I read with interest the latest article by Yale PhD student Ng E-Ching published at the Kent Ridge Common when she tried to attribute the Yale faculty’s resolution (to “respect, protect, and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers; and to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society”) and the expressed disappointment by the Singapore education ministry, and the offense that Singaporeans take at Yale’s resolution (if E-Ching is right about this part) to a misunderstanding on both sides, which she described as good people on both sides misunderstanding each other, and therefore, the need for a cultural translation.
When I saw the word “cultural translation”, it served up an eerie reminder of cultural references implicitly by our very own leaders; Lee Kuan Yew’s references to “Asian values” to justify an authoritarian rule and ex-minister Lee Boon Yang’s emphasis on the responsibility of the (mainstream) media to be sensitive to national interests such as racial and religious harmony and to promote “our shared values as a society” in defence of Singapore’s relatively low press freedom rankings. Singapore used to have a variety of media entities operating until later, a number of which were closed down by the government, and the remaining few became the mainstream media. Nonetheless, it seems to be the official one liner to counter criticisms of Singapore’s authoritarianism from detractors outside Singapore – cultural differences, that some proudly and others derogatively label as “uniquely Singapore”.
Instead of resorting to the overused words like “culture” and “culture differences” ( which lose their meaning or do not mean anything) to begin with, we can start by viewing a state, society, plus its constituent institutions, and in this relevant discussion, educational institutions, from two unique angles – philosophy/ideology and history.
A philosophical view
In the interest of an intellectual debate, it is only fair for me to state upfront my philosophical views. I consider myself a subscriber to John Stuart Mill’s political philosophical views on the state and how its institutions should function, but there is also an inner part of me that wanders into the Anarchism realm.
For disclaimer’s sake, the kind of anarchism I am talking about refers to the political philosophy that the state is undesirable and unnecessary. The specific type of anarchism that I am favour of is the pacifist type, I believe in non-violence. So I transit between Mill’s views of how a state and its institutions should function and anarchism (a contradiction somehow) like how Stanley Ipkiss, the protagonist in The Mask, transforms himself into a playful and prank-loving alter ego when he puts on the the Mask of Loki.
However, for simplicity’s sake, let’s keep it simple to one philosophical topic and discuss about Mill’s view of a state and its institutions. Like Mill, I agree that a government should be evaluated in terms of their ability to enable each person to develop his or her capacity for higher forms of happiness. Liberty is quintessential to self-development. Like Mill, I also recognise the problems of democracy, or to be more specific, a case of tyranny of the majority. Mill believed that democracy could be problematic in that it can suppress the development of minority opinion and minority culture. Hence, to Mill, institutions, more specifically, educational institutions have an important part to play in allowing such individuals or groups to flourish and further develop themselves.
As a digression, if we analyse the situation in Singapore, one question we should bear in mind is whether a chasm exists between the amount of liberty the Singapore government is willing to accord the people, and the amount of that which its people desire. Some anecdotal evidence exists for this chasm; for example when the government called on bloggers and owners of alternative media sites to come up with a code of conduct; only for the government to be repudiated on the point that the code of conduct is seen to be regulating the Internet with bloggers calling on the government not to interfere with the Internet. If such a chasm exists, the next question we should ask ourselves is who should be the one giving way – the government or people? Well technically speaking, the government should yield since the latter is elected by the electorate and reflects the electorate’s wishes, if the latter wishes for more liberty that is.
Mill also believed that the government should ensure that the people receive as much education as possible. A properly educated electorate is able to select the best to form its government. Integral to ensuring that the people receive as much education as possible is the concept of academic freedom, with regards to research, scholarship and freedom to publish. In fact, this is the recurring point that will be reiterated on the next part on history.
Yale’s call for civil liberties and non-discrimination against minorities isn’t inconsistent to what Mill believed in. For a subscriber to Mill like myself, I could easily identify with Yale’s resolution. However, I am curious about E-Ching’s philosophical or for the choice of a less archaic term, ideology of Singapore as a state, society and how its institutions should function. I would assume with a government scholar background and being a teacher in Singapore’s educational service, she would have developed some form of philosophy or ideology pertaining to such matters.
Our history and how we should identify ourselves
It is important for ourselves, including the likes of E-Ching who argued for the need of cultural translation to reflect on our historical past – was the essential points of the Yale faculty’s resolution that alien to Singaporeans, that it was an entirely new and alien concept or was it a sense of déjà vu?
For this, I would like to recommend readers including E-Ching (if she hasn’t done so) and interested parties from Yale a book entitled “Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism In Post-War Singapore” edited by Professors Michael D Barr and Carl A Trocki. Trocki is currently a professor at the Queensland University of Technology, while Barr is currently at Flinders University, having moved from the University of Queensland.
“Paths Not Taken” offers a unique perspective from the official history that we are exposed to, in that it revealed a more complex situation in post-war Singapore in the 1950s, in which there were real alternative visions and routes on offer as opposed to the chaotic period that typified the official position that we already know. In truth, these histories were considered new as they are based on memories and archives that are old, forgotten and relegated to the vestiges of our past.
However, the reality is that the PAP and the Singapore story of Lee Kuan Yew is all that which remained prominent. In truth, post-war Singapore in the 1950s was one of dynamism, great political movements, high aspirations, and I may add solidarity. Thus, the aims of the book was to recast Singapore’s history into a paradigm beyond the imagination created by the ruling PAP. The editors have also tenuously asserted that such a book was not meant to present an anti-Lee Kuan Yew and anti-PAP approach.
I would like to bring our reader’s attention to a chapter within the book contributed by Sunil S Amrith entitled “Internationalism and Political Pluralism” in Singapore. The 1950s to early 1960s period was seen as a period of political pluralism, and one that was teeming with cosmopolitanism, and the events of the 1955 Asia-Africa conference in Bandung was to play a major part in it. To a major extent, Singapore’s path as is other paths of Asian countries intertwined with that in Africa. Africa, like other parts of Asia is engaged in a struggle against its colonial master. Both Asian and African leaders staked their claims on the world stage via the conference, but its aftermath was significant in that it was to shape the political language in Singapore.
An important impact on political discourse as Sunil argued was that it created a space which allowed diverse groups to transcend their boundaries, including racial ones that led to the forging of a range of interactions and common political projects. Even the media covered eagerly the events of Bandung – an editorial in the Singapore Standard wrote “Voices in Africa and Asia” declared that for too long the Asian and African worlds have suffered from colour blight introduced by western nations….into their lives. The PAP itself also declared that Bandung was “a milestone to self respect for millions of Asians and Africans”.
The events of Bandung was to lend its energies to the political arena and set the multi-racial tone of Lim Chin Siong’s speech to the legislative assembly, including a call for a “democratic education policy” that allowed for a multiplicity of linguistic and cultural aspirations.
“What is the Government’s policy towards vernacular (language) education? Do we accept the principles of the United Nations charter that the right of every community to develop its own language and culture must be respected…? [A] democratic education policy …will respect and encourage the full development of the mother tongues of people which are Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. (Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates 1955)
The language of Bandung also inspired a multiracialism never seen before within the community. Despite a strong presence of Nantah and Chinese Middle School students in the Bandung delegation, the student’s conference nonetheless gained the support of Utusan Melayu, the malay newspaper.
However, there was a battle between the PAP and the left on the political front although both were concerned with multiracialism. The PAP’s contention was that only a strong state could manage potentially explosive racial tension in a plural society. The left disagreed, and were of the view that the management of cultural differences through elite compromise will only serve to deepen divisions between the people. The left continued to invoke the spirit of Bandung, and Lim who championed a democratic education policy also stated his aspirations for a truly democratic Malaysia.
What typefied the 1950s and early 1960s? Besides cosmopolitanism and political pluralism and solidarity that transcends boundaries, students, especially the Chinese-educated ones, also enjoyed a great degree of exposure on the education front.
The late Tan Jing Quee wrote of the Chinese-educated students of Lim Chin Siong’s Generation:
Like most Chinese high school students of that era, they were introduced – through easily available translations – to the world of Russian literature of Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Western writers like Jack London, Henrik Ibsen, Romain Rolland, Goethe – an eclectic mix of romantic, naturalist and realist writers who wrote of oppression, struggle and freedom. It was a heady literary diet, quite different from the staple fare most English educated students were exposed or accustomed to. (Tan 2001: 61)
Even malay literature and journalism was cosmopolitan and universal in outlook. Malay literature in the words of A Samad Said was not only concerned with Malaysia and Indonesia, but also with Africa and Algeria. Such poems by the likes of Usman Awang and Kassim Ahmad appeared in the Utusan Zaman on a regular basis.
In the end though, the political language inspired by Bandung and its practices was defeated in Singapore and what Singapore lost was what scholars described as a vernacular cosmopolitanism. A whole world view was seemingly lost somewhere within the annals of our history….
If we reflect on the Yale faculty resolution, it was probably not much different from the “democratic education policy” advocated by Chin Siong, in terms of giving proponents of different language and cultural tendencies opportunities to realise their aspirations. Yet, does the Yale resolution sound that alien to us Singaporeans? If Yale and University of Singapore (the old National University of Singapore) were to discuss a collaboration in the 1950s and 1960s, even Chin Siong would have agreed to the Yale faculty resolution championing academic freedom and non-discrimination which is consistent with what was enshrined in the Bandung language.
Our forefathers, especially those who were in theirs 20s during the 1950s and in their 80s by now would have lived through this period of dynamism, cosmopolitanism and solidarity inspired by Bandung. As E-Ching narrated in her article about the scepticism and the generations of independent-minded Singaporeans who do not subscribe to PAP’s rhetoric which they feel departs from reality, would it be surprising to find Singaporeans with cosmopolitan world views who have lived through that era?
I do have other curious questions for E-Ching, given her previous stint in Singapore’s teaching service. What does she think of the declassified documents containing communications between the Singapore and British authorities during the colonial era? Does she consider such documentation as one aspect of our history? If she was a curriculum planner at the Ministry of Education, would she not hesitate to include the contents of the declassified documents into the history syllabus? Or at least, include the “Paths Not Taken” book by Barr and Trocki?
Reflecting on the Yale resolution, I was indeed thankful to the Yale faculty for this. When I first read the resolution, it first struck a cord in me, consistent with the narrated experiences of my aging grandparents. That was when I researched the archives and Internet into the post-war era – the perspectives, major events and other developments that permeated Singapore. To cut the long story short, the resolution reminded me of a time point in which our country was at a crossroad, and had real alternatives. We took the path set by the PAP, and with time, we forgot about the other roads that were available to us then. Thus, I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading Yale’s resolution.
Was Yale being disrespectful, as previously suggested? Is there a misunderstanding between both sides that there is even a need, in E-Ching’s words, for cultural translation? Well, for one, the Yale faculty resolution either consciously or unconsciously reminded us of this crossroad in our past. We should treat this as an inducement for us to go back and revisit where we came from, the roads our forefathers have taken, and whether we should re-trace the steps back and revisit the PATHS NOT TAKEN.
E-Ching says it is time for some cultural translation. I respectfully disagree. I find it more appropriate to reflect on who we are, where we come from and last but not least, our historical past, unfettered from the official line that we are exposed to from time to time.
Since, I have asked for E-Ching’s view on the subject of Singapore history, or in more general terms, history, it is only fair that I should state my position. In the past, I used to have a disillusioned view of that subject – history is only written by victors. All that changed one day when I met an elderly gentleman (though the kind of expletives he utters does not strike him as one, but any way) at a bar. Let’s just call him Billy. Billy originally planned to go hiking with his grandkid, but the latter had to cancel this as he had a history pop quiz the next day. Billy had not much of an education in his life, studying to an equivalent of Singapore’s current “O” levels. Our conversation went like that (warning, expletives are used):
Billy: My grandkid has a history pop quiz tomorrow. I have nowhere else to go except here. So what do you think of History?
Me: Oh well, it is something that is written by victors. You only read mostly about the triumphs and little about the defeats. As if these victors want anyone else to know about their losses.
Billy: That is a little bit too pessimistic. To me, history is important for society. If people from my generation fuck up, we have a duty to inform our youngsters where we fuck up. Hiding our fuck ups from them ain’t going to do them any good.
Me: Wow, tell me more!
Billy: If we hide our fuck ups from the next generation, the same fuck ups will propagate in the next generation and subsequent ones. If that happens, we, the seniors have failed them. It is like me telling a bed-time story which revolves around my life to my grandkids on most nights. I am not afraid to tell them where I fucked up in my life. I hope they do not repeat the same fuck ups as I did.
Me: (after a thoughtful interlude) That is a good one, matey! Drinks are on me tonight.
Billy was to change, and inspire my view on history. History, is more than just a subject. It has a societal function. It offers a narrative and perspective of our triumphs, defeats, the right choices and the mistakes we make. The events of today will be the history of tomorrow, and we must not be afraid and even ashamed to transmit truths and honest perspectives in their unadulterated forms to our future generations. This is the best thing that we can do for them. They will have a basis to know what is right, and are aware of pitfalls that gave rise to our mistakes and not repeat them again.