Thursday, September 23, 2010

Guard against romanticising leftist past

Sep 23, 2010

By Ong Weichong

IN HER Aug 14 article 'In search of the other Singapore story', Straits Times journalist Clarissa Oon highlighted the growing interest in Singapore's alternative histories and posed the big question: 'Does it really matter?'

In answer, several academic historians posited that there is a necessity to come to terms with the complexities of Singapore's history, including alternative narratives to the state-centric version of events.

While recognising the complexity of Singapore's multi-layered and multi-faceted leftist past, Singaporeans should also remember that the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was responsible for acts of violence and subversion that undermined the security and independence of post-colonial Singapore and Malaysia.

Singapore's left-wing movement consisted of a complex milieu of actors ranging from labour unionists to intellectuals and student activists. This does not, however, hide the fact that the CPM did attempt to overthrow elected governments.

The crafting of alternative narratives is necessary to inject greater breadth and depth into Singapore's historical landscape. But we should be careful in romanticising the actions of those who employed violence in their attempt to overthrow the elected governments of Singapore and Malaysia - and in so doing took and threatened the lives of innocent civilians on both sides of the Causeway.

In a hallmark CPM 'flag display'marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency, a number of communist flags and banners were found throughout Singapore in the week of June 17, 1974. On June 20, a banner-attached booby trap exploded without causing any casualties. The danger posed to the civilian population by CPM booby traps was, however, very real.

In the mid-1970s, the infiltration of factories with the hope of recruiting supporters for the purposes of sabotage as well as the assassination of selected individuals at 'appropriate times' were CPM objectives in urban Singapore.

In Malaysia, the violence perpetrated by communist insurgents and the communist underground was far more devastating. On June 4, 1974, Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Hashim, the Malaysian Inspector-General of Police, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur by a breakaway faction of the CPM, the Communist Party of Malaya Marxist Leninist Faction (CPMML). Between 1974 and 1978, at least 23 police personnel were assassinated by so-called 'mobile squads' of the main CPM and two other breakaway factions. Targeted assassinations and grenade attacks also claimed the lives of retired security personnel and civilians.

Recently declassified British and Australian archival material suggests that despite certain reservations, the British and Australian governments recognised the necessity of the counter-insurgency, counter-subversion and nation-building efforts adopted by the Singaporean and Malaysian governments to contain the CPM threat. Many of these documents have yet to be thoroughly analysed but when they are, chances are that they would be read against the grain by academic historians seeking to challenge the narrative of the state.

In academic history, alternative narratives have become the norm rather than an exception. For example, research councils in Britain and the United States are more likely to fund projects that look at marginal or alternative narratives instead of those with state-centric agendas. In the field of historical scholarship, challenging the state has become the intellectual 'in-thing'.

This intellectual fad for challenging state-centricity, however, does not always challenge what we already know. Moreover, even renowned academic historians are not immune from character-assassinating political figures and romanticising the deeds of their opponents. In short, just like the official state version of events that it seeks to challenge, mainstream academic history does possess its own set of credibility problems.

Alternative histories written by academic historians do not come with a 'bias-free' guarantee. Like official histories, academic works do carry the biases and the agendas of their authors. More often than not, young Singaporean historians are prone to the intellectual trend of challenging the state-centric narrative, albeit in a critical way. This trajectory, however, presents an important question: Should scholars in Singapore be given a free rein in the crafting of alternative histories?

Critical alternative narratives do enrich the understanding of Singapore's past and go a long way in explaining what it means to be Singaporean. In this endeavour, academic historians play an important role in plugging the gaps left by the state.

The state, however, has to be the gatekeeper on contemporary historical issues that still present a threat to national security or social cohesion. The conviction of David Irving in 2006 under Austria's Volksverhetzung (incitement of the people) law for his trivialising of the Holocaust is an example of how shoddy historical scholarship can have dire effects.

Critical academic freedom is a privilege to be respected, but it cannot be at the expense of national security and social cohesion. Singapore's historical narrative would be poorer without a more nuanced view of the leftist heritage in its nation-building past. But any attempt to romanticise the actions of violent revolutionaries who caused the deaths of many would demean the sacrifices of those who gave their all to protect the independence and security of their respective countries.

The writer is an associate research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. See rejoinder to this article by historian Hong Lysa (below).

[I leave the criticism to one more qualified than me. See below.]


By Hong Lysa

I WOULD like to respond to the commentary on alternative historical narratives by Ong Weichong. This is to clarify what it is that academic historians do. There are certain misconceptions about this on the part of the public. This arises from the blurring of lines between the writing of history as an academic practice, and the general usage of the word to mean writing about the past, which anyone who has something he or she wants to say can do, and to good effect.

It is not that the one is superior to the other. It is just that the article confuses the nature of the two, and hence clouds the issues about the “alternative histories” that are being produced in Singapore. While I would like to clarify what professional historians do, I am above all concerned about the implications of the author’s argument, which I hope is the result only of obfuscation.

Two Kinds of History Books

Firstly, for an academic historian – that is, one who has gone through the rigours of writing a doctoral thesis – there are only two kinds of history books: those that are well researched and written, and those that are poorly researched and written (if they happen to get through the refereeing process, which is less likely to happen if the publisher is a reputed academic press), and the range in between.

Who delivers the judgment as to whether a historian’s work is good or poor? Academic books go through a peer review process before they are accepted for publication. When it is published, it is subjected to book reviews, and subsequent scholars cite the work either positively, and build on the insights provided by the book, or critically, to take issue with its arguments. In both instances, this is done in the spirit of furthering enquiry, to enhance one’s understanding of a subject.

David Irving has been roundly condemned in academic studies way before the matter went to court (at his instigation) for his denial of the Holocaust because the source materials on which he based his arguments did not stand up to scholarly scrutiny at all. His thesis could not stand interrogation by historians who were experts on the field.

Serious academic grants institutions like the research councils in Britain and the United States, not to mention in Singaporean universities, similarly have very rigorous selection processes when awarding grants. If they may currently seem to favour topics say on religion, this is not to say that those on the administrative history of colonial Singapore, for instance, which indeed have more difficulty in receiving a grant, is bad history. It is because what our society is now concerned about is religion and its place in the lives of individuals, the nation, and transnational linkages, all of which have hitherto not been well studied by historians.

Writings on Singapore's Past

There has been a genre of writings on Singapore’s past that has emerged
recently. These make no attempts to pass off as academic work, nor do their writers claim to be historians. These are written in the main by former political detainees, and they clearly write to tell readers about who they are and how they understand what their political detention was all about. They are autobiographical; the more prominent pieces have consulted archival documents to support their contentions. They do not even pretend to present more than one point of view.

They are plainly polemical, in the same way that memoirs and biographies of Singapore’s first generation leaders are.

What is in contention, particularly in The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club And The Politics Of Postwar Malaya And Singapore (whose editors Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee and Koh Kay Yew are former presidents of the Club and ex-political detainees) is whether they were members of the Communist Party of Malaya. There has not been proof that they were. They were never put on trial.

This is the ongoing debate in which academic historians, who have no privileged insights or personal agenda, watch with interest and comment on the discourses of Singapore history that is currently unfolding. This debate is about whether there was continuity or break between newly independent Singapore and the colonial regime, and the nature of the state in Singapore. All this is to further the enquiry into the nature of Singapore history and its ramifications.

'Trendy' essay?

The suggestion that “even renowned academic historians are not immune to character assassination of political figures and romanticising the deeds of their opponents” is a very serious charge that opens the offending “renowned academic historian” to lose the respect of their peers and opens them to charges of libel. In the case of Singapore, one has to be even more careful and certain of one’s charge before making such a statement.

I would like the author to name one work by an academic historian which aims to “romanticise the actions of violent revolutionaries that claimed the lives of Singapore and Malaysian security personnel and civilians alike”. If such a work exists, or if a David Irving exists amongst us, I can assure the author that I will be the first to denounce and condemn such a historian, and gather fellow Singapore historians and indeed those worldwide to do the same, for that would be demeaning the good name of the profession.

If the author is simply relying on suggestion and innuendo so as to write a “counter-trendy” essay – which I might add, is also a trendy thing to do – I would like to point out respectfully that the implications of such unfounded innuendo are dangerous and irresponsible. I understand that the author is a young scholar. I hope his mentors at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies will give him good counsel on what is sound and fair academic commentary.

The writer is a founding member of the group which puts out s/pores: new directions in Singapore Studies, She is also a former associate professor of history at the National University of Singapore.

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