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The Uses of History in Singapore

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The Uses of History in Singapore

Key Questions
– How is History used in Singapore?
– Who makes use of History in Singapore?
– What does this mean for historiography and historical methods?

Central Argument
Much history in Singapore is practically motivated. It is state-endorsed through state-controlled mediums. Yet there may be active sites of contestation where memories and heritage may pose as forms of resistance to state control.

The actors that take part in these formation of narratives

– Politicians
– Ministry of Education (MOE)
– The National Museum
– Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)
– Individuals

– M C Lemon’s Chapter 13: What is History for?
– Bernard Cohn’s “investigative modalities”
– Relating theory to what the actors have done in reality
– Justin: The state / politicians
– Steph: The education system
– Mingxian: The National Museum
– Eisen: Heritage in Singapore

What does M C Lemon say about history for its own sake and history for practical means?
He separates the notion of history being done for its own sake (a “final” action) and history being done as a means to an end (a “practical” action).
When history is done as a means to an end, it takes the form of “practically motivated historical writings”.
The aims of these writings are to entertain, generate controversy or bring across a political or moral message. This could take the form of “ideology”.

What is “ideology”?
It is a coherent set of ideas about the world, which makes that world intelligible for the purposes of action. When people adopt this set of ideas, the ideas they generate are no longer the product of their free thinking, but derived from the influence of ideology.
Imagine a society consisting of Groups A, B and C, in which Group A has greater power over B and C. There are two ways of maintaining power over B and C, for A’s selfish interests – coercion and consent. Coercion is straightforward. Consent, on the other hand, has to be achieved through the employment of different methods by A to transmit ideas (ideology) to B and C. B and C will then think under the influence of A’s ideology, hence increasing A’s power.
The transmission of ideas goes beyond A persuading B and C that its line of thought is worth subscribing, though. These ideas have to be packaged into a coherent strand of thought, through the creation of usable knowledge from collecting and organizing information. “Knowledge”, in this case, includes categories, constructs, and identities; “knowledge” becomes the conduit for ideology.

The “culprit of ideology”
Lemon identifies THE HISTORY BOOK as a “culprit” of ideology, complicit in the spreading of ideology. But is the History Book the only culprit?
No – Bernard Cohn talks about other ways in which knowledge is created and converted to power, not just through the writing of the History Book.

Colonialism and its forms of Knowledge
The British In India
By Bernard S. Cohn

Colonialism was not only about the power of superior arms, military organization, and politics, it was also a cultural project of control, and this control revolved around the production of knowledge.This knowledge was created through what Cohn calls “state modalities”, which were  “historiography, documentation, certification and representation”, etc. These modalities transformed KNOWLEDGE  into POWER and the colonial state controlled these modalities
The result of this creation of knowledge was the creation of new categories and oppositions, identities and classifications. But the creation of this knowledge was not monolithic. One should not be too quick to ascribe intention or system to a series of activities and outcomes which, though at times coordinated, were usually diffuse, disorganized, contradictory. There were times of contestation.
There were several types of modalities.
1.    Historiographic modality
The writing of histories involved the ideological construction of the nature of the Singaporean identity, and the formation of a legitimizing discourse about state’s claim to power in Singapore.
2.    Observational / Travel modality

For the British, it was a creation of the repertoire of images and typifactions that determined what was significant to the European eye.While the British toured India as tourists with an imperial eye, the state seeks to sell Singapore as a tourist destination and create a history that is available for easy consumption.

3.    Survey modality was about territorial and ethnographical survey.
For the British, it was a form of exploration of the natural and social landscape, such as the mapping of India, collecting of botanical specimens, recording of architectural and archaeological sites of historic significance, etc. In Singapore, URA maps out and divides Singapore into land plots to redevelop or sell to private developers.
4.    Enumerative modality
The use of the census created social categories by which India was ordered for administrative purposes, for example race and ethnic compartments. Censuses conducted in 1980, 1990 and 2000 to obtain information about the population, such as income levels and educational levels categorized by race.
5.    Museological modality
It is the creation and exhibition of a body of knowledge through Museums, botanical gardens and zoos.
6.    Surveillance modality
For the British, it was surveying India from above and at a distance – from a horse, an elephant, a boat, a carriage, trains. Rulers and ruled alike had proper roles to play in the colonial sociological theatre. In Singapore, he State claims its proper role – mandate to make decisions. Groups that did not play their proper roles were deemed to threaten this order: Liberals, Oppositions,and homosexuals.

Justin – How History is used by the state / politicians

The study of history in Singapore was intrinsically linked to the state’s political ideology. The state actively and aggressively used history as a tool to further state-identified goals – of nation-building and national survival. Consequently, the contents of Singapore’s national history that was being communicated through the education system evolved as the state’s political ideology and goals evolved. As the People’s Action Party (PAP) has dominated the state’s government since independence and its views could be said to represent the state’s view, particular attention will be paid to the PAP’s attitude towards history.

The state’s treatment of and attitude towards history can be divided into three main phases, the first being the immediate post-independence years from 1965 to the late-1970s, the second being the years from the 1980s to early-1990s, and the last being the early-1990s to the late-1990s.

The first phase was notable for the state’s marginalization of history as it did not reinforce the state’s ideology of survival. In these immediate and crucial post-independence years, the state was preoccupied with “the more immediate and urgent issues of nation-building and national survival”. Central to the ideology therefore was the ideas of modernization and industrialization – processes that had looked to the future and had no use for the past. In a speech that reflected the spirit of the times, Devan Nair commented in 1974 that “for modern man, the past is a poor guide, and the present a clash of possibilities from which the future will emerge. Unlike the pre-modern modern man who dreamed of the world he had left, modern man must dream of the world he will make.” In the quest for modernization, the nation’s history was deemed useless and thus, ignored.

Furthermore, there was the fear that focusing on Singapore’s history could threaten the state’s ideology of survival. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs, S. Rajaratnam noted in 1967, focus on the past and not the future could result in the failure to “convert a society of transient immigrants into a community of permanent settlers”, thus causing Singapore to become “a ghetto of indescribable misery, squalor and hopelessness.” Clearly, the nation’s history was seen as an unwelcome distraction to the importance of crafting a common Singaporean identity and future.

History’s lack of practical use thereby led to its marginalization in the schools. As Albert Lau noted, “history was not so crucial and fundamental that it could not be dropped as an examinable subject.” History was offered as a non-examinable subject at primary levels from 1968 onwards and was later removed altogether from the Primary School Leaving Examinations from 1972. History then fell under the umbrella of a new non-examinable subject, Education For Living – a precursor to present-day Civics and Moral Education, from 1975 onwards. Therefore, history’s greatly diminished role in the primary school student’s education was indicative of the state’s preoccupation with the future. Its limited role in helping to teach students good morals and civic consciousness further reflected that its worth as a subject stemmed from its usefulness to nation-building. This led one commentator to characterize the attitude towards history in this first phase as the “decade of disinterest”.

A change in political ideology in the second phase (1980s to early-1990s) led to a change in the way history was perceived and used. Having led Singapore through its crucial first decade by establishing a strong and growing economy and securing its immediate future, the PAP government began to focus its attention on maintaining its hegemony over the state. The party’s loss in the Anson by-elections in 1981 sparked a renewed interest in Singapore’s history, where values of group solidarity were emphasized as opposed to “the harmful ideals of Western-style democracy and individualism” which promoted parliamentary opposition. Accordingly, Rajaratnam drew upon history to provide “the links to hold together a people who came from four corners of the earth” and to condemn those who supported the idea of opposition as people “who [took Singapore’s] prosperity and stability for granted.” Evidently, the “decade of disinterest” had given way to a renewed interest in history, as the PAP manipulated its use to promote their continued survival as the dominant party in Singapore politics.

Closely linked to the PAP’s goal of maintaining its hegemony over the state was its emphasis on communitarianism as part of the state’s ideology, as opposed to communalism. In this, history also had a role to play, though its scope was specifically limited. This was most evident in the government’s deliberate choice of Sir Stamford Raffles as Singapore’s founding father and its refusal to consider Singapore’s past pre-1819. It refused to trace Singapore’s lineage beyond 1819 as this would turn the country “into a battleground for endless racial and communal conflicts,” and would be a blatant “misuse of history”. History therefore, was used as a tightly controlled tool to further the policies and ideology laid down by the state.

Another reason for history’s renewed popularity was the change in the state’s attitude towards it, where it no longer saw history as a threat to the state’s continued survival, but as a means through which it could provide lessons to the younger generations to ensure the state’s continued survival. Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister noted in 1980, “to understand the present and anticipate the future one must know enough of the past, enough to have a sense of the history of a people.” George Yeo, Minister of State for Finance and Foreign Affairs elaborated in 1989 that by “looking at our own history and finding in that history enough strength to take us into the future”, the younger generation could build on the successes of the state since its independence. In order to educate the younger generation, the Curriculum Development Institute of Singapore (CDIS) released a textbook titled Social and Economic History of Modern Singapore in 1984, choosing to focus on the aspects of Singapore’s history that would promote future national growth and communitarian values in line with the state’s policies. Clearly, the state began to take a more active role in communicating parts of the nation’s past to the population, using history to further goals that it had identified.

Having recognized the importance and uses of history in the second phase, the third phase from the early 1990s to late-1990s marked the increasingly aggressive stance the government took in promoting the nation’s history to reinforce the PAP’s ideology of hegemony and of continuing the nation’s progress. This phase was triggered by a survey conducted in August 1996 by the Ministry of Education (MOE), in which Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong revealed that students “knew little of the events surrounding Singapore’s independence” and this “ignorance…is the result of political circumstances.” Hitherto, emphasis on Singapore’s history had been on the social and economic aspects of the nation’s history, as evidenced by the CDIS textbook mentioned above, and not on the nation’s political history. The episode revealed how the PAP dictated and made use of the content of the nation’s history and of the study of history in general, to reinforce its goals.

In order to solve the conundrum, added emphasis was given to the study of history, in particular the political events surrounding the nation’s independence in 1965. Tellingly, even before the MOE survey, PAP politicians’ had noted the need to do so. Eugene Yap, Deputy Speaker of Parliament advocated in 1995 that a “full education requires the study of…geography and history,” while Dr Ong Chit Chung, noted that history is “the soul of the nation” and suggested that “our youth should learn…how Singapore became a nation in 1965.” Growing emphasis on Singapore’s political history led to PM Goh’s declaration that a National Education Committee would be established, culminating in the eventual launch of the National Education programme in 1997. The nation’s leading newspaper characterization of it perfectly captured the use of history in Singapore, commenting that “the National Education Programme is not history for its own sake, but a forward looking exercise to help Singaporeans to understand their past in preparation for the challenges ahead.” Clearly, the National Education Programme, as the primary vehicle in which the state could communicate Singapore’s history to the population, demonstrated the intrinsic link between the PAP government and the study of history in Singapore, of how the history of Singapore could be used to promote the PAP’s goals of national survival and continued progress.

In the final analysis, the Singapore government’s attitudes towards history – from one of disinterest to one of active engagement – revealed one consistent trend of thought, how history could be practically used to bolster the state apparatus. In this consideration, the study of history in Singapore appears to be exceedingly politically motivated and therefore, unobjective. Ignoring questions of whether it is possible to write a truly objective history, this charge begs the question of whether such history is useless to the historian. In answer to this question, this essay will put forth historian’s Michael Lemon’s comments that such history “may contain much original and fascinating material…knowledge of which is useful to any student of history”. More importantly, despite the practically motivated agenda towards the study of history in Singapore, emphasis on it has led to the emergence of a large corpus of material on the subject, providing a useful point of reference for any student of history.

Steph – How History is used in Singapore’s education system

The introduction of the National Education (NE) initiative on May 19, 1997, marked a significant interest in the state’s understanding of the place of History in educational policies of Singapore. Lee Hsien Loong, then Deputy Prime Minister, labelled the ‘Singapore Story’ the “officially sanctioned history of the nation” and this move saw a greater interest in history and Social Studies (SS), which was a new subject introduced into the syllabi that the Ministry of Education (MOE) gave in schools. This created a newfound zest in the usage of history in schools and as an interdisciplinary component in the SS subject. The syllabi of both History as well as SS are now constantly reviewed every 3-4 years, making sure that the “content stays relevant and future-oriented”. This was done because of the need to remember what was sacrificed for Singapore’s survival, and to maintain that hard-earned survival of both the ruling government of the young nation – the People’s Action Party (PAP) – and the young nation-state itself.

Therefore, we need to examine how the state understands the purpose of history, objectivity and method through the study of the history taught in Singapore schools after the introduction of the NE initiative. The history taught in schools is identified as being the international world history that we learn as a student as well as the Singapore story through subjects like Social Studies. This is taught through textbooks primarily, as well as field trips to open space concepts such as historical sites and museums.

Ideology, in the words of M.C. Lemon is, “a more or less coherent set of ideas about the world which serves the function of making that world intelligible for the purposes of action and/or commitment.” The role of an ideology in communicating history, hence, “needs to reflect or ‘make sense of’ our world in such a manner as to accommodate the pursuit of our interests rather than conflict with them”. In the case study of Singapore, the state leaders use history to communicate their “Ideology of Survival” to its people, so as to guarantee not just the survival of the ruling party, but also, the survival of the young nation.

This “Ideology of Survival” can be simply explained as understanding the path of independence that the PAP undertook to propel Singapore to its present status, as well as understanding the difficulties that a vulnerable Singapore with no possible forms of resources had to face. If we examine this ideology that the Singapore nation undertakes, we would then see that the state understands the purpose of history as a form of communicating their ideology to its people so as to facilitate “the pursuit of interests rather than conflict with them” – these interests being the continual economic and industrial development and the understanding of the vulnerabilities that the state faces, which were essential to the survival of the nation.

In examining the new compulsory subject, Social Studies and its textbook for Upper Secondary students, we would notice that under “A Note for Students”, the message that was intended for the students was one of understanding “the constraints that countries face and becoming aware of your role as an informed and responsible member in the local and world community” and even “…reflect on how states respond to an ever-changing world to survive and progress”. Linking this to Lemon’s idea of ideology, it is evident then, that the Singapore state views the purpose of history as one of communicating their thought process to the future generations, ensuring the survival of the party as well as the nation-state especially in this age of globalisation and ever-changing world dynamics.

Lee Hsien Loong, in his launching speech on NE, talks about the Singapore Story as being “based on historical facts” rather than on “an idealised legendary account or a founding myth [but of an] accurate understanding of what happened in the past…seen from a Singaporean standpoint”. Facts as understood by historians everywhere, are objective since facts are occurrences that happened throughout the course of history. Yet, like what Lemon says, it is the selection of the facts “to support his case, and ignored others” that determines objectivity and bias. The relevance and significance of each fact that is included, contributes to the objectivity of the piece of work written. Again, the communication of facts used in the textbooks to bring across certain messages and values would reflect the objectivity of the narrative.

In the case of the history taught in Singapore schools, the selection of the date 1971 as the new cut off point for Singapore history in the Secondary 2 syllabus demonstrates a milestone in Singapore’s economic development since they faced a labour shortage rather than a high unemployment rate as feared by many. This would be a historical fact of which it was the year the British troops were going to withdraw from the state. Yet, the selection of this date in the syllabus communicated the “Ideology of Survival” that has been mentioned earlier. The relevance and significance of this fact therefore demonstrates the purpose of history, which in Singapore’s case, was to allow for the understanding of that ideology. Thus, this would reflect the state’s understanding of the objectivity of history, showing that it was largely based on historical facts, but clearly ignoring the selection process, which according to Lemon, is what determines the objectivity of a historical narrative.

Bernard Cohn talks about the knowledge of history as the most valuable form of knowledge through the different modalities. His historiographical modality explained the involvement of the “ideological construction of the nature” of the state at hand, as well as the concretisation of history through “the construction of memorials and sacred spaces”. This can be seen in the history taught in schools. The textbooks and field trips to open spaces like the museums or historical sites are methods employed by the state to teach history and communicate their ideas of ideology to the students.

Textbooks as mentioned above, allowed for the different values and ideas to be brought across to the students. One example of this can be seen through the syllabi of the Lower and Upper Secondary History. The chapters within the Secondary 1 syllabus demonstrates the state’s purpose of history for the Lower Secondary students – that is, to understand the importance of the society and governance and how these interplay with each other, even in the ancient empires and civilisations of our founding fathers. The chapters within the Secondary 2 syllabus show the state’s purpose of history – which is to understand the historical development of Singapore, after understanding how governance and society plays a part with each other. The chapters within the Upper Secondary history syllabus shows the state’s purpose of history, in this case, to help students understand the international and global history, allowing the students to make an inference of the role Singapore plays in this growing globalised scene.

To further reveal how the state understands the method of history, Albert Lau, in his article in 1992, mentions that Singapore’s past needs to be understood not just as its history in time, but also with the rest of the world in time. Fast-forward 15 years to the future, the state has shown to have understood the methodology of history the way Lau was talking about in his article – which was to “internationalise” Singapore’s national history since the syllabi reviewed seemed to have demonstrated that shift. Thus, it has been revealed that the state understands the method of history through that of what Lau mentioned in his article.

After reflecting upon the way history has been drafted to be taught in the Singapore schools, we can hence observe the state’s understanding of the purpose of history, objectivity as well as method. The Singapore state views history as one that fulfils its national narrative, combining it with other disciplines to better explain the “Singapore Story” as well as one that allows for what Lemon calls, political persuasion or the injection of political and moral values, in the most subtle of ways. The objectivity of history is understood by the state as being backed with verifiable, historical facts, culminating in the objective truth and the method of history, as mentioned by Lau, to be the “internationalisation” of the national history. These, though may not be the way other historians, through their own set of rules, understand history as, but it certainly serves the purpose of the state, which is of ensuring the survival of both the ruling party and the state.

Mingxian – The Narrative of History in the National Museum of Singapore
This presentation examines the historiographical issue of how the museum as a medium through which Singapore history is narrated influences its interpretation. It argues that strategies of representations used in the museum provide spaces where meanings of the past can be negotiated, influencing the interpretations of its narrative. A comparison between The Dioramas and the current Singapore History Gallery will be made to illustrate this.

By comparing both galleries and their strategies of representations, it can be observed that the latter can shape the narrative tone of the museum and thus determine the way history is presented. One sees a shift in the narrative structure in the museum from that of a singular meta-narrative to one that is open to multiple interpretations.

Strategies of Representation

Dioramas contrast with exhibitions of material culture in that they reconstruct and represent rather than merely displaying the past. As each diorama allows a scene to be captured in totality, the curator was able to insert into each scene the desired information, better controlling the meaning of events for the viewer. History was thus reduced to a series of images with an absence of material artifacts. By presenting Singapore’s past through this form, dioramas thus set a definitive and authoritative tone to its selection of historical facts. The nature of this representational strategy in turn provides little space for an alternative perspective of that past.

The SHG in contrast, takes a different approach by showcasing the past through a combination of artifacts and re-constructed secondary materials. This contrast is not only offered in sources, but also largely attributed to two distinct representational strategies that increased the interactivity between the visitor and display. Interactivity is intrinsic to this exhibition as the order of the exhibits could be negotiated by the activity of the visitors and the choices they make about which exhibits to linger on. This broadly contributes to a tentative and open-ended historical interpretation in the museum. Where the phenomenon of historical consciousness occurs as locally as a person’s private thoughts , a multitude of small narratives can be formed. This element of interactivity between the visitor and the museum display is achieved through The Companion , designed to complement the museum’s physical collection through audio, visual and textual content. Through the Companion, one gets to decide how he wants to explore the gallery and which narratives he wants to listen to, by keying in zone codes followed by numbers assigned to artifacts.

Although both exhibitions were constructed in a linear, chronological approach, the SHG was able to move away from narrating an authoritative national history. A linear approach tends to give veracity to the narrative, as it mirrors the production of critical history whereby historical facts presented has been derived from the careful sifting of evidences systematically. Most importantly, such layout underplays the dilemma that there is always more than one version of a historical narrative. The SHG while adhering to such approach to make the past understandable to the general public thus offers two paths to its narrative – the events path which trace major events and characters that were part of Singapore history, and the personal path which tells stories through the eyes of the man on the street. The visitor is thus not restricted to a single layout that reinforces its narrative. This was further achieved through the establishment of a separate identity for each thematic display. Each theme was physically separated and had its own design philosophy, further eroding a chronological framework that undermines an open interpretation.

This contributes to a shift away from a meta-narrative that often results from a chronological narration of the past. The SHG through its multiple themes and emphasis on personal paths shaped its narrative such that mediation between state-endorsed history and personal interpretations take place. While the events path threaten to be seen as yet another indoctrination tool of the state, engulfing memories into its grand narrative, the personal path see the contestation of this phenomenon.

Notion of history as Progressively linear

Lightings influence the meaning of the narrative in a subtle but persuasive manner. It shapes the narrative tone by affecting the moods of visitors. This is apparent in the SHG, where an extremely dim lighting effect is used to portray the mythical pre-colonial component of Singapore’s pre-colonial period, while the brightest lighting in the entire exhibition was used in the period of post 1959, after the take-over of Singapore by PAP. This can be seen as having a subtle effect of indicating the presence of PAP marking a future brighter than the past. Most importantly, it puts forth the notion of history as being progressively linear, reinforcing a chronological narrative.

Evolution in Narration: Implications

Implications of the shift in the museum should be understood in relation to the larger historiography development of Singapore History. History postulated as objective and rational gave legitimacy to foundational myths for contemporary self-definitions of nation-states. The historiography of Singapore’s past from its inception was characterized by the subsuming of the fragmentary into a grand narrative. While the launch of the Singapore Story in the late 1990s could be seen as ‘high point of indoctrination’, where key moments of the country’s political history were identified and subsumed into a national narrative, the PAP at the same time was forced to address a growing interest in and nostalgia for the past, implying that history is subversive to those who use it for their agenda. Public history in 1990s increasingly came to the forefront, with buildings declared as heritage sites and the proliferation of museums. In this context, the scripting of Singapore’s past continued in the Museum which was intended to present a specific understanding of the past endorsed by the state.

This scripting of the past should however not be seen as a monolithic exercise. The official national history has been taught at schools and reinstated by PAP politicians through the mass media at multiple occasions, and the repeated usage of this narrative has allowed it to be accepted as ‘everyday knowledge’ and ‘common sense’. Yet at the same time, this narrative accompanied by a bundle of silences saw many Singaporeans finding the simple narrative ‘tedious’ and ‘boring’. In this context, we see the narrative of Singapore’s history in the museum evolving to one that is more open to interpretation after its re-opening in 2006, in response to the shifting demographics of the public. While the museum’s larger political expediency is maintained, the method in which the historical narrative is presented has changed through the various strategies of representations adopted.


History is subversive to those who use it for their particular purposes. The use and transmission of history in Singapore is not monolithic, but one that is open to the notion of human agencies driving it – actors being the state, curators, and the visitors in the context of the museum. It is an imperative to note that in both exhibitions, it was not in the explicit intention of curators to create a sense of national identity. The way history is narrated in the museum did not remain static since its incipient. It is nuanced over time, reacting to, and itself contributing to the way history is used and transmitted in Singapore.

The objective of the historical narrative in the Museum is to make history understandable to the public through its selection of facts. Its accompanying bundle of silences raises some issues about the objectivity of the museum in its representation of the past. However it is not about the bundle of silences itself, but how these silences are not represented. As such, the continual evolution of the strategies of representation will result in a more open interpretation of the past.


Crane, Susan. “Memory, Distortion, and History in The Museum”, History and Theory, 36 (Dec 1997): 44-63.
Hong, Lysa. The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its past. Singapore: NUS Press, 2008.
Koh, Fiona Tyng Yuann. Exhibiting History: A study on the Singapore History Museum. Academic exercise-Dept. of History, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore, 2003.
Loh, Kah Seng. “Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore”, Crossroads: An interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies,12 (1998) : 1-12.
Tarulevicz, Nicole. “Between Forgetting and Remembering: Singaporean History and the Singapore History Museum”, in Performing Objects: Museums, material culture and performance in Southeast Asia. Edited by Fiona Kerlogue. London: Horniman Museum, 2004.
Witcomb, Andrea. Re-Imagining the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum. London: Routledge, 2003.

Eisen – How is History preserved and destroyed in Singapore, with regards to its heritage?

So far, we have seen how History is used by various actors such as politicians and educators for practical ends, and how sites of contestation can appear between popular memory and an “official” historical narrative within the confines of the museum. The question of whether it is possible that Singapore can have one “official” narrative reappears again when we explore heritage in Singapore, and how some have been preserved over the decades, while others have been destroyed.


We will go over the definitions of “place” and “heritage”, the relationship between history and heritage, who exactly takes control of heritage in Singapore, areas of contestation in local heritage, and whether it contributes to an “official” narrative in Singapore.


Heritage in Singapore is a non-textual method of preserving lived and experienced history, desired by both individuals for the sake of retaining memories and the state for building up a state-sanctioned historical narrative. However, this balance is almost impossibly difficult to achieve because of the expedients of land scarcity, free market economics and the need for the state to make use of whatever little heritage is left to build up their own version of Singapore history and identity. This version, though, is not free from its own contestations.


Our resident experts on local heritage – Brenda Yeoh and Lily Kong – first coined the term “place” in their 1995 article “Our Places in Time”. Usually a very mundane word used to describe a very mundane thing (it’s all around us, isn’t it, this thing called “place”), they loaded with two definitions – it may either refer to a specific geographical location (this place, that place, the place you’re in, etc.), or it may refer to a socially constructed site. The latter means that a “place” has abstract meaning only in relation to an individual’s or group’s goals and concerns. In other words, these people invest a “place” with their own meanings.

These individuals or groups include: politicians and administrators, whose interests lie in executing state policies; architects, planners and property owners, who are mainly governed by the forces of capitalism and the desire to make money out of the property market; the man in the street, which possesses personal memories and collective experiences about the place. From this, we know that the same “place” might mean different things to different individuals or groups.

We must also realize that while time “flows” invisibly, “places” change visibly, either through natural or man-made means. Changes in the landscape are signifiers for the passage of time; by moving through time we also move through changing places.


Using Brenda Yeoh and Lily Kong’s definition of “place”, we can then now define “heritage”.

Heritage is an inherited site (from previous generations) that carries different meanings to different individuals or groups.

What is the relationship between History and Heritage?

So far, all that Lemon has discussed about History are its textual forms. What he neglects, I argue, is History as objectified in the landscape, in a physical form on one hand, and an abstract form on the other. While it burns itself into popular memory, by invoking memories and thoughts in people the moment they set their eyes and mind to the physical entity of the “place”, it does not speak directly to them, neither is a narrative written down in words anywhere. It is through the interaction of the individual, and his unique memories and thoughts, with the physicality of the “place”, that evokes a historical narrative.

What complicates this is the selective preservation and destruction of heritage. Rarely is a piece of heritage ever left to itself over several generations. It is usually preserved and upgraded (“spruced up”, as it were), converted to other forms of usage other than its original use, or destroyed. The process of “preservation” also comes with caveats – rarely is the “place” preserved in its original forms and contents. In these cases, we can safely assume that only particular, incomplete versions of the past are retained. To phrase it another way: a place may be historical, but it only represents history partially.

Who controls heritage in Singapore?

There are players from the state (the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Singapore Tourism Board), civil society (Singapore Heritage Society and private estate developers) and individuals that act through civil society.

The URA and conversation of heritage in Singapore

URA’s avowed aim is “to safeguard [buildings, sculptures, tombs or historic sites of national significance] as enduring landmarks which provide a vital link with the past”.

Their principles of conservation include “maintaining the essential character of the building, prevention of deterioration, consolidation of structural integrity, restoration of aesthetic appearance,” and “rehabilitation”. Do note, however, that these principles mostly revolve around the preservation of the architecture of the building, and not its spirit per se (in other words, the activities conducted inside the building that give it its intrinsic “character”).

There were four phases of conservation in Singapore. In the 1960s, urban renewal was in vogue, mainly because Singapore’s main concern just after independence was the construction of as many flats as possible to house thousands of slum dwellers. Many slums were cleared and old shophouses torn down by the dozens to make way for cleaner, better-built buildings. There was almost no notion of conservation then – survival came before anything else.

From 1970 to 1983, URA dubbed this the “incubation period” of conservation, where the government began recognizing the historic value of certain parts of “old Singapore”, as Singapore gradually began to succeed economically and settle into a comfortable period of growth. These parts mainly comprised of old pre-war bungalows and shophouses. The first demarcated “conservation area” was a set of 30 shophouses in the CBD area, together with the properties atop Emerald Hill.

From 1983 to 1988, the government took great strides in laying out a comprehensive conservation program to protect entire districts from urban renewal. This spike in conservation efforts tied in neatly with a need to boost flagging tourist numbers, especially after the economic recession of 1985. The government woke up to the idea that there were tourist dollars to be had in properly conserved heritage sites that would act as showcases of “unique” Singapore culture and history. Hence the demarcation and preservation of 10 conservation areas, including Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and the Singapore River segment. At the same time, the government began to involve the private sector in conservation, by selling shophouses to private developers to renovate and reopen under usually commercial uses. This was the URA’s “adaptive re-use program”, which promised to “make conservation pay for itself”.

From 1989 onwards, URA dubbed this the “consolidation period”, where the URA consolidated itself as the official national conservation authority, and consolidated heritage conservation into a proper five-year Master Plan. More conservation areas were also gazetted. Finally, the URA also began allowing individuals to recommend their own properties for conservation. The government will then extend grants to them to spruce up these properties.

So, is conservation purely for “its own sake”?

There are ulterior motives for preserving heritage in land-scarce Singapore.

The government seeks to fit existing, conserved heritage sites into the prevailing state ideologies – which is in fact a modified form of Bernard Cohn’s historiographic modality. For example, in the 1990s, the government sought to inculcate “Asian values” to Singaporeans as a bulwark against harmful, decadent ‘Western values”. In this light, carefully demarcated enclaves such as Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Glam could contribute to the notion that Singapore is inherently “Asian”, and instead of subscribing to “foreign”, “alien” Western values, why not look at ourselves and see the Chineseness, Malayness, or Indianness in us?

At the same time, the state and the private sector also share a common interest in selling Singapore as an exotic tourist destination. Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and the Singapore River are at the forefront of packaging Singapore as an exotic locale to foreign tourists. This ties in with Cohn’s travel modality – instead of British travel writers exoticizing India for British readers, the Singapore government, with private developers, are exoticizing their own country for foreign consumption.

As for individuals, it could be argued that they desire preservation of heritage for their own selfish interests – providing them with a sense of familiarity, continuity, and connectedness with the past.

Clash of interests and sites of contestation

However, the aforementioned interests are hardly in tandem with one another. Several sites of contestation exist, which provide profound lessons to one studying the preservation and destruction of heritage (and History) in Singapore.

1. Conservation versus Economics

The government has consistently made it their policy to leave conservation mostly to free market economics, for example, through their “adaptive re-use” programme. Private developers are encouraged to recommend their properties for conservation, and land parcels containing heritage are released for sale to developers to conserve while at the same time convert to business use. This way, the architectural integrity of buildings will be maintained. In URA’s words, this arrangement is “pragmatic and flexible”. However, by merely preserving the shells of buildings and completely commercializing their usage, for example at Bugis Junction, Clarke Quay and Chinatown, does such preservation deserve to be called as such? Or is it merely blatant commercialization? After all, people primarily go to the aforementioned places today to eat and shop, nothing else. History is far from their minds.

Unfortunately, conservation must make economic sense in Singapore. That is the reality.

For example, in 1994, the cost of restoring 43 shophouses along Smith Street and Sago Street in Chinatown came up to $7.9 million in all, or $175,000 per house – no small sum.

2. State versus civil society

It is widely admitted that the state usually has its way when it comes to choosing which sites stay and which go, but that does not stop the public from expressing their unhappiness at the destruction of certain sites of heritage, or applying pressure to have other sites preserved. Examples include uproar over the demolishment of the National Library in 2005 and Changi Prison in 2000, and protests by old girls over the “inappropriate” reuse of the old CHIJ campus at City Hall (now Chijmes) for restaurants and bars. For the National Library, the public debate was so heated it even was raised up in Parliament. Cynics might argue that this is all a form of political “wayang”, but it does show that there are disjunctures between what the state wants and what the individual wants.

3. A multiracial society versus ethnic enclaves

On one hand, creating ethnic enclaves like Chinatown and Little India help exoticize Singapore to the outside world, hence bringing in tourist dollars. On the other hand, these ethnic enclaves do little to uphold the government’s notion of a “multiracial society”. They could be examples of places where a race enjoys “territorial exclusivity” at the expense of other races. This is probably where Cohn’s “historiographic” and “travel” modalities come into conflict here.

4. Scope of conservation

None of the 6,800 buildings conserved so far comprises public housing.

From an ST article, taken June 7, 2008:

“Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien… laments the loss of three blocks of red-bricked flats in Albert Street built by the early housing authority Singapore Improvement Trust in 1949 amid the post-war shortage of building materials. The facade of red brick and panel work were important experiments for future housing designs and a key part of Singapore’s housing heritage, he says…

“Add to that list a rare batch of brick-walled flats in the Dakota Crescent area built by the SIT in 1958, as well as the 32-year-old Tanjong Pagar Plaza, a high-rise, high-density living environment that incorporated spaces for living, shopping and mingling in the heart of the city…”

Other components of Singaporean heritage are usually neglected too, such as cemeteries and trees. The Bidadari Cemetery, one of the rare few burial sites in Singapore where Muslim, Christian and Hindu graves co-existed side by side, made way for future development and the (currently closed) Woodleigh MRT in 2001. An 80-year-old tree in Braddell was also recently cut down for road extensions.


We have seen how heritage is selectively preserved or destroyed in Singapore. This, other than the production of texts, educational textbooks, and museums, is also another method of producing and moulding knowledge for practical purposes. In other words, the production of knowledge, and usable history, need not just be in textual form. It is not without contestation, though.

The state, as overseer of heritage preservation and destruction in Singapore, has to balance the demands of individuals for the wholesale preservation of history on one hand, and the “destructive” forces of market economics and urban renewal on the other. This could be interpreted as History for its sake on one hand, and History for practical purposes on the other. The trend now, however, is increasingly favouring the latter.

Can there be one “official” narrative in Singapore? The very definition of “place” and “heritage” problematizes that – every single individual carries with him or her unique memories of a place according to lived interactions with that place, memories which usually differ from state-sanctioned narratives. However, the extent of power the state has over the destruction of heritage, and governing the preservation of what’s left, does not bode well for those who believe that “unique memories are precious and should last forever”. Alternative narratives result from the interaction of memories and the place these memories were made. As time passes, more and more places are demolished in the name of progress, together with the memories of those who once lived out their lives in these places (as they pass away). These alternative narratives disappear as the official narrative lives on. It remains to be seen if heritage can indeed contribute towards the notion of a one “official” narrative in Singapore.


Written by eisen

October 27, 2008 at 8:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Musing about Sommersby :)

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Heya friends, watching Sommersby left quite a deep impression on me, so I thought I’d type out some thoughts here. Don’t worry; I’ll keep it a manageable read. J Dr. Mark said we’ll be discussing the trial in particular for our lesson this coming Tues, so I think I’ll leave that out of this post.


I would like to suggest that we could draw some interesting realizations about History from the movie, Sommersby.


Firstly, let us look at the theme of identity and how it was explored in the movie. Through the character of Jack Sommersby, we see how an identity can be created, maintained, and eventually destroyed. Interestingly, these ideas about identity can be linked to the writing of History and History as an academic discipline. On a base level, History is the study of the human past, so what it is concerned with, is really the identities of different people and how they interact and exist in their various social, political, economic etc contexts. Through Historical journals, documents, letters, textbooks, and other forms of historical writing, we see the rise and fall of people, their lives and their deaths. So when Historians write, they are in some way crafting and “creating” their own particular version of peoples’ lives; they breathe life into identities by their pen (now laptops).


Having written an argument or a stand about someone in history with careful usage of sources and evidence, this is left to stand, to see if the Historian’s arguments can withstand criticism. If it can, then in some sense the Historian’s version about the identity has been successfully maintained. But if the argument starts to fall apart, this is when the presented view of the identity is destroyed by critics, either to be reconstructed by future historians, or left in its destructed form.


Next, let us look at the idea of human legacy. In the movie, although the person who called himself Jack Sommersby ceased to exist after he was hung, we can see how his name and his legacy carried on after his physical death. These are: In the form of the new church spire, the transformation of Vine Hill from being war-ravaged to its later rich and blossoming state, and in the form of Jack’s own tombstone, engraved with his name. His wife Laurel, son and baby daughter Rachel too continue to bear his name. So in that sense, in spite of no longer being physically around, what the person once did and wrote and said before still live on in things and in people.


        In the same way, that is what Historians do through their works. History books on Hitler, Mussolini, Tome Pires, Margaret Thatcher, Mao Zedong etc continue to ensure that these people live on in our minds and memory as “historical knowledge”, as we read and absorb the information that is being presented to us by the various Historians. Interestingly, in writing about the lives of others, could we say that these Historians are at the same time securing part of their own personal history through their works? After all, Historians are to a large extent defined not only by who they are, but also by the articles/journals/books that bear their name, be these published when they are alive and at times, posthumously. So the idea of legacy prevails not just with respect to the people discussed in the History books; the Historians themselves live on too by their works.


Thirdly, I’d like us to consider how we can actually view Sommersby as the interweaving of various individual narratives. There’s the story of the man who “became” Jack Sommersby, then there’s the story of the real Jack Sommersby (which the movie does not go much into because he’s dead within the first 10 minutes of the show, although the movie is at the same time ironically centered around the character of Jack Sommersby). There’s also another story going on at the same time at Vine Hill, where Laurel has been alone working the land with the help of an interested party. Each of these 3 stories are worth looking at, because they are interesting in their own right. However, rather than making 3 separate shows, the producers of the show selected and crafted their own storyline by interweaving these three storylines together to make Sommersby.


Isn’t this process of selection and deliberate crafting something that is done in the academic discipline of History too? As Historians, we are constantly making use of relevant sources and a vast wealth of information, to select what we want to say; to select factual evidence for our arguments. And because different Historians have different interests and work in different ways, this gives rise to a multiplicity of narratives. If we were to incorporate, say, the whole range of different accounts of Singapore’s history into a congruent whole, these multiple narratives could very well unravel like the Sommersby movie, with its complexities, layers, twists and turns.


To conclude this post, I think that the movie has shown us how things are never as clear-cut as they seem. What is the truth of the matter, or the truths for that matter? There appear to be multiple possibilities in terms of the who, what, why and how about Jack Sommersby. These possibilities give rise to the possibility of multiple interpretations and hence, multiple truths. And these things that I took away from the movie, are in my opinion, what makes History so interesting as a subject of academic study. The perspectives are seemingly endless, and so seem the range of possible interpretations.

Written by brynasim

October 26, 2008 at 1:12 am

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Carr and the Relativist Approach to Historical Method

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Brief Introduction to Relativism

Relativism is, simply put, understanding something not in and of itself, but in comparison to something else.

How did all this come about? Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity formulated in 1913, which was widely popularized after it was confirmed by astronomical observation in 1919, helped create an intellectual climate in which it was thought that the ‘aspect of things’ changed with the position of the observer. This idea of the relativity of observer and fact was applied to history by a number of inter-war philosophers as well, in particular by the liberal Italian thinker Benedetto Croce and his English counterpart R. G. Collingwood.”

Croce argued that historians were guided in their judgment as to what documents and events were important in the past, and what were unimportant, by their present concerns. All history was thus written, consciously or unconsciously, from the perspective of the present. ‘All history,’ in Croce’s famous phrase, ‘is contemporary history.’

Collingwood went even further by arguing that ‘all history is the history of thought,’ because the document left to the historian by the past were meaningless unless the historian reconstituted the thought that they expressed. ‘History,’ Collingwood concluded, ‘is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is study.’

“Leaving aside for the moment the merits and defects of such arguments, what all this did in broad terms was to blur the distinction commonly made by pre-war historians…between fact and interpretation.”

Context – The Climate of the Times

The chaotic and disturbed period of the World Wars was not a great age of historical scholarship as it was far from conducive for it to flourish. Economic dislocation in Europe and America meant that historians’ income declined, relatively few new historians were trained, and in the many European countries – the majority, in fact – which fell victim to dictatorships, free historical enquiry ceased.

It was only after the Second World War, as economic recovery began, and the mass armies of the 1930s and 1940s were finally demobilized, that a new generation of historians entered the profession. They were immediately confronted with the task of overcoming the scepticism and disorientation of their predecessors in the inter-war years. Many historians tried to reassert what they regarded as the traditional values of historical scholarship which they thought had been perverted by the political and intellectual pressures and upheavals of the previous few decades.

The reassertion of historical objectivity came at a time in the 1950s and 1960s when the historical profession was re-establishing itself, undergoing slow but steady growth, and recapturing the social and financial position it had enjoyed in the late nineteenth century.

E. H. Carr – The Man and His Influences

Edward Hallett Carr was born in 1892. Shortly before his death some ninety years later, he wrote: ‘I must be one of the very few intellectuals still writing who grew up, not in the high noon, but in the afterglow of the great Victorian age of faith and optimism, and it is difficult for me even today to think in terms of a world in permanent and irretrievable decline.’

On graduating in 1916, he went straight into the Foreign Office, where he remained for the next twenty years. During this time, he occupied his leisure…in writing biographical studies of nineteenth-century Russian writer and thinkers.

After a career spent partly in the Foreign Office, where he was a supporter of appeasement in the 1930s, and partly in academia, where he taught international relations at Aberystwyth, he became a leader-writer for The Times during the Second World War and wrote many leading articles for the newspaper until leaving his post in 1946.”

After a period of earning his living as a freelance journalist, lecturer and broadcaster, he obtained a Tutorship in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1953, before moving in 1955 to his final post, a Senior Research Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1982 at the age of 90.

Carr was “not a professional historian in any sense of the term that would be acceptable today” and thus approached history from the angle of someone who had spent his life working for the Foreign Office and for a national newspaper. These influences and experiences strongly coloured his views about history and how it should be studied.

He embarked on his only major historical work, a History of Soviet Russia, published in fourteen volumes between 1950 and 1978, when he was in his fifties, and by the time he came to write What is History? he was already well past retirement age. Working on his History of Soviet Russia confronted Carr, with key questions such as ‘Causation and Change, Free Will and Determinism, the Individual and Society, Subjectivity and Objectivity’ in what was to him a new field of intellectual endeavour. Of these questions, objectivity was of particular importance to him in view of the fact that by the time he came to publish the first volume of his history, in 1950, opinion on the Soviet Union was completely polarized between Communists and the Cold War warriors of the West

Carr’s History of Soviet Russia was a pioneering attempt to reconstruct in detail what happened in Russia between 1917 and 1933 from the available sources. More importantly, it was also a serious attempt at steering a course between the opposite poles of Cold War polemics and delivering an account that could be regarded as scholarly and objective.

Carr’s Contribution to Our Understanding of Objectivity in Historical Method

Limitations of Facts

Ranke remarked that “the task of the historian was ‘simply to show how it really was’. The Positivists, anxious to stake out their claim for history as a science, contributed the weight of their influence to this cult of facts. First ascertain the facts…then draw your conclusions from them. However, Carr argues that not all facts about the past are historical facts. “The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context.”

According to Carr, it was no longer possible for the present generation to accept this absolute and unqualified faith in the pre-eminence and in the saving grace of historical facts. That our search for the facts of history, and our identification of those facts when found, are necessarily determined by the beliefs and presuppositions which guide the search could no longer be questioned. The very conviction that ‘facts’ are neutral is the product of a rational-liberal outlook on the world which cannot be so easily taken for granted to-day as it was by our fortunately placed nineteenth-century ancestors.

To quote Carr, “No document can tell us more than what the author of the document thought – what he thought had happened, what he thought ought to happen or would happen, or perhaps only what he wanted others to think he thought, or even only what he himself thought he thought.” This emphasizes the idea that the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’ as they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder.

Studying the Historian

History, Carr asserts, is made by the historian. To write history is the only way of making it, thus our concern should not just be with facts, but with the historian who wrote the work of history. A past event did not become a historical fact until it was accepted as such by historians.

The role that the historian plays in interaction with facts is one of selection and interpretation. The reconstruction of the past in the historian’s mind is dependent on empirical evidence, but it is not in itself an empirical process. It cannot just be a mere recital of facts because the process of reconstruction governs the selection and interpretation of facts. Historical facts were therefore created as a result of theory and interpretation and did not exist independently. The facts, whether found in documents or not, still had to be processed by the historian before he could make any use of them.

To quote Carr: “The relation of man to his environment is the relation of the historian to his theme. The historian is neither the humble slave, nor the tyrannical master, of his facts. The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, of give-and-take. As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect what he is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts. It is impossible to assign primacy to one over the other.”

The Relationship Between Past and Present

It is also important to examine the historian because it is the historian who imposes an interaction between the past and the present on the facts that he procures. Contrary to what Elton suggests, there is no one way of reading documents and sources and hence, it is important to know the context in which the historian wrote, not just the context in which the facts were established.

We can view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present. The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence. The very words which he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. It is obvious that our way of reading a source derives principally from our present-day concerns and from the questions that present-day theories and ideas lead us to formulate.

Ideas and Theories

What enables us to read a source ‘against the grain’ is theory and theory of whatever kind, whether it is a general set of theses about how human societies are structured and human beings behave, derives from the historian’s present, not from the historian’s sources. If ideas and theories in the historian’s own time are what allow a reading of documentary material in a way that cuts across or runs counter to the purposes of the people who wrote it, then it follows that the same document can be legitimately used as evidence for a variety of purposes by different historians.


Croce declared that “All history is ‘contemporary history’, meaning that history consists essentially of seeing the past though the eyes of the present and in the light of its problems, and that the main work of the historian is not to record, but to evaluate.

Knowledge is knowledge for some purpose hence Carr advocated studying the problems of the past as a key to understanding those of the present. He argues then, in view of the present purposes for writing history, that the criterion of a right interpretation is its suitability to some present purpose, and hence, the facts of history are nothing and interpretation is everything. The function of the historian is thus neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.

The historian’s interpretation of the past, his selection of the significant and the relevant, evolves with the progressive emergence of new goals. To take the simplest of illustrations, so long as the main goal appeared to be the organization of constitutional liberties and political rights, the historian interpreted the past in constitutional and political terms. When economic and social ends began to replace constitutional and political ends, historians turned to economic and social interpretations of the past.

Doing History

So, how does one do history? To Carr, doing history is about allowing facts and interpretation to simultaneously shape each other. He describes this process by sharing his own experience in writing history, adding, subtracting, re-shaping and cancelling his writing as he reads and allowing his writing to guide his reading. Hence, doing history involves a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, and unending dialogue between the present and the past.

Carr and the Empiricist Tradition

Carr does not actually attack the historical methods of the empiricists and also did not advance the idea of objectivity had to be ruled out completely. Carr was close enough to the British empirical tradition to protest against the view that ‘the facts of history are nothing, interpretation is everything,’ and he saw real dangers in ‘extravagant interpretations – such as those produced by extreme Soviet and anti-Soviet accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution – that ‘ran roughshod over the facts. According to Carr,

‘It does not follow that because a mountain appears to take on a different shape from different angles of vision, it has objectively either no shape at all or an infinity of shapes.’

His bone of contention was with the empiricists’ idea of objectivity: that the facts were completely authoritative, and not so much their methods such as relying on sources and empirical data to back up their arguments.

As demonstrated earlier, the facts of history cannot be purely objective, since they become facts of history only in virtue of the significance attached to them by the historian. Objectivity in history – it we are still to use the conventional term – cannot be an objectivity of fact, but only of relation, of the relation between fact and interpretation between past, present and future.

Therefore to Carr, an objective historian was one who was able to “rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and in history”, meaning to say that the historian must be self-reflexive and at least realize that he cannot be completely objective. It is this realization that then, paradoxically, gives him a better chance of being objective because he is aware of his own biases.

Whether we like it not, there is always a subjective element in historical writing, for historians are individuals, people of their time, with views and assumptions about the world that they cannot eliminate from their writing and research, even if they can hope to restrain them, subordinate them to the intractabilities of the material with which they are working, and enable readers to study their work critically by making these views and assumptions explicit.

Of course, facts and documents are essential to the historian. But do not make a fetish of them. They do not by themselves constitute history

Written by gracepor

October 24, 2008 at 12:30 pm

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The question of objectivity

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            The question “How does one do History?” itself raises a number of questions, one of which is “Can one do History?” Is objectivity possible, and if so, on what grounds? The following post will examine Ranke and Elton’s contributions to the puzzle that is the question of objectivity. It will also glance briefly at how notions of history and historical events coloured views on objectivity.

            In medieval and early modern times, the question of objectivity did not arise because history was written as the fulfillment of divine providence. Events took place because God willed them to and history was thus seen as a conflict between good and evil. Neutrality, and objectivity by extension, was not expected. Later on in the Enlightenment, rationalistic historians emphasized the role of human action, rather than divine action, in shaping history. To Enlightenment historians, history was a teacher of moral lessons, demonstrating moral truths by providing case studies. History was “philosophy teaching by example”. Rather than shaping their views, history for them confirmed what they already thought. Objectivity here would have run counter to their conception of what history was for, not to mention their assumption of human nature as universal, unchanging and timeless.

            Objectivity as an ideal was thus pretty much a non-starter until the time of a German historian, Ranke. Ranke made three major contributions. The first was the professionalization of history. To Ranke, history’s raison d’etre was not the Enlightenment historian’s “office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages”, but to “show what actually happened.” Wie es eigentlich gewesen, or how it essentially was. Here Ranke meant more than just factual accuracy. He meant an understanding of the spirit of the past, based on empirical evidence and an intuitive understanding of the interconnection of events. As historians set off in pursuit of “how it essentially was”, objectivity became an ideal that was seen as attainable.

            Ranke’s second contribution to the notion of objectivity was his insistence that the past could not be judged by the values of the present, but had to be understood on its own terms. In his words, “every epoch is immediate to God”. An eternal God did not make distinctions between periods of history; they were all equally important to Him. As such, to be objective the historian was to try to understand the past as those living then understood it, and to recognize that there were no universally accepted values due to the variety of historical circumstances.

            Ranke’s final contribution to the notion of objectivity was one of method. Methodical analysis of documents was to be the grounds for objectivity. He applied philologists’ methods to determine if a text was true or corrupted by later additions, if it was a forgery, and if it was the most reliable version available. Although he did not invent these methods, he was the one who systematically applied them. Moreover, Ranke was methodical in his checks for documents’ internal consistency as well as their consistency with contemporaneous documents. He considered factors such as the provenance of documents, the motivations of their producers, the circumstances under which they were written and relationships between documents on the same subject. For Ranke, objectivity was also affected by the kind and quantity of sources. Thus he stressed the use of primary sources such as eyewitness reports and documents produced during the period under study rather than secondary sources such as later memoirs or histories. In addition, he exhorted historians to critically examine all relevant sources, including and especially archival ones.

            Ranke’s age, the nineteenth century, was an age of science. Soon his source criticism was thought of as a scientific method, making the new discipline of history both objective and respectable. Historians went for professional training in Germany and students attended university seminars to learn inductive methods of historical research. The idea was that the facts were in the documents and if the historian applied the proper scientific method and prevented his personality from getting in the way, the facts would be revealed. To be objective one merely had to carry out the proper procedures. It was with this certainty that research was carried out to fill in gaps in current knowledge, in the belief that knowledge was finite and thus eventually attainable. As two French historians, Langlois and Seignobos, had it, “When all the documents are known, and have gone through the operations which fit them for use, the work of critical scholarship will be finished.”

            After World War I undermined the notion of objectivity, such a statement was no longer plausible. Even while adhering to recognized procedure, historians produced books justifying their countries’ war aims and condemning other countries for starting the war, not to mention document collections on the origins of the war with inclusions and exclusions hotly protested by historians of other nationalities. Moreover, as far as the Allies were concerned, the idea of history as science was tarnished by its German roots. Clearly, one man’s objectivity was another man’s bias. Furthermore, unsettling events in this period, such as the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles and modernist leanings in art, music and literature also sapped faith in the possibility of objectivity. Objectivity was easier to believe in when the world was orderly and predictable. When people could believe in progress in human affairs, it was easier for them to believe in progress in historical investigation, in the search for truth. Unpredictable events beyond human control made people disillusioned with the idea that events in the past could be understood through induction. There was a despair that sense could be made out of past events, that history was more than Fisher’s “play of the contingent and the unforeseen”.

            Later on, in the 1960s, as part of the Carr-Elton debate and also as part of a larger debate on the possibility of objectivity, the British historian Elton espoused empiricism as a safeguard. For Elton, the past had an objective reality. “There is therefore a truth to be discovered if only we can find it.” At the level of the historical fact, past events left traces in documents allowing historians to reconstruct the past. These sources constituted the foundation of history because they gave the historian authority. This emphasis on the evidence rather than the historian meant that Elton placed greater importance on the people of the past and their experiences, thoughts and actions rather than on the historian. To his mind, current ideology obstructed objective historical reconstruction. He believed that a historian should not allow prejudice to colour his work and should be willing to reconsider his interpretations in the light of further study and new knowledge. In a similar vein, Elton stressed that for objectivity’s sake, documents had to be read in the context of their times as considering them from the perspective of the present would hinder the search for truth, and that questions should be inspired by the sources rather than by current theories which would slant investigation toward an answer already in the mind.

            Like Ranke, Elton believed in method as a basis for objectivity, which was why he made so much of the importance of acquiring a technical set of applied skills in handling documents. To Elton, the practice of history, as a discipline, required scientific training on how to handle sources. The technical details of documents like language, provenance, purposes and process of creation all had to be understood for the historian to claim any authority to speak about the past. Furthermore, as a corollary of his belief in the possibility of objectivity, Elton believed historical knowledge to be cumulative. As empirical knowledge piled up, historians would, he thought, get nearer to the “fortress of truth”. He did not rule out revisions of past work, but he considered it possible to write a definitive history of something.

Written by christineleow

October 14, 2008 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized