Look back to find who we are

In a year, Singapore has lost two men who were at the forefront of its development to a modern nation today.

While many of the older generation mourned the passing of Mr Lim Kim San and Mr S Rajaratnam, such feelings were lost on our youth. There is a sense that the youth today only begin to discover about these great people in Singapore’s history only after they become, well, history.

Mr Rajaratnam himself had feared that the youths today would not have a sense of nationhood as they did not experience the struggles of the pioneers.

And he may be right, despite how well Singapore seems to be doing, a recent survey of teenagers by the Singapore Press Holdings indicated that slightly more than half of them would consider emigration. Perhaps the reasons for emigrating are not explicitly a lack of sense of nationhood, but surely, giving up citizenship for somewhere else does imply a lesser value on what Singapore means to these teenagers.

As I consider heading overseas for exchange and perhaps even a career out of Singapore as well, I find myself going through scenarios where foreign counterparts ask me, “What is a Singaporean?” and I find myself lost for words.

This is where I think history can play a larger role in our lives, because by looking back at our nation’s history we can find out where we have been and where we are going as a nation.

Like many youths, I only learnt about the contributions of Mr Lim and Mr Rajaratnam from the news coverage after they passed away. My history lessons in secondary school never taught me this much.

In fact, I think many youths grew up with the simplest view of our history: Raffles founded us as a modern trade port before Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) successfully brought Singapore from independence to where it is today. Along the way, we had to deal with communists and racial riots, but we survived them all.

It is this lack of colour and depth that might have failed to capure the imagination of many of our youths, leading to apathy towards our history and nationhood. There is a need to delve much deeper and encompass a much wider scope in the history of Singapore that we are exposed to. Perhaps, in our desire to simplify history to make it easier for our youths, we have made it too bland.

Beyond Raffles, the PAP, the struggles with communists and racial tensions, there is much more.

For instance, who were the Barisan Socialis? For an opposition group that actually won 13 out of 51 seats in the 1963 state elections, the most ever by any opposition even up to today, few Singaporeans know about them. Tell me more about the other men who worked with MM Lee, like Mr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Toh Chin Chye. I do not want to learn about their contributions only when it is time to mourn their passing.

Perhaps due to the necessity of the situation then, some stories could not make the light of the day, but as Singapore forges towards its 41st National Day, there is a need to view our past much more critically to grow as a nation.

Let us hear more points of view so that we can have a more holistic notion of our history. How did the communists themselves view their place in the struggle for nationhood? What was it like being hounded by the Internal Security Department?

Our knowledge of history seems to lack a kind of contrast that will serve to illuminate our understanding of this nation.

So, what is a Singaporean?

I think he is someone who is still unsure of his past and place in today’s world. He is someone who is only beginning to dig deeper into history so that he may one day proudly proclaim: I am a Singaporean.

The Nanyang Chronicle, 8th Aug 2006

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