History and identity of a nation

12 April 2019 | General News
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From left: Prof Wang, Mr Devan and Prof Tan

The role of history in the development of national and individual identities, in particular how it has shaped Singapore, were issues discussed at the fifth instalment of the IPS-Nathan Lecture Series on 9 April, “Before Nation and Beyond: Places, Histories and Identities” by Professor Tan Tai Yong, Yale-NUS College President and 6th IPS-Nathan Fellow for the Study of Singapore. He was joined by University Professor Wang Gungwu and Mr Janadas Devan, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, at a special dialogue.

Prof Wang opined that regardless of the type of world order, a state will always be a necessity. “The state has persisted in all its various forms — kingdoms, monarchies, city states, nation states, imperial states. There was some form of organised structure, bureaucratic control and capacity to utilise all the technologies and tools available... I think that no matter what kind of structure emerges, it will require people to lead, provide law and order to enable people to live in peace... There's no question that we cannot do without a state but whether the future state will be recognisable to us today that is a question mark,” he added.

He pointed out that there are different ways in which nation states are built. “Some states quite readily became nation states because they were already homogeneous — they believed in ethnic community and unity, and probably already had one shared value system with language, religion and history that was clearly defined… and you have the other extreme like Singapore where you have to start from scratch to try and make everybody a Singaporean.”

After decolonisation, Singapore was a unique state in the middle of the new nation building exercise, said Prof Wang. “Singapore didn't do any nation building at the time because it was thinking it would become part of Malaya. It was unique in the sense because a totally unprepared state was trying to build a nation… when it became independent in 1965, there was no other state where 99 per cent were immigrants, from somewhere else,” he added.

This meant that everyone who then became citizens of this suddenly independent state really had to separate from their own homes. It was not only a question of Singapore being separated from Malaya, all the people who became stakeholders in this island state also had to separate themselves mentally if not psychologically and spiritually from whatever their connections were.

The state has persisted in all its various forms — kingdoms, monarchies, city states, nation states, imperial states. There was some form of organised structure, bureaucratic control and capacity to utilise all the technologies and tools available... I think that no matter what kind of structure emerges, it will require people to lead, provide law and order to enable people to live in peace.

A topic raised at the dialogue session was the impact of social media, the increased access to information on conversations on history as well as the increasing plurality of perspectives it can offer. “History is in one sense very simple — there is history meaning what actually happened in the past… but all the other histories are actually man-made by someone, maybe the historian, maybe a government, maybe a ruler a dictator… The history books that we read, are written by people usually with an agenda of one kind or another… and certainly at different periods of time, people rewrote their own histories. All countries rewrite their history,” said Prof Wang, adding that different frameworks and perspectives and shifts in world order would influence the way we look at history.

Prof Tan said that in Singapore, the state played an important role in creating the nation’s narrative, as it needed a narrative to make people believe in the trajectory they were proposing — where they come from and where they will go — and also give hope that the trajectory will be a positive one. However, the next part of Singapore history will likely have more players.

“History is going to be more complex moving forward... it's going to involve more people writing their part in the national history of Singapore. Social media is going to open up the space and give opportunities for young people to engage in historical conversations...I think that makes it all the more important for historians to really be listening to many voices and try to incorporate as much of these voices in the historical interpretation,” he added.

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The event was attended by some 370 guests including NUS staff and students, members of the public and students from different educational institutes

In a concluding remark, Prof Wang opined that ultimately good governance and leadership allows states to succeed. “History tells us what succeeded and what didn't. A measure of the success of a state depends on what you call good governance, depends on committed people who are prepared to work very hard to ensure that the state functions well, makes progress, enables most of its people to be happy and content... nations can be successful states if there are people capable of doing that,” he said.