People, great and small, pass on. But it is the ‘great men’ (and women) of history who, in their passing, generate discussions, assertions and debates in their society. This is clear in the recent passing of Devan Nair, S Rajaratnam and Lim Kim San, three architects of present-day Singapore.
It is heartening to read in the press how, in agreement with their political leaders, writers have stressed the importance of national history for Singaporeans.
Yet a powerful theme running through these letters and eulogies is that a ‘history problem’ exists in Singapore, and that it lies with the younger generation’s ignorance of or indifference to their history. We see this in the admonitions of the older generation as well as the acknowledgment of ignorance or indifference by younger Singaporeans.
Then there are the laments about how little our history textbooks teach of the important personalities or events in our past or how boring our history teachers were in discouraging the learning of what little useful information there is in these texts.
It is important to see such claims as part of an established language of talking about history in Singapore. It is my view that, in order to truly address the question of historical awareness, this language must itself be critically questioned and analysed.
It should first be recognised that the concept of ‘younger Singaporeans’ is relative and fuzzy. I am 34 and was born after independence, although I don’t always consider myself young. If independence is taken as the boundary, then in one or two generations, most people would be young. The real distinction between the old and young in Singapore is between those who are in a position to define what history should be and those who are simply spoken to about the meaning of our history.
To say that someone born after independence is ‘without history’ is patently false. No one is without the past; we all have our own pasts. Singaporeans who lived through the dramatic events of the 1940s to 1960s could rightly say that they know this history well. It is experience which fosters this intimate sense of history.
Likewise, Singaporeans born after independence will know the history of later years, of various sorts. They will know, among other things, of leaving their ‘kampungs’ for HDB flats, of growing up within a small nuclear family, of exposure to new ideas, of years of both material affluence and crisis, and of the rewards and stresses of a results-oriented educational system and later, a transnational profits-driven economic system.
These post-independence experiences are undoubtedly part of our history, even if they are not far enough in time to be given the space they deserve in our history textbooks or our collective memory. The more these memories are obscured by those who define what history should be, the less likely younger Singaporeans are to appreciate the general value of history and historical study.
Being trained in history, I am fortunate to know something of our postwar past. But I know, historically, much less of my own years of growing up, moving houses, and seeing places and people change, or the larger forces at play which determined my experiences.
All histories are important, but the desire to know a ‘national history’ must be built on acknowledging the individual little histories of our own lives. Let younger Singaporeans – and this must be a continuous process – speak and define for themselves what history and whose history is close to their hearts.