Tuesday, 3 October 2023

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Bertha Henson: People who matter

~ By Bertha Henson ~

Everytime somebody important dies, newspapers do a poll. The results are invariably the same. Young people don't know anything about the person who died or why his death is such a big deal. This is the case with the death of Yong Nyuk Ling, a member of the first Cabinet, according to TNP. I bet the same question about Lim Yew Hock would deliver the same results. If I recall correctly, polls done on Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee drew quite a blank too.

So we know this already. Young people do not know enough of Singapore's political history. I don't know what is being taught in primary schools, but I figure such information would be imparted under some kind of national education, values or civics classes. (In my day, many moons ago, history was a primary school subject – taught in Chinese). You know something, I bet not everyone can give the year of Singapore's independence or what the symbols on the national flag stand for. Nor does everyone know what the Malay words of the National anthem mean. I admit I am not sure too.

There must be a consensus, I believe, on what sort of historical knowledge we should have ingrained in our national consciousness. However we chop and change National education, values or civics classes, there must be an enduring core that is our history, to be taught through the ages. I mean…we should go beyond the Sang Nila Utama story.

Of course, there will be some contention over what is "correct'' history. Should Mr Lee Kuan Yew's many books, for example, be considered recommended or compulsory reading? Some will argue that that is the People's Action Party's history not Singapore's. And Singapore's moves towards independence will probably have to incorporate two different perspectives, both Singaporean and Malaysian. 

Let's skip all that and get down to people. I gather that in the US, the founding fathers and the drafting of the Constitution is big part of classroom history. I think some Singaporeans can put more names to America's first Cabinet than they could to ours. We should immortalise our pioneers, not with statues or street names but as part of compulsory history. If there's one thing I've learnt from journalism, it's that people like reading about other people.

Of the first Cabinet, there are only four members alive. I hope that when their time comes, there won't be a newspaper poll which says that young Singaporeans don't know about them, or worse, don't care.

This article first appeared on Bertha Henson's blog. Bertha Henson is a former Associate Editor of The Straits Times.


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