Review

Challenging the national narrative of colonialism

There is a desire for things to be complete, to have a knowable end, especially when it comes to retellings of the past.

This totalising compulsion, the idea that everyone can or should be on the same page, is what Raffles Renounced sets out to critique in both form and substance.

A collection of essays and conversations, the book also serves as a belated companion to Wild Rice's 2019 play Merdeka by Neo Hai Bin and Alfian Sa'at - the latter who also co-edits the book - and includes some historical sources used in the play.

The book opens with a dialogue between Neo and Alfian about the play, discussing the title and its symbolic significance. In so doing, the play itself is revealed to be a process with internal contestation.

But the book is not merely an exercise in navel-gazing or self-indulgent nostalgia.

In its introduction, the editors set up the driving contradiction that unifies its works - an independent nation celebrating its colonial past.

Pieces by historians Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli help set the stage with historical and political contexts. Hong, for example, traces the Malay word "merdeka" to its anti-colonial roots beyond its literal meaning of "independence", detailing the People's Action Party's historical use of the slogan to great political effect.

Huang provides a critical look at the 2019 Bicentennial, the state-led commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles' landing on Singapore.

In the same vein, historian Sai Siew Min critiques the Bicentennial as a performance that failed to actually challenge existing understandings of colonialism in Singapore. She argues that state-sponsored events and exhibitions aiming to provide a nuanced or balanced view of Raffles still serve a conventional, albeit revised, narrative that colonialism benefited Singapore.

In his thought-provoking essay Finding Merdeka In A World Of Statues, Faris Joraimi picks up where Sai's critique of the rescripted national narrative leaves off. It centres the wide array of critical Malay visual and literary responses that have subverted Raffles' statue and the colonialism it represents.

By providing perspectives from the historic Malay world, Faris begins "the real work (of) decolonising our minds", as a character in the play Merdeka puts it.

It is a pity the book was published late, long after the momentum created by the play in a year when plural historical narratives were explored.

The editors offer a solution in the genesis of the book itself: It was, they write, originally intended as a kind of primer on the themes of the play, designed to inspire book clubs of the sort used as a plot device in Merdeka.

Unfortunately, the sort of people that will form book clubs on Raffles Renounced are also likely already convinced of its necessity.

While Alfian's dialogues provide an accessible manner with which to broadly engage with the book's important topics, much of its well-sourced, well-argued but ultimately academic writing may be fully appreciated only by scholars.

As a practical suggestion, the play, essays and helpfully attached primary sources could be put to good use in local schools and universities. In fact, they would make for a compelling undergraduate course.

This volume has certainly succeeded in its goal of "not (being) the last word" on the topic.​

  • NON-FICTION

    RAFFLES RENOUNCED: TOWARDS A MERDEKA HISTORY

    Edited by Alfian Sa'at, Faris Joraimi and Sai Siew Min

    Ethos Books/ Paperback/ 272 pages/$26.75/Books Kinokuniya

    4/5

If you like this, read: The Myth Of The Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas (Routledge, 1977, reissued 2010, $49.22, Books Kinokuniya), a seminal critique of the colonial construction of Malay, Filipino and Javanese natives from the 16th century to 20th century.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 14, 2021, with the headline 'Challenging the national narrative of colonialism'. Subscribe