Unravelling Singapore’s myths looks back to point forward: Book Review

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By Howard Lee

Third world to first, a swamp to shining metropolis, meritocracy and prudence as the Singapore way, we are a small little island surrounded by threats, the People’s Action Party brought Singapore to where it is today…

Exactly how much of these “hard truths” about Singapore that we have heard are real, and how much are half-truths, myths or even complete fabrications that have been preached to us to make us believe that the current political and social environment we have today has always been this way, and should always remain this way?

Living with Myths in Singapore is a book by several noted historians, researchers and activists in Singapore, who dug deep into historical accounts of Singapore that deviate from the common narrative.

The book evolved from a series of seminars by two of the editors, Loh Kah Seng and Thum Pin Tjin, who initiated a series of talks titled “Living with Myths” in an attempt to shed more like on what they felt were misrepresentations in mainstream media about the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots.

The 24 chapters of the book, however, did not just focus on Singapore’s past history, but also delved into more recent political and social conditions that we are still experiencing today.

Living with Myths covers a broad range of topics. From history education in schools to literature, smart nation and media hub to casinos, social welfare to social unrest, multiculturalism to religion, wealth to poverty – the authors revisited many of the common narratives that pepper newspaper headlines and ministerial speeches, and invite us to question if these are as objectively and undeniably true as they have been made out to be.

The book goes beyond the political sphere, although political influence is an important aspect that is included in almost every chapter, given that the government has played a central role in much of Singapore’s development. Instead, it studies how politics, society and circumstances have influenced the course that we have charted as a nation.

Should the study of history be a factual account or a debated process? Have Singapore always rejected the ills of casinos and social welfare? What exactly makes up Singapore culture? All these questions, and more, within the book prompts us to take a critical look at what our politicians like to state as “hard truths”, in an attempt to deconstruct the myths that often surround them.

More importantly, Living with Myths invites us to take a more discursive attitude towards the Singapore history that we know today and look at some of these accounts and public proclamations by opinion leaders as problematic and contentious.

For instance, a chapter that looks at Singapore’s economic development dug up past writings and oral accounts of James Puthucheary, indicated that he had a differing perspective from Goh Keng Swee, then Finance Minister, on the direction that Singapore’s economy should take. Puthucheary, then slated to be the chairman of the new Economic Development Board, was noted to have vouched for the inalienable link between individual freedom and national progress, something that we now often take as diametrically opposite.

The chapter entices us to think about how different Singapore might have been if such alternatives were considered. That said, none of the authors in the book attempted to rewrite Singapore history, or be what some might call a “revisionist”. Instead, they provided actual historical records that offer alternative perspectives to those that we are familiar with, challenging readers to think a bit more about the possibilities that could have been our past, and if such alternatives can be used today.

It is through the consideration of alternative accounts and ideas, the authors propose, that we can arrive at a more multi-dimensional view of Singapore’s past, to give us more options to chart a way for our future.

Living with Myths in Singapore is part of the Project 50/100 initiative, an attempt to capture alternative narratives of Singapore. The book was discussed at a closed-door session in Perth, Western Australia. It will be launched in Singapore on 9 May 2017 at the Arts House and is for sale at Ethos Books.

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