History vital to knowing roots of national identity

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 17, 2014

"KONFRONTASI? What's that?"

The question, put to me by a 50-something-year-old Singaporean last week came as a surprise.

I had just mentioned that I was writing an article on the topic in response to Indonesia's decision to name a naval vessel after the two Indonesians responsible for the bombing of MacDonald House in March 1965.

I soon learnt, however, that even some well-educated Singaporeans lacked the necessary historical knowledge. "I know that the bombing had something to do with Konfrontasi, but how did Singapore get drawn in?" a colleague asked.

As an Australian who has spent decades researching and writing about South-east Asian affairs, I admit to feeling a little superior.

"Singaporeans don't even know their own history," I announced grandly to my father during a telephone call to Melbourne. His response was unexpected. "Australians don't know theirs either."

He had a point.

As with Singapore, a high proportion of the population in Australia is foreign-born and may not have had the opportunity to study Australian history in local schools. But that cannot be the only reason for the ignorance. As with the native-born Singaporeans I spoke to, it is probably fair to say many Australians have only a vague idea of the history of the country in which they were born.

Why is that? And does it matter? As my wife, a Singaporean, reminded me last week, not everyone finds history interesting. But politicians in both countries would almost certainly argue that such knowledge is important.

At least some of the ignorance probably has to do with the aspects of history a society chooses to emphasise.

When I was in school in Australia, Anzac Day was a time of remembrance for the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who had fought in the First and Second World Wars.

But the focus was almost invariably on the savage battles fought on the Gallipoli peninsula (part of modern-day Turkey) during the First World War. With the Western front in France at a stalemate, the British decided to attack the Ottoman Empire from the east in an attempt to surround the central European powers. It was also an attempt to open a direct sea route to Russia, at that time one of the allied powers. Australian troops were among the Commonwealth forces that launched the invasion in April 1915.

According to the official history, Australia "came of age" through the gallantry of its soldiers and the resulting birth of a national consciousness. It was only many years later that I realised that the country was also commemorating a major military defeat!

Facing heavy casualties from a well-equipped and determined enemy, Commonwealth troops were forced to withdraw in January 1916.

In the case of Singapore, it appears that the nation has chosen to view its formative years through the lens of domestic politics. Thus, almost all Singaporeans - young and old - seem to know at least something about the Hock Lee bus riots in May 1955 and the race riots in 1964.

But with the exception of those who lived through it, and those whose job involves keeping abreast of international affairs, it seems that very few knew much about Konfrontasi before the recent controversy erupted.

This may not be as surprising as it sounds. After all, putting Singapore's domestic house in order was crucial to the fledging nation's subsequent success in attracting the sort of foreign investment and international commerce upon which the country now thrives. That Singaporeans did this largely through their own efforts is a legitimate source of national pride. It is entirely natural that the country should focus on the achievement.

But knowing the history of one's nation in the global scheme of things is important as well.

Ignorance of the past may temper public reactions to perceived national slights, as it probably did in Singapore in the case of Indonesia's recent action.

But not understanding what has gone before can just as easily encourage the public to support future foreign policy responses that are detrimental to the national interest.

In the case of Konfrontasi, Singapore was faced for the first time with the reality of its own vulnerability as powers far greater than itself battled for regional supremacy. It also led to the establishment of a Vigilante Corps in 1964 that can be seen as one of the forerunners of the Singapore Armed Forces.

History has a lot to do with the formation of national identity. In this respect, Singapore and Australia are hardly exceptions. But while a nation may choose to focus on some parts of its history rather than others in order to emphasise its own distinctiveness, it is always wise to ensure that the seemingly less relevant aspects are not overlooked.

In the past week or so, many Singaporeans learnt a little more about their nation's painful past. Such knowledge has hopefully produced a better understanding of the region and Singapore's place in it.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 17, 2014

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