Many of us have always wondered why we should be bothered by history or why we should study it, since "poised as we are on the threshold of a new millennium, we have no occasion at all for being bothered with it"1. Indeed it is true for we should be looking forward to the future instead of hanging on to the past. However, history has much more enormous practical importance than what many of us had thought of it. For one, history is the key to the past and its representations of a nation helps to forge a common identity.
Without any history of the past, there would be no memory, meaning or purpose for the citizens of a nation to link together. There are many ways in which history can be interpreted. As put forward by Paul Cohen, history can be interpreted as an event, experience and myth2. There are different ways of accessing the past, configuring or organizing it and one way of accessing the past is through the use of the photographs in which I would be examining more in detail. 3 The writing of Singapore's history has been a difficult process.
This is due to the innate nature of Singapore in which most of her history has been linked to others: to the British during her colonial days, and to Malaya in which it had been woven inextricably into the fabric of consecutive genre of Malayan historiography, up till the point of separation whereby it was thought that Singapore has to be linked to the Malaya hinterland without which she could hardly survive. 4 Even when Singapore had attained her independence and nationhood, the history of her past was not on the priority list since Singaporeans at that point in time were searching for their own form of identity in the present and future.
Moreover, being a nation with different races and religions, the pressing issues faced by the PAP government were that of nation-building and national survival. 5 This had caused the shelving of the nation's history aside, till a much later period when after more than two decades of rapid societal transformation had Singaporeans began to think about their past and reclaim the heritage of a "national past" which would give them a sense of "cohesion, continuity and identity" put forward by Rajaratnam. 6
The two sources which are being examined for the writing of Singapore's are the photographs taken during the riots of 1955 and they have effects on the writing of Singapore's history before and after 1955 at the three levels to be discussed: academic history, state history and social memory of Singaporeans. The photo on the right shows the fatally-injured Detective Corporal Yuen Yan Peng who was fatally injured. 7 The other photograph showed the students attacking, throwing stones during the riot of 1955. These photos could probably be taken by a journalist or reporter present at the scene.
Academic History: At the academic level, these photos can be taken as primary sources from which we could interpret what had happened during the famous Hock Lee Bus riot of 1955. Since the level of technology at the time of capture was not high enough for any doctoring, the photographs could not have been faked. Hence the sources could be considered to be highly accurate and reflected the true situation. The two photographs have sought to represent the history of Singapore as an event. The photograph showing the injured Detective is also found in the textbook "Singapore: Journey into Nationhood" in which the past has been represented as an event.
However, photographs can only show a particular instant of the whole event that had taken place and thus this might not be able to accurately portray the entire situation of the event during the 1955 riot. The two photographs being published in the primary and secondary school curricula point towards one fact: that those who suffered were mainly the innocent parties and those who were trying to enforce law and order. The photo on the left shows students and strikers throwing stones and attacking others were using weapons to attack the police.
This kind of representation indirectly guides the readers to view the situation from the point of view of the state. It makes us empathize with the enforcers and not the strikers for the former are the ones who had undergone the sufferings while the latter were deemed to be the creators of the unrest. Although it has often been mentioned that a picture speaks a thousand words, the two photographs here are not sufficient to tell the whole story, for based on other factual documentation and records, we do know that sufferings and death are also incurred on the side of the strikers. State History:
At the state level, the two photographs are representatives of what the state wants the people of the nation to remember. It is difficult to have any sense of identity without any memories and history which is a manifestation of memory, helps to underpin our identity at both a personal and public level. 8 However, focusing too much on the past could jeopardize the present and holding on too much to what had happened could prevent the nation from moving on or progressing. As such, there has to be some form of compromise between the two. The process of selective memory thus comes into play.
The dominance of the political landscape by the PAP in post-1965 Singapore has allowed them to choose what areas and aspects of the nation's past the future generation should remember. Here, two particular photographs are chosen with care to emulate this point. The PAP wants the people to know about the history of the turbulent year of 1955, caused mainly by the communists, to allow the citizens to know the importance of maintaining political and social stability, and drive in the idea that we should not empathize with those who used violence to achieve their demands .
The government wants the citizens to constantly remember the undue sufferings, disruptions that social instability would cause to the nation and hence to constantly seek to maintain social harmony. Subsequently after the bloody riots of 1955, the writing of Singapore's history has been aimed at the constant reminder that Singaporeans should not take the political and social stability that we are enjoying now for granted and be complacent. These two photographs help to bring back a whole past as an experience and event during the riots of 1955.
The photos published in primary and secondary school curricula sought to drive in the idea of innocent sufferings during a turbulent period where many riots occur. The photo of the innocent detective seriously injured from the riot sought to underpin this idea. Through the use of such photographic documentation of history, the state hopes to instill in the minds of the younger generations about the need of a strong central armed force in order to maintain social and political stability.
The riot is an important reminder that social stability is crucial to our continued growth and success. Social Memory: At the social level, those who had lived through the riots would constantly be reminded of the dangers and chaos during that time. The riots of 1955 had become an event that is part of the nation's history. These two photos would have invoked many strong feelings, sentiments and memories to those who lived through the riots and to the later generations. For the individual, serious social turmoil meant a reduced sense of personal security during that period.
The riots would have altered the track in which the social history of Singapore would be written. Emphasis would have been given to the importance of social stability and security. Because of the careful engineering of which part of history that the people should remember, those studying the history of Singapore would constantly be "transported back to the past" in which they are reminded of the social instability of that time. The social memory of many would thus have been centred on the events of 1955 instead of others.
Before 1955, the writing of the history of Singapore would be more focused on her colonial past, the period of Japanese occupation, political struggles of the various parties in post-war Singapore for independence and survival, merger with Malaysia. However, after the riots of 1955, with the publication of such photos, the importance of law and order would have been given more emphasis in the history of Singapore. As such, the state's conception of the Singapore Story was represented as the past as an event and experience. Subsequently, the Singapore Story has been filled with events in which there is a need for the presence of a strong armed contingency to meet with such emergencies. As observed in the Singapore Story, most of the recorded events, dates which the state would like the people to remember lies along the lines of being prepared for unforeseen circumstances, emergencies or any disasters. The selective memory of such events helps to allow us to move on, to learn from and rectify any future similar situations and prevent it from happening.
In fact, national disasters, crisis such as that of the Hock Lee Bus Riots collapse of the Hotel New World, hijack of SQ117 by terrorists, the cable car accident point to the importance of having to be on the alert, fully trained and equipped for disasters and armed for any form of contingency in order to maintain social stability. Conclusion: The writing of Singapore's history has always been elusive and opaque due to a dearth of sources and hence with each subsequent opening of the archives and/or unveiling of new primary sources, a new different light and perspective will be shed.
As mentioned by our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 1997(who was the Deputy Prime Minister then): "Not all the history books have been written, because hitherto to many documents have been locked away in archives". 10 Every subsequent new document which would be available to historians would affect the writing of Singapore's history accordingly to the three levels discussed. Sources such as the two photographs being used in discussion here will affect the writing of Singapore's history in many ways and it is up to the individuals what kind of lessons, memories they would like to draw.