COMMENT: Singapore's official narrative of history is a red line that cannot be crossed

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
A composite image of “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” by Sonny Liew and “State of Emergency” by Jeremy Tiang. Photo: Epigram Books

Singapore writers usually only make the headlines when they a) win a prize of some sort and/or b) find a publisher in the West. But two local books have gotten a blaze of publicity for a more unusual kind of ‘acclaim’: having a publishing grant withdrawn by the National Arts Council (NAC).

Jeremy Tiang’s “State of Emergency” and Sonny Liew’s “The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye”, both published by Epigram Books, had their grants revoked several years apart. The former’s content “deviated from the original proposal”, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu on Tuesday (1 August) in a written response to a parliamentary question. And as many Singaporeans would know by now, Liew’s book contained “sensitive content” that could potentially undermine the legitimacy of the government.

It has almost become a badge of honour.  As one local writer cheekily commented on Facebook, “Should I be worried about the scorn of the arts community if I do get the NAC grant and they DO NOT withdraw it after I submit my work? Will the arts community think that my work is not subversive enough and not deserving of acclaim?”

Not coincidentally, both books – well-researched and drawing on multiple sources – also addressed the 1950s and 1960s, a turbulent period in Singapore’s history. They include accounts of controversial events such as the 1955 Hock Lee Bus riots and Operation Coldstore, the detention without trial of more than 100 unionists and suspected communist subversives in 1963.

And therein lies the rub. The official narrative of Singapore’s early history – one where Lee Kuan Yew and the People’s Action Party saved Singapore from the communist threat – is not one which the authorities will allow to be challenged with impunity. When it comes to support by the authorities for the arts, even if your work is internationally acclaimed and wins Eisner Awards , the official position is clear: creative works must not cross that red line.

Nonetheless, NAC’s support for the arts should be acknowledged. Speaking as an author who has gotten publishing grants from the NAC for two books, the agency has been supportive and encouraging towards me. Events such as the NAC-organised Singapore Writers’ Festival, where I was a participant, are also invaluable platforms for local writers who often struggle to get publicity for their works. But as a senior NAC official once told me, “There are things we can support, but we cannot fund.”

‘Revisionist’ versions of history

“State of Emergency” and “Charlie Chan” are not the only creative works that have displeased the authorities. In September 2014, filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s “To Singapore, With Love”, a documentary about Singapore’s political exiles, was classified Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR). This prevented the film from being exhibited or distributed in Singapore.

Calling the documentary a “one-sided account” of history, the Films Appeal Committee said that “the film would pose a serious risk to Singapore’s national security by condoning the use of violence and subversion as a means to achieve political ends in Singapore.”

A series of statements from leading political figures in the same period left no doubt as to the official position on the issue. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself weighed in in a Facebook post in December 2014, denouncing the “hardcore ones” who still deny “historical facts”.

“They don’t want to admit that they had fought on the wrong side, and that luckily for Singapore they lost. Some ‘revisionist’ historians make this argument too. One motivation: Cast doubt on the legitimacy of the (People’s Action Party) government, not just in the 1960s, but today.”

“The Battle for Merger”, a book collecting a series of radio speeches by the late Lee Kuan Yew that were broadcast prior to the Singapore-Malaysia merger, was also reprinted. Speaking at the launch of the book in October 2014, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean claimed that “revisionist writers have attempted to recast the role played by the communists and their supporters on the merger issue”.

He added, “They portray the fight as merely a peaceful and democratic disagreement over the type of merger. They ignore the more fundamental agenda of the communists to seize power by subversion and armed revolution.”

From the past to the future

A decade or two ago, books like “State of Emergency”, “Charlie Chan” and others deemed to have deviated from the official narrative might have been banned. Instead, they are readily available in bookstores. “Charlie Chan” even won the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. Wherever the vague out of bounds (OB) markers now lie, they have certainly shifted over the years.

Nevertheless, it would not surprise me to see similar incidents in future, with the NAC once again dragged into a political argument.

Perhaps the government sees it as its duty to defend the official narrative about independent Singapore’s early years. But as time passes and more and more years separate us from that period, one can only hope that the government would loosen its stance.

Open and robust debates in public forums and schools about the official and “revisionist” narratives of Singapore’s turbulent history should be encouraged. The writing of history cannot be the exclusive domain of the winners. Those who are confined to the footnotes of history should also have their accounts heard by Singaporeans.

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