On Tuesday (10 September), NUS-Yale sophomore Faris Joraimi took to his Facebook to pen his admiration for renowned local historian Dr Hong Lysa for her “invaluable contributions to our understanding of Singapore’s traumatic, silenced past.”
In his post, he thanked Dr Hong for her “monumental treat of a lecture” when she came and presented a talk on revisionist history at NUS-Yale College on Tuesday.
“Today Lysa came to Yale-NUS, and stood before students, faculty and members of the public, opening her semi-autobiographical lecture with this same subject of revisionist history,” he said.
He added, “She penned it, reminding us that it was Mao Zedong who labelled his dissidents “revisionists”, and that this word should never be used on historians aiming to take a critical look at our past. As if there is anything else expected of the historian!”
Dr Hong’s past achievements
Following that, Mr Faris went on to detail Dr Hong’s past achievements in the field of history. He stated that the historian first joined NUS’ History Department in the early seventies and kick started her “academic career as a scholar of Thailand around 1978.”
Then from 1997 to 1999, she headed the Southeast Asian Studies Department, a job that she hated and tried to avoid it as hard as possible, explained Mr Faris.
“In any case, a life cannot be told in years and positions. Lysa told hers through a sequences of knocks on her doors, and the paths they led her down when she opened them,” he wrote.
Soon after that, Dr Hong received different offers from various parties like one from ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute seeking for a Thai scholar.
Besides that, Dr Hong also saw a need to tell the story of the May 13th racial riot, where she and Tan Jing Quee (a political detainee arrested under ISA in 1963) wrote “The May 13th Generation: the Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement and Singapore Politics in the 1950s”.
In addition, she, along with Nantah alumnus Tan Kok Chiang, went on to “edit and assist in the publication of more books that challenged our historical consensus”, Mr Faris noted. Some of the book that the duo worked on include The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its Pasts as well as The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years.
If that’s not all, in 2009, the historian and a few of her close colleagues started S/pores, which is an online journal that showcases distinguished contributors penning their new insights into studies on the Singaporean history, culture and society.
“I was fortunate that it also welcomed ready amateurs, and had two pieces come under Lysa’s rigorous editorial standard,” wrote the student.
Although Mr Faris agrees that there are plenty more of Dr Hong’s contribution in understanding the country’s silenced and traumatic past, he noted that her talk on Wednesday got him thinking about “what kind of historian anyone aspiring to such a role can be.”
Thinking folks come under different labels: ‘public intellectual’, Ali Shari’ati’s ‘raushan-fekr’ (enlightened thinker), ‘cultural intelligentsia’ as expounded on by the likes of Azhar Ibrahim, and Alatas’ ideas on intellectuals in ‘developing societies’. Lysa – together with Thai scholar Thongchai Winichakul developed the notion of the ‘home scholar’: “those whose works are read, debated, and become, in a sustained manner, part of the scholarly discourse and cultural politics of their home country.”
The privilege of serving the country
In the post, Mr Faris also said that Dr Hong pointed out that being a ‘home scholar’ is not a stylish titled for one to flaunt, but rather a label that one wears proudly but quietly in their heart.
Separately, he also noted that while he was talking to Dr Hong about how tough and bleak it is to work on Singapore history today and in the future, the historian quickly replied, “But what a privilege it is to serve as scholars on our communities!”
As such, Mr Faris said that Singaporeans are lucky to have people like Dr Hong in the society as they are willing to take on tasks that not many would do.
“In such a cynical age of corporatised academia as ours, with more and more qualified Singaporean graduates contributing little to their own country’s intellectual ecosystem (I’m talking about those who have the means to), it is refreshing and inspiring to hear that some still believe in the inherent worth of building a thinking culture, where public intellectuals engage their social and political realities as actively critical subjects without fear or favour,” he wrote.