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21 NOVEMBER 2014, FRIDAY. 7.30-10.30PM


Myths V investigates three linear narratives. Koh Keng We looks beyond Raffles at the historical forces behind the rise of modern Singapore. Liew Kai Khiun traces a mostly unknown history of civil society from the 19th century. Philip Holden unpacks the notion of our national development ‘from Third World to First’, and wonders if better myths exist.

Credit: Min Lin

Mythic Proportions: Raffles, Free Trade, and the Rise of Modern Singapore

Koh Keng We

Nanyang Technological University


This talk examines the historiography of the early rise of the British port of Singapore in the first half of the nineteenth century. The early success of the port has often been attributed to the foresight, experience, and character of personalities like Raffles and Farquhar, as well as the principles of free trade espoused by these British officials. Equally if not more important was the ways in which this success was founded on older modes of trade and politics in the region, shaped by European interventions in the region in the preceding centuries, as well as the position of British commerce in maritime Asia after the Napoleonic Wars. What, then, was old and what was new in the dynamics underlying Singapore’s rise as a major entrepot in the archipelago? This talk shall attempt to discuss these issues.


Koh Keng We joined the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at NTU as an assistant professor in 2014. He had previously served as curator in the Dr. You-Bao Shao Center for Overseas Chinese Documentation and Research in Ohio University Libraries (2007-2010), and as assistant professor in the Department of Asian History in Seoul National University (2011-2014). He was also the head of the Southeast Asia program in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilization in Seoul National University (2013-2014). Keng We specialises in maritime history, business history, Southeast Asian history (specialisation in Malay world region), and world history, as well as the history of Chinese overseas.  He is also currently involved in projects on mobility in the colonial Malay world and Chinese business history in Southeast Asia and South China. 


















Before and Beyond the Banyan Tree: The Myth of Civil Society in Singapore

Liew Kai Khiun

Nanyang Technological University


The absence of a mature civil society for a young country like Singapore has been often used as an argument for an imposing and paternalistic state in ensuring law and order and mobilizing resources for nation-building. Analogous to the outstretched canopy of the banyan tree that any blocks plants beneath it from sunlight, the postcolonial Singapore government has not been associated with the maturation of modern civil society. Through the selective filtering of the legacy of civil society as politically sanitized and parochialized “self help”, “Voluntary Welfare Organizations” (VWOs) cooperating to ease the burdens of the state in social welfare provisions, entire generations of Singaporeans may have grown up to believe of either the non-existence or perpetual infantile development of civil society. My study of a range of abolitionists, voluntary organizations, trade associations and labour unions in the colonial and postwar Singapore has suggested instead of the presence of a flourishing, articulated, internationally networked and resourceful civil society capable of advocacy, campaigning and mobilization since the mid 19th century.


Dr Liew Kai Khiun obtained his B.A. (Hons) and M.A. from the National University of Singapore and was awarded his doctorate from the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. He is current an Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University.  Kai Khiun’s research interests cover that of civil society in Malaya and Singapore, heritage informatics and mapping as well as that of popular culture and society. He has also been involved in a range of civil society groups concerned with conservation, migrant workers and animal welfare.    














Questioning ‘From Third World To First’

Philip Holden

National University of Singapore


Any discussion of Singapore’s postcolonial history cannot avoid the period from 1965 to 1997, in which the city-state saw rapid economic development and massive changes both in the built environment and in the patterns of individual and community lives. In the last fifteen years public discussion of the period has been framed by a presiding myth, the movement from Third World to First. This myth can be reconsidered by an examination of historical sources that illustrate an emphasis on socialism in combatting social inequality and an identification with the Third World in the post-independence period. Recovered stories of Third World solidarity and of social equality as the primary goal of economic growth may provide the raw materials for better myths, ones which are more useful for the challenges we face in contemporary Singapore society.


Philip Holden is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore. He researches Singapore literature and Southeast Asian literature within a wider context of postcolonial literatures, and is particularly interested in the way that concepts drawn from the study of narrative fiction can be used to look at the wider social narratives we share. Philip has also worked outside the university as an editor, writer, heritage activist and social commentator.







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