SINGAPORE: When Singapore celebrated its 50th year as an independent nation-state in 2015, it was a national movement embraced by most Singaporeans.
The Golden Jubilee was viewed as a significant milestone that marked Singapore’s coming of age as an accidental country made good.
When plans were announced to mark Singapore’s next historical anniversary - the Bicentennial in 2019 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Singapore’s founding by Stamford Raffles - public responses have been a lot more ambivalent.
A NARRATIVE IN QUESTION
Those who supported the anniversary argued that 1819 was historically significant in that it marked the beginning of Singapore’s modern history - a decisive point of inflexion that saw its transformation from an obscure regional trading post to an internationally connected colonial port city, a trajectory that led to Singapore’s current position as an economically successful nation state.
In the two hundred years since the East India Company first set up a trading post in Singapore, the island witnessed major developments that contributed substantially to making Singapore what it is today, so the argument goes.
The colonial port city brought riches and attracted a plural migrant population that eventually became Singapore’s cosmopolitan society. Modern infrastructure as well as legal and political frameworks were introduced to underpin a polity that eventually became a city-state.
It has been claimed that without that turning point in 1819, Singapore might not have taken off. This surely must be a historic milestone worth commemorating.
But this viewpoint is not universally endorsed. The decision to expend effort to commemorate the anniversary of 1819 has been criticised as an unnecessary and insensitive nod to colonialism.
Many have asked:
Why should Singapore be celebrating 200 years of colonial subjugation and exploitation?
Just as objectionable is the implication that by celebrating 1819 as a historical start point, we are acknowledging that Singapore had no history before the arrival of the colonialists. This simply reinforces the mangrove-swamp-to-metropolis national narrative that we are all familiar with, but which unfortunately cuts out at least five hundred years of history from our consciousness.
Dismissing anything that happened before 1819 as unimportant and insignificant deprives us of a heritage linked to the rich history of the region, including that of the Malay world.
For a relatively young country that has consistently and consciously embraced its colonial past as an integral part of its national narrative, it is not surprising that the Government has been keen to endorse the bicentennial. Plans are now afoot for a series of activities to mark the anniversary next year, although we have been reminded that this is not an extension of SG50.
NEEDS TO BE ORGANIC
Not unexpectedly, the Bicentennial has generated its fair share of debates in the mainstream and social media. This is not a bad thing; it is a healthy sign that citizens have taken an active interest in our history.
A monolithic, state-driven narrative is no longer sufficient; people now want the stories to resonate with them. They want to find personal meaning in our history.
It is for this reason that the Bicentennial initiative has to be sensitively framed. While the state might want to take a lead in terms of coordination of effort and resources, it should, as far as possible, refrain from imposing a top down, state-curated event.
The Bicentennial could be used, instead, as an opportune occasion to stimulate an organic effervescence, inspiring people to be an active part of an effort to engage history. An inclusive process, involving a myriad of stories, can be a gratifying experience.
The Singapore Bicentennial Office, tasked with organising the event, is aware of these concerns and is carefully navigating its way given the complexities of the issues at stake.
The organisers have been careful to emphasise that the events are not intended to celebrate the glories of colonialism through rose-tinted interpretations of the history of the past two hundred years. They have also found it necessary to accept that Singapore has a history that far preceded the arrival of the British.
The Bicentennial, in a way, is actually commemorating 700 years of history - hence the adoption of a logo that reflects a 700 year journey. It is now clear that 1819 was not a point of origin; it was a mere pivot in a much longer storyline.
A RICH AND COMPLEX PAST
In my view, if we accept the Bicentennial as an opportunity to turn our attention to the long history of the region and Singapore’s place within it, and, at the same time, find personal meaning in that history, the event should be welcomed.
The narratives that will emerge from this moment of reflection should veer away from the statist or elitist perspective; instead there must be greater space for a range of voices from communities and people.
The approach should not be celebratory or didactic. Rather, it should generate reflection of how we came to be, with a “warts and all” approach that would acknowledge the blemishes, disruptions, twists and turns of a complex past.
We might want to reflect on the larger forces that have shaped our history and, in many ways, our identity as a people.
It is important to understand how Singapore has had a long and deep connection with the region; that globalism and the centuries-long processes of globalisation generated by trade and diaspora have been enduring factors in our history; and that openness to flows of people and ideas have consistently been the lifeline of this island and continues to be so.
And finally, if the Bicentennial can serve as a catalyst for further ruminations about Singapore’s history, and not be a one-off national effort to be forgotten once 2019 passes on, then I argue that the Bicentennial, like our golden anniversary, would be a worthwhile endeavour.
Tan Tai Yong is President and Professor of Humanities at Yale-NUS College.