Singapore History: Colonial versus Indigenous?

November 21, 2005

Hurray for discourse!

Nov 21, 2005
How to incorporate our indigenous past

MR GILLES Massot’s letter (‘S’pore history began long before Raffles’; ST, Nov 16 contains a number of inaccuracies.

First, it ignores the large body of scholarship on Temasek that existed before the 1980s, including works by such scholars as Roland Braddell, R.O. Winstedt, Gibson-Hill, Hsu Yun-Ts’iao, Paul Wheatley and Kwa Chong Guan.

Previous scholars had to be content with only the study of historical texts, as most of Singapore’s pre-colonial remains were systematically destroyed by the British within the first decade after their arrival on the island in 1819. Also, Fort Canning Hill and the civic district, where the settlement of Temasek was located, were not accessible for archaeological research for much of the last two centuries.

Associate Professor John Miksic’s seminal contributions since 1984, through systematic archaeological excavations and recovery of physical evidence pertaining to Temasek, has been to substantiate what was already known through previous historical studies.

Second, Raffles’ founding of Singapore in 1819 was not due to his knowledge of the island’s historical legacy of Temasek. In fact, he had first sailed to Karimun island to assess its feasibility as a base for the British East India Company. Failing to find a suitable anchorage, he was en route to the Johor River when his hydrographer, Daniel Ross, and William Farquhar convinced him to visit Singapore to assess its suitability. It was only after Singapore’s founding in 1819 that Raffles, and after his death, his widow Lady Sophia Raffles, attributed the founding of Singapore to his knowledge of classical Malay history and Temasek.

Third, Temasek did not succeed the role of Srivijaya. Instead, changes in the nature of Song China’s maritime trade, which resulted in the development of an anomalous international economic context during the 13th and 14th centuries, enabled minor port-polities in the Malacca Strait to be economically viable, while larger entrepots in the region, such as Srivijaya, went into decline.

Similarly, political considerations in Europe in the early 19th century, which led to the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, were the key factor that enabled Singapore to exist and thrive in what was largely Dutch-controlled maritime South-east Asia.

Mr Massot is right to say Singaporeans should try to appreciate their indigenous past, particularly Singapore’s history before 1819. However, Singapore, throughout most of the past 700 years, was part of larger political entities. The Temasek and post-1965 periods are the only exceptions.

How Singapore should incorporate such a past, and internalise it as a relevant part of Singaporeans’ collective social memory, requires tremendous ingenuity.

This is already taking place in academic circles, an initiative currently undertaken by several scholars in the National University of Singapore department of history.

Whether this academic development will translate into a change in Singapore’s mainstream historical narrative remains to be seen. Nonetheless, as a Singaporean, I see this as an important national undertaking that will have to be addressed.

As a final shot at the success of the ‘neo-colonialist plot’ alluded to by Mr Massot, it should be noted that the Discovery Channel programme, produced by a British company, is no less credible.

However, the entire affair thus far seems to suggest that, as a nation, we are still not able to trust ourselves to reconstruct an internationally credible version of our past.

It is my hope that Singapore will one day be able to produce or recognise local scholars who can take up the mantle from eminent foreign academics like Dr Miksic, and expand the nation’s knowledge of its rich pre-modern historical heritage from our own perspective.

Dr Derek Heng
Department of History
National University of Singapore

When will this “academic development translate into a change in Singapore’s mainstream historical narrative”? Even though many Singaporeans know our our indigenous past, most cannot go beyond recounting so-called mythological tales of Sang Nila Utama’s discovery of Singapore and the mysterious lion which he saw. Even if the body of research is limited through historical texts, why aren’t such histories easily available to the masses? Why aren’t we able to present various contentions on the nature of Singapore’s pre-colonial past through the education system itself?

Nov 21, 2005
Heritage board creates awareness of early years

I REFER to the letter ‘S’pore history began long before Raffles’ by Mr Gilles Massot (ST, Nov 16). I would like to respond to his question ‘When will Singapore finally come to terms with its true Asian history?’

The National Heritage Board (NHB) has always held the view that Singapore’s history did not begin in 1819 but dates back to the 14th century. Historical evidence has shown that Singapore was the seat of an important Malay kingdom influenced by various early South-east Asian empires before the arrival of the Europeans. This is consistently asserted by the Singapore History Museum (SHM) and National Archives of Singapore (NAS).

For example, NAS staged the Singapore Before Raffles exhibition in 1986 which covered archival materials such as navigational charts and oral history interviews. SHM featured Singapore’s pre-colonial past in its exhibition Singapore 700 Years. The same message is included in SHM’s current Rivertales gallery at Riverside Point and will be reiterated in the new Temasek Gallery of the National Museum when it re-opens next year.

NHB has also published several works on the pre- colonial period. They include Associate Professor John Miksic’s archaeological research ‘Forbidden Hill’ Of Singapore: Excavations At Fort Canning, 1984 (1985) by the National Museum; Singapore: Journey Into Nationhood (1998) by NAS; and Early Singapore 1300s-1819: Evidence In Maps, Text and Artefacts (2003) by SHM.

An updated version of Singapore: Journey Into Nationhood next year will incorporate archaeological findings of early Singapore settlements at Fort Canning, and early mentions of Singapore by ancient travellers.

Besides exhibitions and publications, NHB has provided partial funding and manpower support for Dr Miksic’s archaeological excavations at various sites in Singapore.

Finally, the producer of the history of Singapore documentary, Discovery Channel, and the production company, Lion Television, had full access to our national archives. In fairness to Discovery, I urge readers to watch the documentary on Dec 4 before expressing opinions on its content and merit.

Lim Siok Peng (Mrs)
Chief Executive Officer
National Heritage Board


The lack of historical discourse: Why?

October 19, 2005

When I read the entry by Xenoboysg entitled Folding History, Facts and Time : (Ab)Use of History in Singapore Politics, I knew I had to respond simply because, contrary to popular belief, its very very true! Singapore history has consistently been contrived and abused that it is so difficult to even get an alternative viewpoint, unless its related to politics (where everyone agrees of disagree). We need to fundamentally question what we learn to get a better understanding of the issues which shaped our past, going beyond simple mind-numbing incantations of how “our suffering forefathers have toiled for our future” or why separation was hard because our then Prime Minister “shed a tear on National Television”. Sadly, very little people are vaguely interested in our history and have an aggressive aversion towards even talking about our history (History? What history?).

Nietzsche himself once said:

“It is not whether the facts are true or false but the question is how far is it life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-creating.”

Isn’t this the purpose of National Education, to create a more patriotic and loyal Singaporean who has a deep sense of rootedness in his country through his history, albeit the blatant contrivance of historical facts as well as the “folding of history”?

What I find most disturbing is the lack of historical research and argumentation on our history, especially these well-quoted examples in our textbooks or during national campaigns. Why are we only given such views of history through the eyes of a singular individual (aka the government)? More importantly, is it not possible that there is (shock!) an alternative voice? Grappling with the orthodox cold war historians, the marxist historians of the Russian revolutions as well as the “Great Power conflict” theories of the New imperialism, I realised that there will always be historical discourse over every event, no matter how simple or problematic it can be.

The inclusion of Social Studies is an important example (something which I, as the pioneer batch of Guinea Pigs as my friends called ourselves, had to go through) that deserves careful mention. What other purpose does it serve other than to instill a more “positive” appreciation of our history, to be thankful for our success and to work harder for the future? The irony is that while it espoused critical thinking (through the evaluation of sources as well of cross-referencing of events), a clearly sanitised version of history was created with the aim of inculcating a sense of National pride.

“In the end, history us theory and theory is ideological and ideology is just material interests… knowledge is related to power… within social formations, those with the most power distribute and legitimize “knowledge” vis-a-vis interests as best as they can.”

This was said by Keith Jenkins. To those ardent anti-Jenkin believers out there, I’m quoting him simply because his arguments fits so accurately in the state of Singapore history. (If you do want to know, Jenkins’ postmodernist arguments was aggressively discredited due to his own inexperience in writing history as well as the fact that his singular view that all history is falsified and untrue did not recognise the idea of shared conventions in history, something that if you want to know more, go and study Historical theory or something..) Though I am a firm believer that history is not a hopeless cause, the current state of Singapore history is.

Where is the discourse?

[Also read my older entry about the lack of interest in the study of history in Singapore and the paradox in creating a more critical apporach if history acts as an extension to National Education.]

Teaching history teachers: start with Singapore history

July 23, 2005

This was an article I read from 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.