Never forget the incompleteness of our history

In May 1823, a group of British dignitaries led by Sophia Hull, better known as Lady Raffles, founded the Singapore Malay Female-School.

This was the first school in Singapore, a title often claimed by its better-known counterpart, Raffles Institution (then Singapore Institution), which was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles.

Few records remain of the Singapore Malay Female-School, but a report by its managing committee in 1825 declared that the school's mission was to spread Christianity "among the lower classes of the female natives".

In contrast, Sir Stamford Raffles himself stated that Singapore Institution would "educate the sons of the higher order natives" and "collect the scattered literature and traditions of the country".

Along with needlework, Malay, writing, and arithmetic, students of the Female-School were taught to recite catechisms and read scripture. Despite its humbler ambitions, a quick examination of its list of donors reveals the importance of the school to the British colonial class: besides Raffles, the list includes familiar names like Napier, Farquhar and Maxwell.

Today, our colonial history is often nearly packaged into a montage of familiar episodes: Raffles' arrival; the revival of the entrepot; immigrants from across Asia; and so on. The route taken by our forebears looks almost inevitable, chugging along from one station to another.

  • The essays here are from The Birthday Book 2017: What Should We Never Forget?, published by The Birthday Collective. It retails for $25 (with GST) and is available at Kinokuniya, major bookshops and www.ethosbooks.com.sg

Yet, as a closer look at the Singapore Malay Female-School reveals, it was more complicated than that. The rules and regulations of the Female-School demonstrate the egalitarian ideals of the committee: "Females of any Class or Denomination admissible" and "destitute or orphan children" were fully funded by the school's donors. Yet the report also betrays the outdated racism of its writers, who expressed surprise at the progress made by some of the students "considering their native habits of indolence, and their want of energy."

It includes an anecdote about one student who left the school under the influence "of the priests and devotees of false religion" - her Muslim relatives - but later begged to return, to the obvious satisfaction of the writers.

However, it is unknown whether it was religion or the material benefits of being in the school that caused her change of heart. Much is left unsaid in the report, prompting the reader to question the motives and biases of the writers.

Few other records of the Singapore Malay Female-School persist beyond the brief period of early British colonisation. It is likely that it became defunct after Raffles left Singapore - another discarded piece of history.

The report is only one of many rich sources of Singapore's colonial history which still exist today. Yet, for many Singaporeans, our knowledge of this period of our past is often limited to key figures, events and places - most of us would never have been taught about things like the Singapore Malay Female-School. Such an approach compartmentalises the flow of time into ahistorical boxes, creating gaps that prevent us from understanding our national history in a complete manner.

For example, the attitudes expressed in the Female-School's report find echoes in the actions of the colonial government during the Maria Hertogh riots that occurred more than a century later.

As humans, we tend to suffer from the fallacy of attributing immediate, obvious causes to events - a condition made worse by the benefit of hindsight. Yet truly momentous events become historical precisely because no one saw them coming. The 1951 Commission of Inquiry into the riots placed the blame on short-term factors such as the sensational press coverage of Maria's stay at a convent as well as the religious sensitivity of the court decision, glossing over larger and tougher issues like anti-colonial sentiment and socio-economic inequality.

But riots do not simply arise from a momentary flaring-up of emotion. Usually, it is only after a long drought that a fire of any consequence can erupt from a simple spark.

Still, it was far simpler for the colonial government to explain away the riot as a purely local issue. Thus, the Commission's report once again reflected the motives and biases of the writers rather than the truth of the matter.

Partitioning the long chain of cause and effect into bite-sized chunks is convenient, but also condemns us to digging around in the mud of history like short-sighted moles, never quite seeing beyond our noses.

Where does history end? We could end up painstakingly tunnelling into the root causes of events long after the benefits of doing so have been exhausted. The goal is not to fully enumerate the whys and hows, but to acknowledge that more of them always exist beyond our reach.

It means that we remain dissatisfied with our history, which is in effect to remain dissatisfied with the explanation of how we came to be as a nation. Occasionally, if we are lucky, buried histories resurface and make our explanations a little more complete. More often, they don't. Even so, it pays to remain cautious about our conclusions, especially in an age where snap judgments and immediate reactions are prized over circumspection. To do so, we must never forget the incompleteness of our own history.

•The author is a computer science and history student at Yale University. He enjoys building Web applications and reading the histories of empires.

Correction note: This story has been edited to clarify that the group of British dignitaries was led by Sophia Hull. We are sorry for the  error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline 'Never forget the incompleteness of our history'. Print Edition | Subscribe