Last week I attended an event a friend was hosting and another presenting – “Future Fridays: What We’ve Forgotten”. I have been progressively devouring any bit of local history I could find and have the time to consume since I’ve returned to Singapore (I am also obsessed about how the role of data would play out in the work of future historians), so it was intriguing for me to attend an event that was meant to inquire what we have forgotten, in order to think about our future.
There are many reasons for wanting to know more:
- I want to understand more about the country I spent so much of my life resenting.
- I don’t think I can truly understand myself without understanding part of my core identity – the place of where I was born and grew up in/with.
- I have come to believe any future contributions would be weakened without an adequate, well-rounded knowledge of the historical context (as well as socio-economical, geopolitical, among others).
- We cannot love and protect what we do not know.
There were many stories being shared in that event by a diverse array of people – it warmed my heart to witness the enthusiasim and curiousity of the participants, among them where researchers and historians. Many the stories were new and revelatory to me. I would love to share some of them here, except I would be transgressing the safe space shared, and in all honesty, I am not sure if I could share them without repercussions, considering that attempts to shed light into possible alternative narratives have not been taken too kindly here.
In my own learning journey about our history, I have been astounded by how much I did not know, how much I have taken for granted, how much of my identity as a Singaporean has been taken away from me because we were given this singular narrative, almost as though we were not trusted to handle the complexity of the multi-dimensional truth. I could not have loved my country because I refused to be blindly patriotic, and yet I was too blinded by my resentment to even get to know who she is and how far she has come along. If we cannot be allowed to think critically about our past, what chance do we have to think critically about our future?
“Can we trust our own population to make wise judgments with the information given to them? And if we cannot trust them, what does that say about the resilience of Singapore’s society?” Kishore Mahbubani
What are the stories we tell when we talk about Singapore? When asked by my foreign counterparts, I would say that we are a modern day dystopia. Now, I don’t think I was that far off from the truth, or at least my perception of the truth even with the new understanding of our history, yet now I recognise that is just a tiny dimension among the multitude of dimensions the Singapore story can carry.
People like my friend, Yu-mei is working to provide that dimensionality that we have been lacking. I can only be grateful for the privilege to be in the room that day, to see a tiny fragment of our history through her lenses. Yes, she was definitely critical, which now I am beginning to understand, can only come with profound sense of love.
I feel like after thirty-five years of my existence, three away, only now do I feel like I am capable of understanding the why and how of this country just a little bit. How do we talk about this country, as Yu-mei has challenged us to think. When we share something as seemingly innocuous as a picture to represent this country, what do we unconsciously identify with, and what does that say about us?
Singapore is an archipelago which used to have seventy-over islands, now reduced to fifty-ish due to land reclamation, as I learned through one of the other attendees, Marcus. Each time we lose a bit of us, we do gain from that loss, make no mistake about that, but are we thinking enough what are we actually trading off?
I have learned to be a lot more pragmatic over the years. As our National Day draws near, I am not naive enough to wish that we stop losing bits of our past, but rather, develop the capacity to make better inquiries into what are we consciously choosing to lose, to gain, to forget, and perhaps most importantly, to remember.