‘The World Before Singapore’ was the second panel I attended in this year’s festival– featuring Isa Kamari, John Miksic and John van Whye, the panel examined Singapore’s pre-colonial and colonial world, exploring the difference between the numerous narratives that the authors have concocted with the known facts that historians have discovered compared to the Singapore that we know of today. Without spectacular discourse, the main insight for me through this panel was the importance of increasing our curiosity towards the pre-Raffles past of which little had been taught to us. This curiosity would, in the words of John van Whye, ‘open up more complex dimensions to our past’ and allow us to understand also, the changes or continuities we have faced over the years.
In discussing this curiosity, a question left unanswered is “how far back can our understanding of Singapore’s history go?”, which kept me thinking about the importance of historical fiction. As the artifacts we can find from our past are limited, and the amount we can derive accurate facts from are even more so, the historical fiction that these authors write serve to offer different narratives that help us make sense of the little we have found from our nation’s past. With the understanding that it is in our nature to prefer stories and patterns that make sense of the bits of information that we have, I’m beginning to see a new tenet of the complexities in the nature of history.
And in discussing the nature of history, it seems that besides serving as an important tool to help us highlight continuities (on top of changes), it also serves as a source for robust debate and promote a community of thought. Apparently in the 1840s, it was written that “Singapore (has) hidden treasure– industry and intelligence”, which is not all that different from the state of Singapore today, suggesting that we really are more similar to the people before us than we think. It highlighted to me that after all, many elements of our lives from culture, practices, beliefs and perceptions are passed down from generation to generation easily, leaving the present with strings of continuities that can be questioned for their relevance in today’s global context. And here’s where the art of history comes in– where the very flexible nature of history, with the space that it allows for thought and interpretation, comes the space for debate, conversation and discovery that always, always goes on in search for identity. To today, this conversation and discipline remains important for a balanced view of where we came from and to encourage an enriching take on the story of how we became the nation we are today.
This panel certainly left me with more thought was I visited the Singapura: 700 Years exhibition in the National Museum of Singapore. And pardon the relatively drier posts that I shall be working on the document the many things I learn from this absolutely enriching festival, every panel leaves me with new insight, new inspiration and a lot more to be thinking about.