The Dream of a Just and Equal World
Independence rally at Farrer Park, Chew Boon Chin (1955)
In the year 2019, I co-wrote a play called Merdeka / 獨立 /சுதந்திரம் with Neo Hai Bin, which was produced by Wild Rice. It was written partly as a response to the Bicentennial, which marked the 200th anniversary of Stamford Raffles’ landing on Singapore soil. In the play, members of a reading group called ‘Raffles Must Fall’ meet to discuss certain texts about Singapore containing anti-colonial and decolonial ideas. As they present their research, the texts are performed. History becomes embodied, and the past begins to inhabit the present. There are stories about Raffles ordering the ransacking of the Yogyakarta royal court, a young rubber tapper joining an all-woman wing of the anti-British Indian National Army, and Chinese middle school students protesting colonial-era National Service in 1954.
While working on the play, Hai Bin and I thought that it would be interesting if the texts presented on stage were compiled into a book. We imagined the audience exiting the theatre to find copies of the book for sale, daring them to organise their own reading groups. I then approached Ethos Books with a proposal to publish the texts referred to in the play. They signed on to the idea, but unfortunately I was not able to deliver a manuscript for publication by the time the play opened. I started asking myself—the texts were debated in the play itself, but could they really fill out an entire book? What kind of framing was required such that the publication was not simply a grab bag assortment of anti-colonial texts?
Fortuitously, I learnt that s/pores, led by editor and historian Hong Lysa, was planning an issue about the Bicentennial, and we started discussing the possibility of combining our material together in one book. Historian Sai Siew Min and History undergraduate Faris Joraimi joined the editorial team. And thus Raffles Renounced: Towards A Merdeka History was born: a book containing eight essays, two interviews and 17 ‘Merdeka texts’. I see the publication as a fulfilment of a couple of dreams.
The first is to provide a space for academics and artists to engage with one another’s works. As a theatre-maker keenly interested in history and all its manifestations, I owe a great debt to the work of various historians (including Hong Lysa, whose book, The Scripting of a National History—co-authored with Huang Jianli—I consider a Singapore classic). And it is always my hope that academics will turn to artworks as serious objects of study—that art can not only generate pleasure, awe or contemplation but also vibrant discourse.
The second is to bring writers and scholars of different generations together. In Raffles Renounced, at least three generations are represented among the authors. A current of intellectual history runs through them, a shared curiosity about the meanings of ‘Merdeka’: its potentialities, betrayals and afterlives. The Bicentennial might have receded into the past, but some of the darker legacies of colonialism still endure. These include ideologies that promote the belief that certain ‘races’ are superior to others, as well as the persistent economic asymmetry between developed and developing countries. I hope that Raffles Renounced will be a useful resource for readers who believe that decolonial efforts can lend some scaffolding to the dream of a more just and equal world.
(From January 9, 2020)