No escape for Singapore from history's tangled past

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 15, 2014

Wartime history is making a comeback in Asia, going by the ominous analogies it is providing for events today.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted recently that Britain and Germany had fought each other in World War I in spite of close economic relations.

Their ties were akin to those between China and Japan now, he suggested.

The point: Even good economic relations do not preclude war.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has also been drawing historical analogies, comparing China's maritime assertiveness to German territorial expansionism before World War II.

Even closer to Singapore in both time and space, Indonesia is revisiting its place in Cold War history in deciding to name a frigate after Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said.

The two saboteurs, who bombed MacDonald House on Orchard Road in March 1965 and were executed by Singapore in 1968, have rekindled memories of the terrible Konfrontasi.

This was the Confrontation that Jakarta waged against Malaysia, which at that time included Singapore, for being what it perceived as a neo-colonial creation designed to contain a left-leaning Indonesia.

Long relegated to the history books, the Konfrontasi has leapt out of their mellowing pages in recent days.

The point about historical analogies, however, is not whether they are right or wrong. If they were wrong, no one would use them.

If they were right, they would be acted upon immediately to prevent history from repeating itself. Neither is the case for the issues being discussed in Asia today.

Rather, the point is that the analogies are plausible. That is why they are drawn. And that is why they need to be taken seriously.

Mr Abe is correct in arguing that economic stakes do not prevent countries from going to war.

Globalisation today has become something of a totem pole, a magical object supposed to preserve peace. But the globalisation that preceded World War I disproves the idea that economic integration prevents war.

The historian Niall Ferguson relates how the first age of globalisation, from 1870 to 1914, was marked by the mobility of commodities, capital and labour, and by ease of communication and travel. Those patterns seem remarkably familiar today.

Yet, even investors, who should be astute enough to recognise the role of non-economic factors in history, ignored warnings of a war among the European great powers. They were caught unprepared by the carnage that followed.

Issues left unresolved by World War I - particularly the economy of defeated Germany - contributed to the onset of World War II.

Here, it surely is churlish of the Philippines to flagellate China as a possible repeat of Germany on the eve of World War II. Unlike Germany then, China today is not a fallen power which had been punished with economic reparations for having provoked World War I.

Consequently, China does not face today what inter-war Germany did: Outrageous inflation and broken national pride, which sought an outlet in economic nationalism at home and military aggression abroad.

China is ideologically indeterminate, being caught between capitalist economics and Leninist politics, but it is not a Nazi state.

However, China's maritime claims do recall the unquiet borders soon overrun by expansionist Germany in World War II.

It would be unwise to deny the prophetic agency of history, revealed in its uncanny ability to repeat itself in the general trend of events, if not in particular developments.

Singapore's tragedy is that it is at the receiving end of others' histories.

Note the breezy dismissiveness with which Indonesians expect Singaporeans to accept the naming of the naval ship after the convicted bombers.

It is as if history does not matter. It is almost as if Sukarno's undeclared war on Malaysia was a contact sport, a match after which the contestants shook hands in the timeless spirit of sportsmanship.

But history does matter. Indeed, the Indonesians themselves have shown how much history matters by naming the ship after the two marines.

Clearly, Indonesians take their history seriously enough to revisit it.

Astonishingly, the argument has been made that Indonesian officials felt naming the ship after the marines would not cause a furore since that chapter was closed.

But were they not turning the pages back by invoking the names of Osman and Harun?

Singaporeans took offence precisely because a national wound had been reinfected, because what they considered to be the past had turned out to be an historical sluice gate that could be opened unilaterally at will.

Have Singaporeans merely a partial right to their own history? One that extends only as far as the amnesia of their neighbours would allow?

It is this asymmetrical relationship, extrapolated from geography to history, that rankles the most in this sordid affair.

Singapore's historical significance is dismissed on account of its size. One way in which Singaporeans can respond to such dismissiveness is by celebrating our own history.

Rather than see Singapore as a product of global history influenced by the major powers - although this is certainly true - it is important to look more deeply within Singapore and identify what makes Singaporeans the people we are.

Then, others are likely to give Singapore's history more respect than they do. In that spirit, Singapore is right in protesting against the naming of the frigate after the marines.

Today will mark the 30th anniversary of Total Defence. It was inaugurated in 1984 to mark the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese on that date in 1942.

It is impossible to ignore the question of whether Europe's past will be Asia's future.

Will the 21st century see in Asia the hubris, miscalculations and folly that led Europe into two world wars and a Cold War in the 20th century?

We should hope not, but pessimism has never hurt realism.

And history provides a constant reminder of the need for realism. Singaporeans who deny history will soon be history.

The writer is a former Straits Times journalist.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 15, 2014

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