Opening Remarks, ‘At the Gates of History’, at The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History symposium, ARI, NUS, and Singapore Heritage Society, 10 November 2008.
Dear speakers, moderators, fellow researchers, and members of the public,
I welcome you all here today to rethink Singapore history and to examine the social context within which it is framed, researched and written in our modern city-state. This symposium is based on the theme of the makers and gatekeepers of history. It will take an earnest look at the ambivalent relationship between a forward-looking, rationally-managed city-state and its histories, and the difficult role of researchers in mediating between the past and the present. The presenters will examine the impact of the makers and keepers on the writing and representation of Singapore’s pasts.
For some of the presenters, the symposium is our second step in considering this fundamental relationship between history, society and power in Singapore. In June 2008, twelve academics published a collection of essays on their experiences of researching postwar Singapore history in a special journal issue presented by the Tangent, a bilingual civil society group. The project was very much enabled by the present – by information technology. We corresponded through email and wrote up our reflections individually. We never met, although that did not prevent us from gaining insight, inspiration, and in some cases consolation, from each other’s work and from further understanding the nature of the relationship between the makers and keepers of history.
This symposium is the first time the Tangent contributors have come together, with newcomers to the project and with the kind support of the Asia Research Institute and the Singapore Heritage Society, to present, consolidate and review our research experiences. There are naturally many historians among us but also social scientists, film-makers and public intellectuals. What we share in common are our attempts to unlock the various gates to Singapore’s multiple, multi-faceted histories. We make individual reflections which have social and political implications. The reflections are both rational and are accompanied by tribulation and tension, and joy and frustration.
We have defined the terms “makers” and “keepers” broadly here. A central theme in our approach is how the two terms are often overlapping and interchangeable. In Singapore, access to archival sources and individual memory is frequently mediated, overtly or otherwise, through the “victors of history”. This is of course the PAP government which dominates the usual historical narratives. This notion of the makers is the theme of the morning session of the symposium on the keepers of the local archives. By local archives, we refer not only to the National Archives of Singapore but also public institutions which still hold their own files or maintain control over documents deposited at the National Archives, such as the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence, and Housing and Development Board. In the absence of a 30-year rule for declassifying the official archives or a Freedom of Information Act in Singapore, researchers seeking access to classified material here are mandated to approach the depositing agency for access. This amounts to attempting to gain entry to the sources of history through the front gates. The officials empowered to manage this access are often, though not always and not necessarily without good reason, keeping certain types of records under “safe” lock and key. But in holding the keys to the past, the makers are then able to preside over two new makings: the makings of the present and of the future. This bureaucratic culture of “gatekeeping” for “safekeeping”, frequently encountered at the front gates of Singapore history, is discussed in the first of the five panels.
The second panel continues logically from the first in highlighting how researchers unable to gain access through the front gates have nevertheless been imaginative, and often more successful, in obtaining the sources through the “side gates”. This has been made possible partly by the historical links between Singapore and Britain, the United States, a number of European countries, our neighbours in Southeast Asia, China, Taiwan, and India, and by greater possibilities of archival access in these countries. Alternatively, when the official archives are difficult to obtain or inadequate for the historical analysis required, other researchers are turning to fresh sources and methodologies, including using published literature, ephemera, newspapers, and paintings, in creative ways.
The afternoon session of the symposium further extends our analysis of the makers of Singapore history. The third panel, based on the theme of “prime movers”, will look at some of the powerful social myths which surround the key events and personalities in the Singapore Story. This is the official narrative of the island’s history which has been consciously scripted, and rescripted, in pragmatic pursuit of national goals. The panel will also examine research into makers who previously have not been accorded their proper place in Singapore history. This includes the defeated political rivals of the PAP, who in choosing either to remember or to be silent are also influenced by the present great weight of the past.
In the fourth panel, the concept of “makers” is broadened to include other actors. The speakers will examine the craft of oral history and the role of elderly Singaporeans who lived through the recent past as “subaltern makers of history”, often marginalised or discursively represented in mainstream political history. But, like the political elites, ordinary people will determine what and how much of their personal memories to reveal to an interviewer. When personal experiences are withheld from researchers because they encroach upon what is considered politically acceptable in contemporary Singapore, ordinary people in effect become gatekeepers of their own past. And no less involved in making and keeping Singapore history, as the panel will also consider, are the researchers themselves, who speak on behalf of the other groups. This indicates the multiple roles researchers may occupy and the crossovers between the social and personal in academic research.
The final panel will explore the basic question that, given these difficulties, what, then, makes archival research and oral history work possible in present-day Singapore? The recurring theme here is the relationship between history, society and power. Encounters with the makers and gatekeepers become particularly acute at the frontiers of knowledge, where academic, social and political imperatives may coincide. The frontiers of Singapore history are, really, the margins of the Singapore Story. At the launch of the National Education programme in 1997, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that the official archives are becoming more accessible to historians; at the same time, he also spoke of the Singapore Story in the singular as “a special story” of “how we came to be one nation”.
In considering what enables history-writing in Singapore, we should also note that the past is becoming of deep interest to a younger generation of researchers who bring with them new visions and methods. We are attempting to understand important episodes of our history through both the front and side gates. At the same time, we also need to believe that it is possible, and crucial, to gain at least partial access to the local archives, rather than take the path of least resistance into the foreign archives and local library collections. We are also probing more deeply into individual and social memory by engaging both the ordinary and elite makers who once stood at the margins of society, economy and politics and who have for a long time been forgotten. In our endeavours, we are striving to negotiate between the imperatives of the past and present in modern Singapore. In some cases, our work approaches the Singapore Story from a critical standpoint but, more basically and importantly, it is driven by a determination to reconsider the key moments of our island story. Underlying our endeavours are basic questions of identity which emerge from the social context in which we work – questions of who we are and what will Singapore be in future. The way forward, one hopes, is for the government to engage the research and to allow greater access to the important histories of our nation-state.