Review: Symposium on the Makers and Keepers of Singapore History

Listening to the speakers at this day-long symposium held by the Asian Research Institute, I could not help but realise how history like journalism shares the issue of gatekeeping. One after another, the various scholars of Singapore history brought us through the different gates of history and also from the perspective of makers (outside) and keepers (inside) to paint a fractured view of history — heavily contested and sited in uneasy power relations.

History like news are products of perspectives and only differ in terms of rigour of methods. After all, both tell stories of people, places and events in the past and the most exciting type of history corresponds with the sexiest news values: conflict! However, one would expect much more rigour in terms of how far history looks back to more corroboration and interpretation because it is creating facts.

Creating facts? Does that not hint of something less than objective? That was another thread at the discussion and one concludes that as in journalism, objectivity is an ideal and also a crutch. While being an insider brings one too close to comfort for objectivity, it heralds an access to information that often reaps more benefits than staying detached from the subject. However, being an insider of one would also mean you are an outsider of another, so there in lies another problem with being too close to one source: it comes at the expense of the other.

Moreover, history is so tied up with personal memory and that itself is another site of subjectivity. Memory is not something concrete or fix, it is in flux and can be moulded not only by oneself but the conditions around it. So how can fact not be a creation? The method and the matter are complicit collaborators of this product!

Perhaps, what situated me in a possible postmodern symposium for me was a brief conversation I had with some participants about the place of history in Singapore today. Professor Edwin Thumboo feared that this country “had become international, before national” and that explained why there existed this distance between its people and the country. And if distance was like a lens, then it explains why to so many of us, what is taught as history comes across as propaganda. The further we feel we are from it, the more it looks like propaganda — after all history is simply a matter of perspective.

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