In a review of a new book on Singapore that I penned in March, I argued that Singapore's historical narrative had for too long been dominated by the People's Action Party and its chief figurehead Lee Kuan Yew because of direct and indirect control by the state over schools, universities and the mass media.
That view was sharply challenged by Ong Weichong, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in an RSIS commentary (PDF here).
I intend to respond to his article in greater depth at a later date. His key argument was that the reason for a lack of alternative histories in Singapore was not state domination but disinterest among kids, who would rather play PlayStation games than buy history books.
"While there is a certain quality of truth to Bland's assertions on the state of historical awareness in Singapore, the main cause is not the 'government's hegemonic control over the school curriculum, universities and the mass media' as suggested by Bland, but the lack of historical empathy of many a young Singaporean."
Well, I wonder what Weichong makes of the news that Vincent Cheng, a former political detainee in Singapore, has been prevented from speaking at a seminar run by the History Society of the National University of Singapore entitled "Singapore's History: Who Writes the Script?".
In a posting on the society's Facebook page, its president Bernard Chen suggests that the National Library Board, which is hosting the seminar, blocked Cheng from speaking. The event is scheduled to go ahead without him.
How revealing that someone like Cheng, who was detained in a 1987 roundup of supposed Marxist conspirators, be prevented from talking at an academic seminar designed to examine "the repercussions of alternative narratives on the nation-building process in Singapore today".
There's no word yet from the National Library Board on why it blocked Cheng but it's more likely to be the result of action by some nervous mid-level civil servant than high-level government interference.
This kind of institutional self-censorship, which is a direct result of overt censorship by the government, is a regular feature of academic life and the wider public discourse in Singapore. (For more on this see James Gomez's book Self Censorship: Singapore's Shame, which can be downloaded free here.)
To go back to Weichong's argument, the problem is not so much the lack of enthusiasm for history, as demonstrated by the NUS students' plan to hold this forum, but a desire by the state and its actors to close down or restrict alternative views of history in order to enhance their legitmacy.
Hat-tip to blogger and film-maker Martyn See, who broke the story.