Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large

Let's talk about the past openly, warts and all

When there are two opposing ideas, that's when you get people excited and engaged

When you look at images of the protests in Hong Kong what do you see?

Do you see unruly politics, a people who do not understand the realities of being part of China and how their actions will damage the city?

Or do you see vigorous political activism from a citizenry taking matters into their own hands for a cause they believe in strongly?

Do you say: Thank goodness for the peaceful and stable politics in Singapore that has enabled the country to avoid such disruptions?

Or: Why are Hong Kongers allowed so much political space when it is so controlled here that even a film on political exiles isn't allowed for public screening?

These questions came to mind as I listened to the Prime Minister speak last week at the National University of Singapore when he called on Singaporeans to look outward and not be so hung up over domestic issues such as transport, housing and health care.

"But perhaps because we are so focused on these issues, I fear that Singaporeans are not paying enough attention to what is happening outside Singapore," he said. "Unless we understand what is happening and grasp how it impacts us, we cannot anticipate or respond properly to events. We have always been open, connected and outward-looking in the past."

The PM is right to be concerned though I do not think Singaporeans are any less informed about what is happening around them.

It is impossible today not to know, in this globally linked Internet world.

This is the case even with the young who are even more connected than ever through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

But how they see these outside events, their understanding of what it means, and the conclusions they draw especially with regard to Singapore, isn't straightforward or a given.

Indeed, it is unlikely they will have just one view or a homogeneous interpretation of these events.

It might have been easier in the past to shape a common viewpoint, especially with the help of the gatekeepers of information.

But the Internet has changed all this.

With so many sources of information from so many different groups, each with their own agenda, there is likely to be as many different versions of the truth.

This is evident in the case of the Hong Kong protests.

In fact, so diverse are the views that some have accused the Western media of giving its spin on the story, portraying this as a direct confrontation between pro-democracy groups and the hardline Chinese Communist Party.

When Singaporeans are asked therefore to understand the world outside so that they can better appreciate the problems here, the response is more likely to be a cacophony of voices rather than a tuneful chorus.

They will draw different conclusions, some of which might be very dissimilar to the Government's, depending on their own biases and understanding of the issues.

But it's not just the different versions of the same story that make any common understanding of these events difficult.

There are also many narratives out there to pick and choose from.

The Thai story (one version of it anyway) might be a cautionary tale of a political system corrupted by vested interests.

It could possibly be a lesson on the danger of politics here dividing the country in a destructive way.

But then there is also the South Korean story.

It too was once riven with mass demonstrations and street battles between protesters and the riot police.

But now that the once authoritarian country is a thriving democracy with a modern economy and world-class companies like Samsung and Hyundai, is its lesson that it is possible to make such a transformation?

Or is South Korea such a special case, you can't draw any conclusions for Singapore?

Or perhaps, as was once famously said of the French Revolution of 1789, it is still too early to tell?

The problem with understanding the world as complicated as it is is that it is possible to draw any number of lessons.

More likely, when people look for these lessons, they will find those that reinforce their own biases and preferences.

Those who want greater political openness in Singapore will draw inspiration from the Hong Kong protests while more conservative Singaporeans will draw the opposite conclusion.

The Internet and its easy access to information facilitates and encourages this.

The same is true of learning from history, which was another point the PM made.

Singapore's spectacular transformation from a struggling Third World economy to the global city it is now is worthy of any study. The young especially take too much of this success for granted.

But there are also many different stories from its once tumultuous past.

For example, its political story about how a dominant government was able to have its way unimpeded by any opposition, is a controversial one that will attract many different storytellers.

If the Government is serious about wanting Singaporeans to understand their history, it should encourage discussion on what took place in the past, warts and all.

But this discussion can take place only if the different versions are freely aired and the contentious issues debated.

Then, Singapore's multidimensional and technicolour history will have a much greater chance of getting people, especially the young, interested, and to understand it at a deeper, emotional level.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew's radio broadcast, The Battle for Merger, was aired 53 years ago, it must have transfixed the country because it was pitted against another version put forth by those opposed to merger with Malaysia.

When there are two opposing ideas, that's when you get people excited and engaged.

A monologue will have the opposite effect.

Now that the Government is republishing the transcripts of the broadcast, should it not try to generate as much interest as possible?

Here's one idea: remove the prohibition on Tan Pin Pin's film, To Singapore, With Love.

It would make the Battle for Merger come alive.

hanfk@sph.com.sg