PJ's Cambridge lecture - New Naratif

The Singapore Narrative(s): Old and New

In its 60 years in power, the People’s Action Party has used three, very starkly different, official historical narratives. In this lecture, PJ Thum explains this historiography and how the current narrative aims to legitimise the continued subjugation of Singaporeans, weaponise nationalism, and perpetuate colonial mindsets.

[NB: A transcript of the lecture is being prepared. In the meantime, the following is the text of Thum’s introduction to the podcast, followed by his notes from the lecture. The actual lecture includes ad-libs, asides, and extemporaneous material, so it does not follow the notes very strictly; nevertheless, the notes give a clear idea of the flow of the lecture and are a good approximation of what was said.]

Hello everyone, this is PJ Thum. This year, Singapore “commemorates” the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival, which also marks the beginning of the dispossession of the indigenous people from their land. The government is keen to highlight the former, yet ignores the latter. Clearly, colonialism and its legacy is something that is in urgent need of interrogation in Singapore. I spoke on that topic at the University of Cambridge on 24 January 2019. The following is a recording of that lecture, and accompanies our latest episode of Political Agenda, in which we examine the bicentennial and question how much Singapore has decolonised. I encourage you to listen to both. Enjoy!

Thank you for the invitation, etc.

I’ve been asked to speak about how the selective use of history has shaped Singapore’s social and political development. I’m going to talk about this in the context of broader historical forces that we are facing today. The rise of intolerance, xenophobia, extremism around the world; the crisis facing neoliberal capitalist consensus; and closer to home, the bicentennial and the crisis of succession.

Last week I got a call from a BBC reporter trying to understand why Singapore is celebrating our own colonisation. Many people have asked me this question about Singapore’s bicentennial. Why is Singapore celebrating our own colonisation?

To understand that, we need to understand the use of history in Singapore, and more to the point the political economy of the use of history in Singapore, and the turning point is Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. Prior to that point, the Singapore government’s opponent was colonialism, and it was a popularly elected and popularly responsible government. In seeking independence, we understood that Singaporeans saw themselves as Malayan – and by Malaya I mean of course, the historical and geographic Malaya, which stretches from Perlis to Singapore – and wanted reunification with the rest of Malaya. Accordingly, the elected government of Singapore conceived our national identity in those terms, and emphasised that Malayan identity as part of its reunification campaign. But after the separation, for political reasons it needed to justify the sudden stealth separation of Singapore from the rest of Malaya and Malaysia. And so that’s where we see the need to reinterpret Singapore history to present a different view of Singapore history. To create a Singaporean nation where none existed before. To create a Singaporean nationalism separate from its Malayan roots and Malayan heritage.

Let’s set the context by talking a bit about nationalism.

The Weaponisation of Nationalism

Nationalism is the greatest force of the 20th century and remains so today. Between the end of the Roman Republic and the end of WWI, the default mode of governance was the multinational empire. An emperor holds what land they can hold. But with the end of WWI, a new form of government took hold: the nation-state. This innovation married the nation to the state, arguing that every nation should have a state of their own. Nationalism is the greatest force of the 20thcentury. It liberated many peoples from oppression.

Yet it also quickly became a tool of oppression. Because no matter how small your nation, there is always going to be someone who doesn’t fit it in. Someone who conceives of your nation in a different way, or who doesn’t want to be part of our nation. And what happens to them? Logically, if this is to be a nation-state, they must be excluded or silenced. Never mind if their ancestors have lived on this land for centuries. So the unscrupulous find that it is easy to weaponise this logic, to mobilise and motivate people by presenting those who don’t fit as the enemy, as a threat to national identity, as a threat to the nation, an existential threat to the people, and therefore justifying suppression or even destruction of these other people.

The trend of the 20thcentury is liberation through nationalism, but the flip side of that is oppression by nationalism, and we see that throughout the world. The Armenian genocide. The holocaust. Palestine. The trend in our history is towards homogenity within states. See the breakup of three multinational states – the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. The Rohingya genocide is a good example. They say the Rohingya are not Burmese and that somehow justifies rape and murder and dispossession. Indonesia justifies its occupation of West Papua by saying that it is Indonesian and therefore people who want independence are a threat and must be terminated. Thailand with the Malay provinces. Malaysia and its treatment of the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. People like Trump or Nigel Farage, or the BNP, these are not historical anomalies. They are perfectly in line with historical trends, 100 years after the end of WWI, we are living in the age of nationalism taken to its logical conclusion.

And one question I get a lot is, that I argue for democracy, but it’s not so hot. Democracy enables tyrants/demagogues to use forces like nationalism to oppress minorities. But it’s not just democracies. China, perhaps the one country which could easily sustain multinationalism, has a million Uighurs in concentration camps, undergoing re-education and forcing them to eat pork.

And Singapore is no different. Think of all the times people disagree with the PAP, or do something they don’t like, and they respond: this person is un-Singaporean. This person is taking foreign money. This person is a foreign influence. This person is a communist, a Muslim extremist, a traitor and therefore we are justified in locking them up without trial. The same fundamental argument underpins these arguments. We the government decide national identity. Not the citizens. Everyone who disagrees with us is therefore a threat to the nation, and therefore an existential threat to the people, and must be dealt with extreme prejudice.

Nationalism and Singapore decolonisation

So we come back to Singapore history.

Following the end of the Japanese Occupation, the British reoccupied Malaya in 1946. By this time, they had become reconciled to the inevitability of decolonisation, and wanted to leave behind a stable post-colonial state that would also protect their economic, political, and strategic interests after independence. To that end, the British partitioned Malaya and imposed a unitary state in the form of the Malayan Union.

The problem was that Malayan Union that included Singapore would 43% Malays, 43% Chinese. This would undermine the position of the pro-British Malay elite, and so Singapore was excluded to preserve their dominance. But this was insufficient to placate the Malay elite, and their subsequent protests led to the refashioning of the Malayan Union into the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Singapore’s emergence as a solitary entity was thus rooted in the politics of racial calculation and division, setting a precedent of governance on the basis of racial division that both successor states continue to base their racial politics on.

Many Malayans and former Malaya colonial officials protested that it was illogical to exclude Malaya’s social, economic, and cultural capital.

Before 1946, there was little conception of Singapore as a separate, independent state. Historically, Singapore was part of Johor, and it was with the Sultan of Johor that the Sir Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with, in 1819, which gave the British the right to set up a trading port. Throughout the 19thcentury, it was the military and economic power of Singapore that made the British the paramount power in the peninsula. And this was formalised in 1896, when four Malay States were federated with Kuala Lumpur as its capital. The British High Commissioner in Malaya was also the Governor of the Straits Settlements, based in Singapore, and thus superior to the Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, based in Kuala Lumpur. Because of its status as a military, communications, and trading hub and its proximity to wealth, Singapore was de facto the political capital of Malaya.

But more than that, Singapore was the intellectual, social, and economic capital of Malaya. By 1930, it was the richest country in Asia, second only to metropolitan Tokyo. If you were a young man or woman who wanted to make it big, you headed for the bright lights of Malaya’s biggest city. If you wanted a higher education, you headed for Raffles College in Singapore. If you want to become a successful artist, or singer, or writer, or journalist – you headed for Singapore, because that’s where the money was. The great Zubir Said came to Singapore from Sumatra because it was the land of “butter and kopi susu”. It was in Singapore that you’d find the big multinational companies, the big artistic companies – the theatres, and the movie industry – and the intellectual industries – the publishers, the newspapers, the schools. From the mid 18th century, Singapore became and remains the largest and richest city in Malaya.

Between the wars, Singapore was the capital of the currents of ideas swirling around Southeast Asia. Indonesian nationalists fled to Singapore after the Dutch crackdown. Chinese radicals fled to Singapore after the White Terror. Islamic modernism entered Southeast Asia through Hajis returning from Mecca via Singapore. The first political party was founded in Singapore by Mohd Eunos. The Malay left articulated new ways of organising Malay society. From all these different strands of thought in Singapore’s open intellectual environment arose so many interesting and competing ways of thinking and seeing the world, and organising our societies.

It’s partly because of this that the conservative Malay elite were happy to see Singapore, with its Malay republicans, go. They didn’t want these new ideas disrupting their dominance of society. But dividing Malaya into two also divided many families and broke a lot of important historic ties.

Overturning the trauma of partition and reunifying Singapore with the rest of Malaya, would occupy Singapore’s politicians and be the decisive issue in Singapore’s independence from Britain. While the structures created out of partition would not persist, partition itself has had important and long-lasting repercussions on the successor states. It established a precedent for placing political calculation, rather than popular sovereignty, at the heart of the planning and design of political and constitutional arrangements.

For Singapore’s politicians in the 1950s, you could not be a serious political party without pledging to reunify Singapore with Malaya. It was the most important issue. Most Singaporeans had, or have family in Peninsular Malaysia. As the NYSP put it, yi jia buke fen. One family cannot be divided.

And to achieve this, Singapore’s Malayan identity was very much stressed by the all political parties in Singapore. At the PAP founding, for example, the party platform stressed its objective of reunification with the Federation of Malaya and the creation of a “democratic unitary government of Malaya based on universal adult suffrage of all those born in Malaya”. As a sign of its commitment to the reunification of the two parts of Malaya and Singapore’s Malayan identity, speakers that day included leading Federation politicians Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan Cheng Lock.

Now we step forward a decade. The PAP won the 1959 elections and formed the government. But internal divisions split the party in 1961, the majority of the party left and formed a new party, the Barisan Sosialis. For the PAP rump, defeat in the 1963 elections appeared imminent.

To win the 1963 elections, the PAP government embarked on a campaign to achieve the popular goal of reunification with the Federation of Malaya. To achieve the approval of both the electorate of Singapore and the leadership of the Alliance in Kuala Lumpur, it negotiated a Malaysia Agreement based upon political calculation, rather than popular sovereignty, as the basis for political and constitutional arrangements. The final agreement gave Singapore significant autonomy within Malaysia, in exchange for significantly less representation in the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysian Parliament) and limitations on the political rights of Singapore’s citizens in the rest of Malaysia. Apart from this, Singapore carried over its constitution largely intact. The agreement was endorsed by a rigged National Referendum in 1962, which presented Singaporeans only with alternatives that were clearly inferior to the PAP’s plan, and gave no option to vote against merger.

As with the partition in 1948, this placed political expediency over the rights of its citizens by prioritising the short-term politically advantageous goal over the long-term priority of protecting the rights of its citizens and nation-building. This criticism was explicitly made by Lim Chin Siong, who predicted that placing political expediency over nation-building would ultimately be self-defeating.

Throughout the merger campaign, the PAP used nationalism as a cudgel. If you were against the PAP, they argued, you were against merger. Nevermind that no one was actually against merger, they only disagreed about the form of merger. If you were against merger, you were anti-Malayan. If you were anti-Malayan, you are against the nation and therefore the PAP could justify locking you up without trial. And that’s the fundamental line of argument the PAP used when they locked us all their political opponents in Operation Coldstore in 1963. This of course silenced all the criticisms. But as Lim predicted, the tensions between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and the contradictions inherent in the Malaysia Agreement, soon proved too much for politicians to bear. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia.

New frameworks of Singapore history

So here’s the problem: you’ve spent over a decade fighting for Singapore to be Malayan by emphasising Singapore’s Malayan identity. Now you are out. Any reasonable reading of Singapore history and all recent government rhetoric says we are Malayan. Now you need to build a separate identity. What do you do?

For Minister of Culture Rajaratnam, the best thing to do is to forget our history.

“We have no history! Our history begins now!” We will build a new society.

Any notion of Singapore being Malayan was thrown out the window.

Now as long as the PAP were generally successful, they got away with this reading of history, but in the 1980s, the PAP ran into problems. We don’t have time to go into detail but to summarise, from the late 1970s, the PAP imposed a series of policies that failed quite badly. The second industrial revolution, which led to a major recession; changes to the housing policy, to the pension funds, to education, including the ending of vernacular education; to social policy, including eugencist and racist policies regarding family planning and even sterilisation – the infamous Graduate Mothers Scheme.

The public, of course, were unhappy. In a massive shock, they elected JB Jeyaretnam in 1981, as Singapore’s first opposition MP since 1968, followed by Chiam See Tong in 1984.

Now in response, the PAP did a whole host of changes. They started rigging the electoral system, for example, through GRCs, Town Councils, gerrymandering, malapportionment, and so on. They introduced new legislation to quell dissent. But they also returned to history, to use nationalism to build solidarity. They concluded that part of the problem was that Singaporeans were not aware of history, and therefore not grateful to the PAP for what it had done. History had to be returned to the syllabus.

But you still have the problem of framing. How do you tell Singapore history without reference to the fact that historically, culturally, geographically, we are part of the Malay world?

You do that by emphasising our colonial past. A new arc of history that connects Raffles’ late enlightenment reforms, the laissez-faire liberalism of the Victorians, the post-war imperialism of the colonial welfare state, and PAP authoritarianism. So the first textbooks were issued to Singaporean students in 1984, which not only framed Singapore from 1819 to 1965, but had a photo of the Raffles Statue on the cover. The same year, 1984, we had our first National Exhibition celebrating Singapore, celebrating 25 years since independence. Now if you’re paying attention, you’ll realise that they dated Singapore’s independence to 1959, where we achieved self-government, rather than our actual independence from Britain in 1963 or our separation from Malaysia in 1965. Today we have forgotten about 1959 – 60thanniversary this June! And this emphasises how flexible the framing is and how it is manipulated to serve the purpose of the narrative.

Now the PAP’s vote share continued to decline through the 1980s and into the 1990s, and so by 1996, a new historical narrative was introduced, called the Singapore Story, which emphasised the PAP’s singular role in shaping Singapore history. I think most Singaporeans in this room would have been born after that date…?

I think the best example of how that is Racial Harmony Day. It’s commemorated on the anniversary of the 1964 race riots. Anyone know when the first Racial Harmony Day was held?


Until 1997, the Singapore government’s position was that we have never had a race riot. Maria Hertogh was an anticolonial riot. The 1964 riots were caused by agents provocateur from KL, and so was a political riot designed to destabilise the Singapore government.

But by 1997, circumstances had changed. Malaysia was not the problem for the PAP. Singaporeans wanting more accountability, more transparency, more democracy from their government, was the problem. To buttress their conception of nationalism, they emphasized their interpretation of history, and promoted their own idea of the nation. So racial harmony day created in that context, to emphasise threats to the nation which they could use to rally Singaporeans around their notion of the nation. And hence the framing of the continuity between British colonialism and the PAP.

So this framing was adopted for reasons of political expediency, to move us away from a previous framing of history towards one which tries to build a different vision of ourselves; not as Malayans but as Singaporean. That in and of itself of course, is not a bad thing, but the problem arises when all other views are forcibly excluded. Because this narrative also carries a lot of undesirable baggage and forces us to look at ourselves through a very narrow limited framework.

The (unintended?) consequences of celebrating colonialism

Start with the most obvious thing. In this reading of history, colonialism is seen as a fundamentally good thing. This is, frankly, obscene. The idea that you can go over to someone else’s territory and take it over and subjugate them and force on them your conceptions of culture and civilisation, and this is good for them – this is really offensive. And yet Singapore perpetuates that, and this insidious sense of cultural superiority infects us in two ways. One is a sense of racial and cultural hierarchy, in which we instinctively set ourselves below white people and above other Asians and Africans. It legitimates discrimination and how we treat people of different races and nationalities. It’s this misguided sense of superiority that led America to think it could invade Afghanistan and Iraq and somehow bring them democracy and civilisation. It legitimates how us Singaporeans treat our foreign workers, in particular our domestic workers and construction workers. And it legitimates the placing of Malays on a lower position in Singapore’s social hierarchy because who got colonised and given the benefits of civilisation? The Malays. Think about it: if you frame colonialism in terms of modernity and progress, and if you buy into the PAP’s framing as the PAP being the natural heir of the British colonial government, then you accept that the PAP has the right to impose its culture and values on all of us, and especially the indigenous people, as part of continuing colonialism.

And this impacts on us in a very negative way. As Franz Fanon observed, colonialism has serious ramifications for the psyche of the colonised, who are stunted by a deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority. The narrative that colonialism is a good thing has the impact of teaching and moulding the colonised and the coloniser into their respective roles as slave and master. Thus the myths help establish a social order in which the colonised collaborate in their own subordination. Not for nothing have I argued that Singapore continues to be governed as a colonial state. We use a colonial constitution, from 1954. We use colonial laws of subjugation from the Malayan Emergency, from 1948. We use colonial institutions, like our parliament and laws. And we use a colonial mindset to convince our citizens that we must be subjugated for our own good. In my work, I talked about three myths of vulnerability, meritocracy, and development and how they have underpinned governance in Singapore since World War II, and how the PAP government governs with the same fundamental assumptions and methodology that underpinned the British colonial government, and so have bred us into colonial subjects. You can read about this at New Naratif or in “Living with Myths”. We have been dehumanised. LKY quite famously referred to us as digits.

Now this is the worst, but by no means the only implication of this framework of history. The Singapore Story focuses on Singapore’s free trade and modernity as themes of its history, yet also lays emphasis on its insularity and specificity of its experience as a society. It argues that Singaporeans came to get rich, and had no interest in the global revolutions of the inter-war period. Which is utter nonsense. It argues that Singaporeans were entrepreneurs in business but intellectually sterile. I’ve already talking about Singapore and how it was an intellectually exciting place to be between the wars and immediately afterwards. But you see how this reading of history justifies a conception of national identity that excludes opposition to the PAP, excludes Singaporeans from connecting with transnational movements, drawing upon sources of universal solidarity like the UN declaration of human rights and the Bandung declaration – which the PAP itself drew from when it was an opposition party.

This reading of history then justifies a lot of the policies which perpetuate these ideas. Singapore as a society was not conservative or politically apathetic in the 1960s, but it has become more so because this reading of history justifies policies that punish liberalism, progressivism, and political activism. And so many Singaporeans have internalised this without realising how it is a reading of history which dooms them to their own subjugation.

It also dehumanizes and delegitimises a wide range of identities within our society and culture which deserve an equal place.

But looking to the future, a major problem is that the PAP have become trapped in their own myths. I think LKY and his generation were wise enough to understand that they were engaged in the act of myth making to build a nation, because they certainly had to change the narrative several times in response to political events. But today’s leaders seem to really buy into these myths and genuinely believe their own propaganda. And this is dangerous. They have become trapped in a very specific way of looking at the world, with all its attendant values and assumptions. I can’t speak for what they believe, of course, but they seem to truly believe that Singapore is very vulnerable and fragile in terms of our society. When you see everything as a threat, you respond in a very paranoid way.

The PAP’s legitimacy has become tied up in its own myth. We saw this in 2015 with the election. Their manifesto contained nothing but the past: LKY, SG50. Ministers can’t give a speech without mentioning LKY. The myth of LKY, the Singapore Story, is constantly repeated because of political necessity, because that’s all the PAP have to justify their continued rule. But LKY left power in 1990 and died in 2015. He was a product of the Cold War and guided us masterfully through it, but his era is long over. Singapore needs leadership who can articulate a vision for our future. What kind of society are we going to be? What kind of economy? What kind of values? But if you break away from the past, and break out of these myths, you also break away from LKY, and thus your major source of electoral legitimacy.


History is not a narrative. History is an argument. There is no one version, no objective version, no authoritative version of history. We can only learn from the past by arguing over it, time and time again, reinterpreting it for a new generation to meet new challenges and face new problems. By restricting ourselves to one narrow view of history, we privilege a certain perspective, and we thus absorb all the pitfalls of that perspective. A monopoly on history allows the people who control that monopoly to define who we are, our national identity, and then to use it, to weaponise it in pursuit of their own aims. We end up with groupthink, with conformity, with appeals to a misguided sense of “unity” when they really mean obedience. And we end up with justification for discrimination, exclusion, xenophobia, and even genocide. Despite a reading of history that argues for Singaporean exceptionalism, in its use of nationalism as a tool of governance, the PAP is no different from any other state and unfortunately trapped in its own narrative of history.

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