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Coming to Terms with Historical Controversies In Singapore

On Saturday, 23rd January 2014, I gave a talk at the National Library on Historical Controversies in Singapore and how we should deal with them. I began by saying that we are living in an age of information explosion where new ways of looking at history could be easily found in the internet and other forms social media. Because of this and the rise of an inquisitive generation of youths, it is pointless for us to sidestep events and episodes of history that were previously deemed as controversial. Rather, we should celebrate historical controversies in order to move society towards full maturity and to develop Singaporeans who are ready to engage in constructive dialogues and debates.
Some examples of historical controversies include questions such as:

1. Who are the “real” Founders of Singapore? Or were there any to begin with?

2. Were the local elites working together with the British and the Japanese to exploit and suppress the local population?

3. Was the colonial state any different from the postcolonial state in terms of its management of the local population and its strategies against perceived enemies of the state and the control of the media?

4. What has been the human cost of Singapore’s road to being a First World Country?

These are some of the historical questions that have been overlooked for decades. It is more than timely for us to write and talk about these long-held queries and encourage more in depth studies on such topics. I end by saying that historical controversies would never become part and parcel of our syllabuses in schools unless the following steps are taken by all actors in society:

1. Historians and writers must exercise moral courage and write about topics that are deemed controversial.

2. The state should be open to accept investigations on sensitive topics and regard such endeavours as necessary to bring about new generation of engaged Singaporeans.

3. Educators must devise innovative strategies to teach students about historical controversies in ways that would nurture a sense of love among the young towards their country and society as well as to imbibe a culture of critique and enquiry.

More than 70 people came. Several attendees asked a variety of questions surrounding the issues on how we could make historical controversies an acceptable feature of Singapore life and education. I had extended chats with students and journalists after the session. What’s most gratifying was that everyone enjoyed the session. They gave good feedback to the organizers. It was a happy day for me; a historian who loves speaking to the public about my controversial craft.

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