- The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History
This collection of 23 papers is a bold attempt to unlock the gates on official and alternative archival sources and the impediments to independent research on Singapore's history. The contributors are a young, dedicated and multidisciplinary group of Singapore historians and researchers who have decided to make a timely intervention against years of professional and official indifference and censorship towards historical research. Basically, they argue for a more open, fair and balanced approach in which not only the voices of the 'victors' in history, but also those of the 'losers', be made accessible in the government's archives through a loosening of official controls on documentation. A substantial number of the papers were initially presented in 2008 at a symposium at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. Additional papers since that forum include interviews with filmmakers working on Singapore history and memory, and a transcript of the proceedings of a 2006 forum on political detention. [End Page 109]
Until recently, Singapore's academic historical research on the island's history lagged woefully behind in terms of sources, new fields of investigation, theory, and methodology, when considered with historical works and the general standards of other areas of Southeast Asian history. In the 1980s an Australian scholar observed that Singapore's mainstream historians were still writing in the 'colonial' tradition, due to their methodology, the questions they asked, their reliance on 'colonial' records, and the way they were read. They wrote mainly in English on the colonial and the nationalist elites, and relied heavily on English language source materials. They neglected, or were unable to use, indigenous source materials in Malay, Chinese or Tamil, the languages of the three major races in Singapore, to write the 'vernacular politics' and narratives of these respective communities.
As Singapore's ageing political leaders realized the need to write their memoirs, stake their legacies and narrate their roles in and contributions to nation building for posterity, they became increasingly aware of the importance of history. Their discovery that one young generation had grown up without history being taught in the schools led to history being re-introduced in the schools. To record their own accounts for the young generation the leaders offered themselves for interviews and oral history recordings at the National Archives. They allowed select researchers access to confidential and secret official records to assist them in the writing of their memoirs. With this opening up of the gates to the official records in the archives, no wonder Singapore's young professional historians took heart. They, too, began to clamour for access.
The book's co-editor Loh Kah Seng and another contributor, Huang Jianli—in their respective papers—cited as an example how the gates of the government's archives were specially opened to a favoured group of researchers in the writing of the book Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party, a 700-page history of the People's Action Party (PAP), which was published in 2010 and said to have taken seven years in the making. The book was produced and written by a large team of commissioned writers and researchers, sponsored by Singapore's The Straits Times publishing group. Loh claims that Men in White was held to be 'ground-breaking in striving manfully (pun intended) to capture the views of not just the winners, but the losers, and interested by-standers as well'. Consequently, doors to the National Archives and other government department archives were unlocked, making available oral history interviews and classified documents of the Singapore government. Several former opponents of the PAP government (including ex-political detainees) were even allowed to lend their voices, memories and reflections to the project.
However, Huang Jianli, who reads Chinese language materials, notes that the 25-year ruling for files to be opened and for access to be given to official records is...