Friday, May 28, 2010

Painful history: Academic freedom receives another blow in Singapore

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.


  1. Before I begin, please don't see this as a PAP defence. I'm not affiliated with them. I don't see myself as being a PAP man. However, I do have a family of Singapore historians.

    You know, I think that this kind of journalism is successful but not completely honest. It sells well. But I don't think that the PAP dominates the historical narrative as much as it did. I think that a kind of national ignorance did not protect students from the propaganda that ended up as our only history. Early textbooks are relatively propaganda-free; only the NE years were heavily propaganda-laden, and the pendulum is now swinging back.

    Kwa Chong Guan et al, 'Singapore: A 700-year History' (2009); Hong & Huang, 'The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts' (2008); Barr & Trocki, 'Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore' 2008) —these are examples of recent scholarship which don't focus on the PAP mythology.

    Barr's own earlier 'Lee Kuan Yew: the Beliefs Behind the Man'; Barr and Skrbis's 'Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project'; Trocki's 'Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control'; Yao's 'Singapore: The State and the Culture of Excess'; Heng's 'New Perspectives and Sources on the History and Singapore'; even Chua Beng Huat's venerable 1995 book 'Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore' — these are all available in local bookshops to anybody who wanted to study Singapore seriously from an alternative point of view.

    It is a chimera to say that we don't have academic freedom. We have a goodly amount. On one hand, there are a lot of areas which are 'non-threatening' — does this mean the research is not valuable or not serious? On the other, I'm entirely happy to see is that there is less of that ad hominem approach so beloved of the media elsewhere. I'm happy to see that issues like the religion and sex life of politicians are seldom raised.

    I mean, heck, you can even buy Dr Chee's stuff at Kino. :D

  2. Oops. Two typos. Barr & Trocki (2008), Heng's 'New Perspectives and Sources on the History of Singapore' (2005).

  3. Autolycus,

    But we also have Francis Seow's books not being sold in Singapore bookstores. And we know what NUS did to Chee. As far as I can see Ben did not say there was no academic freedom, but that academic freedom has received another blow. In any case, as long as a credible threat to academic dissidents exists, as we can see it does by what happened to Chee and the situation with Seow's books, the fact that other dissidents get away with publishing some things doesn't mean that they have academic freedom. The threat is still there -- it's just not acted on according to a uniform standard. But as long as the threat exists, other dissidents will be fearful and less likely to state their views.

    I also disagree that there is 'less ad hominem' in Singaporean political discourse. Issues like religion and sex life may not arise, but issues about the supposed character of politicians and their affiliations with 'Western' entities do. Focussing on character and affiliations, and not on the substantive policy proposals of politicians, is just another form of ad hominem, even though Singaporeans may have been trained to think it's less frivolous than focussing on religion and sex life.

  4. To Autolycus,

    I think you need to find alternative information other than what is available in Singapore.

    Did, you know Dr Albert Winsemius was the true architect of Singapore? He was the UN advisor for Singapore until the 1980s. It was no coincidence that Goh Keng Swee retired a year later as there was no good advisors to help him, and Lee Kuan Yew replaced the cabinet with his Yes-Men.

    Did, you know the British was apprehensive to cede control of Singapore to the local government because the PAP then was pro-communist? And Lee Kuan Yew betrayed his PAP comrades to the British just so he won't get jailed too?

    Did you know, Lee Kuan Yew was the architect of the Union and Student riots to bring down David Marshall's then fledging government?

    There are many more, but unless you are afraid to search for the truth, there will always be only one 'official' history taught in our schools.

    The issue is not about Academic Freedom but more about Academic Suppression unless it is in favour of the ruling elite.

    And as they say, 'History belong to the victor'.

  5. /// by Incredulous
    on 05/28/2010 11:14 pm

    To Autolycus,

    I think you need to find alternative information other than what is available in Singapore.

    Did, you know Dr Albert Winsemius was the true architect of Singapore? ///

    Yes, I know of Albert Winsemius. Yes, he was mentioned by the government as giving us help when we were developing. No, at best Albert was a consultant. And you know what consultants do best? They asked the locals, asked what their plans are, repackage the report and ergo - comes up with a plan for Singapore. I think you are shortchanging Singapore and giving too much credit to Albert.

    It is like saying the booming China economy and the great leaps it had made so far is due to Goh Keng Swee. Yes, GKS was consultant/advisor to the Chinese coastal city development. To credit him as the true architect of China, as you are doing with albert vis-a-vis SG, is really OTT.

  6. "Credit should go to Dr Albert Winsemius because he is the one who has Singapore's economy work during the early days."

    What is your evidence - or is this simply your prejudiced hunch?