly sent a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane to Singapore.

The Laju hijackers agreed to surrender their weapons and board the plane if there were Singaporeans on board to act as guarantors of their safety. Mr Nathan was chosen to lead a delegation of 13 Singaporeans on the flight – a task he willingly accepted despite the risks and challenges involved. He did not know if the Laju hijackers could be trusted. He did know what would happen in Kuwait. Would they be allowed to land? Would they be forced to fly to another country? Worst of all, would the Singaporeans be used as bargaining chips for other exchanges?

Mr Nathan demonstrated his quick wit in the way he improvised throughout the entire operation. When the Kuwaiti air control tower did not allow the plane to land, Mr Nathan told the pilot to convince the air tower that they were low on fuel. When the plane landed and Mr Nathan was introduced to the Kuwaiti defence minister, he had the boldness to tell the minister that the Kuwaiti government was responsible for the safety of the Singaporeans – to which he received a burst of outrage. At some point, Mr Nathan spoke in Bahasa Indonesia to a Japanese diplomat – a man who had worked in the Japanese embassy in Indonesia before – so as to communicate a message in secret.

Mr Nathan had to persist in his negotiations with the Kuwaiti minister, who was more interested in his discussions with the Japanese officials on site. Eventually, the Kuwaiti authorities allowed the Singaporean delegation to disembark from the plane and leave the airport. The matter was now in the hands of the Japanese and Kuwaiti governments. Mr Nathan and the negotiating team returned to Singapore as heroes.

Throughout the episode, Mr Nathan was composed and in command. What’s more intriguing is the way he treated the hijackers with dignity and respect during the flight to Kuwait. As he wrote in his memoirs, he tried to connect to the hijackers on a personal level so as to earn their trust in case he needed their intervention with the Kuwaiti authorities or the embassy hijackers. It seems that Mr Nathan was able to win the Laju hijackers over because by the end of the episode, they apologised to Singaporeans for their actions, expressed gratitude for the way they were treated, and even hugged most of the Singaporeans on the flight before they disembarked. Such was Mr Nathan’s magnanimity that his actions could evoke remorse from four hardened terrorists. They even said they wanted to visit Singapore again as tourists!

This is one of the most fascinating episodes in Singapore’s history. More should be done to memorialise this incident – to serve as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance, and to inspire others to emulate the self-sacrificial leadership of Mr SR Nathan.





Four Civilisations?

If you watched the National Day Parade a few days ago, you would have noticed that Act 2 of the performance segment was titled “Our Four Civilisations“, featuring four performers in 8-metre tall costumes representing the “Chinese”, “Malay”, “Indian”, and “Western” civilisations. While the theme of the Act wasn’t extraordinary, I was intrigued by the choice of the word “civilisations”.

The performance segments of previous NDPs have always portrayed the “four main ethnic groups” of Singapore since its establishment as a British port in 1819. (As far as I can recall, though, the last “ethnic group” has been quite fluid – sometimes it is “British”, other times it is “Eurasian”…). In fact, the NDP is just one of many expressions of the “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others” (CMIO) idea, alongside the four national languages, community-based assistance groups, and children’s artwork featuring Chinese, Malay, Indian and European kids smiling and holding hands.

Of course, this portrayal is a simplification of the true diversity on this island because it obscures the linguistic, religious and geographical diversity within groups. That is just the nature of social labels. Furthermore, individuals of mixed heritage do not fit neatly into such a rigid classification system. For instance, official documents callously brush aside my mother’s Greek heritage, declaring that she is Indian. Which means my Greek heritage is completely ignored as well.

Moreover, these labels are not defined consistently. One of the arguments of NUS Professor Chua Beng Huat in this journal article published in 2009 is that the Chinese, Malay and Indian groups are “not constituted on a singular and similar criterion but on a set of convenient elements”. He argues that the “Chinese” group is defined through the Mandarin language, “Malays” are grouped together by religion, and the term “Indian” is applied to people from the geographical region of South Asia.

Further inconsistencies can found in the 2010 Census of Population. The Census organises demographic statistics according to the CMIO system, but then further subdivides the three main groups according to different criteria. The “Chinese” population is sub-divided according to dialect groups – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, etc. The “Malay” population is sub-divided according to geography – Malay (from the Malay Peninsular), Javanese from Java, Boyanese from Bawean Island, and others. The “Indian” population is mostly divided according to language – Tamils, Malayalees, Hindis, Punjabis, Urdu, Gujaratis, etc. I say “mostly” because “Sikh” is also included, which is a religious and not linguistic group.

Putting aside the shortcomings of the CMIO classification system, it is an intuitive framework that Singaporeans are extremely familiar with. But while the “four ethnic groups” discourse is nothing new, NDP 2016 is the first time that the word “civilisations” has ever been used in the annual retelling of the Singapore Story. In fact, I have found only one other reference to Singapore’s “four civilisations”. This reference was made by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, who said at a forum in 2014 that Singapore is the only city in Asia in which four major civilisations interact – the Chinese, Indian, Islamic (rather than Malay), and Western civilisations.

This is a grandiose statement to make of a little red dot! The term “civilisation” conveys the idea of a rich and illustrious history, filled with stories of glorious battles, golden eras, revered heroes, instructive myths and legends, and groundbreaking technological advancements. It is the product and progenitor of honourable social values, expressed through unique customs and traditions and profound philosophies.

Furthermore, Singapore is depicted as the heir of not one but four distinct civilisations! What an inheritance! The message seems to be this: despite Singapore’s miniscule size, we have layers upon layers of cultural heritage to explore and learn from. And much to defend as well. To the naysayers who consider Singapore a superficial, heartless corporation, the response is this: Singapore is a dynamic, living, breathing hybrid of civilisations.

The use of this word represents a larger effort to extend Singapore’s national narrative as far back as possible – before 1965, even before 1819 – to present Singapore as a nation rooted deeply in world history – not an anchorless luxury cruise ship. But if we are going to start discussing “civilisations” that have contributed to the fabric of this nation, we could go even further. For Singapore has been built by the descendants of other ancient civilisations.

Arab traders, most of whom were from Yemen, came to Singapore in the 19th Century and developed successful businesses – these include the Aljunied and Alsagoff families. Prominent members of the Jewish community such as Sir Manasseh Meyer and David Marshall have also contributed to Singapore’s economic and political life. The establishment of the Raffles Hotel and the Straits Times is attributed to Armenians in Singapore. John Little, the children’s ward of Singapore General Hospital, and the Dyslexic Association of Singapore were established by Parsis – Zoroastrian Persians who fled to India in the 7th Century.

Maybe next year, we could have a few more 8-metre costumes representing these other civilisations?

History, Her Story, Our Story

I wrote this piece for the LSE Student Union Singapore Society (Sing Soc) 2015 Year Book, just before Singapore’s 50th National Day. I decided to publish an edited version of the article in the run-up to SG51 🙂

Over the past three years in the LSE, I have developed a deep fascination for the study of History. It is an academic discipline rich in debate, investigation, and even imagination as the Historian weaves narratives out of the fabric of past events. It involves the study of all three periods of life – the past, present and future – because our perception of yesteryears influences our understanding of today, on which we base our predictions of what is to come. Indeed, the key to the Future lies in the Past. That is why we must each investigate Singapore’s history if we want to understand and influence our society, our identity and our destiny.

My interest in History was piqued during my favourite course in the LSE – the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Needless to say, this topic is rife with controversy. Underlying the many Arab-Israeli wars is a battle of ideas about the past – about legitimacy of actions, responsibility for conflict and ownership of territory. Through wrestling with these debates, I have learnt how to disentangle different narratives and evaluate their origins, evolution, implications, and most importantly, validity. In a sense, I have learnt to work like Sherlock, but without his insane memory and inexplicable powers of resurrection – essays become a lot more exciting when you get to pretend that you’re a super sleuth solving a mystery.

I think that image provides a neat summary of the study of History – it involves searching for clues to establish not only a chronology of events but a flow of causation. It is like a detective who assesses the scene of the crime, interviews witnesses, and interrogates suspects so that he has enough information to catch the culprit, deduce the motive and create a timeline of events leading up to the crime. But then the plot thickens – every historian (detective) records and relays history differently. Every historical account carries value judgements about the importance of events, morality and legitimacy. Moreover, no historian is able to examine every clue, and so no historian will ever obtain a full understanding of any historical event. Thus, historians study how history is written (historiography) to identify the biases and agendas of other historians – like detectives checking on one another – thus fuelling the debate even further.

I came to appreciate the importance of history and historiography this year, not just in understanding the present Arab-Israeli conflict, but also in understanding present-day Singapore. I now recognise the need to analyse Singapore’s history in the context of developments in South East Asia and the world’s dominant power networks. For example, the racialisation of politics in Singapore needs to be situated in the context of British colonialism, while the merger of Singapore with Malaya, the vilification of communists, and the Indonesian Konfrontasi need to be studied within the larger picture of Cold War dynamics. More importantly, I’ve recognised the need to analyse different historical narratives of Singapore, i.e. historiography. We are all familiar with at least one version of historical events – the one taught not just in Social Studies classes, but also in National Day Parades and Rallies, school learning journeys, National Service, minister’s speeches, politicians’ memoirs, and monuments. But there are other narratives to be analysed, especially concerning controversial points in our history.

One such controversy is the events surrounding the Merger of Singapore and Malaya. The orthodox narrative is that communists in Singapore were plotting to overthrow the government in the early 1960s, that the Internal Security Council detained communists in the 1963 Operation Coldstore because they posed a threat to constitutional democracy and the survival of the state, and that the merger was the express will of the Singaporean people. But there is a contending narrative as well – that Lim Chin Siong was never proven to be a communist, that the Barisan Sosialis did want a merger but only after independence from the British, that the detention of alleged communists was a desperate attempt by Lee Kuan Yew to halt the rising Barisan Sosialis, and that the Merger Referendum was skewed in favour of merger. These debates are crucial because they influence our beliefs about the legitimacy of the PAP, the Internal Security Act, and the Merger of 1963, which is arguably one of the most important historical events of both Singapore and Malaysia. In fact, these debates are still ongoing. Consider how the Government responded to a revisionist narrative – the film To Singapore, With Love – with the traditional narrative – publishing The Battle for Merger and erecting a memorial in Esplanade Park to honour Singaporeans who fought against communist insurgents.

Recognising the importance of the Merger to our present perceptions of the Singaporean identity, I worked with a few Singaporean and Malaysian LSE students to organise the “1963 Merger of Singapore and Malaya Crisis” in December 2014. The full-day event began with a brilliant lecture by Dr Thum Ping Tjin, who spoke about the ongoing effects of colonialism on Singapore today. The main activity was a simulation of merger negotiations between a Singaporean Cabinet and Malayan Cabinet, sitting in two different classrooms. The simulation was meant to critically analyse the orthodox historical narrative – not because it’s “invalid” or “wrong”, but simply because things are not as clear-cut as they are presented to us. Through research for the crisis event, participants and organisers studied competing narratives. Furthermore, through imagining an entirely new counter-factual narrative, we came to appreciate that history could have turned out differently.

There are many other Singaporean events and debates that are worth analysing. I’m certain that more Singaporeans will develop a greater appreciation for this fact as we approach our 50th National Day. In fact, the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew has already prompted Singaporeans to analyse Singapore’s history. I hope that Singaporeans will not only study Mr Lee’s contribution to this nation, but also that of S. Rajaratnam, Goh Keng Swee, David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock, J.B. Jeyaratnam, Chiam See Tong, S.R. Nathan, Lim Chin Siong, and others. I hope that the renewed interest in the history of our island will spur an informed and inclusive debate amongst Singaporeans which will strengthen the notion of a collective history and energise the Singaporean spirit. As we explore our history, we often find that different accounts can be valid at the same time, and an awareness of these different narratives adds richness to our understanding of the past and present.

Moreover, I hope that future batches of LSE Singaporean students will also take part in this exercise, either through events like the Merger Crisis, or through informal discussions in the creatively-named Fourth Floor Restaurant. My advice to Singaporeans in the LSE is to be inquisitive about Singapore’s history, to evaluate different historical accounts critically and fairly, and to capitalise on this opportunity to evaluate Singapore from the outside for the first time. These three years in university are the best time to ponder these issues – you have time on your hands, access to educational resources, and plenty of intelligent friends to learn from. Analysing the historical narratives of Singapore is a truly meaningful application of the education that we’ve been privileged to receive.

In short – why scrutinise, evaluate and debate the history of Singapore? In the words of the LSE motto – Rerum cognoscere causas.