The problem of “presentism” in Singapore’s historical debate
The storm that erupted when PM Lee talked about his visit to the Merger exhibition and his link to an open letter penned in response to Dr Poh Soo Kai makes for a most interesting case study in the discipline of history.
As usual, whenever the Government gives its version of history, it elicits a flurry of negative reactions. Usually, you have on the one hand activists who know naught about history and just demolishes whatever the Government says by falling back on romantic ideals of human rights et al. In truth, these activists do not care about whether Lim Chin Siong is a proxy of the violent Communist Party of Malaya. To quote Teo Soh Lung’s rather child-like argument, “But honestly, I don’t care if Lim Chin Siong was a communist or a CPM member. After all, the PAP does lots of business with communist Russia and China.”
They do not care about Merger, Separation or historical accuracy for that matter. They constantly harp on the need for government to declassify its records and from there, they assume that some great wrong committed will be revealed and hence, demand a COI to seek redress for past detainees and ultimately remove the ISA. As a prominent socio-political website often claims, “As it stands, releasing the official documents of the secret branch would be the surest way of verifying this fact,” and ” it would be in the best interest of the government to open official documents”.
But where do these activists get the idea of declassifying records from? Behind these activists, there are actually some historians who were really the ones who started this historiographical debate by arguing that either there was no Communist threat in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s or that this threat was inflated. These historians actually did cite from declassified records by the British government which makes some sense since Singapore was in effect, ruled by the British until 1963. These records did show doubt by some administrators of the extent of communist threat in Singapore then. But the Government cleverly also cited from the same declassified British records of a shift in the administrators’ positions with regard to the Communist threat. What’s more is, there are primary source materials of the Malayan Communist leaders at that time, who themselves profess to instigating violence, riots and political subversion to achieve a communist state.
That’s why, when you see the responses to PM Lee’s attempt at teaching history, you hear only the activists voices most clearly; simply because they are not historians and do not know or care that a fait accompli has been achieved. When an activist says declassify all records, what does he mean? It is actually an empty call. Even the CIA redacts sensitive information from what they declassify. Does declassifying records mean that great wrongs will be found? I am afraid not. And if wrongs are not found but justifications found, what happens then? The activist will just accept meekly? Or perhaps they will say that some of these documents are forged?
This is the problem when “presentism” seeps into the study of history. It tends to blind objectivity. When one says that “so what if Lim Chin Siong was a Communist”, it is clear as day to those who study history that it is a statement with great ramifications. Today, admitting that you are a communist makes you a harmless laughing stock; but in the 1950s/60s, if one was a Communist, one was a terrorist, supporter, sympathizer of terrorism and a criminal. There is no “so what”.
It’s a very slippery slope and therefore the historians who really started this debate, have been very smart to stay in the sidelines, preferring to use the activists to fight their cause. The activists are not historians, they do not profess to be and they do not need to put forth sound arguments backed by sources. Romantic, emotive arguments and ideas are what move the present internet.
But what about the historians watching this show, of their own doing, unfurl? What are their intentions? Are they truly noble and seeking historical truth or are they just seeking, like the activists, to redress present political concerns?
Lee Hsien Loong <-link
The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was a violent, illegal organisation. So it operated secretly, underground. But the Communists infiltrated open, legal organisations like trade unions, student associations and political parties. These supported the Communist cause, but denied that they themselves were Communist. Mr Lee exposed this Communist united front tactic.
I took these photos of a fascinating exhibit: a pair of original handwritten documents. One was a trade union document, signed 林清祥 Lim Chin Siong. He was the leader of the Barisan Sosialis, the main open front political party. The other was a Communist study cell document, signed 王明 Wang Ming. The handwriting was identical. In fact Wang Ming was Lim Chin Siong’s party name; Communist cadres took party names to conceal their real identities. So Lim Chin Siong was a Communist, and the Barisan Sosialis was Communist controlled.
This was more than 50 years ago. Many old Communist and pro-Communist activists have reconciled with their past, and become good citizens. But a few hard core ones still deny these 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 PAP government, not just in the 1960s, but today.
The British have been declassifying documents from their archives in London, and making them available to the public. Also senior CPM leaders like Chin Peng, Eu Chooi Yip, Fong Chong Pik (aka the Plen) and others have published memoirs. Their first person accounts, like the British documents, confirm the extent of the Communist united front in Singapore, and leave no doubt that the Barisan was formed at the instigation of the CPM, and that Lim Chin Siong was a Communist cadre.
We have put together an account using evidence from the British archives as well as CPM sources, which confirm that Mr Lee Kuan Yew told the truth. Here it is, for your weekend reading – >Reponse to Poh Soo Kai’s allegations