Dedicated to Khairulanwar Zaini
The Fajar Generation has spoken, so has one intrepid historian. There is a growing realization that simply regurgitating our dominant history is inadequate, if not misleading. The dominant history dominated everything but ‘the truth’. Amidst our excitement over these emerging alternative histories, we might remember that History is one possibility, out of many, to recall one’s past and arrive at ‘truth’.
I am reminded of this story about a baby girl whom a pair of missionaries adopted. She was to grow up to preach the Word of God. Unfortunately, she grew up to love words more than God. And when she was old enough to fall in love, her lover was neither man nor God, but another girl. Faced with such irreconcilable choices, she ran away from home, from God, so that she could continue to love her words and her girl. Time passed, and her girl became history. Later on, she became a novelist, and her girl became a story in her book. Herstory.
She was often asked, “Autobiography?”
Like the Fajar Generation, like The Singapore Story?
“No,” she would reply. “There’s no autobiography, there are only art and lies.”
History. You are burrowed in the archives, poring through paragraphs of Time and Long Ago. You assess them to the best of your ability, and you transcribe them as accurately as you can. Then, you write a monograph about Time and Long Ago.
Those archived paragraphs, uttered by strangers you had never met, transcribed by you whose reliability you suspect, get published by people whose main reasons are faith in you (PhD) and making a name for themselves. Padded by ‘research’, couched in ‘academic’ language and bloated with citations (Harvard Style, 1965), your monograph about Time and Long Ago acquires a patina of Authority and gets transmitted to the outside world as History (Prestigious University Press).
A caricature of the discipline of History perhaps, but is History not a caricature of our memories?
History? Truth? Yes, to the extent that it is a history of the passing of eyes and hands, subjectivity and chance. To the extent that it is a first word and not a final sentence, that it is both a story and a question, so that the question of history – whose history, and whose story – is never sentenced, never silenced.
Facts alone do not make History, because facts do not speak for themselves. You do. So you historicize facts.
But historicization has a problem – the problem of Time.
Time has a problem too. The problem of you and I.
What am I? Atoms. What are atoms? Empty space and points of light. What is the speed of light? 300,000 kilometres per second. What is a second? That depends where in the universe you set your watch.
– Jeanette Winterson, Weight
It appears unavoidable that physical reality must be described in terms of continuous functions in space. The material point can hardly be conceived anymore.
– Albert Einstein
But for a generation weaned on foundational fixities, authority, and ir-rationalist science, the free-fall from the disappearance of foundations can be an unsettling endeavour; more fallen than freed.
If my life story is spiraled and myriad, at once true and false, rational and radical, and non-linear without any neat beginning, middle and end, how can a singular, linear, and ‘objective history’ of my life proclaim to be true? Wouldn’t it read more like an arrogant and un-reason-able lie?
History, a European subject, an imperial discipline, a masculine discourse. It subjects and it disciplines. India once belonged to the British Empire. Time passed, inevitably, and India’s history came to be written by the English. And the Indian people became the disciplined subjects of History. This discipline was wrong, not because it was not based on ‘facts’. It was factual, but false. And incomplete. And violent. History was, and still is, an enterprise narrated by Empire, for Empire.
The Indian Subaltern historians later intervened. But they had to abandon their project of historicizing India. An impossibility. Because India’s Time was not the linear Time of Europe, of History and its Euro-centric methods. India’s Time was multiple. Cyclical. Filled with myths, gods, and reincarnations no less true and real. India was another world altogether.
They realized that they had to abandon History and let loose stories. Fragments of stories, and fragments of fragments that would reveal – not truth – but the violence of truth. The pretence to truth. ‘Truth’ that enabled the subjection of peoples and the abstraction of lives.
Perhaps, as suggested by the Indian thinker Ashis Nandy, we need more than alternative histories. We need alternatives to History. Myths, rumours and folklore, the ‘forgotten doubles of History’ that constitute humankind’s multiple realities. How does one excavate the past when that past is shaped by the present?
Odd that we poke fun at myths when ‘objective truth’ is no less mythical.
We know the Great Singapore Story. You can tell The Story purely from faceless facts – this date this place these lives these triumphs. You’d probably score an A for factual recount, if not for superb recall. One Man’s Word disguised as National Education, Social Studies and History, disguised as neutral education, disguised as your own life story.
Ace this exam that tests your ability to retell the Great Singapore Story (Approved Syllabus). Toe the lines and say the right things learnt in school and cautioned by society (Approved Politics). Enjoy the fruits of thy Singapore Story.
Whose story? Which story? Whose Singapore?
The Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew’s Little Red Book of Third World to First, or the Singapore of J. B. Jeyaretnam’s assassination by the Hatchet Man? The aspirations and later exasperations of S. Rajaratnam, or the enduring indictments of Francis Seow, inexorably tarred into exile? The archived speech of yet another Golden Age by Lee Hsien Loong told to obedient laughter, or that forgotten letter of Chia Thye Poh written in solitude on his island of imported sand and artificial lagoon and recounted to the ribald laughter of indifferent youths?
A recall of just a few suppressed (his)tories, all yearning for and uncovering their layers of Singapore.
History? Yes, and Victory. Stories of victors and their power.
History? Yes, and Hubris. Stories of tyrants and their triumph.
Facts? Yes, and Forgetting.
And blindness, amnesia, betrayal, seduction, manipulation, absence, abstraction, intoxication. The myriad disgrace of History. The Singapore Story is hardly a history of Singapore, much less the history of Singapore that we have read about. It is a fantasy that we’re living in.
And for the Fajar Generation, even as its claims to truth and History are contested – and must be contested – their Singapore Story has been one of inarticulable pain and immeasurable loss.
The Fajar Generation has spoken. The exiled, the invisible, the silenced. In a sense, we are the Fajar Generation – it generated us. And we have yet to speak.
Do we need History to do so?
Our lives spiraled like a dream becomes plotted on a graph?
Unravel it: His story.
Why is the story always His. Male. Other? Where is Mine?
See the myriad stories?
Anyone who tells a story.
Are stories true?
Yes of course and not at all.
Our lives are spiraled like a dream.
And we go on telling, stories of chance and life, of you and I, but only if we would tell it.
Revive the ideals of Fajar, let there not be another forty years of silence. Tell our stories. Make our histories.
Tell me a story, Pew.
What kind of story, child?
A story with a happy ending.
There’s no such thing in the world.
As a happy ending?
As an ending.
– Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping