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  • The Bicentennial Commemoration:Imagining and Re-imagining Singapore's History
  • Terence Chong (bio)

In early 2019 I was dining with a Japanese diplomat in the company of two fellow Singaporeans. When the conversation turned to the Bicentennial Commemorations, the diplomat asked inquisitively, "Why do Singaporeans find it necessary to celebrate two hundred years of colonialism?" After a moment's pause the Singaporeans around the table took random stabs at answering our dinner companion's question. Our replies ranged from the pedantic ("It's not a celebration, it's a commemoration"), the cynical ("It's for the feel-good factor to help with upcoming elections"), to the dismissive ("you know Singaporeans, they love nostalgia"). As we spoke I sensed that we were ourselves struggling to understand the event as much as we sought to explain it to our Japanese friend. Like most Singaporeans, we had felt that the Bicentennial Commemorations simply did not embody the same significance or emotional heft as SG50 in 2015 when we celebrated fifty years of independence. The country's Golden Jubilee was easier to embrace because it was an unabashed and unambiguous celebration of the nation-building project and the undeniable progress we had made as one people. But what were the Bicentennial Commemorations—or SG200—supposed to commemorate? Was it to mark the arrival of English rogue gentleman Stamford Raffles and the East India Company and, by implication, the unplugging of the island from the Malay world and its ascension into the global economy? If so, then it's understandable that the celebration of colonial capitalism and globalization did not exactly tug at the heartstrings of Singaporeans. The unthinking celebration of [End Page 323] colonialism would also certainly be out of step with our sensibilities. Or was SG200 a knowing wink at the island's distinction from a region still mired in its internal political and economic squabbles and thus a marker of the nation's discrete sense of self, or what we would describe today as Singapore exceptionalism? The more we mulled over the question, the more uncertain we became. Then, somewhere between the fourth and seventh cup of sake, a particular remark from one of us, I forget who, struck me—"We don't have history, so we imagine it." Unlike ancient civilizations padded with multiple layers of epochs and ages, Singapore had but two popular dates committed to memory—1819 and 1965 (and 2004 if you want to count the year we implemented the five-day work week). But, of course, all societies, regardless of age and civilization, imagine their history. They tell themselves stories about who they are and where they came from, and then rewrite them over and over again. History-writing is an aspirational exercise that demands imagination. This imagination and re-imagination melds itself with the zeitgeist of each political and ideological cycle. Singapore is no different.

It is tempting to think of national history as a static and unyielding narrative, but that would be a mistaken assumption. National histories are constantly re-imagined in order to remain relevant, first and foremost, to the evolving interests of the political elite. How the political elite view the external environment, its opportunities and dangers has a profound influence on how national history is narrated. Geopolitical shifts, rising powers and the evolving regional architecture make it necessary for a small state like Singapore not only to be economically and politically nimble in catching the winds of opportunity but also historically imaginative in how it narrates the grand story of a small nation of immigrants hailing from China and India within the Malay world. For instance, when the People's Action Party (PAP) government came to power in 1959, Singapore's destiny was imagined as deeply intertwined with that of the Malayan peninsula. The imagination of the political elite at that time had no room for a self-sufficient Singapore severed from its Malayan hinterland because of the island's lack of natural resources. This was why merger with Malaysia was deemed vital to the survival of the island. The fact that Singapore has arisen from its circumstances and charted an economic upward trajectory from 1965 clearly demonstrates that such imaginations are...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1793-9135
Print ISSN
0377-5437
Pages
pp. 323-333
Launched on MUSE
2020-05-13
Open Access
No
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