Raffles Renounced AMA with Sai Siew Min & Faris Joraimi

Sai Siew Min (left) and Faris Joraimi (right) holding up signs to verify that they are answering questions on Reddit

To round up our Raffles Renounced discussions, we hosted a Reddit AMA with editors Faris Joraimi and Sai Siew Min. For those unfamiliar with Reddit, the platform acts as a cross between a social media site and a forum, with one of the most popular sites (or Subreddits) being r/IAmA (“I Am A”). Users on r/IAmA host “AMA”s or “Ask Me Anything” posts where they get the public to ask them questions about their job, research, personal experiences, or whatever they feel makes the mundane more interesting. 

We received some very interesting questions about Singapore history, which Faris and Siew Min handled wonderfully with their combined eclectic and in-depth knowledge of all things history. We’ve consolidated the questions and responses here. 

Do note that we have only consolidated main questions and direct responses by our editors. You can read the discussion and additional comments in full here. Alternatively, you can click on each Reddit user to go directly to that thread.

Comments have been edited for clarity. 

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Hi! We are historians and we edited a volume of essays on how and why the stories Singapore is telling about its past are tying Singaporeans up in knots.

I am Sai Siew Min. I am an academic who researches Southeast Asian histories with a focus on Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. And I am joined by Faris Joraimi, a university student who examines the history of the early modern Malay world.

It all started in January 2019 with Singapore's celebration of the bicentennial of Stamford Raffles' landing in 1819. This was odd. Surely an independent nation had no reason to celebrate the coming of its former coloniser? Odder still was the fact that the birthday bash was rather grand and lasted for an entire year. Things managed to get even weirder when Singaporeans were told that we weren't really celebrating our 200th birthday but our 700th one. Suddenly, Singapore's colonial past was well, passé, and everyone was talking about Singapore's "pre-colonial" past. What was going on? We decided to get a bunch of artists and scholars together to find out why Singapore suddenly got more than three times older in just two hundred years. What's the story behind the math? Or maybe "stories" is a better word because 200 and 700 are not the only magic numbers. In the very beginning, there was 1965. What are these numerical mysteries telling and not telling us?

Want to know more? Join us for a discussion on Singapore history.

 


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Reddit User: In his blog Work Class Historian Loh Kah Seng wrote about writing a 'people's history' (after Howard Zinn) of Singapore. With reference to Operation Spectrum in 1987, he proposed to investigate the lives and socio-economic circumstances of the unnamed people whom the Op Spectrum detainees had been trying to help, before they were detained under the ISA. Loh Kah Seng wrote, "Singapore history also needs to begin moving beyond the 1950s and 1960s."

Do you think Singapore history can ever truly move beyond the 1950s and 1960s without also a historical reckoning with the Cold War? As we have learnt from K Shanmugam's six-hour public interrogation of PJ Thum in 2018, till at least three years ago, cold warriors were still well and alive, peeking out from concrete watchtowers behind imaginary iron curtains, through their ideological binoculars, with their machine guns at the ready. How are we going to perform a thorough reckoning if that sorry spectacle from 2018 were to continue to repeat itself in the years and decades to come? When will cold warriors quit their watchtowers and dismantle the encrusted old walls and iron curtains?

The cultural studies scholar Chen Kuan-Hsing argues in his 2010 book Asia As Method: Toward Deimperialization, that decolonization, de-Cold War, and deimperialization have to proceed simultaneously. According to Chen, we cannot decolonize without undoing the effects of the Cold War, without deimperializing both ourselves (the colonized) and the other (the colonizers). Would you agree that this is also the challenge or task of doing Merdeka history? How do we de-Cold War, i.e. undo the effects of the Cold War in the present?

Edit: In case it wasn't clear, the 'cold warriors' implied in my second paragraph refer to the one who publicly interrogated PJ Thum, and those who attacked PJ Thum following the event.

 

Faris Joraimi (FJ): I think Singapore history can move beyond the 1950s and 60s, but it has a long way to go. For starters, we are still haunted by the unresolved trauma around Merger and Separation. The specter of Sino-Malay racial anxieties continue to cast a pall over 'race relations' in Singapore and Malaysia today. And as recent as 2015, the State erected a memorial commemorating our fight against 'the communists'. The bogeyman of 'communism' remains a crucial component of the PAP's legitimising myth. I think doing Merdeka history definitely involves addressing both these issues head-on. A decolonial history must undo the colonial legacies of racial thought that informed the politics of Merger and Separation, that persistently shape our vocabulary about power and social hierarchies here. A decolonial history must also reclaim the spirit of social and economic justice encapsulated in the push for Merdeka-- only then can we begin to reform the exploitative systems that continue to oppress marginalised and less privileged groups in Singapore today.


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Reddit User: Why was the Temenggong in charge of Singapore not the Sultan of Johor? If there’s Bukit Larangan then there’s royalty in Singapore, what happened to them?

 

FJ: This requires some background on the political structure of the Johor-Riau-Lingga kingdom, which Singapore was part of. The kingdom consisted of a few 'domains', each governed by its own powerful chief: Pahang was under the Bendahara, or Grand Vizier, and 'Johor' (which in those days meant Singapore and the Johor River system) was held by the Temenggong, whose job within the kingdom's government included collecting taxes from passing ships and maintaining maritime security. The Sultan himself - who lived on the island of Lingga - functioned as a figurehead providing some semblance of centralised authority. In reality, however, real power in the kingdom was vested in the 'Yang Dipertuan Muda', Bugis chiefs who resided in Pulau Penyengat, off what is today Tanjong Pinang in Bintan. As you can see it was a decentralised political system that was highly complex and maintained by relationships and hierarchies between the chiefs. The Europeans were adept at exploiting the tensions between these groups, however, to gain a foothold in Riau and Singapore. You can read about this in Carl Trocki's book, "Prince of Pirates".

 

Reddit User: So... what happened to the Temenggong after he "sold" Singapore away?

 

FJ: He became filthy-rich! Just kidding... his son Daeng Ibrahim did, after the British convinced him to stamp out piracy in Singapore waters, which earned him their trust and cooperation. Daeng Ibrahim expanded the Chinese agricultural system which the Johor Temenggungs traditionally relied on for revenue, and earned tons of money from a monopoly on gutta-percha, a kind of latex that was used to coat the telegraph cables linking Europe and America. His son, Abu Bakar took Johor to the next level by turning it into a modern administrative state with its own railways, postal service and even a Constitution (introduced in 1895)!



***

Reddit User: What kinds of histories are hidden from view in Singapore, and why do you think those histories are hidden?

 

Sai Siew Min (SM): Depends on what you mean by "hidden from view?" Do you mean deliberately censored or simply because these histories do not surface because of lack of popular interest? Or perhaps ignorance? Or lack of source materials? These are also some of the more common reasons why some histories are not written or have yet to be written.

 

Reddit User: I think for me, I keep hearing stories about the "hidden histories" of marginalised people. For eg. Hidden queer histories of Singapore. I wonder what other hidden histories of Singapore there might be…

 

FJ: I think one major 'hidden history' in Singapore that doesn't receive much attention is the role of the Left in the anti-colonial movement and in shaping Singapore's politics. Singapore was a thriving hot-bed for Leftists, with trade union members, school students, journalists and members of the intelligentsia working towards the creation of an independent, socialist, non-communist Malaya. This largely collapsed with the crackdown on the Left in the 1960s, most notably with Operation Coldstore in 1963, where hundreds of people were detained without trial.

 

SM: In that case, I feel "hidden" may not be the right word. These are not deliberately "hidden" but histories that have yet to be written.

 

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Reddit User: Thanks for hosting this AMA!

As academics, do you face any limits or challenges in pursuing this line of inquiry, especially when forms of historical reckoning could be seen negatively as a kind of 'revisionist' history? Also, do you think there's a general lack of accurate historical understanding amongst Singaporeans (and if so, how can it be changed)?

 

SM: Historical research and writing is by its nature "revisionist," because historians can and do write on the same topic from different perspectives, so this is not a bad thing. It's not so much that we don't have an "accurate" historical understanding. It is that we don't seem to know how to address history from different perspectives, especially perspectives that conflict, appear contradictory or are not "balanced."

 

Reddit User: It seems like you're trying pretty hard not to imply that certain histories, or certain versions of history, are just plain wrong.

 

Reddit User: Wrong by our current standards in our time of history. But not wrong when they were first written or expressed in a different time and age when society was a lot more different.

We can't retroactively condemn everything about our more barbaric past, without considering that back then nobody saw a better alternative, or even if one existed it didn't have widespread support.

Yes, slavery is an abhorrent economic practice that has no place in our modern world. But before industrialisation happened, how do you think economies functioned? More than utilising animal labour, humans were far more plentiful and intelligent to handle complex labour intensive tasks. And we like to blame Western powers for the scourge of slavery in history but we don't talk about how African warlords themselves were more than happy to feed slavery with their own kind they captured and enslaved in their own wars on the African continent.

 

SM: : ) I was trying very hard to point out the severe limitations of binary thinking when we want to understand the past. In the end, all histories are about studying and understanding human activity, broadly conceived. I find it hard to reduce the human being to just two opposing sides --- "right" and "wrong." That's not what doing history is about.

 

Reddit User: What a diplomatic, academic response.

Without reducing any particular text or historical account into "right" and "wrong" surely there's room in your discipline to point out where two narratives diverge and which interpretation is more accurate. Surely you have the ability, and the freedom, to call an obvious falsehood false.

Just to take an example from recent history of an obvious lie, when Donald Trump said his inauguration audience was the largest ever, it might be accurate to describe the American public as "tied up in knots" about it, but confusion about the truth does not make it any less true.

 

SM: True vs false, another set of binarisms. Guess I have not been diplomatic and academic enough, so here goes. Let me clarify by saying that for historians and those who practise the craft, the principle of factuality is key. History research and writing begins from an evidentiary base, that's the foundation, What I was talking about, historians working from "different perspectives," applies to histories with that evidentiary base. And if these histories diverge from one another, it's not because one is more "right" or "true" and the others are just plain "wrong" or "false." Your Trump example is instructive. While he told plenty of lies and these should certainly not be used as "facts," what is significant is that his lies and conspiracies are believed by so many, and they have generated consequences and effects. This phenomenon is an important "social fact" in and by itself, and I can imagine some historian using his lies to write a history of conspiracies and their effects on American society for example.

 

Reddit User: One of the reasons his lies have generated such consequences and effects is precisely the unwillingness of many people in politics, the press, and elsewhere to name it for what it is, false.

When someone says that the earth is flat, you can say "that's an interesting perspective" all day. But at some point you have to be able to say that the earth is in fact, not flat.

 

SM: Trump has been called out for his lies all the time, even before he became President! He became powerful despite being called out, that's the point. And how long did it take for humans to accept that the earth is not flat is actually true?

 

***

Reddit User: Where (and when) are women in Singapore's history? how can a focus on women's history (not just of them but by them) problematise what we know about Singapore's history?

 

SM: Thanks for this question. This is a huge topic actually but I must say even a history "of women" is needed because so little about women's role in history is written about. For example, women as political leaders in the anti-colonial movement, women as activists, mobilizers, writers and women in the Left wing movement in general.

 

Reddit User: if you could pick one - and I am asking this with the knowledge that this question does not do justice to the history of women and women's histories - where do you recommend we start, and why?

 

SM: Why not start with women in the post-World War 2 anti-colonial movement? There is some stuff written on it so we won't be starting from absolute zero, we still have some room to do a deep dive.


***

Reddit User: Was Singapore a real famous place for piracy? The Malacca Straits has this long history of piracy, I wonder if these pirates have ever set up a base of operations in Singapore due to the great location before Raffles came. This would be fitting since internet piracy is one of the highest here in Asia, guess our pirate legacy still carries on :)

 

SM: "Pirates" in Singapore were also legit traders, fishermen, and in general, followers of the Johor-Riau Sultan and Temenggong.

 

Reddit User: Regarding the Johor Riau sultanate aka Malaccan sultanate, I heard that after the Portugese conquest of Malacca, they found lots of guns in Malacca. My source would be the Odd Compass YouTube video on the Portugese Conquest of Malacca I guess. These guns were locally produced in Malacca. I wonder if Singapore had a gunsmithing industry?

 

FJ: That's an interesting question. We do not have archaeological evidence that suggests the existence of a gunsmithing industry in Singapore in that period. But certainly-- the local Malay kingdoms in the Early Modern Period, such as Aceh, Johor, and Brunei, did actively use firearms including flintlock rifles (istinggar) and handheld pistols known in Malay as terakul. The Bugis warriors used these effectively, as mentioned in battle-scenes from the old Malay chronicles like the Hikayat Siak and Tuhfat al-Nafis.


***

Reddit User: What's the history of Singapore's nightlife? Why are these gorgeous model-looking women staying in fancy hotels for free all the time? What's their job? Has there been any scandals related to the club and hotel scene? What's the criminal underworld like?

 

FJ: As one of the most prosperous cities in Asia since the 1920s, Singapore has enjoyed a reputation for hosting a vibrant nightlife for decades. We had public street-lighting by the late 19th century, well before electricity reached the rest of Malaya, and this allowed people to stay out late for longer than before. Because of the economic opportunities Singapore offered, musicians, artists and composers from across the region came to Singapore in droves and built a bustling entertainment industry. These people included Zubir Said, who came here in 1928 from West Sumatra and became a conductor for a Malay opera company. After the Second World War, pop culture and mass entertainment in Singapore boomed. Crowds thronged amusement parks like Happy World, Gay World and New World after dark, neon-lit and packed with everything from Malay dance-halls like the famed Bunga Tanjong, Chinese wayang and boxing rings, among others. In the 1970s there was a thriving discotheque and cabaret scene, with musical venues like the Tropicana on Orchard Road, and the Neptune Theatre Restaurant being popular hangouts. These were the precursors to the contemporary nightclub scene we have in Singapore today.


SM: Just to tag on to Faris' response, for the Chinese community, the history of the criminal underworld didn't start out being "criminal." They evolved from kongsis, or syndicates that controlled Chinese migrants, i.e., labour, in Singapore. Because the British didn't create a dedicated office or bureaucracy to govern Chinese labourers until quite late, they depended on Chinese leaders that could command and lead the Chinese labourers coming into Singapore. Other than "kongsis," they have also been called "Chinese secret societies," which is a misnomer because most of these societies and their leaders were not so "secret" and were known by British. To cut to the chase, these labour groups were increasingly "criminalized."

 

Reddit User: Many of the secret societies were themselves offshoots of the Tiandihui, various fraternal organizations who opposed the Manchu Qing Dynasty rule. Other sister organization of these include the Tongmenghui, which became the Kuomintang party, and the various triads Hong Kong and overseas communities. That being said many Kongsi were rather innocuous organization which engaged in legal trade and otherwise functioned as social clubs for people of a particular village lineage, dialect or ancestry etc. This last part is somewhat speculative and I’m not a professional historian, but I would say that given the nature of how southeast Asian Chinese emigration was spurred by such dissident producing events like the Qing conquest of Ming, community takeover of China etc, it won’t be such a stretch to say the criminal element is inextricably tied to Chinese emigration to the area.

 

SM: One of the problems with researching the historic Chinese kongsis in SEA is the outsized influence that organizations like Tiandihui and Hongmen have in Chinese popular culture but also in the imagination of Anglophone writers especially during the colonial period but it seems we are still suffering from a colonial hangover. Political reasons motivating expulsion and exile, voluntary or forced were surely reasons responsible for migration out of parts of China but this should not be overestimated. So I will exercise lots of caution in arguing that the criminal element is "inextricably" tied to Chinese emigration here. Even before European colonization of the Malay world, different Chinese migratory groups were already moving or sojourning in the region, trading or settling where they were protected by local indigenous rulers. This was also the arrangement the British and the Dutch used i.e. offer protection and work with pre-existing Chinese networks and groups to establish their trading outposts and colonies (Refer Raffles and 1819) but it also meant that the autonomy of Chinese migratory groups and their activities needed to be increasingly checked and brought under their control. And historians find that one of the ways the British justified bringing the Chinese migratory groups/kongsis under control is to criminalize them and activities, hence my point above. I suppose given this history we can now understand why the outsized influence of the likes of Tiandihui etc in popular imagination. Definitely not "inextricably criminal."



***

Reddit User: What was Singapore's role in the Vietnam War, and how did the war itself change Singapore?

 

FJ: Singapore did not participate in the conflict. The most eventful impact would be the arrival of Vietnamese refugees to Singapore, who were turned away. A number were held temporarily at St John's Island before being sent to places that did accept refugees, such as the U.S. and Australia.


***

Reddit User: Could Raffles have chosen any other nearby island besides Singapore and made that into a bustling port? e.g. Batam, Tanjung Pinang

 

FJ: Yes absolutely! He did seriously consider other islands in the Riau Archipelago, most notably Pulau Kerimun Besar or Pular Kerimun Kechil ('the Carimons').


***

Reddit User: On Feb 15 1942, could you share at what time did Percival sign the official surrender document with the Japanese government? Thanks!

 

FJ: This report from Time magazine a few days after the surrender says 7pm. 

 

Reddit User: Thank you! But I'm curious, do we have official records archived, or can we only based on open sources to corroborate?

 

FJ: You can check out the newspaper archives! Search around the date (February 1942), something will turn up. 



***

Reddit User: Hello! Thank you all for doing this IAmA. I've been studying and working on a piece about the pre-Islamic coinage of SE Asia, particularly the islands of Sumatra and Java. I apologize if this is a bit too early for your field. There is an obscure tin coinage that has been linked to the tail end of the Srivijaya of Palembang (no confident dates have been put forth) to an even rarer type that has only been discovered to date in Malacca. The local collectors and experts that I have talked to attribute this to the early diaspora of Srivijaya who settled Singapore (Temasek) and later the earliest rulers of Malacca. Was there much of a direct connection between the early Malacca rulers and Palembang, where they traced their lineage? And can you suggest any readings or anything else to learn more about the earliest transitional period around the fall of Srivijaya and the connections between it, Temasek, and Malacca?

 

FJ: I have no idea about the coins, but according to the Sulalatus Salatin there was a direct genealogical connection between the rulers of Melaka and old Srivijaya-Palembang. The Portuguese and Chinese sources, however, point to a break in the chain, with the usurper Parameswara (also from Srivijaya) taking over the rule of Singapura before his descendants went on to found Melaka.



***

Reddit User: What's something or someone from history that Singaporeans should know more about ?

 

FJ: Something: Operation Coldstore; someone: Munshi Abdullah.



***

Reddit User: Hi Siew Min and Faris!

Fellow History/Politics grad here. Besides a career in academia, what other careers have you seen your fellow peers get into in Singapore? Were they successful by any matric of judgement, be it personal goals or societal expectations?

Also, how do you make a case for a History/humanities education in STEM-obsessed Singapore? It seems that Singapore is a country that does not respect or give proper respect/importance to the study of humanities and history beyond what is government-mandated as civics and social studies education. I believe we've all had the anecdote of telling others in Singapore that we study history, and the first reaction people have is "what are you going to do with that, besides becoming a teacher?". Said almost like a disapproving question too. Feels like people who are humanities-minded are a lonely bunch in Singapore. I feel that way a lot.

 

FJ: Hi, I’ve seen history graduates in Singapore go on to work in the civil service and in cultural institutions like the National Library and some of our many museums. Of course by ‘any’ metric of judgement some of them were sure to be ‘successful’. I think going into history means you are making the decision fully aware that you are not likely to get paid as well as a career in corporate finance or big tech, for e.g. As sobering as it seems, I think if ‘success’ to an undergrad means making tons of money, don’t do a history degree! Simple as that. It does, however, give you valuable research skills and a view of the world that people without a history training may not be exposed to, and that’s hard to put a price on. I’m an idealist, so my case for a humanities education in STEM-obsessed Singapore is that it provides a lot of the tools citizens need to build a robust democracy: good reasoning, a critical sense of the past and present, arguing charitably, and a keen interest in matters of public concern.

Of course, I also believe we shouldn’t always measure things by their ‘use’: Singaporeans are also always taught to think in terms of utility. And I realise it is a privilege of mine to not have to think so much about getting a degree that pays well; but often-times the value of something like knowledge of history and the humanities are simply impossible to quantify. Each individual also has different reasons for getting into it. Last semester one of my professors asked us the question of what ought to be the task of the historian— my response was that the historian ought to be a public intellectual, and their role is to bring clarity and sound judgement to public conversations about our pasts, and how they are interpreted/used/remembered. He on the other hand made a case that its highest value is in the pleasure inherent in inquiry itself— inquiry as a form of play, a fundamental human need that lies outside the logics of use and monetary value. These perspectives do place humanists in the minority here in SG, but there are like-minded people out there :) Reach out, form communities of discourse and learning, and you’ll find yourself in good company.

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Read the AMA in its entirety here

Purchase a copy of Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History here

 

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