Living with Myths and revisiting Singapore’s popular history  

By Terry Xu

Loh Kah Seng, historian
Loh Kah Seng, historian

The banning of “To Singapore With Love” and the corresponding response from the Singapore government toward it would have sparked renewed interest in the history of Singapore.

Not all of such interest, however, is directed at the re-print of “The Battle For Merger”, the transcripts of a series of radio broadcasts by former Prime Minister Leee Kuan Yew in the early 1960s.

Singaporeans have heard once too often the narrative put forward by the ruling People’s Action Party. In an environment where mainstream media continually parrot the soundbites of “key spokesperson”, it is easy to ignore the voices of those who have actually studies the history in question, in favour of the “popular narrative”.

Thum Pin Tjin, historian
Thum Pin Tjin, historian

For that reason, a group of historians have come together to start the “Living with Myths” project. Through a series of seminars on the history of Singapore, Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Chia – all historians – hope debunk five types of myth-stories in Singapore, from communism to our multiculturalism, racial and religious faultlines, apathy as a people, and vulnerability to threats.

The key motivation behind the project was the Days of Rage documentary by Channel NewsAsia and what the historians felt was a “one-sided take on the 1955 Hock Lee Bus riots” that was alleged to be a story of communist subversion.

The three, with the help of Wong Zijia, the team’s media and editorial person and a local publisher, Select Books, decided to come together to discuss how to “attack” the myths such as those perpetuated by these accounts of the riots, so that what is portrayed to be factual is revealed for what it is: A narrative that legitimises the ruling government.

Jack Chia, historian
Jack Chia, historian

Living with Myths” is essentially about providing a platform for researchers to bring their work from the university and elsewhere in order to share their ideas with the public.

“Myths influence our values and support official policy. Stories such as Hock Lee are being reinforced in the year-long carnival that is SG50. Another example is the forthcoming re-issue of Lee Kuan Yew’s radio talks on merger.”

“So we put together an impressive line-up of experts – academics and non-academics with diverse specialisations – to debunk five types of myth-stories in Singapore, from communism to our multiculturalism, racial and religious faultlines, apathy as a people, and vulnerability to threats.”

Their goal was to make Singaporeans question the assumptions that are currently being weaved into the narrative of SG50. They believed that, since myths are often accepted as common sense, the important first step is to be more aware of them.

“The Living with Myths project is not just an academic project to unpack old tales. It is also about excavating other stories that offer new possible ways to imagine what Singapore should be in the next 50 years.”

The team is also not gunning it alone. They found like-minded collaborators in the Artistry, Post-Museum and Project 50/100, who have provided venues and other forms of support for free.

Through this collaboration, they have organised three seminars to present their findings, which were packed to the brim.

Despite this success, there were also narratives that, direct or indirectly, criticised their efforts, with allegations of “attempts to rewrite history” being bandied about. The team’s response was, however, more sanguine.

“History is always being rewritten. In Singapore, the term ‘rewriting history’ is sometimes given a negative connotation. Actually, historians need to offer original perspectives by critiquing earlier research. Indeed, to argue new interpretations of the past, based on bold, rigorous research, and to bring them to the public represents the best traditions of the work of the academic scholar and public intellectual.”

The team also felt that the dominant historical narrative is not a natural state of affairs, as it has been invented and sustained in platforms such as school textbooks, media and National Day parades. Rewriting history would hence help to reveal this process at work.

The fourth “Living with Myths” seminar will examine issues in Singapore’s multiculturalism. The public can find out more and register for the event online.

The fifth seminar will touch on the commonly accepted myth of how Singapore went from Third World to First, which is also the title of the first volume of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs.

The public can also follow the progress of “Living with Myths” on its website and its Facebook page. Videos of the seminars are also available on the group’s Youtube channel.