When history leaps from textbooks onto our streets and into our lives

Take a pause. Take stock. And take part in activities to mark the bicentennial. Singaporeans should step up to own their collective journey from the past to the present.

Since taking office in Parliament just over a year ago, I've been jogging along the Singapore River whenever I can, familiarising myself with the sights.

Then in January this year, I noticed how the lone statue of Sir Stamford Raffles was joined by four others: Sang Nila Utama, Munshi Abdullah, Naraina Pillai and Tan Tock Seng. Not a moment too soon, I thought, given how the Singapore bicentennial is going into full swing. The event commemorates 200 years since Raffles' arrival in 1819 that kick-started the development of modern Singapore.

The figures of all these pioneers sit just 20 paces from my office window in Parliament House. And they are just 100m shy of an archaeological dig round the corner at Empress Place, where archaeologists have dug up 700-year-old  timber planks and pottery shards.

In fact, few may know that our Parliament grounds have also yielded artefacts from China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, with some going back to the 11th century. A few of these sit in a glass case that all our MPs file past on their way into the Parliament chambers.

All around me is a constant reminder of history made, or in the making. And it can be quite moving, imagining how life unfolded through the centuries, around the places I work each day.

Clearly, even before Raffles and the East India Company capitalised on the potential of our little island, our forebears, along with scores of others in the region, also discovered Singapore as a place of refuge or opportunity, and similarly made their way here, whether 700 years ago or even earlier.

While so many passed through our shores, some stayed and made Singapore home, and yet others moved on. And for every encounter made on this island, surely, we have gained from the traded stories, journeys and shared experiences. I like to think that we have survived and flourished because of our openness to the people who came in, transited or remained.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

As a former student of history, I do often consider: What if no one saw our potential as a landing point, a site for trade and exchange, a home? What if we hadn't appeared useful, to anyone? What if the economic issues of the time had tripped us up along the way? Or the weight of commerce had shifted and rendered our geopolitical position worthless?

The vagaries of fortune and opportunity could easily have relegated us to the backwater of history, irrelevant and forgotten except as a fascinating footnote.

I believe that at this juncture in our journey as Singaporeans, it is important for us to pause - for recall, reflection and renewal. This is critical for us to continue to move ahead. It informs us for the future.

 

This is why I'm looking forward to the slew of bicentennial events planned. They may seem to have flooded us in all directions, overwhelming at times, and perhaps indulgent to some, but I welcome them, if only because I'm convinced there is something in the entire package for everyone.

There are exhibitions and tours, talks and seminars, which promise a rich feast for the senses. Some of us may access our history and legacy better through a light show, some through a documentary or a research tome. The medium matters much less than the opportunity - and I'm hopeful the events and experiences will trigger rich reflection for all. But we must first take note of them and take part in them.

Should we commemorate our subjugation as a British colony? Should we be confident enough to remember this founding as a critical milestone and marker in our history? Did we not set in motion the pace of development that led to independence in 1965?

And in looking back to our past, why stop at 1819? Should we not go further back and give more credit to Sang Nila Utama, or Parameswara? Or should we dig even deeper into the annals of the early South-east Asian histories and study the intrigues and machinations that led to our being?

DEFINING WHERE SINGAPORE 'BEGAN'

The struggle to define where we "began" is a fascinating exercise in itself.

Curiously, even as we reflect on the legacy of our colonial masters, the British, and commemorate our liberation to nationhood, we find some United Kingdom leaders talking about how Singapore could be a model for a post-Brexit UK.

Incredible as it may sound to some, they want to learn, if not adopt, some of the systems and values that we, a former colony, have developed and now stand for. While I don't think we have the model they need, the idea that it has even been considered is rather quaint, particularly given the timing.

History is alive around us. Look at how different countries grappled or have made peace with their past, in their present. That we are having this struggle with these dilemmas too is actually a good thing because, at the very least, it shows that we care enough to do so. It helps to establish our identity, decide our place in the world, and shape our future.

I see the bicentennial as an opportunity to recall 1819 as one of the many markers in history. Where SG50 looked intently at our independence, our bicentennial allows us to zoom out and reflect on Singapore in the broader expanse of space and time. Let's discover more of the other markers of our history and bring to light more of the unknown.

History was always my favourite subject. However, unlike our children today, I didn't get to study Singapore history. In lower secondary, we did ancient history. And I didn't get to do it again until junior college (JC), because I was in the science stream in secondary school. And even in JC, the history I studied was focused on Europe and contemporary affairs, nothing local nor regional.

My sense of Singapore history came mainly from the stories my parents shared about their childhood during World War II, and of the years leading to Independence. My awareness of timelines and circumstance was gradually awakened because there we were, mugging up on the Cold War for the A levels, only to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall a few years later, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And as I began to serve in the army, the Gulf War broke out and we watched, through CNN, a small country annexed, a country razed. These were real and contemporary reminders to complement my parent's recollections of the war.

In fact, I should say, all these experiences contributed to my decision to serve in the army, and later to run for election as a Member of Parliament. As we navigated the politics of our region, I realised that I could be very much a witness and participant in the making of our own history too in Singapore. And we can all make it ours, in all our different ways. But we just have to own it first.

I often recall my dad sharing about his narrow escape from the MacDonald House bombing back in 1965. While that made me a little more attuned to the Konfrontasi than most, it was only when Indonesia controversially named a warship after one of the saboteurs in 2014, that the incident leapt out of the textbooks into life. I learnt that one of the 29 bombs that terrorised Singapore then, had gone off in Sennett estate, where I had lived for many years in a community of good friends and neighbours. I have no idea where that spot is, but I do believe markers should be placed where all the bombings took place, if only to bring this inflexion point in history out of textbooks and closer to home for all of us.

As I have often shared, there is big history, the nation-building stuff, and there is little history, the local stories of people and communities. Both are vital, and vital to be knit together to build our identities and locate us with a sense of place.

This is why we need to discover our markers and milestones.

If we face up to the facts of our legacy, even as we struggle to define what that is, our struggle keeps our identity, our sense of being, very much alive. What I believe we do need, though, is to be confident about our past, with a certainty and pride in how we got to where we are, and a sense of hope of where we are going.

During this bicentennial year, let's not squander this chance to grapple with the issues of who we are and where we come from. Let's own our past and our connectedness to the world.

In an age where nationalism can rear its ugly head, we need to be a small nation with a big heart - big enough to remain open to new ideas, new relationships, just so we remain connected to a larger whole.

In an age of globalisation, our shared histories, memories and affections link us and give us relevance and access to so many places and people. And in those links too, we find common ground to move ahead, make progress.

Knowing our place in the world we live in gives us context and perspective. Remembering our links reminds us to never be an island on our own. We cherish all these elements of our legacy, in forming who we are today.

Our Singapore story is one of constant evolution and progress, always linked to the region and beyond. And we can become exceptional, and stay so, by earning a place in peoples' hearts and writing our own epic as a nation and people - about a Little Red Dot, big and bold enough to hold its own.

•Tan Chuan-Jin is the Speaker of Parliament. His fund-raising photography collection and book, Our Place In The World, will be on exhibition at Far East Plaza (Level 2 Concourse) until Feb 28. Proceeds go to 13 charities under the Hope Initiative Alliance to help individuals and families in need.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2019, with the headline 'When history leaps from textbooks onto our streets and into our lives'. Print Edition | Subscribe