Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The censorship of history in Singapore: a response

My blog post about Singapore's National Library Board preventing a former political detainee from speaking at a history seminar prompted a heated debate in the comments and a response from fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Clement Tan, with whom I have locked horns in the past.

I'd like to respond to a few of their points in light of the carefully worded statement released by the NLB, which has been published in full on Ravi Philemon's blog.

The NLB's communications director Amy Gay says that the inclusion of ex-detainee Vincent Cheng in the line-up of speakers for the National University of Singapore History Society seminar "was not consistent with the direction of the initial proposed line-up, of academics".

The NLB, she says, had originally agreed to host the seminar, entitled "Singapore's History: Who Writes the Script?", because it was in line with the organisation's focus on exploring "the role of key movers in Singapore's growth from a fishing village into a modern nation".

Although her language is oblique, she seems to be saying that it is ok for certain Singaporean academics to talk about alternative histories but not former political detainees.

The clear implication is that Singapore's national library reserves the right to vet speakers at any events held there according to how closely they stick to the official historical narrative.

This is not so much the nation-building role outlined for the city-state's educational institutions by the Peoples Action Party-led government but a partisan, political party-building one.

The naysayers, like commenter Autolycus, attempt to dismiss my claim that academic freedom is regularly threatened in Singapore by pointing out that some critical books about Singapore are on sale in the city-state's bookshops.

But one act of academic censorship (and there have been many similar incidents over the last decade) has a much more damaging impact on the quality (and quantity) of public discourse than allowing one particular critical book to be sold.

The regular, overt attempts to restrict public debate in Singapore have a chilling effect, with academics, journalists, social activists and ordinary citizens fearful of the consequences of openly debating political issues even loosely related to the legitimacy and/or performance of the PAP-led government.

The NLB's actions send a signal to students, academics and others interested in history that certain subjects ought to remain off limits. Unfortunately there is no clear signal about where exactly these red lines (or "out-of-bounds markers", as they are often dubbed in Singapore) are drawn so ambitious Singaporean academics (or those who want to ensure that they can get a job) invariably give even vaguely sensitive issues a wide berth.

As for Clement Tan, he says that I seem to "to imply that ALL Singaporeans are incapable of critical history". I did nothing of the sort.

The problem is not with Singaporeans' mental capacity (which I don't doubt) but with the state-run institutions that have persistently made it clear that debates about history are to be restricted in order to leave the "nation-building" official narrative intact.

I totally agree with Clement that taking a critical approach to Singaporean history does not have to mean being critical of the PAP - it goes without saying that the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew have accomplished a great deal.

But the fact is that, for whatever reasons, the PAP government and its civil servants fear a genuine, open debate about Singapore's history.

At the same time, they are well aware that using soft repression to ensure a climate of self-censorship is much more effective and less likely to attract attention and adverse publicity than banning books.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your lengthy and considered comment. I fully appreciate your explanation of what you really meant by "appreciate".

    I think you and your co-author did a good job of bringing out the multiple voices in Singaporean history than are very rarely given an airing in the city-state.

    But it seemed to me that the breath of your approach narrowed once you turned to address the rise of the PAP.

    Was there a sense in which you had to be much more careful about what you wrote once you were dealing with this more recent and, in political terms, sensitive history?

    When you say the book had to be "vetted", was that something you and Yu-Mei took upon yourself or was it checked externally?

    I'd like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book and think it does much to round out the skewed historiography within Singapore.