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Present conditions can influence how we see past

Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong's commentary (History a dialogue between present and past; ST Online, May 6) reminds us how there may be no false historical interpretations, but just different versions of the same events.

In view of this, I would like to add that versions of history are often shaped by the prevailing social and political circumstances, too.

For example, an escalation of tensions between two neighbouring nations may drive leaders from both sides to invoke painful memories of past antagonisms in order to ratchet up support for the impending conflict.

Conversely, a thawing of relations after a long chill may encourage leaders to appeal to the common history and shared culture inherited by both nations so as to foster goodwill and cooperation.

We can see that the interplay between historical facts and the environment that we live in has a strong role in shaping the dominant version of history existing at that time.

Therefore, it is also safe to assume that various versions of history can develop in stages. For example, at one stage of a nation's development, one official version of history may be more suited than another. In Ms Chua's words, "it may be the most commonly accepted version" of that time.

Yes, history is written and interpreted by us. But remember, history also shapes us: We are influenced and shaped by the pre-existing conditions in which we grew up.

Instead of arguing over which historical version is accurate or false, it may be more pertinent and beneficial for us to first understand the prevailing social and political conditions of the time concerned.

As time moves on and circumstances change, interpretations and versions of history are bound to differ.

Michael Zhou Xizhuang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 13, 2018, with the headline 'Present conditions can influence how we see past'. Print Edition | Subscribe