“What is the Government trying to hide?”
That is a question which has been raised more frequently in recent times, as Singapore approaches its 50th birthday as a nation.
Specifically, the question refers to the authorities’ ban on films and alternative accounts of Singapore’s history which have come into the spotlight in recent years.
It is thus no surprise that there are calls for the Government to be more transparent and for it to release official documents, such as Cabinet Papers, from times past which will shed light on various historical events in our history.
These calls for transparency come not only from the critics of the Government, but also from those who support it, what we shall describe here as “establishment types”.
There seems to be an increasing sense of distrust among the Singaporean public of the Government’s versions of these events, as alternative accounts emerge from the release of historical and secret papers from other jurisdictions such as Australia and the United Kingdom
The Singapore Government’s tight-fisted response to these calls is to dismiss them, which in turn seems to vindicate the distrust – for the Government’s response is based on rather incredible and dubious excuses, as we shall see.
Renowned Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s latest work, “To Singapore, With Love”, is a 68-minute documentary “on the past and present lives of several key Singaporean political exiles that fled during the 1960s to escape detention for their beliefs and activism.”
“Most have not been permitted to return and have moved on to create extraordinary second lives in adopted homelands. Despite being so far away from Singapore for so long, it is moving that their love for their country and sense of belonging has never wavered.” (See here.)
Some of those featured in the film were intimately involved in the political struggle in our early years which would eventually give birth to an independent Singapore.
Released in 2013, the film has since been screened in film festivals around the world – in the US, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, Brazil, Indonesia, Dubai and Malaysia.
Last week, it enjoyed four sold-out screenings over two days in London, with many UK-based Singaporeans making the trip to view it.
On Friday, the film was screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival in India.
It has also received special mention at the Salaya International Documentary Festival in the “Best ASEAN Documentary” category, and was the “Asian Cinema Fund” winner at the Busan International Film Festival.
Ms Tan was named Best Director for her film at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013.
And in her career so far, she has won more than 20 awards worldwide for her various works.
Ms Tan is thus an internationally recognised and talented filmmaker indeed.
So, why is her film banned from public screening in Singapore?
Well, if you asked the Singapore Government, the reasons comprise a range, including – as mentioned above – the incredulous.
And these reasons, one would presume, also apply to other non-official matters of our history as well. The Government offers these reasons as justification for the ban on works such as Ms Tan’s film, and for not releasing official historical records.
We compare these official reasons with the reasoned calls by various quarters for transparency.
One of the earliest response from the Government came from the chief executive officer of the Media Development Authority (MDA), Koh Lin-Net.
She claimed that Ms Tan’s film presented “national security concerns”, but Ms Koh did not elaborate or explain what these were.
Later, in support of the MDA’s position and ban on the film, the Minister of Communications and Information, Yaacob Ibrahim, said that allowing the film to be shown in public “would effectively mean condoning the use of violence and subversion in Singapore.”
This, he said, echoing Ms Koh, could “harm our national security.”
Dr Yaacob too did not elaborate how exactly such “harm” would happen, or the nature of it.
To continue with the “national security” theme, the Press Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, Teo Chee Hean, said allowing the film to be publicly screened “would be like allowing jihadi terrorist groups today to produce and publicly screen films that glorify their jihadist cause.”
And if all else fails, go for the jugular – the historians who offer alternative accounts to the official ones – such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did when commenting on these alternative accounts.
It is, pardon this writer, rather unbecoming of the Prime Minister to resort to personal attacks in his attempt to discredit the works of certain historians which, incidentally, he did not name.
But such personal attacks are not new, as historian Lysa Hong remarked in September:
“There has not been any serious and substantive challenge to their [“former political detainees”] contention, only indirect responses that cast aspersions on the writers, or that trivialize or misrepresent their work.”
What then about the call for the Government to release official historical records which will shed light on the truth of historical events?
In Parliament earlier this year, Workers’ Party MP, Low Thia Khiang, asked for the release of Cabinet Papers.
This was the response he received from the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth:
With that, the door was closed shut.
The fact that no Cabinet Papers have been released so far, one presumes, means that the release of these Papers would not “lead to good governance”, whatever that means.
When these reasons above were given, critics and members of the public raised their arms in protest. And who could blame them?
Singapore’s history, in fact, belongs to them – each and every Singaporean – who have the right to know what transpired at the birth of their nation.
But no, the Government says, as it rolls out book after book by Lee Kuan Yew which claim to tell the unvarnished “Singapore Story”; and now films and musicals about Lee next year to lend voice to his one single version of events of 50 years ago.
Yet, the voices which are calling for alternative accounts to be aired and made available to the general public are becoming louder – even from establishment types.
Take, for example, Janadas Devan, who is currently the Government’s chief communications officer.
Mr Janadas, writing for the Straits Times in 2007, said:
In very clear terms, Mr Janadas’ article said “we need more such histories from the ground”, and that “no one is entitled to his own facts” when it comes to our history.
And in his eloquent, persuasive manner, he ended his piece with:
“Let us sit upon the ground and tell stories – of defeat and triumph, of tragedy and glory, of sadness and happiness. Tell stories, for it is the only way we can take possession of ourselves.”
Indeed – Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, a member of the SG 50 committee, said as much, when he commented on the celebrations to mark Singapore’s 50th anniversary in 2015:
Even former ambassador and current dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani, wants Singaporeans to “dig up” their history.
Writing about one of his “big ideas” for Singapore earlier this year, he said:
The lesson: do not bury our history but instead face it – warts and all.
And here is the quintessential establishment-type – the Straits Times’ Opinion Editor, Chua Mui Hoong, long regarded as the staunchest apologist for the Government.
Ms Chua wrote the following after having travelled to Malaysia to view Ms Tan’s film recently:
One can hardly say it better and clearer and more simply than Ms Chua.
But establishment-types and Government critics are not the only ones who are calling for more information about our historical past to be released.
Here is what chairman of the board of the Singapore Management University, Ho Kwon Ping, had to say recently about the exiles depicted in Ms Tan’s film.
Mr Ho was clearly responding to PM Lee’s accusation that the exiles were “self-serving” in portraying themselves in the film.
And as mentioned earlier, Mr Low said it just as reasonably.
But the sharpest remarks, or arguments, for the release of historical records and for non-Government or non-PAP accounts to be aired come from those who would know best – the historians.
And here, we have both local and foreign historians who have highlighted the flaw in relying on single-versions of events.
Here is independent historian, Lysa Hong, on the many books about Lee Kuan Yew, some of which provide his version of independent Singapore’s beginnings.
Historian Nicole Tarulevicz of the Cleveland State University, writing in the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies in 2009:
Historian Geoff Wade, author of “Singapore’s History Wars”, had this to say of an episode involving Lee Kuan Yew:
“Australian and British documents both affirm that during his visit to London in April 1957 Lee Kuan Yew colluded with the British in arrangements to preclude detained Leftists of his party from competing in upcoming elections. After returning to Singapore, Lee publicly stated that these restraints were imposed by Britain, that he was opposed to them, and that the PAP must fight to counter them. Such apparent chicanery does not sit well with PAP history of itself as a squeaky clean party.”
Michael D Barr, writing with Zlatko Skrbis in the book, “Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project", said:
"The 'Battle for Merger' section is the most self-serving section in The Singapore Story."
The Battle for Merger was a series of radio broadcasts in 1961 by Lee Kuan Yew, designed to garner support against the communists.
The broadcasts and the book of their transcripts were recently re-released by the Government.
The two writers also said, about Lee’s personal memoirs:
"He even named his personal memoirs 'The Singapoe Story', removing all doubt about his own perception of his role and cementing the term in the national lexicon."
It seems that the exiles aren’t the only ‘self-serving’ ones, as PM Lee accused them of being.
And what about Lim Chin Siong, the man who fought alongside Lee Kuan Yew, co-founded the PAP, but who was later arrested by Lee and incarcerated for allegedly being a communist?
Newly released documents from the United Kingdom have called such an accusation into question.
Historians such as Singaporean Thum Ping Tjin, and foreign ones such as Greg Poulgrain, professor at Griffiths University in Australia, and Tim Harper, history professor at Cambridge, have all researched and studied these secret documents and have come to the same conclusion – that Lim Chin Siong may not be what the PAP Government, and Lee in particular, has been accusing him of being.
Lysa Hong wrote, referring to Harper’s research and Lee Kuan Yew’s book, The Singapore Story:
“The tour de force that has confronted the Singapore Story has to be Tim Harper’s “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story’”, which used recently declassified records in the British Public Records Office. Placing Lim crucially into the counterinsurgency priority and discourse of the British which Lee Kuan Yew leveraged, Harper has concluded that Lim spoke for a local radical tradition that pitted the popular will against colonial power. He has answered the vexed question ‘was Lim Chin Siong a communist?’ with the reply that the evidence is certainly inconclusive to say the least.”
Even Lim’s famous speech which formed the basis of him being accused of allegedly instigating the riots on 25 and 26 October 1956, has now come into question, as the full transcript of the speech was recently unearthed in the archives in the UK.
Dr Thum, currently based in Oxford, UK, said:
“The text of Lim’s speech has been unearthed from the Singapore Special Branch files recently declassified by the National Archives of the UK. We now know that the government deliberately misrepresented Lim Chin Siong’s speech. The Special Branch files show that Lim was framed. After the PAP came into power, it did not provide the opportunity for Lim to clear his name either.” (See here.)
Now, compare the reasoned calls by critics, establishment-types, and independent Singaporeans, and the questions raised by both Singaporean and foreign historians who have researched secret documents and historical records, with the utterly superficial and shallow excuses – including personal attacks - given by the PAP Government to continue to deny Singaporeans access to their own historical records and alternative accounts of their history.
When one compares these, one must come to the conclusion that Singapore’s history is not what the PAP Government or Lee Kuan Yew say it is. At least, theirs cannot be the full and indisputable, unvarnished truth.
There are shades of grey, along with the black and white, with shadows lurking in the corners at a time of great uncertainty amidst political turmoil.
To thus claim that one single man's version "will provide a reality check", as DPM Teo Chee Hean said with regards to Lee Kuan Yew's radio broadcasts, is ludicrous, especially given that Mr Lee himself was a key player in that era and whose version of events would necessarily be seen in the light of vested interests.
To ban alternative accounts by those most involved in those momentous times, and to present only one side of the story as the "truth" is also rather dishonest.
Such behaviour should and must be condemned by Singaporeans who deserve to know all about their history, as their nation approaches its 50th year of nationhood.
For indeed, Singapore does not belong to the PAP or to the PAP Government.
It belongs to all of us Singaporeans and it is our right to know the truth.
And as you can see, indeed Singaporeans of all walks are calling for information to be made available to them - and for very good reasons too.
Otherwise, Singaporeans will – rightly – continue to ask of its Government:
What are you trying to hide?