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Perspectives on Singapore’ History

In recent months, Singapore’s history during the tumultuous years of merger, separation and independence in the 1960s has once again come under the spotlight. Much of this stems from the attempted release of director Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore with Love, which was classified as “not allowed for all ratings” by the Media Development Authority (MDA), indicating that the film was not allowed to be screened in public, or distributed. This was due to  concerns that the film undermined national security  and had “distorted and untruthful” accounts by various individuals on “how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore”, depicting “legitimate actions taken by security agencies to protect the national security and stability of Singapore as acts that victimised innocent individuals”.

Adding on, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said that the film contained  “untruths about history”  that allowed Communist sympathisers to “re-cast their past actions as the expression of a peaceful and democratic difference of ideology and views”.

This decision to disallow public distribution of the film has fanned controversy and produced a backlash amongst certain segments of Singaporeans, such as the film-making and arts community who appealed against the decision and saw it as an attempt to restrict discussion on Singapore’s early history.

It has also led to some members of the public resorting to  watching the film over in Johor Bahru, as well as some unflattering reports on the issue from  external news agencies.

In any case, whatever one’s stance on the issue, it has nonetheless  stirred up renewed interest  amongst younger Singaporeans in the complex history of our nation’s early years, which is an important and heartening development. Contrary to what generations of Singaporeans who have experienced only prosperity might think, our nation’s history in the early years was anything but smooth or simple. The path from self-government in the late 1950s to merger with Malaysia from 1963-65 and then subsequent independence from 1965 needs to be taken in the context of a climate of extreme uncertainty, marked with external and internal threats such as the Communist-led Malayan Emergency from 1948-1960, the Communist threat from the Barisan Sosialis in the early 1960s, Konfrontasi with Indonesia from 1963-66, and the British East of Suez withdrawal in 1971. As such, as we approach our nation’s 50thbirthday in 2015, it is important for Singaporeans to understand the complex nature and multiple perspectives surrounding the challenges that our nation overcame in order to attain the level of development which we all enjoy today.

Given this, especially timely as well was the recent  re-publication of “The Battle for Merger”, a collection of 12 radio talks delivered by then Prime-Minister Lee Kuan Yew between September 13 and October 9, 1961, in a bid to convince Singaporeans of the necessity of merger with Malaysia. This, together with its  accompanying exhibition at the National Library, provides yet another crucial perspective of our early years and would hopefully, as current Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean puts it, “awaken interest among younger Singaporeans in the events of this crucial period in our history”.

History, as a famous historian once put it, is “an unending dialogue between the past and the present”. At its heart, it is all about perspectives. Contrary to popular opinion, nothing is truly “fixed” in history, as it is a constant symbiosis between the evidence and the historian, such that new interpretations will inevitably arise over time. Therefore, as our nation arrives at our 50th birthday, it is apt that younger generations of Singaporeans once again explore the complexities that surround our nation’s early years, and judge for themselves how it is that we came to be the way we are today.


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