Tan Tai Yong For The Straits Times

History's many shades of grey

A file photo showing the Tiong Bahru Market. --PHOTO: National Heritage Board 
A file photo showing the Tiong Bahru Market. --PHOTO: National Heritage Board 

Why is history important? Let me begin by asking another question: After 50 years of nationhood, how well do Singapore citizens know their country's history? In attempting to answer this question, I should make a distinction between historical literacy and historical consciousness.

Put crudely, the first is knowing what; the second, knowing why.

Most Singaporeans have a decent degree of historical literacy. They have some grasp of historical information and understand the key features of our country's history. Historical literacy does not require a personal meaning attributable to the past.

To be historically conscious is to be able to say what the past means to us, as individuals and as a community.

So, what are the attributes of historical consciousness?

First, historical consciousness refers to the ability to draw personal and social relevance from history.

Second, historical consciousness is not simply an intuitive feeling. It is a critical process. History is a contested terrain - it can polarise as much as unify. In this regard, sound historical consciousness requires intellectual rigour and honesty.

More controversially, to allow for deeper understanding, I argue that we must pluralise our history. We must show history in its full complexity. But plurality is not the same as duality, where there are only two sides to the argument: with one right and the other wrong.

Historians are constantly pushing the boundaries of historical knowledge. In the process, they enhance our understanding of historical change through new interpretations. These can be brought about by fresh analyses or the use of new evidence. Such efforts at revising history should be welcomed.

For example, in Singapore history, the left wing has been portrayed as a political force during the tumultuous 1950s, seeking to effect political change through militant action. It was committed to a political ideology and outcome that, if they had come to pass, would have taken Singapore down a very different road.

The People's Action Party took the left wing on and was able to "ride the communist tiger" rather than end up in its stomach. In the political contest that ensued, one group eventually defeated the other.

This narrative is correct insofar as it gives a factual account of the political events of that period.

However, we would have a better appreciation of the challenges and complexities of the time if we were able to understand the intricate dynamics of the left-wing movement and the various groups that came together to pursue similar goals, sometimes with different strategies, as well the international and local factors that shaped their world views and politics.

In the past 10 years or so, there have already been some studies that seek to explain these - political memoirs, as well as books commemorating pivotal events such as Operation Coldstore. They are positioned, perhaps deliberately provocatively, as being "alternative or revisionist history".

In my view, some of these accounts can be helpful in providing a more nuanced understanding of Singapore's past.

While these additional views do not necessarily change the fundamental storyline, they can certainly add texture to make the narrative more complete and interesting.

One point worth repeating is that pluralising history should mean going beyond the realm of politics. We should have more accounts of social, cultural and community level histories, to add layers to the national narrative.

For example, few people know that the hawker centre at Tiong Bahru was probably the first such centre to be paid for by the hawkers themselves.

In a grand collective action, these men, who were illegal or itinerant hawkers previously, got together, negotiated with the Government and raised an infrastructure that was later redeveloped into the two-storey building seen along Seng Poh Road today.

This is not a piece of history we find readily in our history books, or even on the signs in front of the market, but it is a bona fide Singaporean story.

This is what pluralism looks like.

As we develop a more nuanced and textured approach to our historical narratives, these efforts must be underpinned by rigorous research and intellectual honesty.

Good, responsible history will enable Singapore citizens to appreciate complexity without succumbing to propaganda. Sound historical consciousness should be sustained by curiosity rather than certainty; it should be motivated by the desire to understand rather than the intention to pass judgment. This can be constructive for building national identity and belonging.

Finally, historical consciousness should not be regarded as a mere backward-looking process.

Retrospective reflection should lead one to draw conclusions from the past that might be helpful to plans for the future.

The best way to build historical consciousness is to instil it at a personal level, grow it organically. This can be done in schools but also through self-discovery in family and community efforts.

Each of us needs to know our country through grandfather stories. At the same time, there should always be space for personal recollections and individual reflections that are not strictly historical studies.

These can be essential elements for a larger, multifaceted story that is the history of Singapore.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament. He is Vice-Provost (Student Life) and director of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

stopinion@sph.com.sg