Missing pieces of the Singapore story

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History is not only subjective, depending on who’s paying one to write it. It is also political – the reason why it’s being written. Actually, it’s more a re-writing on history that is fascinating, as is happening now in Singapore.

May 13 is the 60th anniversary of the student protest against the colonial British administration’s imposition of national service on young men aged 18–20. On May 13, 1954, eight student representatives from the Chinese Middle Schools were scheduled to present a petition to the Governor of Singapore at the Istana, seeking exemption from national service. They were supported by nearly 1,000 students who lined the pavement from Clemenceau Avenue to the Istana.

That peaceful assembly was violently disrupted by riot police who were armed with ropes, batons, shields and rifles. Many students were injured and 48 were subsequently arrested and charged with obstructing the police and refusing to disperse when ordered to do so.

More student protests and sit-ins following the incident forced the Chinese Chamber of Commerce to mediate between the students and the colonial government. After a record 22 days’ camp-in, the colonial government finally allowed deferment of national service.

It was the action of the students that inspired the people to unite and demand civil and political rights for Singaporeans. Two weeks after the May 13, 1954 Incident, the students at the University of Malaya, who published a newsletter called Fajar, were targeted by the colonial police. The editorial board of the publication were charged with sedition over an editorial entitled “Aggression in Asia”.

Eminent Queen’s Counsel DN Pritt came to Singapore to defend the students. He was assisted by Lee Kuan Yew. The acquittal of the students without their defence being called raised the profile of Lee who, shortly after, formed the People’s Action Party with the support of the students and workers. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Fast-forward to the arrest of Lim Chin Siong for fomenting the 1956 student riots. Historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin stated recently: “One of the most concrete charges made against Lim Chin Siong was that he allegedly instigated riots on 25 and 26 October 1956.

“At a PAP-organised rally at Beauty World on 25 October to protest the government arrests of Chinese middle school students and civil society leaders, Lim supposedly worked up the restless crowd by urging them to “pah mata!” (beat the police). For this, he was arrested and detained without trial on 27 October.”

What Lim actually said was: “With regard to police… they are all wage-earners and they are all here to attend this meeting to oppose Lim Yew Hock. (Loudest cheers of the meeting so far) We gladly welcome them, and the more of them that attend will make us even stronger. (crowd cheers wildly) A lot of people don’t want to shout Merdeka! They want to shout “pah mata”. This is wrong. We want to ask them to cooperate with us because they are also wage earners and so that in the time of crisis they will take their guns and run away. (Laughter and cheers).”

Riots did break out, but you know now that that is the official — PAP – version of history

Dr Thum writes: “Lim Chin Siong was detained on 27 October. His speech formed a major part of the government’s explanation for the detention. In a cabinet meeting, the Council of Ministers resolved to bring Lim Chin Siong to trial if sufficient evidence could be found to convict him. However, he was never brought to trial, which suggests that Lim was innocent of the charges.

“The text of Lim’s speech has been unearthed from the Singapore Special Branch files recently declassified by the National Archives of the UK. We now know that the government deliberately misrepresented Lim Chin Siong’s speech. The Special Branch files show that Lim was framed. After the PAP came into power, it did not provide the opportunity for Lim to clear his name either.”

Fast forward again, this time to Singapore’s pre-colonial history. Yes, apparently we do have one. The new textbook, Singapore: The Making of a Nation-State, 1300-1975 still has to attribute the nation-building efforts of the PAP, even though the history now includes five centuries before the British arrived.

Our Secondary One students are now being taught that Singapore was a trading port to which Chinese, Indian, Arab, Portuguese and Dutch traders frequented in the 14th to 18th Century and then became part of the Johor Riau Sultanate long before Raffles and Farquhar landed on our shores.

Why has it taken so long? Historians, led by archeologist Professor John Mitsic, concede. “There was a deliberate attempt not to talk about links to the ethnicity of the past,” Professor Derek Heng told the New York Times. “Now we are more confident to say we were once a Malay polity cutting straight down through Asia.”

Prof Brian Farrell, who heads the history department at NUS, takes Heng’s idea a step further. “If Singapore before 1800 was a sleepy backwater, the Chinese majority could say, ‘We built Singapore; before it was a blank slate’,” he said.
Another factor that delayed this part of the Singapore story was a 200-year period of decline, a sort of historical “black hole,” between the formerly thriving emporium and the establishment of the 19th-century British trading port, according to Kwa Chong Guan, an adjunct associate professor at NUS, who also advised on the textbook revisions. “Until a connection could be made, the tons of archaeological shards Miksic excavated remained of antiquarian interest,” he told NYT.

Dutch and Portuguese maritime accounts and maps showed that Singapore was on European radars well before Raffles arrived.

Other factors also may help explain the timing. “Now is a good time,” Heng said. “There’s a need to develop a collective social memory. It’s become a political issue.”

Really? History a political issue in Singapore? Yes, if it questions the role the PAP played in knocking this island into the shape it is today. The PAP had better be on the look-out how it re-writes history. There is another cliché that says you can fool some of the people some of the time, but not everyone all of the time.

As Heng put it to NYT about the plans to run a motorway through Bukit Brown cemetery, a colonial-era Chinese municipal burial ground, slating hundreds of tombs for exhumation. Thousands of citizens signed petitions against the plan. “We have a fast-paced, highly urbanised society where people are getting disoriented,” he said. “There’s a huge momentum to look at heritage and our historical legacy.”
Singaporeans, he thinks, will feel more rooted if they see their early predecessors as part of a longer regional legacy, rather than a British colonial transplant.

“It’s time to sink new, deep psychological roots and construct an identity for ourselves,” he said.

Professor Miksic says the controversy over Bukit Brown proved that tangible heritage is important. “People want more than prosperity,” he said. “Once you have enough to live on, you want something to live for: identity, a desire to know your ancestors. It’s an innate part of what it means to be human.”

Sounds a little too much for the PAP, frankly.