WHY THIS PROJECT?
We should commence a series of talks, and a public discourse, to investigate the myths of Singapore and to consider what being a nation means to us.
By Loh Kah Seng
The catalyst for me was the Channel NewsAsia’s documentary on the Hock Lee Bus riots in the 'Days of Rage' series. The episode ignored the counter-hegemonic viewpoints offered by Otto Fong, Thum Pingtjin, other activists of the 1950s, and me. It was concerned only to reinforce the myth of communist subversion and the rescuing of Singapore by one man, whose role is captured in the episode’s final scene.
But the occasion is more important than the catalyst. 'Days of Rage' was merely one in a long list of government-commissioned projects on the history of Singapore as our nation celebrates its 50th year, next year. It became imperative, in my mind, that we should commence a series of talks, and a public discourse, to investigate the myths of Singapore and to consider what being a nation means to us.
What is the Living with Myths project about?
'50' comes across as a big number, a good reason to celebrate. But, unlike a person’s birthday, 50 also tells us that the nation is not a natural state of affairs – it came into existence at a certain time, it is constructed, and it is sustained, among other things, by a number of stories about its origins and development.
What we mean by myths are those stories, like the official story of the Hock Lee Bus riots, that have a broad social influence which shape our identity. These stories have an ability to make values and stock positions that would otherwise be debatable seem natural and commonsensical. Thus myths are subtle.
The Myths project is not about myth-busting. Not all the myths are false or bad. For many traditional societies, myths play an integral role in maintaining social identity and harmony. Are myths different in a nation? Yes, because a nation comprises not only the elites, but also the people. So the Myths project strives to look at whether national stories are democratic and inclusive, or elitist and exclusive.
If myths are judged by such cultural criteria, do ‘truth’ and historical accuracy matter? Yes, and the role of academics and intellectuals in the Myths project is to see how the truth claims in the myths reflect certain perspectives and values.
For example, my criticism of the Hock Lee myth is that it makes untenable truth claims about the bus workers that underline the threat of communism and the need for strong leadership. Historical research and oral history show, however, that there is another story, subordinate to the official one – the story of collective bargaining, political activism and the optimism of workers and activists about creating a new nation.
This story is arguably more democratic and inclusive than the existing myth.
So, myths are not fixed but they change and evolve. Fifty years of nationhood is timely for us to rethink the old myths and whether we need new stories.