Singapore Day 1 – History and Identity

After a long day of travelling yesterday and a LONG sleep last night, I woke up this morning pretty excited to start the study tour. And also anxious, because anxiety + travel to new places = a few days of what I like to call ‘settling in’ anxiety.  It happens to me everywhere (except the UK), so I suppose you could say that I’m used to it.

Today started off with the topic I’m probably the most comfortable with (and the most interested in) – the history of Singapore.  Well, actually, a discussion of historical narrative and how it relates to the identity Singapore has constructed for itself.  You may not know this about me (in fact I don’t really see why you would unless you’re one of the people I’ve gushed about it to) but collective memory/historical narratives/identity narratives are what I want to focus on now that my undergrad degree is (essentially) over and I’m getting into the big wide world of postgrad!

One question we were asked to consider in our lecture today is ‘why bother learning about history if it is inherently subjective and used to benefit and shape nationalist movements (amongst other things)?’ As a historian AND a politics/IR student the fact people even question the validity of history upsets me.  I mean, yes, obviously we should be critical of historical narratives, particularly those that are used by groups to bolster their ideology, but that doesn’t mean it should be discarded completely.

History, particularly history that is linked with identity and memory, impacts how people act now, and their goals for the future.  It literally affects everything in one way or another – either trying to replicate, justify, make up for, or ignore.  Take for example Japan’s relationship with the rest of Asia, it remains strained in part due to the atrocities committed by Japan during World War II and their failure to remember and act upon their history in a way that the victims of these atrocities view as being adequately sympathetic and apologetic. Or consider Singapore’s past as a British colony, English is still an official language in Singapore to this day, and Sir Stamford Raffles is still credited as the founder of Singapore (even though he was only actual in the country for three days originally to sign the treaty/paperwork/etc).

How we use history, both as individuals and as a wider community, to shape our identity is also crucial.  Groups might chose to shape their narratives around shared triumphs (such as overcoming British colonialism and gaining independence in the case of Singapore) or shared tragedies (such as Japanese occupation and brutality in from 1942-1945).  These triumphs and tragedies reflect the Official narrative, or the History of the group – the version of events accepted by the majority, or at least by the people in charge. Which in turn leads to counter memories, alternative historical narratives that challenge and occasionally replace the original official narrative.

Bored yet?   I can get a little carried away.

It was just so interesting to visit the Asian Civilisations Museum and the National Museum of Singapore and see which parts of Singapore’s history (as a part of South East Asia, a colony, and an independent state) have shaped where Singapore is today, fifty years on from independence.  The way the roles of all the different cultures that have influenced and had contact with Singapore were portrayed was fascinating.

Also we got caught in the end of the monsoonal downpour of the day, which was fun (and a nice break from the sticky, hot humidity of the tropics).



One thought on “Singapore Day 1 – History and Identity

  1. Your uncle Bruce and I lived in Singapore for a couple of years at the dawn of independence, 1959-62: very exciting times for the creation of new identities. One of my jobs as an editor at Eastern Universities Press was revamping old colonial textbooks (“substituting palm trees for oak trees”) and editing new texts being written by young local teachers. Love your posts! Joan


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