Today was another insanely busy day. We got to the campus at 9am for a two hour seminar on foreign policy in Singapore, which was pretty interesting. We spent most of the time debating whether realism or social constructivism was a more valid political theory for understanding Singapore’s foreign policy decisions, which eventually reached a bit of an impasse, which tends to happen with opinionated politics students.
After a quick lunch we got on our hired bus to go to Changi Prison. Or, as we quickly discovered, Changi Museum – the old prison used as a POW camp in WWII was demolished long ago. Our tour around the museum was fascinating, hearing stories about the resilience ( and innovation (like hiding homemade radios in mops so tat the prisoners could still listen to Allied radio broadcasts) shown by POWs in the face of Japanese brutality and suffering. One thing that stood out to me was the fact that we didn’t hear a single story about Singaporean, Malay, or even Chinese inhabitants of the camp, just about US, Australian, and British prisoners. Whilst I suppose this makes sense considering the fact we’ve come from an Australian university (and I assume quite a few Westerners visit the museum) it was disappointing that there weren’t more local stories to focus on. It just felt a bit odd. It was also quite a different experience to other museums or exhibits I’ve been to discussing POWs/concentration camps. Obviously the atrocities and appalling conditions were mentioned, but it almost felt as though they were glossed over, used simply a context for framing the thins the British, Australian, and American POWs had done. Even though the stories were about Singaporeans, the attitude definitely reflected not only the refusal to be ‘the victim’ that seems to emerge in the Singapore historical narrative, but also a balanced view in which even the Japanese are shown in a relatively positive light, which is definitely unusual for exhibits like the one at Changi. Rather than focusing on hardship or trauma there was such a focus on “mateship” – something most Australians would typically associate with our own history and identity. The more exposed I’m becoming to Singapore’s history, the more the struggle to find the balance between the representation of all the different cultures that have shaped Singapore becomes apparent.
Our second stop for the day was the Army Museum. Now, military history is right up my alley, and I’ve recently become fascinated with the way the army is portrayed and talked about. In Singapore (like in most places) the army seems to be revered, but the central role the army has played in shaping Singapore’s identity (at least according to the Army Museum) was impossible to ignore. Walking around the museum I couldn’t help but notice how emotive the language surrounding the military was, how inclusive it was. It was all about “our army”, “our country”, “creating a legacy”, “a people’s army”. The videos we watched were accompanied by emotive music. There was a lot of mention of family, sons, daughters, loved ones, and how they all connected the people back to their country. It became clear that in the narrative of Singapore, the history of the army is used to personify not only commitment to Singapore and love for the country, but also equality. In the narrative displayed in the museum, the army is a place of equals, where people from different backgrounds, classes, cultures, and religions can come together, united by a common cause – love and defence of their country.
“Every Singaporean – man and woman – makes a contribution: whether it is to keep fit and take their military training seriously, participate in mobilisation exercises, or give moral support to their husbands and sons, and employees, who are doing their National Service. The defence capability of the SAF is enhanced manifold when all Singaporeans are committed and involved in the defence of our country” – Dr Tony Tan, former DPM and Minister for Defence, 2001.
The day was insightful, but it was also long, and to be honest I’m kind of glad that we get the afternoon off tomorrow for a bit of time to ourselves. I also had a few dizzy spells today – not uncommon in the heat/not enough food & water, but still unpleasant. At least dinner was delicious!