“Who controls the past controls the future”
Historians seek to explain the past through stories. Yet, the complexity of the past can rarely be reduced to a simple story. It is prudent for us to be cautious when dealing with historical narratives rather than blindly accepting them.
Far from being a dead subject, history has modern day relevance. Our understanding of the past influences our values and attitudes (and vice versa). The portrayal of Singapore’s history as tumultuous and accidental has helped forge the consensus that Singapore is vulnerable, giving the state the leeway to push forward its policies decisively. Yet, the vulnerability narrative does not hold the same appeal to a younger, more skeptical generation of Singaporeans, forcing the government into being more consultative and collaborative. The evolution of historical understanding is a natural process.
Many Singaporeans accept an official version of Singapore’s history without critically evaluating other credible alternatives. Operation Coldstore was meant to detain the “communist threat”. H2 Economics tells us that Singapore’s economic miracle was driven by government-led productivity growth. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a leader with great wisdom and foresight. But how true are these narratives? Revisionist historians claim that the communist threat was fabricated/exaggerated to justify politically-motivated arrests. An LSE Professor published a paper, which has been supported by renowned economists such as Paul Krugman, arguing that Singapore’s growth was mainly due to capital accumulation rather than productivity growth. LKY made a number of questionable policy decisions with lasting impacts, such as the Graduate Mother Scheme and the Stop At Two policy. There’s truth to each side of the story and a critical thinker will need to examine them both before making an informed judgement call. But does this really matter?
On the surface, a single narrative, no matter how true it is, can help forge consensus and bring about national unity. Singapore was an “accidental nation” that wasn’t meant to survive. Our tumultuous past, where we were ejected from Malaysia against our will, reminds us that no one owes us a living. This, however, is a dangerous way of thinking. Different parties can also use a single narrative to further their own agenda.
The manipulation of history can happen in Singapore, albeit on a smaller scale. And this is something that can be done by anyone: Singapore is portrayed by Western Media as a “police state”. Dr Chee Soon Juan once accused the Government of loaning 17 billion dollars to Suharto. A future government can possibly expand the powers of the ISA, citing historical examples as evidence of the importance of the ISA in preserving national security (while neglecting narratives of the abuse of the ISA).
People naturally present history in a way that fits their own agenda. We exaggerate our achievements and downplay our weaknesses. We attribute our successes to ability and hard work but write off our failures as a result of external factors. The expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia is usually attributed to irreconcilable differences in belief. Yet, the narrative tends to ignore the active role the Singapore government played in antagonising the Malaysian government, such as the formation of the MSC despite PAP’s promise to the Tunku that they will not interfere in Malaysian politics. Armed with a more nuanced understanding of history, we will be able to call out dangerous half-truths.
There is also value in searching for the truth simply because it is the truth. We gain a more complete picture of things by looking both horizontally (different narratives of the same event) and vertically (what happened before and after the event). These cognitive skills will help us make sense of the world - not just events of scale and significance but also our day to day activities.
Yet, the difficulty lies in making sense of different narratives. Given the ubiquity of the Internet, Singaporeans have access to many different perspectives on the same historical event. There are academically rigorous narratives and there are also potentially misleading narratives that are filled with speculations and bias. Alternative views from irresponsible sources can stir up divisive sentiments, breeding mistrust through misinformation. Some form of censorship is arguably necessary. Germany, for instance, has strict laws against Holocaust denial. It is up to individual societies to determine the boundaries they wish to place. Hopefully, Singapore will tear down the wall of censorship and become a more open society that dares to engage with alternative views and values.
Politicians often lament that young Singaporeans suffer from “historical amnesia”. We fail to appreciate the challenges Singapore has faced in the past and thus take her peace and prosperity for granted. But what is more dangerous and insidious is “selective amnesia” - how Singaporeans choose to remember only certain parts of history while glossing over the less savoury bits.
It is ironic how Singaporeans constantly clamour for checks and balances when the power to keep influential individuals and organisations in check already rests with them. Patriotism goes beyond attending NDP parades and dutifully voting every four years. We exercise our civic duty by taking the time to understand different perspectives and sharing them with others. Becoming more informed and critical citizens will allow us to take ownership of our country. After all, he who understands the past protects the future.
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