What is a Merdeka History? Raffles Renounced webinar transcript
What is a Merdeka History? was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 6 February 2021. You can access the livestream here and the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited by the speakers for clarity. We would also like to thank the Singapore Association for the Deaf for working with us to provide sign language interpretation for this programme. Find out more about booking an interpreter here.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
(Top row, left to right): June (SgSL interpreter), Jennifer Kwan (Ethos Books), Joanne Leow
(Middle row, left to right):Valerie (SgSL interpreter), Alfian Sa'at, Faris Joraimi
(Bottom row, left to right): Sai Siew Min, Hong Lysa
Jennifer: Hello everyone! Thank you for joining us for this webinar for Raffles Renounced: What is a Merdeka History. I’m Jennifer from Ethos Books. I am wearing a dark green shirt, and sitting on my living room floor, right next to my router. I’m using a LAN cable so that we can give you the most stable connection possible for this!
I hope you enjoy the webinar, and I’ll do the introductions. Let me introduce the panel. Our panel consists of: Alfian Sa’at, Faris Joarimi, Joanne Leow, Sai Siew Min, and our moderator, Hong Lysa. We are also joined by our two sign language interpreters, June and Valerie, who will be providing sign language interpretation for this webinar. Thank you to the Singapore Association for the Deaf and our community interpreters for working with and helping us to make this conversation more accessible. Ethos Books is also providing live notes for this webinar and you can find the link in the Facebook chat now. Hopefully that will help you keep track of the conversation and you can always refer back to this, if you want to look up anything that the panel has discussed.
If you have any questions for the panel, please post them on the Slido link we have provided in chat. As we have limited time, we will be selecting questions and answering as many as we can at the end of this webinar.
Now, I’d like to end my part by introducing our moderator, Hong Lysa. Hong Lysa is a historian. She is co-author of the book titled “The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts”, and co-editor of the book “ The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore” amongst other titles. She is a founder member of the online journal s/pores: New Directions in Singapore Studies.
I will hand over my time to Lysa.-----
Lysa: Thank you Jennifer, and thank you Ethos for organising this webinar. Hi everyone, thanks for joining us in this event. I’m wearing my special blue top today; a garment that I keep for special occasions, it has been with me for 40 years when I started out on my academic pursuits of research. So, this is a special occasion indeed for me. Behind me is my bookshelf. This bookshelf, largely on Singapore history — it is much smaller than the collection you see in Siew Min’s room and Joanne’s as well. Alfian’s are all in his computer I believe — he travels light.
I would like to begin with making a full disclosure. I am a contributor of two chapters to the book, and was privileged to be included in the planning of this book along with the editors.
I would like to give a short preamble to the book. Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History is a response to public history in the form of civic commemorations in Singapore — the Bicentennial in 2019, which came three years after another year-long national celebration — of SG 50 in 2015. The Bicentennial has generated a good deal of talking points. Sometimes, the talking conducted not very civilly. So these questions would be as basic as, ‘Should we have a bicentennial in the first place?’ ‘Are we fortunate/unfortunate to have been colonised by the British?’ There were also lots of comments on the quality of museum exhibitions, seminars, publications, fierce disagreements about the Raffles statue. We decided to track the Bicentennial carefully, writing only after the year, when the event was over.
Now, let us invite the panellists to introduce themselves, as well as to tell us, in a nutshell, what do they mean by Merdeka history? The subject that brings us all here today.
Alfian: Thank you so much Lysa, and good morning everyone. My name is Alfian Sa’at. I am wearing a dark blue polo t-shirt. Behind me is the virtual background of the Wild Rice theatre. I am the resident playwright of a theatre company, which is called Wild Rice.
To answer that question of what is a Merdeka History, I thought of this question while doing the play Merdeka / 獨立 / சுதந்திரம் , which was staged in the year 2019, the same year as the Bicentennial. I would say it is a history that is anti-authoritarian, a history that is able to provide some kind of liberation, or dignity, to the person who is pursuing the history.
I will give you a very short example from the play itself. In the play there is a reading group called Raffles Must Fall. There are 6 members of that group, and they try to uncover anti-colonial movements or moments in Singapore’s history. One of the characters, this Malay person, delved a little bit deeper into the history of the signing of the Singapore treaty in 1819 by the Temenggong and Sultan Hussein with Raffles. One of the things he discovered was that maybe it wasn’t a case of the Sultan being greedy, because that was the kind of history that he has learnt all his life, and that has contributed to a kind of self-loathing in him, as a Malay person; to identify with a Sultan who apparently was so seduced by coin that he sold away the island. So this is the way the narrative has been reduced. When he realised that there were elements of gunboat diplomacy, that the British were really powerful — even that the Sultan himself was trying to secure an advantage by assuming he was manipulating the British, but it turns out, because of the power imbalance, he himself became manipulated.
It’s a history that tries to recover the voices of the people who were vanquished, who were subject peoples, and people who were silenced by that. At the end of that scene, there is a song, an old Malay Asli song. That’s my way of saying that... There’s a saying that ‘History is written by the victors’ but what about the losers? Were the other losers always silent? And in that scene, when someone sings that song, and that song is a lamentation, a song of mourning. And it restores a kind of subjectivity to those who we call the losers of history.
Faris: Hi everyone, my name is Faris Joraimi. I’m an undergraduate at Yale-NUS college. I’m pursuing my Bachelors in History. I’m wearing a light blue shirt and I’m inside my bedroom. Behind me is a closet and a pile of boxes.
To the question of what is a Merdeka History, there are multiple meanings to this. It’s a very layered term but personally to me, I will touch on one aspect of a Merdeka History that resonates with me. That is, thinking of it as an approach to understanding the past that embeds Singapore in the regional; rather than a paradigm of our past that privileges the migratory and the global — as we are often taught as history in Singapore.
I’d like to go back to the part right at the beginning of the book, where we have an epigraph featuring 4 definitions of the word, ‘merdeka’. We thought it would be a good idea to foreground the word in this book. What's interesting is that the entries range from national dictionaries from Malaysia and Indonesia, and each of them include the dates that those countries achieved merdeka.
So if you look at the first one taken from Kamus Dewan Edisi Keempat, that’s THE national dictionary of Malaysia, and it includes the date that Malaysia achieved independence on 31st August 1957. Rather: the Federation of Malaya, not Malaysia. Second, you’ve got the national dictionary of Indonesia, the Kamus Bahasa Indonesia Lengkap. And that also includes the date that the Republic of Indonesia achieved independence on 17 August 1945.
So this is to acknowledge that merdeka as vision and aspiration was regional. We also have one entry from a colonial dictionary from 1932 — this is R J Wilkinson’s dictionary — to show that the word pre-existed the anti-colonial movement. That the idea of freedom and liberty had already existed as an indigenous conception. Finally, we have the original Sanskrit definition — this is from a late 19th century dictionary, by an Orientalist named Carl Capeller — as a reminder of how the word is a time capsule, a lodestone to a deeper Malay past, also shaped by connections across cultures and languages. And it is this history — at least these multiple pasts — that we are tapping on when we invoke the word ‘merdeka’.
Siew Min: Hello, good morning everyone. My name is Sai Siew Min. I’m a historian, and I work on the history of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a specific focus on European imperialism, politics of colonialism and nationalism, race, language, and Chineseness.
I’m in my study right now. There’s a very messy bookshelf behind me because I’ve run out of shelf space. I have short hair and I wear spectacles, and I’m wearing a light grey one-piece outfit.
So, my answer to what is Merdeka History…. I’m drawing on Alfian's and Hai Bin’s play Merdeka. To me, there are two things I want to highlight: which is, firstly, that Merdeka History is a regional history, and secondly that it is a transethnic history. Thinking about this as a historian, regional history, that is an important context, because a lot of history that is written by historians are nationalist histories. They start from the premise of the nation-state framework. So a lot of historians are invested in writing nationalist history. But in the play, you see that it’s trans-national. And when we are talking about using the term Merdeka History instead of decolonial history, Lysa’s point is that ‘merdeka’ is our term, meaning the region and not just Singapore. I think the term Merdeka History captures that regional dimension very well.
Secondly it is transethnic. So, while historians are moving away from just writing nationalist history — or being more conscious of using the nation state framework — there is an increasing trend towards writing world history, or trans-imperial history, which is a very ‘in’ thing now in academia. One strand of that is the history of diasporas. So we have the history of Chinese diaspora, the Indian diaspora, the Arab diaspora from Hadhramaut, Yemen...
These are some of the trends in recent historiography. But I do note that while these are diasporic history, they are premised on an ethnicised framework, or even racialised, if you’re not careful. For me therefore, the transethnic dimension becomes very important. Because the Malay world is that site of intersection for all these different diasporas, and the play highlights this very well. The fact that the Malay world is the site of intersection for all these diasporas. So to me, these two things, are important when we talk about a Merdeka History for Singapore.
Lysa: Joanne, please.
Joanne: Hi, my name is Joanne Leow. I am an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. It’s very cold here, so I’m wearing a maroon sweater and a black turtleneck. Behind me is my bookcase full of Singapore literature, and a fireplace with a plant on it.
Over the decade that I’ve spent living in Canada now, I’ve begun to learn the proper protocol of land acknowledgements as a way to acknowledge the indigenous communities and peoples who were here and are here on the lands that I currently live and work on as an uninvited guest. So, I am on treaty 6 territory, traditional territory of the Cree and the homeland of the Métis. I am now what is known as a treaty person, and I am bound to the rights and responsibilities that made every road, house and business on these lands possible.
So I start with the land acknowledgment, not just because I believe it’s proper protocol, but also because I found it necessary to educate myself on it, given that I work on post-colonial, decolonising and transnational literatures, teaching and research. So, what is a Merdeka History as a Singaporean now, in the diaspora myself?
I’m thinking a Merdeka History... is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time is how to think about telling a Singapore Story embedded in the region that is free of coercion that is yet unfinished and incomplete. I’m speaking to you as a literary and cultural studies scholar, so when I’m thinking about history as performance, history as acts that we conceive of together, where we can sit with very complex and uncomfortable truths, and sit with the messiness of the past. The incompleteness of the archive, and the things that have been lost, but also the things that can be written together. So, I think that a Merdeka History is a conversation that is plural, and one that is ongoing, and I’m hoping that we can continue to have this conversation and enjoy it as it unfolds.
Lysa: I think our panelists have got us sitting at the edge of our chairs, all very promising.
So, if I may say what I think of as a Merdeka History, I would say that it is an interrogation of bicentennial history. When we decided on the title of the book, we were tossing between decolonial history and merdeka. It is thanks to Alfian’s play that the Merdeka word has been revived and brought to the forefront of our consciousness and historical imagination. This book took the shape that it did as an outcome of Merdeka (play). It brings us into that historical consciousness of an imagination, not only of the past, but the possibilities of the present as well.
Alfian, could you please tell us about the historical plays you have written?
Alfian: Thank you so much, Lysa.
My interest in history as well as playwriting… I could trace it back to when I encountered your book, Lysa. So Lysa and Prof. Huang Jian Li co-wrote a book Scripting a National History, Singapore and its Pasts. As a playwright, I was attracted to the idea of scripting a history. So, what is this script? If it’s a script, if it’s something that has a dramaturgical structure, then we’re looking at history which consists of heroes and villains and conflicts and drama. I have to thank you for that, Lysa. I found an entry point. I saw the word ‘script’, and I was like, ‘OK this is calling out to me. This is where I belong.’ So, I go back to 2015, which is the year we had this extravaganza called SG 50. Wild Rice was commissioned by SG International Festival of the Arts to create something. When I hear SG 50, I instinctively ask myself, ‘Why just 50? How can we understand Singapore’s history?’ As Siew Min mentioned just now, it’s that focus on a nationalist history. It’s a truncated — an impoverished history.
So I was looking at SG minus 50 (-50). What about the 50 years that preceded our national history? It consisted of a Malayan history, a colonial history. So I created this play that aimed to look at 100 years of history, not just 50. That’s double, it’s like a mirror image, right?
We started in the year 1915, all the way to 2015. Everything took place in a single hotel room. There are 11 scenes, each scene took place in a certain decade. So, 1915, 1925, all the way to 2015. Incidentally in 1915, what happened was the Sepoy Mutiny (also known as the Singapore Mutiny). There was a couple — an Englishman and an Eurasian woman — they were in Singapore for their honeymoon. It just so happened that day that they were going to a public execution of the mutineers in Singapore, and the husband was like ‘Oh yay, once in a lifetime event, let’s go and watch this!’ And the wife is thinking like, ‘Oh no, it’s our honeymoon, do we have to do something that’s so gruesome?’ I wanted to explore the spectacle of colonial violence, and how normalised it is or how people who were spectators were thinking ‘This is important, this is a lesson for what happens when you revolt against the empire.’ So 1915, etc. That was my play, Hotel.
At that point of time it was looking at historical backgrounds to drama. I wanted to see what happened in 1915 and 1945 (Japanese surrender). Those formed the background of what was happening. There was still drama, characters, all these dramatic elements. But as I thought deeper about history, I became attracted to questions of historiography, how history is written, and how I can elucidate this in performance? Therefore, in 2018, I did this play called “Tiger of Malaya”. I was asking questions such as, ‘What does it mean to perform history, to reenact the past and the present? What does it mean to embody the past?’
These are very interesting questions, because we see reenactments done by the state in the Singapore Bicentennial. There was the bicentennial experience and this one scene where actors behind glass performed as Singapore soldiers, Javanese soldiers in the 16th century. They were like exhibits in the museum, but hey, these were exhibits come to life. What does it mean when you have live actors performing these characters from the past? When you do that, there is dislocation of the past to the present. You can see the tensions that exist in that, because obviously you can never reconstruct the past in the way that can really bring it to life. There’s always some kind of intervention of the present into that casting. So, I did “Tiger of Malaya”.
To fast forward to Merdeka (play), I had actors who were interested in activating the archive, in animating the archive. So we have texts, we have speeches. What can we do with this? How do we perform these things, for example? In the play, I have a speech by Sukarno. He read it at the opening of the Afro-Asian conference, also known as the Bandung Conference in 1955. As you would know, Sukarno was a firebrand orator, he had all these rhetorical flourishes. And the speech was in English. In the play, the actors decided to perform the speech, but to do it in an introspective way. What we would call ‘performing against the grain.’ This is something historians also do, when they go into the archives, which is to ‘read against the grain’, especially if the archives tend to be silent about the voices of the oppressed, or the marginalised, or those who have been left out of the records.
When they were reading Sukarno’s speech, and they were reading quite quietly, it ended with the word ‘merdeka’. We are so used to Merdeka being something lustily-shouted, that’s an exhortation, a collective shout. What happens when individuals utter it quietly? In a way that projects the word inwards, rather than outwards into the public? In a way that becomes quite private? You have these 6 actors, and they all mention the word “merdeka’, but they all do it very reflectively. The last actor mentions ‘merdeka’ — and these are stage directions — almost like a whisper. In one of the essays in the book, Lysa quotes David Marshall who says that ‘merdeka’ is a sacred word. Is it sacrality in the fact of its shouting, or when you whisper it, does it assume another kind of sacredness? I’m interested in this idea. It’s evolved from just using history as a kind of background to what my characters are doing on stage, to actively looking at how we are writing history.
Even in Merdeka (play), I have characters who are performing citations. This is one of the things that excited me. A footnote for example, is probably one of the most undramatic things I can think of. So, how then do I perform a footnote on stage? When we were first reading the script, the actors were — and even the directors were — like ‘What is this? Where is the story, the narrative? Who’s Carl Troki? Why do we have to quote him? Why —?’ ‘Footnotes are footnotes lah, not dramatic.’ But I wanted to elevate the footnote to the level of a performance text, the same level as an anthem, a speech, all the sources we use for historiography, for history writing.
Lysa: Thanks, Alfian. Yes I think that scene that Alfian was telling us about, is really the highlight of Merdeka (play). That particular scene was shown at the book launch last week, and it’s available on the Ethos Facebook page (timestamp 11:25 - 14:58). If you want to relive that scene, that’s where you go. The nice part of it is that Alfian paired that scene with a reading from an extract of the book by a historian. That kind of mingling of the two — which really defines what our efforts are about. Joanne, over to you.
Joanne: I was going to say, Alfian, I hope you never have to write my dissertation as a play. I don’t know how my footnotes would be performed. Might be very exciting. Or maybe not, it may be very boring.
Lysa: How would you appreciate Merdeka (play)?
Joanne: As a literary and cultural scholar among historians, I think the play is a wonderful example of how to think about a text in its political context. Also, in the disciplinary and academic context as well. In the work I do, I don’t just think about the content, but also the methodology or the way/mechanics that a text functions. And the performance that I saw on screen, really lends itself to being close-read and analysed closely because of the clever ways that the playwrights have chosen to frame the play itself. When I talk about frames, I mean the play is also a series of plays within a play. So there’s a frame narrative. And there are all these reenactments of history.
By paying close attention to the form, you come to understand the strategies that the play is using to talk about, one, the complicated and fraught relationship that performance arts, dissident art, political art has in Singapore to the state. There’s always this tension in the play, there’s a particular part I note, “Theatre doesn’t change anything” (also the title of my chapter in Raffles Renounced). The characters, at the end of the play, decide to make a show and the rest of them panic. ‘What about my job?’ ‘What about my reputation?’ There’s a palpable fear and unease, the uneasiness of the power of live performance, and what it can do to change the way people think, to open up a space for thinking and alternative ways for imagining the ways of nation, people, community and history.
I think that Alfian and Hai Bin have included a wealth of primary sources and references. Drawing from the very script of history — fragmentary and incomplete as they may be — sometimes all you have are public documents, not archival ones but you have speeches, newspaper articles. Using that and bringing these texts to life, literally embodying them in this immediate and communal method of theatre. There are some humorous moments in the play where the characters break the 4th wall, they address the audience and it becomes this important, collective experience. Thinking of the ways I read text, they restore stories and histories that have been rendered invisible. Or taken out, de-emphasised in authorised histories of Singapore. The stories have been brought into conversation with each other — which I think have never been done before.
And I enjoy how the play messes you up about chronology. There’s no linear or sequential idea of Singapore’s history. You just move back and forth to achieve the understanding that Singapore’s history as a series of cycles, of repetitions, resonances, echoes… I think that’s a powerful way of fighting against a textbook history taught in secondary school and Junior College where it’s like, ‘Raffles came and before that we were a sleepy fishing village. And look at us now.’ This kind of teleological understanding of Singaporean history.
One thing I do want to point out, aside from performance and temporality, is the idea of meaning-making. The play forces us to challenge what we think of as truth, given the absences in the archives. I want to end by thinking of one scene from the play merdeka, another scene where the word ‘merdeka’ is central. It’s that scene where we’re with Lee Kuan Yew at the 1963 Malaysia Solidarity rally. Like for Sukarno, it’s also a great moment of oratory. It’s a fiery, magical speech. But before that speech, the character Siew in the play, prepares the audience, breaks down the fourth wall and addresses the audience and she says ‘It is 1963, all of you, all of us, are at the Padang now, we are attending the rally. Lee Kuan Yew is 39 years old.’ It’s that moment that Alfian’s been talking about where the past is violently brought into the present. Theatre takes you there. And when the audience repeats after the character ‘merdeka’, you feel it in your body with all its complications. You revisit and are in the moment. That is honestly one of the most powerful moments in Singapore theatre that I've had the privilege to experience.
Lysa: Thanks Joanne, Alfian, I think it’s time to restage Merdeka (play) so that I’m more educated when I watch it this time. We, as historians, benefit from how the literary and cultural scholars examine a historical play. The way we look at things may be along the same lines, although from within our own disciplinary lenses.
Faris wasn’t here for that period when Merdeka (play) was being performed. He was overseas. So perhaps SM you could give some ideas… You were the one who wrote about this on your Facebook. You came over on your Singapore stopover, abandoning your family and domestic responsibilities just to watch this performance… What drove you to make such a crazy decision to do that? Was it worth it?
Siew Min: That was a crazy move actually… But I felt that — because I was following the Bicentennial activities pretty closely, then you had merdeka, this play. I felt that — I missed several of the Bicentennial events — and so I felt that I shouldn’t miss this one, for some reason. Other than the fact that I’m a fan of Alfian’s writings.
After watching it, and going back to my opening remarks — it was inspirational and aspirational. Talking about Merdeka History being regional history and a transethnic history and defying the lens of history of diasporas that’s so popular today amongst historians. I myself study Chinese-ness more closely, and I’m beginning to be more conscious of the limitations of using an ethnicised framework. Even though this is stretched out transnationally.
Merdeka brings this out quite forcefully for me, and by surfacing the Malay world as the site of intersection between these different diasporas. It’s so compelling because you see the characters being influenced by Indian nationalism, Indonesian nationalism, the anti-colonial freedom movements, the Chinese students getting in there. Putting all these together, and yet, not in that usual “Oh we’re so cosmopolitan, multicultural... the unproblematic multiculturalism, the unproblematic celebratory cosmopolitanism. And you see all the people in the reading group struggling with the CMIO categories… I really liked that tension. It struck me that — the play really pushes me as a historian — to think about all the disciplinary boundaries and frameworks we have been working with. That, to me, was very inspirational. At the same time, we’ve bound by the texts that we look at, sources that we use. That is part of our training. In that sense, I’m asking myself, how do we write a regional history of Singapore? How do we write a transethnic history of Singapore? To me, it is also aspirational. Hence, towards a Merdeka History. The play poses some questions and challenges for historians.
Lysa: Thanks Siew Min. Alfian mentioned historians reading against the grain. Is that what you do?
Siew Min: Yes, I use a lot of colonial sources too in my work, but I also read along and against the grain, and I know what constitutes the grain actually shifts. It’s not only going against the grain, but you also have to know how to read along the archival grain — quoting Ann Stoler’s wonderful book — and of course, what constitutes the grain in the first place.
Lysa: You must know what you’re reading against in the first place, right. To get onto the idea of historians trying to grapple with what people in theatre and culture studies are doing… Joanne, if you can give us a short lesson on what the phrase ‘performing history’ means? What is it that we, as historians, don’t do? Since we don’t perform history, what do we do with history, in that case? If you could give some indication of what that means to you?
Joanne: I was really also thinking about the idea of laying bare the mechanics of the performance. I thought about those moments in the play where the characters tell you which scene they are going to enact. They put on a single piece of clothing, or a hat or sash, and they ask you to suspend your disbelief in this reenactment. When they perform the history, a lot of the play is performed in this funny, hyperdramatic, sometimes melodramatic way. There’s a lot of dancing and song. Some people overplay their lines, in very significant ways, to show you that there are many different interpretations of how something on a piece of paper — a text, a word — can be played. One example that I think about in play is that, when you finish watching the play, what do you think of Raffles? Is he some deified colonial founder? Or simply a rapacious, deceitful, racist imperialist? Is he both of those things, because he’s been constructed as such? Or is he something in between?
When we talk about the performance of history, it allows us to access this spectrum of meaning. It allows the audience to be skeptical, to question themselves. If I saw Raffles in this scene, he seems so convincing and charming. But that scene came after he was being a complete jerk before. How am I going to weigh these multiple personas of someone who is such a singular and influential, formative figure in Singapore’s narration of itself? When you start to understand that there are strategies, dramatic ironies, ways in which certain dates and events can be emphasised, for particular agendas and to tell particular stories — when you think about the performance of history in the speech of a politician, who insists on the centrality of 1819 as THE start point for modern Singapore — then you can start to question mechanics. You’ll understand that a lot of history — we can’t possibly recreate it down to the tiniest degree — is actually a performance and has an ideology behind it.
Lysa: Alfian, would you like to add to that?
Alfian: Taking up the issue of reading against the grain, I just want to elaborate on instances where there was a performance against the grain. I have 6 actors, it’s quite a multi-racial cast, there are only two Chinese actors. In one of the scenes, we staged the Chinese middle school protest against national service conscription in 1954 in Singapore. They’re all wearing these Chinese middle school uniforms and obviously, they’re not all Chinese students. That incongruity is a generative one. It’s not a failure to represent accurately for me. Instead, it is an imagination of a transethnic solidarity. We had transethnic elements, which we may not have uncovered yet or might not be emphasising in the way we write our histories — since we were so beholden to that idea that Chinese were only concerned about China and Chinese nationalism, Malays were Malay nationalism, Indians were like...Indian National Army — having incongruous casting, seeing different faces in all these uniforms, it helps us imagine the future. Not just about representing the past, but potentially opening up that space for possibilities.
The other thing that performance can do, fill in the silences in the archives. There's this account where, before Sultan Hussein ceded the whole of Singapore in 1824, he had resisted for three months. There’s that line. Sultan Hussein — I’m not even sure the word is resisted — but hesitated for those three months etc. In the play, rather than just saying it for three months, another actor says ‘one month’, ‘two months’, ‘three months’. That dilation of time provokes the audience to ask ‘What was happening there? Why the resistance?’ So it cannot so easily be the case of him being bribed or succumbing to monetary incentives. He was actually considering it, maybe he was pressured? Performance gave me that space to question why those are the motivations, or what are the possible motivations? Also to rehabilitate the image of a sultan who was so greedy that he just sold off the island. Performance has allowed me to explicate those shadowy corners of our history.
Lysa: And we really don’t have documentation or evidence relating to the Sultan, do we? Aside from the sources that you have used. We do not know what he looks like.
Alfian: It’s scant, and fragmentary.
Lysa: His motivations, his considerations and so forth… He has always been cast as one that is self-serving.
Alfian: Yes, yeah.
Lysa: You can imagine it in the theatre. Historians have a bigger problem…
Alfian: This reminds me — the historian Nur Fadzilah Yahaya from NUS — we had interesting discussions about this. She says that artists have a longer leash when it comes to speculating, conjecture what happened. In defense of artists, I don’t think these are just acts of pure imagination. We did not invent the three months, it is still three months, but we put in questions there.
Lysa: Historians, any reactions to that? Faris?
Faris: This idea of performing history is interesting if you look at history in the Malay world. The idea of history being performed is quite literal. Up until the late 19th century, the Sejarah Melayu — the text where our Sang Nila Utama stories come from — was still being performed at the court of Riau to the sound of cannon salutes on special occasions. It was incorporated into state ritual and there was a proper way to perform it and recite it. The fact that Singapore is incorporating elements of the text, it is itself participating in a tradition of historiography that is very much part of the Malay world’s approach to history. It was a court history, so it was not a public history. It was not publicly performed, the same way the rallies and speeches were.
It only became a public history when the British took those texts and taught them at missionary schools in the early 20th century ,turned them into textbooks and things like that. As a result, that history which was once talismanic and had acquired a sacred and exclusive status, now became part of a national Malay history. Commoners and peasants were being taught it and it became part of their own imaginary. Then you have problems, because a lot of the anti-colonialist activists and Malay nationalists were resorting to this history, looking back into that past as a source of pride and dignity and saying ‘Oh, we had a civilisation and we should kick out the colonials’ and all that. Again, resisting that temptation to — even the kind of histories that we inherit from colonial educational policy officials — that’s also a task for a Merdeka History. We need to untangle ourselves from what we think are resistances to colonial history, but are really just resorting to the way history is taught to natives about themselves by colonial officials.
Siew Min: That’s a good point on the impact of colonialism. Picking up on the idea of race here, because Faris was talking about that. I think doing a Merdeka History has additional significance for Chinese Singaporeans. This was what I was trying to address, part of it in my chapter in the book. Certain received wisdoms about Chinese-ness in Singapore are problematic because of the colonial period, and what we’ve inherited from them from that period. Or the narrative and discourse that enabled colonisation of the Malay world.
I dealt with two points in my chapter and that is: that Chineseness is usually traced to ancestry in China, that China is a unitary idea of China that somehow developed organically and naturally on the Eurasian landmass. That idea is problematic. It’s been paired with an equally patriarchal interpretation which neglects the long standing links of SEA Chinese in the Malay world in SEA. It’s paired and twinned with an equally masculinist history and a benign history of colonisation by Raffles starting from 1819.
The second element I addressed is racial characteristics. The hardworking Chinese migrant paired with the idea of the lazy native. While we have accepted and even amplified the myth of the hardworking migrant — migrant grit, diligence, the contribution of our hardworking ancestors, etc. We have not really addressed or unpacked the myth of the lazy native, and these two things go together, because they are part of the narrative that was perpetuated during the colonial period to enable colonial capitalism. Those ideas of race that we have inherited, replayed, reassembled, perpetuated, amplified in the 700-year narrative, need to be unpacked if we were to talk about Merdeka History. Actually, this is a good time to read something from a book. It’s not in my chapter, so I will take the opportunity to read this quote out loud. It’s a book called Taming the Wild: Aborigines and Racial Knowledge in Colonial Malaya by Sandra Khor Manickam, published by the Association of Asian Studies of Australia, co-published with NUS Press :
“Marsden and Raffles had already put forward the hypothesis of Malays migrating into the Malay Peninsula: a history of migration from the neighbouring islands into the peninsula is also present in court writings in Malay. The argument that the ‘natives’, in this case Malays, were actually migrants themselves found resonance among European scholars because it positioned themselves as one in a long line of colonists. This argument was also made in reference to other parts of the British Empire.” (pp. 37)
I note here that ‘Marsden and Raffles had already put forward the hypothesis — I underlined the hypothesis — of Malays migrating into the Malay Peninsula.’ This was what the 700 years (book) narrative was trying to do by pulling 1819 all the way back to 1299, starting with Sang Nila Utama migrating to Singapore. While there is a lot of noise about the 700 year narrative being revisionist history about modern Singapore. What we seem to be doing is using Raffles to revise Raffles. This is food for thought about what the 700 year (book) narrative accomplishes.
Lysa: That’s quite a lot to digest. But you’ll be coming back to it, especially the question of migration when you talk about your chapter more specifically later. Thanks for that Siew Min. I have a series of questions here which I’ll read out:
- What is the relationship between the documents historians and dramatists?
- How important is historical accuracy or fidelity?
- To what extent is an historical play playing with history?
- Is the historian's work best amplified and popularised by plays?
- Does that mean historians should be academics who remain — to a large degree — unloved and unread?
Perhaps, that’s not a bad thing. We need our quiet space. That’s my opt-out for historians. Anyone?
Alfian: I’ll jump in about that relationship between artists and historians. As you know, I am indebted to historians who have helped me think about history in a much evolved way. When you were younger and you study history in school, you think it’s about memorising dates and ideas and names. But over time, learning about historians and writers such as Hayden White... He wrote a book called Metahistory (1973).
He says that the writing of history is a literary activity which uses narrative tropes. History is a form of storytelling, you can write history as a form of tragedy, you can use the ironic mode, the comedic mode etc. What’s interesting is his assertion — of course, we can contest this — that the difference between the writing history and fiction is that matter of degree rather than kind. He has reshaped the field by coming in from the perspective of literary criticism and it's been quite productive for me as an artist to access that and apply it in my own work. Lysa, you said there’s a phrase ‘playing with history’.
Lysa: I’m not playing with history, I’m just playing with words (laughs).
Alfian: I like this phrase ‘playing with history’. There’s some implication that there’s some mischief afoot. How dare you mess with facts, play fast and loose with the facts, or evidence. As a theatre-maker, performance-maker, my idea of playing is — I’ll give you an example — in Merdeka (play), there is Chinese middle school protest and I wrote in this character who joins in the protest because he’s got a crush on this girl. And people questioned me — in fact this was something Hai Bin had written — he really resisted it in the beginning because he said, “I don’t think the Chinese middle school students… they were quite virtuous, quite guai and they focused on studies and resisting the British, I don’t think they had time for romantic liaisons and relationships.’ But I was like, ‘No la, come on la, they can’t be so square right. They’re like at that age you know…’ I think we’ve scrubbed these kinds of possibilities out of the record.
People fell in love, come on, it’s a natural thing, it’s a human thing. So he was convinced in the end to have this guy join the protest because he was in love with this girl. And it was kind of sad in the end when they got the colonial government to back down a bit, and this guy confessed like,’ Oh I kind of like you,’ and the girl — it was not mutual — so she says ‘ Oh we were doing this for you, to continue your education. We’re still in school, let’s focus on our studies.’ And then she calls him Comrade (tongzhi). And what is interesting is when you reenact something from the past and it’s invaded by the temporality of the present, you get this weird thing where — so tongzhi (Comrade) in slang today is a codeword for ‘gay’. So that scene has this weird layer where she calls him Comrade but she’s kind of implying that ‘You can’t be in love with me because you’re gay.’ This is what I mean by playing with history, the kind of playing that I enjoy. Putting different timelines together and seeing history writing as being quite presentist in nature. We can’t help but bring our present perspectives into the past and sometimes they leak into it and create something funny.
Lysa: Thanks Alfian, I think Faris is dying to come in about presentism in history. But before I do that, you mentioned Hayden White — I have tons of Hayden White stories — and here I will tell you another one. To me, History [as a discipline] can be divided into pre-White and White (Hayden). History not being able to present the past to us, but telling the past to us in certain ways, which fall into certain storylines, as you mentioned, romance, comedy, tragedy and satire.
When I was... in the 1980s when I returned and started teaching at the university, my colleague at that time, who works in Vietnam, still remembers — to this day, I am told — the time I rushed into his room to say: ‘Guess what, we’ve been telling stories’. As historians, that’s what we’ve been doing. We happened to have just published our theses at the same time. He wrote his thesis on the birth of Vietnam, and he said, ‘Good grief, I have written a romance.’ The birth of Vietnam, this organic beginning, this destiny to nationhood of the Vietnamese, so essentialist. The book is classic and remains such. I, on the other hand, looked at my thesis and said, ‘Eh, not bad, I wrote a satire.’ It’s full of how history is presented at that time. How Thai history is told differently at different times. Under the military regimes and open politics of the left and so forth. I make sure that my writings do not fall into the tragic mode. In our context, history to me is not that tragic, I don’t think I have the right to do that. History, to me, is not that tragic, it is not the history of the gulags. So I try to keep it ironic, because then it is more open-ended.
Faris: That's interesting, that your history is not depressing. I think in many ways, what the historian does is try to uncover, uplifting scenes from the past. Because a lot of the way history has been used in the present is to tell very depressing stories that different races/ethnic groups in Singapore were innately antagonistic, or that we are always in need of an authoritarian mediator. But if you look at history you will find many things that contradict these cynical logics and they that compel us to work towards a present and future that are not straightjacketed by these presentist histories.
Lysa: The very fact of historicising. That's why we do what we do. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all? Joanne, anything to add to that?
Joanne: I feel like I’m learning a lot, from historians talking about how they’re working. The field I work in is very influenced by many historians reading against the grain, like Lisa Low, or anthropologist historians like Ann Stohler. To me, now it seems as if the line between historians and artists is blurred. I’m going to read all of you as cultural texts and cultural practitioners and producers. You are all telling stories, and what’s exciting about this particular moment, brought on by the Bicentennial… I remember when I first heard about it, I was overseas, I got into a bit of a tizzy where I was like, ‘Why? Why are they doing this?’ To the point where ‘But I’m a post-colonial scholar and this negates everything that I work for.’ And I would sometimes present work on Singapore and put this as an aside, ‘We’re celebrating our Bicentennial this year’ and the audience would be like ‘What?’ And I had to explain why.
But I think this moment has propelled the book and the plays, thought provoking and intelligent essays in the book and without the book, about people coming to terms and grappling with what it meant to sit through that year with the bicentennial celebrations. And I think that the state’s intentions for the Bicentennial backfired and you’re just like, ‘Wait a minute, I really need to sit down and think about what this really means.’ I think that’s a powerful thing. Interdisciplinary conversations like this one, through art but also through history and thinking critically about texts, in some ways are — as Faris put up — perhaps this is silver lining in a context where state authority that has been so pervasive or ubiquitous in a very long time.
Alfian: You mentioned the word post colonial. What's the difference between the post colonial and decolonial? If you could take us through that?
Joanne: I said post colonial, because when I first started out as a scholar that was the field, postcolonial studies, we talked about post colonial literature. And really, there are two forms of post colonial:
Post-colonial — After Independence
Postcolonial — Theoretical framework and a way of critiquing colonial legacy, and reckoning with the legacy of colonialism in the post-colonies.
All the countries that gained their independence from various empires. When we think about the decolonial, it has a very different critical genealogy. Yes there was this moment of anti-colonial struggle, before the countries gained independence, but a lot of decolonial thinking now comes out of the Americas. From indigenous thinkers in North America, like in Canada where I live, nobody uses the word post-colonial here, because settler colonialism is still ongoing. If you speak to any of my indigenous colleagues or friends, they’ll say, ‘We’re still under colonial rule.’ That arises from a very different critical genealogy of thinking about how coloniality is ongoing. Obviously, that arises from the Latin American context with thinkers like Walter Mignolo.
I do think there is much to gain from thinking about the decolonial even in contexts where you would only usually talk about post colonial. By that I mean — when Walter Mignolo says 2 things, one, coloniality is still with us, I think that’s very true even in the context that we’re speaking from in Singapore, it structures how we feel, think, evaluate. It structures our ways of being and thinking. In the play you make fun of it, like the name Raffles, it’s so atas. It’s attached to all these country clubs and hospitals, schools. That’s one small way linguistically, where coloniality persists. Of course it’s way more complicated than that.
The other thing is, how do we then de-link what is modern, what is progress? Even the idea of progress, how do you de-link that from all these colonial standards? And I think that's what decoloniality means in this context. There’s no one size fits all. You can't just import this theory from Latin America and be like, here we go, this is it. This fits perfectly. It doesn’t. That part of the work we’re also trying to do in Raffles Renounced and also in the field, is to go in and think about the particularity of SEA, of the Malay world, of Singapore. If we say we’re in a decolonial moment, or we’re aspiring toward a decolonial thinking, it has to be a completely relevant and ground-up context. You can learn and borrow — I don't believe that theorists don't cross borders, it’s wonderful that they do — but you can’t unthinkingly accept it.
Lysa: Faris, this leads to something that I’ve written down, a quote from you. In fact, I have two quotes from you, we’ll handle it separately. The first is that ‘In a lot of contexts, decoloniality tends to adopt a nativist posture in terms of racial justice.’ How would you relate that to Singapore?
Faris: Well, I don’t think that’s become a very mainstream idea, yet. This is intersecting with the discourse on Chinese privilege. Right now, you're starting to hear a lot of voices about, ‘Oh, to tackle Chinese privilege, we have to acknowledge that their presence is also enabled by colonialism, and Singapore is a quote unquote Chinese settler colonial state, and that the contemporary state still holds a historic debt to quote unquote natives (i.e Malays).’ This is what I mean by the spectre of nativism that will always haunt even efforts to resist coloniality. That in itself is actually a symptom of our own historical amnesia. We’ve forgotten that this mode of thinking, in terms of essentialised natives and migratory communities — these categories — were also constructed by colonial regimes to enforce difference etc. And this is why, in my chapter, I drew upon leftist colonialism, because the decolonial ideas in the 1950s and 1960s were not all about ethnic chauvinism and racial nationalism all the time. They understood that thinking in these terms were just falling back into the same colonial categories. To fully achieve merdeka you have to overcome that logic, of colonial, racial thinking.
Alfian: We've got a few questions from the audience. Lysa, I don’t know if you want to deal with those questions coming in?
Lysa: We’ve got some really good questions. I’m going to skip the more academic ones…
Joanne: [Reading question 5] “Singapore has updated her Raffles legacy most lucratively in global, commercial branding, as well as foreign investment. Why 'decolonise’?” I think that's a very pragmatic, Singaporean question, we should take it.
Siew Min: What would you say to pragmatic Singaporeans?
Joanne: Don’t be a playwright haha.
Lysa: There is more to life than pragmatism. It’s a point of view that has its own logic. If you accept the logic of what Singapore is then yes, but I think that Raffles Renounced is trying to say that Singapore could be more than that.
Siew Min: There’s another one about Chinese privilege.
Lysa: How do we write Merdeka history without reproducing the kind of ethnic privileges of the Chinese diasporas?
Siew Min: What Faris was talking about just now, the racialised ideas of Malayness, of Chineseness. A lot of it was implicated in the process of colonisation and colonial structures of knowledge production, the whole edifice of it. We have to be careful when we talk about chinese culture, that it comes from some inherent Chineseness. Whereas things are interpellated, interpenetrated. The ideas of the native, of who is the migrant here? That is where we can start from. Being aware of the colonial genealogies of race and how that has been so absorbed by us. That is one angle. The other is to say that the idea of an early modern or “pre-colonial” understanding of the Malay world is important. Chinese migratory communities have been sojourning and travelling, moving and settling in a permanent or semi-permanent way for a long time in the Malay world. Different polities and parts of the malay world have accommodated and absorbed these Chinese communities into their societies and systems. Those were absorbed on the terms of the indigenous polities. They were not seen as “alien alien” in the way that the colonials tried to categorise people, putting the Chinese and the Arabs and the Indians into “outsider” (category). And perpetuating this idea of Malay nativism. These are things we need to untangle if we want to talk about a transethnic, Merdeka History.
Lysa: The question is, ‘Ignore the pushing of the statue into the river idea — because I don’t want you to go to jail — how can we as communities and individuals challenge the colonial hangover?’ That’s a good question to end on. I don’t think we'll end up in jail because we’re not about to bring these wrecking balls in to knock the statue down. We’re trying to do that act, in an academic fashion, in a discussion about what we, as Singaporeans, want our society to be. I hope that whatever reactions that this book receives, will be in the same civil manner that we are doing. So if you don’t like what we say because you think we’re writing rubbish, well, tell us, write to us, and I think we’ll have a good debate. The thing about being a historian is that you know you’ll never have the last word. And I remember too at the book launch, there were these questions ‘Oh have you heard from the ministry?’ ‘Oh are you afraid of backlash?’
Why are we in this condition that everything that we’re doing would get us in trouble? I mean, I can understand the fear. But what I’m trying to say is that we are in an academic space here, and are doing things responsibly, and have not broken any laws. So, don’t worry for us, I would say. The best thing you can do is read the book, think about it, talk to us about it.
And this is the right time to mention that… by the way this isn’t the end of the story for us. Reading groups, Ethos — fantastic. They have aftercare service. Go to the Ethos website if you want to form reading groups. There’s a book club starter pack. Siew Min and Faris have provided short summaries of each chapter and discussion questions to help you get started.
Two, there is a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Faris and Siew Min, later in the month of February -- keep an eye out for that announcement.
Three, Siew Min and I are members of — and Faris and Alfian have contributed to — this electronic publication called S/pores, an electronic journal on Singapore studies. We’ll be coming up with an issue on the Bicentennial. Initially we thought we’d summarise or abridge some of the essays. But we decided we might want to do some new items, as a result of doing these roadshow things like our webinars, book launches and stuff like that...
Alfian (Interjects): There is one question, which I think is about public history, but also history in the curriculum. ‘In your opinion, how should we, ideally, teach the history of Singapore to younger Singaporeans at a primary and secondary level, in a balanced manner?’
I myself am in two minds about this. I’m very conscious that the history taught in schools serves a particular purpose. It’s a history where you are socialised (not indoctrinated) into feeling proud to be a Singaporean. And I know in many countries there’s this controversy over a critical history versus a masochistic history where you feel guilt and shame for some of the things that your ancestors might have done in the past, conquest and whatever.
So, I would love to ask the historians, what kind of history should be taught in schools?
Lysa: For me, history is not a subject for primary schools. At all. You’d have to simplify it, and it is impossible. I’m happy enough with Social Studies and Civic and Moral Education, that kind of thing. I don’t object to those at all. But when you move to upper secondary, complexities develop along the way. What you do in the classrooms is one thing, what students decide to read outside of the classroom is another. I think our book will lead teachers to help teach history in a more interesting manner. You can’t stop students from reading beyond the textbooks. Not these days, if they want to score their A++s. So, I’m cool, I think our book will make a difference one way or another.
Siew Min: I’ve always had problems with the word ‘balance’, and I wrote about it in my chapter, why I feel the balance is not actually balance. When you talk about balance, you only think about two sides. So how do you deal with multiple sides? Multiple perspectives that may not necessarily clash, but they are different? There are so many nuances between different perspectives in history. I know that when Singaporeans talk about history, we feel secure in saying ‘Oh we want things to be balanced, so we don’t go too extreme.’ Balance is a loaded word. Once you begin with balance, it sets up that frame of discussion. It makes history less interesting if you want to balance things out. That, to me, limits how you can see history in so much more interesting ways. Alfian’s play and the book and our webinar today is an effort to showcase and tell people about how interesting history is.
Faris: When I was in secondary school, my history teacher was also the teacher in charge of national education (NE). We had a lot of NE bleeding into history lessons, and it often wasn’t very pleasant. History had a very didactic function in schools and I think we should move beyond that. Progress has been made in the past decade in that we’ve shifted beyond just memorising dates and events, to a focus on skills. Developing how to read sources, the process of historical work is starting to take more prominence in histories in secondary schools. That’s what it should be for kids in secondary school. That’s one wholesome function that history can transmit to young citizens, the ability to reason and read critically, and develop arguments with care and precision. That’s one way to teach history in a way that doesn’t serve this nationalist or didactic function.
Joanne: It sounds like you’re asking to teach history in a literary way.
Siew Min: I love Alfian's idea of performing the footnote. (Laughs all around)
Alfian: It’s still theoretical at this stage. It’s a theory...
Faris: The footnotes are where all the bitchy stuff happens right?
Alfian: Exactly, it’s like all the side whispers, like the backstage gossip.
Jennifer: Everyone at home, I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you want to show your support, the best way is to buy the book. You can get the book on the Ethos webstore, or at bookstores like Kinokuniya, Times, Wardah Books, Booksactually, Grassroots Book Room, City Book Room and Huggs x Epigram bookstore. Thank you!
About the Panel