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18 DECEMBER 2014, THURSDAY. 7.30-10.30PM

Myths VI unpacks the myth of apathy and backwardness in national history. Loh Kah Seng looks at how Singaporeans, such as urban kampong dwellers, have expressed their historical agency. Jack Chia traces the social activism of the Singapore Buddhist Welfare Services. Jason Lim examines the social history of an extinct trade, the trishaw riders.

Credit: Min Lin


Apathy, or How History is Written by Elites

Loh Kah Seng

Sogang University


According to the Housing and Development Board, people who lived in urban kampongs in the 1950s were an ‘inert community who would not think of moving from their unpleasant and dangerous surroundings until a disaster [a fire] makes the decision for them’. Living in public housing, it follows, would make them active citizens. In fact, the social history was quite different: the so-called squatters were able to defend their interests against fire and eviction in both organised and unorganised ways, while becoming owners of public housing flats has removed much of this social autonomy. Through a walk across the social landscape of colonial and postcolonial Singapore, this talk looks at the various ways Singaporeans have expressed their historical agency and activism in a long running struggle against the reach of the state. It discusses how accusations of ‘inertia’ and ‘apathy’ belie state imperatives to mobilise people and impose new values and modes of behaviour.


Loh Kah Seng is assistant professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies, Sogang University, in South Korea. His research investigates the transnational and social history of Singapore and Southeast Asia. Loh is author and editor of six books, including Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore (NUS Press 2013); and The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (co-authored, Amsterdam University Press 2012).










The Myth of the Inert Buddhist: Toward a History of Engaged Buddhism in Singapore

Jack Chia

Cornell University


Buddhism has often been stereotyped as a passive and pessimistic religion. Were Singaporean Buddhists apathetic and inert citizens who only care about otherworldly salvation? This paper considers the myth of the apathetic citizenry, with a focus on religious apathy. My presentation will focus on the case of Venerable Yen Pei (Yanpei 演培, 1917-1996) and his Singapore Buddhist Welfare Services. First, I will reveal that Buddhists in Singapore are far from being apathetic or withdrawn. Socially engaged Buddhists such as Yen Pei were defenders their faith and promoters of social welfare. Second, I argue that socially engaged activities need not be ‘dangerous’ or anti-establishment. Buddhist activists lobbied and worked with the state authorities to support elder care and filial responsibility, drug prevention and treatment, and organ donation.


Jack Meng-Tat Chia is a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian history at Cornell University. His research interests include Southeast Asia-China interactions, Buddhism, Chinese popular religion, and overseas Chinese history. Jack’s articles have appeared in journals such as Asian Culture, China Quarterly, Dongnanya yanjiu, Journal of Chinese Religions, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, and SOJOURN. He is currently conducting research for his dissertation titled ‘Diasporic Dharma: Buddhism and Modernity across the South China Sea’.












The Trishaw Industry: From Public Transport to Myth

Jason Lim

University of Wollongong


The trishaw was introduced to Singapore after the surrender of the British in 1942. The usual myth surrounding the trishaw industry is the backwardness of the vehicles, the association of trishaw riders with crime and its nostalgic role today through ‘heritage rides’. The reality is that life for the trishaw riders had been difficult and it was made more challenging by government departments and regulations. This presentation will focus on the role trishaw riders have played in Singapore society, public perception of the trishaw riders and the consequences to the industry as Singapore urbanized.


Jason Lim is Senior Lecturer in Asian History in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong. His research interests include the modern history of China and the social history of the Chinese in Singapore. The talk draws from his recent book, A Slow Ride into the Past: The Chinese Trishaw Industry in Singapore, 1942-1983 (2013).






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