This and the next post will be a digression from the history of political ideas. In this blog post, I will explore the types, state, significance, role and implications of the memories of the Singapore 1964 Racial Riot, effectively summarizing the academic papers – The Past in the Present: Memories of the 1964 ‘Racial Riots’ in Singapore – authored by Adeline Low Hwee Cheng.
Type”s” of memories
There are ostensibly 2 types of memories: individual and collective memories. Individual memories are based on personal experience. Well isn’t that just memory as we know it? It’s more complex than that, because
Truth resists simplicity.
So here’s the twist: actual memories are not based purely on personal experience because we are social animals. The proof that we are social animals comes from the fact that any human living too long in isolation goes crazy (I recommend reading up on past astronauts’ experience of isolation in space and also the movie, Passenger, provides a good illustration of this as well). Based on the fact that we are social animals, we are also therefore cursed with a set of social lenses in which we use to interpret everything, including memories. These lenses are defined by our beliefs, ethos, values and opinions, which depend on which social groups we identify with. Memories are, therefore, socially interpreted memories of individuals’ experiences. This type of memory is the “2nd” type of memory termed collective memory. Notice that I’ve placed quotation marks on “s”, “2nd” and used the word “ostensibly”. That is because the “1st” type of memory, the individual memory, does not exist. No human beings, as we are all social animals, are capable of storing raw individual experience/memories like data in a memory card, thus making all human memories collective.
The cohesive and divisive nature of collective memories and its implication on the approach to nation building
Collective memory is a double-edged sword. Within a social group where individuals share common values, ethos and opinions – social lenses – collective memories may become similar, if not congruent – especially if common experiences were made as well. As the law of humanity goes: the more we share in common, the more we are inclined to see each other in friendly terms. Collective memories can therefore be a cohesive force. The inverse is true as well: The less we share in common, the more we are inclined to see each other in unfriendly terms. The nature of collective memories is divisive because the social lenses that we are cursed with can come in many forms – it is the permutations of different values, ethos and opinions because everyone identifies themselves with different sets of different social groups. The way I see it, everyone starts from a common point at birth, the universe before the Big Bang. As we grow up, we are inevitably placed in different environments and thus we will experience different things, have different opinions and live differently in general, diverging our personalities and beliefs as a result. Based on this reasoning, we can also argue that the chance that one stranger meeting another that is only at least half as similar in terms of social lenses is astronomically low. That is why collective memories are, just like religion, not just a cohesive but also a divisive force. Based on this nature of collective memories, one of the most basic approach to nation-building would be to articulate as few versions of memories/history as possible so as to narrow the differences that is inherent in our collective memories.
Historical/Official Memories & Written History Vs Autobiographical/Popular Memories & Oral History
The streamlined version of history advocated by the government is usually the equivalent of the written history, as history is often written from the perspective of the ruling elites and those with political power inevitably possess both the ability and desire to put forth their favored version in the historical records. Even though the common saying is that history is written by victors, I believe that history is also written by those with power. Written history, therefore, expounds memories termed official memories – memories that are invoked by official, government-linked sources. Oral history, contrary to written ones, often provide the perspective of the common populace. Oral history usually comes from interviews that are done with those who lived through the relevant historical moments. Oral history has a greater value in providing a complete picture of history as it provides informations that are very often omitted in written history due to either political reasons or simply because it only provides the government’s perspective. Oral history invokes memories termed popular memories – memories of the common populace.
Propagation of Popular Memories
Popular memories are memories of the populace that lived through the relevant historical event. Hence, the primary way for popular memories to be propagated is through inter-generational “story-telling”. The less common way in which this type of collective memories is transmitted is through discretionary interviews done by researchers who wish to shed light to a particular historical event. One such example is the series of interviews done by Adeline Low Hwee Cheng in her paper: The Past in the Present: Memories of the 1964 ‘Racial Riots’ in Singapore – which this blog post is summarizing on.
Propagation of Official Memories
The propagation of the second type of collective memories, official memories, is done through the exercise of political power. The prerogative of the politicians to exercise political power leads to a wide array of possible fields that can be intervened, ranging from education to media. In Singapore, formal education is used as one of the most effective way to propagate official memories. One such example is through the mandatory academic subject of Social Studies in both primary and secondary school education. From personal experience, I was also exposed to the government’s version of Singapore history in subtle ways all the way till Junior College. It was only recently when I am exposed to university’s materials that are critical of the government that led me to realize how effective education is as a tool to propagate, if not indoctrinate, official memories into my generation. This is pure digression but it begs the question: why are we indoctrinated till we are in tertiary education but not all the way till the university level? Is this perhaps a trade-off to maintain the university’s reputation so as to attract talents? Or is it an unspoken elitist strategy where the government only feels comfortable enough to give intellectuals the ability to dissent? If it is, it may be very well be ingenious because it is the perfect middle ground to strike where we avoid the mob rule inherent in a democracy where the self-interested populace votes ( see Donald Trump) and at the same time avoid a totalitarian rule where the ruling elites abuse power without anyone to dissent against them. I digress, but that was an interesting question to ponder about. On top of education, the government also propagates official memories through rituals, taking the form of National Day Parade and Racial Harmony Day in our modern context where the one version of Singapore’s history of independence and racial riots were repeated annually. Last but not least, the government expends its resources to create media content such as TV documentaries like “Days to Remember” and “One United People – Struggle for Independence and Nationhood” in 1997.
The official version of the 1964 Racial Riot
The official memory of the 1964 Racial Riot was portrayed as one where the riot was island-wide and the cause of it was a combination of both the fragility of racial harmony and UMNO’s instigation. On top of that, the national narrative placed more emphasis on the 1964 Racial Riot than the 1950 Maria Hertogh Riot.
Official Memory Vs Popular Memory of the 1964 Racial Riot
The author of the papers that this blog post is summarizing on conducted a series of interviews of Singaporeans who lived through the 1964 riot in order to get a grasp of what the popular memory of that event was. Using this information, Low compared and contrasted it with the official memory, perhaps to find out how much of the facts about the racial riot was distorted to construct a national narrative that is convenient and effective. Low observed that, based on popular memories:
- the riot wasn’t island-wide, several “kampongs” were peaceful and racially harmonious during the riot as there were several accounts of neighbours of different race helping each other to weather the tense period. Hence, the official memories may have been distorted to exaggerate the fragility of racial harmony in Singapore.
- the Maria Hertogh Riot was seen as a more violent and significant event than the 1964 Racial Riot as Low’s informants often contrasted the 1964 Riot to the one in 1950, commenting that the latter was “worse”. This is “perhaps because, having a religious rather than a racial colouring, they are perceived to be less useful in a narrative devoted to emphasizing the importance of ethnic harmony.” (Low, 2001)
- causal factors of the riot come in a variety, ranging from political factors such as instigation by Indonesia, UMNO and the communists to social factors such as the instigation by the chinese gangsters in order to make use of the chaos to wage gang wars. This contrasts with the official memories that cite UMNO Secretary General’s instigation and fragile racial harmony as the primary, if not sole, causal factors of the riot. The cherry-picking of UMNO’s instigation as the external factor could also conceivably be politically motivated.
Conceivable motivations for distortion of facts, presuming that the popular memories collected were true
- Using a racial riot to emphasize the fragility of racial harmony is an easy feat because of an easily comprehensible logic: A racial riot was caused by racial disharmony. Why is there racial disharmony? Because racial harmony is fragile / easily breakable. Sounds logically sound doesn’t it, especially with the use of linguistic method to repeat words? Again: Truth resists simplicity. The possible political motivations to emphasize the fragility of racial disharmony through this narrative are: political legitimacy and justification of social policies.
- Political legitimacy- by emphasising the fragility of racial harmony in Singapore, the founding principle of the People’s Action Party – multi-racialism – can be framed as the appropriate ideology to maintain security in Singapore. By continuously re-emphasizing this idea every year and even framing racial disharmony as an existential threat, the PAP can continue to be seen as a political necessity to ensure that our society can continue to be safe from itself.
- Justification of social policies to maintain sociopolitical control and national security- Once the government can convince the populace that our racial harmony is indeed fragile and its erosion would become an existential threat, it can use the national narrative as the justification for a wide-array of social policies that can be used as forms of social control or national security mechanisms. Examples of these policies include the Internal Security Act (ISA) which can conceivably be a tool to silence political dissent and in practice, prevent terrorism as seen by the preventive arrest of Jemaah Islamiyah members in 2001. Another example would be the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) which was invoked to persecute Amos Yee, who is currently seeking political asylum in the United States against the Singapore government. Although Yee was indeed a very crude and offensive critic of the Christian faith, it is difficult to ignore the fact that he was also an equally crude and offensive critic of PAP’s late founder, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The criticism of Mr Lee directly undermined the political legitimacy of PAP right at its historical core. It can therefore be justifiably speculated that the national narrative is being used by the government to justify social policies that are used to impose sociopolitical control and also to institute safety mechanisms against external forces such as terrorism. Social policies that has no conceivable veiled political motive such as Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) are also justified in the same manner.
- As mentioned, the focus of the national narrative on the 1964 Racial Riot over the more significant Maria Hertogh Riot in 1950 was “perhaps because, having a religious rather than a racial colouring, they are perceived to be less useful in a narrative devoted to emphasizing the importance of ethnic harmony.” (Low, 2001)
- This is my own opinion, but the inflated significance of UMNO’s instigation of Malays in Singapore as the dominant causal factor in Singapore on top of fragile racial harmony can be a form of political legitimizing device. By creating a “historical enemy”, the government can invoke an “us vs them” mentality where a common enemy is conceived. This frames PAP as the historical champion of justice and independence in Singapore, especially when PAP’s fundamental value of multiculturalism contrasts against UMNO’s belief in Malay privilege.
Official Memory as a virtually unlimited political resource
It is of my observation that official memory is a virtually unlimited political resource. The amount of this resource depends on how dominant the official memory is in the public conscience compared to the contradicting popular memories. In order to maintain this dominance, the government simply has to continuously remind the public of the national narrative. This, as stated, is done through ritualistic events such as Racial Harmony Day Celebrations and National Day Parades. On top of that, on occasional basis, key phrases such as “Singapore was a country that was not meant to be” and “Don’t take racial and religious harmony for granted” are often used in government’s statement in response to unfolding current affairs. These phrases have a very profound psychological effect of triggering the national narrative / official memory in the readers’ conscious. The ease of renewing the dominance of official memory makes it a virtually unlimited resource. With the official memory remaining dominant in the public conscious, PAP also maintains its political legitimacy in ways as argued above, ultimately making official memories an unlimited political resource. The importance of being aware of this is that it helps explain why so much money is being spent on events like NDP even though PAP has always been very prudent in its budget. It also explains why certain phrases are on repeat on the lips of politicians. By knowing why certain things are done by the government, we can not only guard ourselves against indoctrination, but also help us look at national issues in a more objective manner.
Another digression: In spite of all these cynic-inspiring statements, we must recognize that PAP’s primary business is to remain in power, just like any other political parties out there. The maintenance of power is the prerequisite to all other goals that the party wishes to pursue in the parliament. Hence, the digust at political parties’ power-grubbing nature can, in my opinion, be a rather ignorant response. Instead of judging a political parties’ moral value in terms of its desire for power, we should judge them based on the end in which their power were used to achieve. A political party that is powerful can use its accumulated power to become a hero, just like how it can also become a villain. Do we simply condemn Superman or Thor for being powerful? We are right to be cautious of the powerful lest we run into a General Zod or Loki, but to unconditionally condemn all those who are powerful would be an ugly reflection of our insecurities.
Official memories as a tool for nation-building
As I’ve mentioned much earlier in the paragraph on collective memory, collective memory is both a cohesive and divisive force. Hence, advocating as few versions of history as possible can narrow the divides that are inherent in collective memories, making it the most pragmatic approach to building social cohesion, by extension, nation-building. By maintaining the dominance of official memories in the public conscience, the divisive nature of diverse collective memories can be contained and minimized. We all interpret history differently if we live through it, thus providing diverse viewpoints. Although diverse viewpoints provide a more complete picture of history, expanding that diversity to the public conscious can become too dangerously divisive. We are friendly on the ground of commonality, not differences, accepting this reality is an important step to effective nation-building.
Memories are collective because individual memories do not exist. However, there are 2 types of collective memories: popular and official memories, with the former derived mainly from oral history and the latter from written history. The propagation of both memories are different. Popular memories are transmitted through inter-generational “story-telling” while official memories are transmitted through the exercise of political power. When comparing between the official and popular memories, discrepancies were found. Assuming that the popular memories are more reliable in providing the more complete picture as it provides multiple perspectives, then official memories were intentionally distorted. The distortions range from the exaggeration of the scale of riot to the streamline of the causes of the riot being UMNO instigation and fragility of racial disharmony. These distortions can conceivably be politically motivated, mainly to politically legitimize PAP. Official memory is also a virtually unlimited political resource that the government has evidently sought to renew over and over again. In spite of all these conspiracy theories, we need to ultimately understand that official memories are undeniably also used a tool of nation-building.
Bibliography: Hwee Cheng, L. (2001). The Past in the Present: Memories of the 1964 ‘Racial Riots’ in Singapore on JSTOR. [online] Jstor.org. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23653959?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents [Accessed 28 Mar. 2017].
BEWARE! DIVISIVE POLITICAL OPINION AHEAD!
You have been warned
You might not agree, but it is of my opinion that the PAP is one of the best political party in history that knows how to run a country effectively. We should elect a party based on 2 criteria: capability and morality. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the excellence of the former criteria is a sorely lacking and rare feature in their political parties. Morality may never be decisively determined in any political parties since we can never really tell if someone is telling the truth. The only indicators we can fall back on are corruption indexes and the Singapore government, which is synonymous with PAP, ranks highly. Is that to say that PAP is a benign political power? No. But it is also equally unfair to be cynical of it as there is also an absence of decisive evidence to suggest the malicious intent of PAP. Even if the above-mentioned political motivations were true, we can still argue all day on whether actions are immoral because we all have different ideas of morality. You would be disgusted by PAP’s methods if you are a Kantian but you would be able to tolerate its methods if you are a Utilitarian. At the end of the day, we can only agree to disagree. This is probably why politics will always be an emotional and divisive topic since we can only at best agree to disagree given our fundamentally different views on ethics. My opinion? Machiavelli, utilitarianism, pragmatism, PAP. This support, however, is not unwavering. In fact, it is sensitive to future developments. Should evidences of PAP’s eroding competency or morality emerge, the logical guidance of the 2 criteria will direct my support away from this party.