This was an article I read from http://www.newsintercom.org. You can read more about it at Teaching history teachers: start with Singapore history
Letter sent to the ST, 15.07.2005.
I refer to Andy Ho’s editorial “Teach the history teachers” (ST, 15 July 2005), which emphasised the importance of properly training history teachers in the vital interpretation and inquiry skills at NIE before they can teach them to their students.
Dr Ho’s thinking is well-intentioned; he quotes in support of his view a statement by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Minister of Education, on the review of the History and Social Studies curricula which aims to focus better on such skills.
But the troubling fact is that these syllabuses have been twice revised since 1994 towards cultivating the same skills.
Having had some experience in the last seven years teaching history at secondary, pre-university, undergraduate, and trainee teacher levels, I have frequently encountered students who either view the subject is boring and requires mere memorisation or there is only “one truth” and therefore no need to think analytically about the past.
I wonder if the reason for such common misperceptions is merely a failure of pedagogy. After all, history teachers are products of their society.
One plausible reason for the disinterest in and uncritical attitude towards history is the nature of the very syllabuses that have been in place since 1994. The history of Singapore, taught in Secondary Two and written by the Curriculum Planning and Development Division of the Ministry of Education, is a linear story. It focusses on fixed themes and values, such how as “our vulnerability” (to external events such as World War Two) and “our tumultuous years” (postwar unrest like the Maria Hertogh riots) were followed by the success story of “building our nation” after independence.
The new syllabus, which will be implemented in 2006, is more nuanced in that it wants students “to show an ability to look at events and issues from the perspectives of people in the past”, which challenges the student (and teacher) to creatively imagine the past and to empathise with the people in it.
However the syllabus still concentrates on the “the turbulent years” to “promote an awareness of the influence of external events on Singapore and the interdependence of countries”, which serves again as a background to the success achieved in the “nation-building years”.
My contention is a society’s attitude towards history is a reflection of its attitude towards its own history. It is difficult to inculcate an ability to research into, analyse and interpret the past when one sees their national history as one-dimensional, fixed and linear, as an extension of National Education.
This view of Singapore history is so common yet so far from the truth. Recent historical scholarship has begun to unravel exciting, if sometimes also controversial, aspects of our past, such as the vibrancy and diversity (instead of mere “tumultuousness”) of our postwar history.
Between this month and September, there are at least four conferences sharing very exciting new ideas on and approaches to the history of Singapore:
– Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism In Postwar Singapore (14-15 July)
– Singapore – From Colony to State: Economy, Politics and Society (3 August)
– New Insights into Singapore History: Perspectives of Young Emerging Scholars (16 August)
– The Japanese Occupation: Sixty Years after the End of the Asia-Pacific War (5-6 September)
It must be to the diverse aspects of our national history, both old and emerging, that the skills of inquiry, interpretation and analysis be applied. The problem in history teaching in Singapore is not one of pedagogy but goes deeper.
The appeal of studying and doing history stems from exploring and weighing historical controversies and issues, not from memorising one fixed story. Teachers and students alike will cultivate no analytical skills if the Ministry fails to allow and encourage the teaching of the full breadth and depth of Singapore’s history.
I totally agree with the author’s statement above about the “appeal of studying history”. I remember suffering from a culture shock in the transition from O level history to A level history, simply because of the difference in approach. While O level relied heavily on a ministry prescribed textbook and notes, A level under Mr Rollason and Mr Kwok was a journey of analysis and interpretation of various historians. The orthodox historians versus the revisionist historians of the cold war, the Great power politics of AJP Taylor and the working class tendencies of EH Carr. In S level History, we explored the fundamentals behind the writing of history itself, of truth, objectivity, counterfactual history as well as the theory of history. The hardcore empirists against the aggressive postmodernists in the writing of history. Sigh! How I loved studying history then. (The A level paper was tough but the S level paper was thoroughly enjoyable!)
The same approach can be applied to Singapore’s history. More can be learnt about Singapore’s indigenous roots, prior to the arrival of Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles (Here I profess my chauvinistic Malay tendencies), and the controversial political developments before and after independence, especially the political fights between the various parties (notice the lull of political history learnt before the PAP came to power? Little is taught about the brief tenure of David Marshall under the Labour Front). Too much focus is placed on Nation Building in post-independence history (I remember how everyone in my Sec 4 History class avoided the Singapore history section of the Malayan history paper in O level simply because it was too boring and unimportant. And who can forget the joy of Social studies which, to the exam-smart student, gave the option of dropping the whole nation building section which covers almost half of the two Social Studies book!). While I contend that such basic ideas (nation building, nationalism, independence after separation, racial harmony) are important in building our own national identity, a more critical approach can be developed, if not for intellectual stimulus, at least for a sustained interest in our country’s history.
I am seriously optimistic about learning more about our history. Short as it may be, its definitely not as boring as previously thought to be. Read Dr Cherian George’s book on Singapore politics and Warren Fernandez’s book about political and socio-economic developments in Singapore. Or for a more critical account about the racial policy of the government, read Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s book about the Singapore dilemma. If only we could freely engage in intellectual discourse about our history. Only time will tell.
“The rhetoric that Singapore is a meritocratic society where equal opportunities are available to all has also served to add legitimacy to the cultural deficit thesis which infers that Malays have not been able to make it in a meritocratic society because they have not worked hard enough and thus have only themselves to blame.”
This basically sums up the argument by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, on the reasons behind the near political nonexistence as well as the educational marginality of the Malay community in Singapore. The cultural deficit thesis underlines the persisting socio-economic marginality of certain ethnic communities, as a result of their inept cultural values and attitudes. Such communities are afflicted by inertia, complacency, unstable familty units and an overwhelming desire for immediate gratification. This line of contention is echoed by Dr Mahathir in his book, The Malay Dilemma, which I have read prior to this book.
Evidently, Ms Lily Zubaidah (I’ll call her by her first name because its too weird calling her Ms Rahim because its as if I’m feminizing her father or something) has clearly antithetical viewpoints on the Malay marginality issue when compared to Dr Mahathir. Its important to note that she strongly advocates the idea that the marginality of Malay community is due to the institutional and structural factors in the political and educational system, rather than the cultural deficit thesis championed by the dominant ethnic community and the Malay community themselves.
In the first few chapters of her book, I was immediately drawn in by her cleverly well-crafted argumentations and astute terminology like the cultural deficit thesis and biological determinist beliefs in explaining the reasons behind the Malay marginality issue. Its very rare that I am able to associate myself so closely to the issues discussed in a book, especially on the social alienation of the rising middle class Malays by their own community and the society at large (I’ll touch on this later). After a few days of infatuation and shameless flirtation of such clearly controverisal and anti-government ideas in my mind, I was immediately brought back to reality by my mother who sagaciously noted that its not possible that the Malays can absolve all blame for their dilemma, simply because the government did not want to help them.
Its also humourous to note that in the process of spelling out her complex line of argumentation, she also had condemned previous works by UMNO and PAP Malay members on the issue of Malay marginality (including Dr Mahathir of course) because of its emphasis on self vilification and self condemnation. And I quote:
“In echoing and perpetuating the ideology of Malay inferiority, they revealed their acute inferiority complex.”
I thought this statement was particulary hilarious, simply because she implied that Dr Mahathir was suffering from a type of low cultural self-esteem. It seemed plausible at that point that Dr Mahathir could be mistaken, and that there must be some evidence of institutional and structural reasons behind the marginality of the Malay community. Other moments when I had a quiet laugh reading the book (there were many instances when my bunk mates thought I was crazy laughing at the book by myself) were her sarcastic statements peppered throughout her paragraphs, in describing the reasons behind time-based community educational progress reports rather than inter-community juxtaposition.
“Malays are thus expected to be content with their marginality and grateful about the absolute gains achieved… Malays are therefore expected to tolerate thier socio-economic and educational marginality as a permanent fixture with stoic resignation.”
I find her chapter on Malay perceptions of Malay marginality so revealing because it reflects my own views of my own community. She describes how the professional middle class Malays, being socially and economically distant from the general Malay community and being ethnically different from the non-Malay community, suffers from a social phenomenon of double alienation. And I quote:
“The profound level of alienation has rendered the Malay middle class socially vulnerable and susceptible towards uncritically accepting the cultural deficit thesis which gratifies their ego for having extricated themselves from the negative cultural attributes afflicting the Malay community.”
This is linked to her contention of the failure of meritocracy as a doctrine to further the interests of the Malay community. I was pleasantly shocked by what she wrote simply because it reflected my very mindset on the Malay marginality issue (after all, I have been through the whole meritocratic system from nursery all the way to junior college). It was particularly humbling to say the least, seeing that my ego has been inflated to a large extent whenever i see members of my community in void decks and unknown alleys in various housing estates.
However, notwithstanding the empirical evidence and extensive research being done by Ms Lily Zubaidah on this issue, I find her arguments (after having an intellectual argument with my mum on the phone on last Wednesday night about her thoughts) not entirely reflective of the reality of the situation in Singapore. Using some of the ideas brought up by my mother, firstly: Even though she lived in Singapore for the early years of her life and had especially came back from Australia (where she current works at University of Sydney in the Department of Economic history) to do research for the book, she did not live here all her life and had not gone through the various changes undergone by the Malay community since independence. While she strongly argues for the invalidity of the cultural deficit thesis, it seems as if that the Malay community is absolved from all blame for their socio-economic inertia. That given the potential, we can rise up exponentially and defeat the dominant Chinese community at their money-hungry opportunistic game. IF we were not suppressed by the government of course.
But what about Malaysia? What about the efforts by the Malaysian government, purposely legislated for the sole purpose (don’t even think of trying to put us in the lead) of trying to create a level playing ground which has been previously lost to the entreprenuerial spirit of the Chinese community? What about years and years of bumiputera policy? Has the Malay community proven itself to capable of progress? Even though I accept her view that the government has not done enough to further the Malay cause (do you know that under Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution, the government has a constitutional responsibility to protect and ensure the survival of the indigenous Malay community?), that does not mean that the Malay community themselves are not to blame; that something in the Malay culture is in need of a revolution so as to make our beliefs and traditions symbiotic with the flow of modernisation and progress. A balance must be struck between the lack of political resources and the cultural deficit thesis proposed by Ms Lily Zubaidah and Dr Mahathir to really reflect the reasons behind the Malay marginality issue both in Malaysia and Singapore. I might even suggest that we learn from each other so that both communities united, under the banner of the nusantara, can actually be a cultural force to be reckoned with, like the Chinese and the Indians in the world today.
On a slightly different note, I just received a letter by Mendaki. As some of my closer Malay friends know, I have always expressed anti-Mendaki tendencies, simply because of its elitist standpoint (which Ms Lily Zubaidah argues is in line with PAP’s meritocratic zeal for the intellectual elite). And also because of the fact that they forgot about me after the O-levels, even though I got eight A1s and 2B3s. And irony of all ironies, “We are pleased to inform you that you have been identified to receive for the above award (Anugerah Mendaki). The reward is a one off cash of $*** and a Certificate of Merit.” My first reaction was that of shock simply because my results weren’t particularly fantastic (3As, 1C, 1Merit for History S and A2 for GP). Were the results for the Malay batch this year that bad?
I’ll leave it at that.
What The Communique Says – And What Civil Society Groups Say:
The deal, as presently agreed, is worth US$40 billion over the next 40 years. A further 9 countries could be included in the plan over the next two years bringing the total cost to US$ 55 billion. The text of the official communiqué reads: “The G8 has agreed a proposal to cancel 100% of outstanding debts of eligible Heavily Indebted Poor Countries to the IMF, IDA and African Development Fund, and to provide additional resources to ensure that the financing capacity of the IFIs is not reduced, as set out in the statement of 11 June.”
This was as expected by debt campaigners however there were fears just before the G8 Summit that support by some members of the G8 for this proposal was shaky. There is therefore some relief that G8 Heads of State have not reneged on the plan announced by G7 Finance Ministers in June but campaigners are very clear that the plan falls far short of what is really needed – and has many flaws.
Stephen Rand of Jubilee Debt Campaign, UK said “this deal is an inadequate response to the global debt crisis, particularly in its failure to challenge the damaging and undemocratic conditions that are consistently attached to debt relief. This [deal] will provide less than US$1 billion per year – the equivalent of less than one dollar per head per year for the people who will benefit – when more than $10 billion a year of debt cancellation is needed to contribute to the ending of extreme poverty.”
In a joint African civil society statement on the Summit’s conclusions, Hassen Lorgat of South Africa’s SANGOCO, a national NGO forum, stressed that “the debt package only provides only 10% of the relief required and affects only one third of the countries that need it. A large component of the US$50 billion pledged is drawn from existing obligations”.
Lidy Nacpil, international coordinator of Jubilee South said, “the conditionalities attached to debt cancellation will exacerbate poverty rather than end it”.
AFRODAD commented: “We continue to question – how democratic is the selection criteria to pick on post completion point HIPCs and, after all, the agreement does not address the real global power imbalances in which debt is just but a conduit of expressing it. We reiterate our position that the debt crisis needs a lasting solution in which all stakeholders – debtors and creditors have a say.”
The plan also falls far short of what the African Union has called for. The draft declaration of the 5th African Union Summit, held from 28 June to 5 July, indicates that African leaders are calling for “full debt cancellation for all African nations” to the tune of US$350 billion – a far cry from the US$40 billion promised by the G8.
Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP) http://www.whiteband.org [GCAP gcap-newsletter] Newsletter No. 8 15 July 2005
“The Global Campaign for Action Against Poverty can take its place as a public movement alongside the movement to abolish slavery and the international solidarity against apartheid.”
– Nelson Mandela, Trafalgar Square, February 3, 2005
“It is more likely that this [fatalistic] attitude is a form of escapism from the realities of life, an insulation against the envy the Malays must feel for the prosperity of other races and other countries.”
This accurate explanation sums up one of the many reasons for the relative socio-economic stagnation of the Malay community. Dr Mahathir points out ironically that while Malays rever life since its a gift from God, they do not seem to know what to do with it, except preparing themselves for the afterlife. This fatalistic attitude makes the acceptance of everything, whether good or bad, possible with unprotesting tolerance and resignation. This attitude is even more damaging with the rapid pace of change now, as the Malay community slowly slides off into oblivion. Dr Mahathir also points out perceptively that:
“For most part, the Malay Social code is therefore somewhat anachronistic and can only lessen the competitve abilities of the Malays and hinder their progress.”
Having identified the gross deficiencies of our code of ethics and value systems, the solutions also seem as unpalatable and impossible as the problem itself. The only solution to anachronism is revolution, in this case, an ultimate reversal of ideas, values, customs and traditions, which would take generations of Malays to overcome. Ironically, this sheer impossibility of circumstances has also created the quintessential courageous Malay, which in this case, exemplifies his willingness to face up to a hopeless situation.
“The courageous or brave Malay is usually foolhardy, and because he is likely to do things without thinking of the consequences, the average Malay treats him with fear and respect.”
In any case, if the currents trends are portents of the extinction of the Malay race, at the very least we will be remembered as courageous individuals ( following strictly to the Malay definition of courage of course).
On the basic concept of goodness, Malays seem to fall in with the Kantian idea of uprightness. What is good is not what is pleasant but what is proper. This is laid out clearly in Islam and adat. Hedonism has no place in Malay code of ethics. Worldly life is dedicated not to pleasure or merriment but to serious religious thought and obedience to the injunctions of religon. Form is so important that it is prefered to the actual substance.
Is this the reason why I feel that Hari Raya Aidilfitri has become so contrived, simply because there is a severe sense of akwardness and utter dislocation visiting your so-called relatives whom you meet only once every year? Is it also why even in death, we are only allowed to mourn in peace, without excessive melodramatic rantings of a lunatic, who simply cannot let go? Is it also why when someone gives us a gift, it is customary to reject it a few times before inevitably accepting it, since its a sign of temperance and goodness, noting that if we were to really reject it, it would be a discourteous and impolite gesture?
Being a modern liberal Malay trapped in the crossroads of modernity and age-old tradition, sometimes it is difficult to realise and understand the fundamental reasons why the Malay community is as it is. After reading the Malay Dilemma, it only confirms my previously vague and intangible perceptions of the Malay community at large, that even an educated Malay politician across the causeway can realise this 30 years ago (the book was published in 1970) As he has shown throughout the book, there is no evident solution to the Malay dilemma. Even till today, headlines like “Return to Malay cause, urges Umno Johor chief” in the Straits Times, dated 13th July 2005, provides adequate underpinning that the Malay society is still suffering from an incurable plague that has slowly and incrementally eating away all of our defenses. Malay Singaporeans are also no spared from this plague, which I will soon discover more about in the next book I’m reading by Lily Zubaidah Rahim, who is coincidentally is related to Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president.
This is a wonderfully written entry (dated 2005-04-26) by Alfian Saat in his blog about the transformation of the civilian to the NS man:
NS 1: boots
Army boots are instruments of amplification, and that which it amplifies is personality. Out of the context of footdrill, where synchronicity is the ideal—the sound of a hundred boots should be that of a singular personality—the boot also imbues individual gait with an auditory character. Due to the rigidity of its skin, the boot limits the possibilities of articulation of the foot; its high cut, corseting the ankle, further accentuates this imprisonment. It is impossible to tip-toe while wearing boots, without severely wrinkling the front; similarly it is difficult to try walking with the feet inwards or outwards.
What this translates into is a limited repertoire of walking styles, which in turns casts boot-wearers into stereotypical categories. On one hand, we have those whose boots strike the floor with clear, precise thuds: the heels dig in first, followed by the rest of the sole, with the planar discipline of an opening drawbridge. These boots belong to those in positions of authority; the ones who stride unerringly; who bring the line of each of their steps to a choreographic finish (not flourish, since the impressive rigour of the gait is marked by an absence of excess). On the other, we have those whose boots tend to shuffle; the feet are being dragged—passively to denote a slovenly temperament, actively to denote resentment.
In both these instances—the commanding clop, the sluggish scrape—character is expressed through the manipulation of the boots’ weight. Ultimately, army boots, like most other military signifiers, serve to stratify their wearers. For some, their boots represent the ennobling weight of duty; for others it is the ball-and-chain burden of service.
NS 2: sleeves
The number 4 uniform can be worn 2 ways: as the smart 4, where the shirt sleeves are folded up to the upper arms, or as the long 4, where the ends of the sleeves are buttoned at the wrists. The degree of formality attributed to these two modes of dressing differs markedly from civilian costume: long sleeves (associated with cufflinks, miniature ironing boards, the executive) indicate the casual posture (combat fatigues), whereas short sleeves (folded to ‘get the elbows dirty’, the abbreviated uniform of the blue collar) indicate the official attire. Through such a radical act of inversion, the number 4 sends out an unimpeachable message: the semiotic laws at work in the military are contrary to that in the civilian environment; the military operates according to its own internal logic.
As has been mentioned, uniform is the great stratifier, and it is in the folding of the sleeves that individuals can be sieved. The standard for the folded sleeve is somewhere at the mid-level of the biceps; anything below this watermark suggests a careless or incompetent disposition. It goes without saying that those with larger biceps possess a greater advantage than those with smaller ones–for the former the perimeter of the folded sleeve is held in place by the friction against muscular bulk. It is the sight of this cuff, aligned to the watermark, which immediately signals the physical superiority of its wearer, although those with smaller built have other means of attaining the standard. The latter can, for example, fold the sleeves of his number 4 while it is suspended from a coat-hanger (almost like a fossilised cast), pushing the folded sleeves as close to the armpit area as possible, and hoping that when he slips into uniform the artificially-sited cuffs would stay in place. Suffice to say that in such an instance, the number 4 stands as a reified symbol of military existence: it is the immediate environment into which a body is placed, and alienation is experienced as the hollow spaces that linger between the weakness of the flesh and the implacable cut of the fabric.
NS 3: beret
The beret is made of a felt-like fabric; in the army the goal is to remove traces of its softness, its fuzzy texture. And thus the beret is ‘seasoned’, which means to crease it in such a manner as to make it conform to a rigid, streamlined shape. The sides of the beret are folded inwards, and to force the beret to maintain this origamic form, a weight is placed over it (usually in the form of a mattress). The beret then develops two wings, one of which, asymmetrically positioned to jut over the right side of the head, assumes a cardboard stiffness.
This unnatural distortion of the material character of the beret exposes a desire, in the military, for transmutation. And thus the bedsheet is stretched to the point where it is an elastic skin, such that ‘a coin can bounce off it’. Boots have their matte leather surfaces polished to the point that their gleam resembles that of chrome–a sign that might appear gauche or vulgar on normal shoes, but which in the army attests to a certain showmanship and proficiency (interesting to note that this flamboyant hyper-competence is often referred to as ‘kilat’, which in Malay literally means ‘shining’).
In all these metamorphoses, the product bears the mark of some concentrated labour: matter is compressed, extended, scoured, generally placed under conditions of stress. The net effect is a denial, perhaps even a denunciation, of the original substance of the transformed object. The civilian is no more: in his place is the NSman, who grows into being through regimentation, a systematic deprivation of freedoms, disruptions in his waking and sleeping hours, and a disorientation of time-perception (best encapsulated by the resigned sigh: ‘Rush to wait, wait to rush’). The happy soldier is one whose pre-enlistment memories are unhappy.