In Singapore, there has been a ‘democratization’ of memory through heritage blogs and Facebook, YouTube clips of reminiscences about the past, as well as the state sponsored web-based Singapore Memory Project. Many Singaporeans are recording and making public their own memories through the digital media. Is this material mainly nostalgia rather than sources of the past that can give us a greater insight into what happened? Do these memories provide counter-narratives to the official version of the Singapore past, which is known as the Singapore Story?
Memory of Singapore’s past is undergoing what has been called a rapid ‘democratization’ through blogs and Facebook, videos of reminiscences put up on YouTube, as well as web-based memory collections, such as the Singapore Memory Project, which aims to collect five million memories of Singapore. Ordinary Singaporeans can now much more easily record and make public their own memories that previously would have remained private and gradually forgotten. When the state-run Singapore Memory Project was first announced in the Singapore Parliament on 12 March 2010, Irene Ng Phek Hoong, historian and a member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), outlined that ‘the project must be democratic: everyone could share their memories of Singapore’ (Irene Ng 2010:4330). During 2011 to 2012, Singapore’s major English language newspaper, the Straits Times, when reviewing the trend of members of the Singapore public recalling the past and making public their memories indicated that there has been a ‘democratization’ of Singapore memory (Straits Times 6 and 9 August 2011, and 15 February 2012) Singapore-based sociologists Roxana Waterson and Kwok Kian-Woon have made the case there is a ‘democratization’ of recounting the past as it has shifted from ‘the recorded past toward the remembered past’ (Waterson and Kwok 2012:11).
What has been happening to memory in Singapore is similar to what has occurred in the broader international context. French historian Pierre Nora was among the first to write in the 1990s on how memory had ‘expanded prodigiously’ so that it has become ‘democratized’. Nora explained, ‘Nowadays who does not feel called upon to record his reminiscences or write his memoirs?’ He described how ‘everyone has gotten into the act . . . The less extraordinary the testimony, the more aptly it is taken to illustrate the average mentality’ (Nora 1996:9). Cultural writer and critic Andreas Huyssen has also noted the growth of ‘obsessions with memory’, or ‘memory-mania’, that has produced ‘a memory boom’ (Huyssen 1995:3, and Huyssen 1999:191). For Huyssen and Nora, the explosion of personal memories was eclipsing collective memory that had been formed within the ‘unifying framework of the nation’ (Nora 1996:6). The work of the Popular Memory Group in Britain has also shown that the frameworks for collective memory become fractured as individual counter-memories start to emerge from subalterns or the subordinate classes (Popular Memory Group 2011:254-60).
Huyssen and Nora attributed the ‘democratization of memory’ to the processes of modernization and globalization. Huyssen wrote that ‘our contemporary obsessions with memory in the present may well be an indication that our ways of thinking and living temporality itself are undergoing a significant shift’ (Huyssen 2003:4) In the twenty-first century, the growth of the digital media, in which individuals can record their memories and upload them, accelerated this trend. Andrew Hoskins, a memory studies theorist, has commented that ‘what was once scarce and underrepresented from the past, and in the past, has been made visible and accessible in our emergent post-scarcity culture, for example the digitalization of memory’ (Hoskins 2011:269-280, and Hoskins 2012). He addressed the implications for archiving digital memories in the ‘post-scarcity’ culture, drawing attention to what he called the ‘tension between the volume of material generated and our capacity to consume it’ (Hoskins 2012:1). Hoskins and other memory studies theorists have listed a whole range of channels of the digital media that store memories, such as online collections of mementos, uploaded digital photographs, memorial webpages, blogs, online museums, digital video broadcasts, online archives, condolence message boards, and many more (Garde-Hansen, Hoskins, and Reading 2009:4). It all provides a vast memory archive that is distinct from history.
The distinction between history and memory has been carefully delineated by Huyssen and Nora, who have studied the shift from history to memory. Huyssen argued that history has given the past grand narratives while in the ‘memory boom’ the proliferation of memory has provided a ‘memory archive’ in which there is a seductive ‘trove of stories of human achievement and suffering’ (Huyssen 2003:5). Memories in this archive are decontextualized with no narrative to provide them with their context and explain the past. Nora suggests that memory blurs the boundary between past and present while being manifestly subjective. History attempts to narrate through analysis an incomplete reconstruction of a distant and objective past (Nora 1996:3).
Digital memories have had implications for the notion of heritage as well as history, according to Lisa Giaccardi, a computer scientist working on the new social media. She has argued that personal memories uploaded on to the new social media have ‘broken down boundaries or limits to what heritage can be and how it is intended’ (Giaccardi 2012:2). These personal memories have become expressions of what the individuals recording them see as their personal heritage, such as childhood reminiscences and photographs. Heritage critic David Lowenthal points out that heritage, like memory, is distinct from history, as its concern is the present. Heritage uses the past to affirm a sense of identity rather than to dissect the past. He argues, ‘History explores and explains pasts grown ever more opaque over time; heritage clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes’ (Lowenthal 1987, and Lowenthal 1996:x-xi). History is about investigating the past in terms of the historical actors being motivated by thoughts, ideas, and feelings that are not the same as those in the present but are shaped by the historical context of the time. Heritage links the present to the past, suggesting that historical actors behaved and felt the same way that people do today. Is the plethora of memories of the past that has come to the fore in Singapore during recent years more like heritage, evoking a sense of nostalgia and belonging, or do these memories make clearer what actually occurred in the history of Singapore?
Blogs and Facebook Pages on Singapore’s Past
Worldwide, blogging started to take off in 1999 when the software called Blogger was developed. Initially, academic historians from the universities were the majority to take to blogging on history, but that soon changed. Nick Poyntz, a well-known British blogger who started blogging on history as a postgraduate student, discussed this transformation in 2010: ‘Academics, however, are now firmly in the minority when it comes to history blogs. One of the blogo-sphere’s great attractions is its democratic form’. Poyntz added, ‘Some of the most fun, stimulating and intelligent history blogs are run by independent researchers and enthusiasts who devote their spare time to reading and researching history—in short, people with a passion for the past’ (Poyntz 2010:37).
Around the world, local history has been a beneficiary of blogging about the past, as it provides a site for the storage of memories and stories about small communities that would be not published in books or journals (Anderson 2012:20-3). It has been very easy for many individuals to start a free blog about the past using the most common free-of-charge hosts, WordPress or Blogger. Blogs allow the participation of their readers, which history books and journals do not. Access to blogs is also easier because of the penetration of the internet. Thus, there is the potential for a greater democratization of discussion of the past because anyone can set up a blog and anyone can contribute their comments to the discussion.
In Singapore, blogs exert a strong influence over public opinion because internet penetration is high. A 2011 Nielsen survey revealed that the percentage of the population in Singapore who access the internet regularly is one of the highest in Asia. Two thirds of Singapore’s population above the age of 15 uses the internet. This is much higher than the Southeast Asian regional average of 38 percent. Internet penetration in Singapore is highest amongst the country’s youth, with 97 percent of 15 to 19 year olds online. This gradually drops off to 33 percent for Singaporeans aged 50 and above. Amongst online Singaporeans, 80 percent access the internet daily, reading blogs and Facebook.1
Blogs about the past in Singapore have tended to be set up by enthusiasts, who are just ordinary people, not well-known academic historians. Over time, these amateur enthusiasts have gathered a loyal following of many readers. These are the type of blogs that are selected for analysis in this study of blogs on the Singapore past. Stephanie Ho, a Singapore museum official, was the first to conduct an academic study of these Singapore blogs on the past in 2007 (Ho 2007:72). According to Ho, the first history blogger in Singapore, and definitely the most well-known, is Lam Chun See with Good Morning Yesterday. Lam was a business consultant who had a strong interest in Singapore’s local history. Since September 2005, on Blogger, he has devoted many of his postings to his own memories of his youth in the 1960s and 1970s—he was born in 1952. Lam has stressed the didactic purpose of setting up his blog but also recording memories of his generation for prosperity:
This site is for Singaporeans and friends of Singapore of my generation to share stories of Singapore back in the kampong [village] days when we were kids. I started this blog because I realized how much our country has changed in our life time, and it would be good if our kids can visit this site and learn a bit about our past. Please feel free to share your experiences.2
Ho, in her 2007 review of history blogs in Singapore, noticed some interesting paradoxes about memories presented on blogs, such as Good Morning Yesterday. She saw them as more about nostalgia than offering alternative and dissenting voices to the dominant historical narrative established by the PAP—what is called ‘the Singapore Story’. She gave as an example how Lam and his fellow bloggers went into intricate discussion about the exact locations of shopping malls that opened in their youth. In January 2007, Lam and his web followers had similar debates about fast food restaurants where they used to eat in the 1970s. What they ate and the cost if it were major topics.3 Lam’s blog suggests Nora’s point that individual memories are often less overtly political than collective memories because they usually concern private everyday life whereas collective memories are often upheld by the framework of the nation (Nora 1996:5-6).
‘The Singapore Story’, as the official scripted version of Singapore’s national history, has its origins in the 1998 memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and leader of the PAP, which has been in power since self-government in 1959 (Lee 1998). Lee entitled his memoirs, The Singapore Story. His version of the past is reflected in the textbooks of the history curriculum in Singapore schools and documentaries made by state controlled television in Singapore (Barr and Skrbis 2008:18-38).
The narrative of the Singapore Story has at its centre the PAP’s struggles in the early days of independence against its political enemies, whom it vanquished, and then led Singapore into prosperity under effective one party rule. In this political struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, the PAP Government relentlessly used the Internal Security Act (ISA) to detain without trial many of its political opponents, particularly members of the left-wing Barisan Sosialis Party who, in the context of the Cold War, could be simply called communist because of their Marxist beliefs, and thus painted as a security threat. The PAP Government also made heavy handed use of the 1966 Land Acquisition Act to acquire kampong (village) land to help the country rapidly industrialize. Many residents were reluctantly resettled into high rise government flats—Housing Development Board (HDB) apartments—that dot Singapore’s modern skyline today.
Memories presented on blogs usually skirt these contentious political history topics and avoid interrogating the narrative given by the Singapore Story. Ho noted that Lam, when queried by some readers why there was little discussion of political issues of the 1960s in his blog, said, ‘it was inadvisable to go into those areas’ because these were ‘serious issues’ and ‘rather sensitive topics’ (Ho 2007:72). This tends to confirm historians Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli’s observation that the Singapore Story is virtually hegemonic in the telling of Singapore history and counter-narratives struggle to make their presence felt (Hong and Huang 2008:231-34).
In her 2007 assessment of Singapore history blogs, Ho concluded that in Singapore there is ‘potential for the blogosphere to become an exciting and more democratic arena for ordinary people’ where ‘through blogging, ordinary citizens are able to present their stories’ and ‘lived experiences’. But she noted ‘the challenge in the Singapore context will come when bloggers venture beyond the safe arena of memory and nostalgia and create histories that are incompatible with state narratives’ (Ho 2007:77-78).
In 2007, these types of alternative memories of the past were largely absent from the Singapore blogosphere, according to Ho. Have things changed? By 2012, a few blogs run by political activists tended to incorporate more voices of old political battles from the losing side. But many blogs still shied away from political history and remain dominated by nostalgic memories of the past. Many of these history blogs do offer valuable insights into local communities, such as Lai Tuck Chong’s Growing Up in Geylang, which started in 2008 on Blogger. These local history bloggers provide useful links to other bloggers also documenting the memories of different parts of Singapore and changing customs and practices.4
A number of blogs dealing primarily with contemporary politics have increasingly covered memories of contentious political history. Independent film maker Martyn See’s Singapore Rebel, on Blogger, offers a broad range of memories of political dissenters and former detainees.5 In early 2012, he included a video of Tan Wah Piow, a former radical university student leader who has lived in exile since fleeing Singapore during 1976 after he was convicted of stirring up industrial unrest.6 See’s blog was started in 2004, but it is only over the years that a significant amount of material from the memories of former political dissenters has been accumulated.
On 15 April 2012, the blog That We May Dream Again, Remembering the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy was launched on WordPress with also the video of Tan Wah Piow, who was accused of coordinating the so-called ‘Marxist conspiracy’ of 1987 that led to detentions. This blog, too, is a mixture of contemporary politics and representations of alternative memories of the Singapore past. It has as its first objective an historical aim: ‘Raise awareness on the misuse of the ISA in the past’. It also has the contemporary political aims of working towards the abolition of the ISA, and ‘persuading the government’ to ‘welcome the return of those who have been forced into exile because of the ISA, such a move being the first step towards national reconciliation and healing for all parties’.7 The blog is the first in Singapore to be dedicated to a single political and historical event which offers the potential of attracting a broad range of memories and discussion of that particular event.
Blogs tend to overshadow Facebook accounts when it comes to capturing memories of Singapore’s past. Facebook pages have followed and incorporated material from blogs. Few Facebook pages that touch on Singapore’s history are repositories of memories of Singapore’s past. The Singapore Heritage Society has a Facebook page with many comments and entries but these are devoted to announcement of events and stories taken from the press.8 It tends to incorporate material from blogs and other sources. Another Facebook page, Our Stories, Singapura Stories nostalgically describes places, such as Kampong Glam and Geylang Serai, the historic Malay-Muslim centres of Singapore.9 However, it has a blog of the same name connected to it and the blog has the most material with the stated aim of storing memories.10
The soon to be exhumed Singapore Chinese cemetery, Bukit Brown has also several Facebook pages, but these are also compilations of stories and comments made on them, not memory collections with personal testimony.11 The closure of the railway line to Malaysia from Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar Railway Station also has a Facebook account, but it also does not collect memories of the past, just presents interpretations and impressions of the historic site.12 Thus, in the digital media, blogs are more numerous in making personal memories of the past available to the public than Facebook pages.
YouTube and Singapore’s Past
Just like blogs, YouTube also has been hailed as an agent of democratization since it started in 2005 with its motto of ‘broadcast yourself’. It has often been claimed that ‘YouTube promises to democratize the media’ (Gehl 2009:43-60). Users can easily upload their videos with a title and description, as well as tags, which are used for searches. After this is done, bloggers on history will find the memories of the past they are looking for and incorporate them into their blogs.
There are a range of YouTube videos of individuals recalling Singapore’s history during World War II. Just by searching using the tags ‘Singapore’ and ‘World War II’, will find veterans discussing their experiences. Recollections of the past on YouTube can be very different from the memories found in blogs. Bloggers tend to be enthusiasts about the past and may be from a young generation distant from the past they are discussing. In their narratives of the past they incorporate the memories of older people, but the old don’t often speak for themselves. On YouTube, older people, and people who lived through particular historical events, narrate their own memories of the past. On YouTube, there are quite a number of Australian and British prisoners of war from the fall of Singapore who recollect their memories on video, such as Captain Claude Anderson of the Western Australian 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion.13 These appear to be filmed by either family members or interested researchers.
Significantly, there are also local Singapore and Malaysian voices from World War II that can be heard on YouTube. Choi Siew Hong talks about how he and his two Raffles College classmates joined the Overseas Chinese Anti-Japanese Volunteer Army, Dalforce, at the end of January 1942 in the last ditch defence of Singapore.14 Lieutenant K.R. Das discusses why he was disillusioned with the British Indian Army in its defence of Singapore in 1942 and later joined the Indian National Army (INA), which aimed to liberate India with Japanese assistance.15 Lieutenant Rammasah Bhupalan describes why she joined the women’s wing of the INA, the Rani of Jhansi, to fight the British in 1943.16
For Singapore’s contentious postwar political history, YouTube has been an emerging repository for alternative political memories, such as those of former political detainees from the 1960s, Said Zahari and Lim Hock Siew.17 Many of these video clips have come from the efforts of independent Singapore documentary maker Martyn See, who uses the name ‘Singaporerebel’ to upload material. The Said Zahari film had been banned from being publicly shown in Singapore, but apparently there was no objection to it being available on YouTube.
However, in July 2010, a 22 minute Martyn See film of former Barisan Sosialis politician Lim Hock Siew speaking about his detention in 1963 during Operation Cold Store was banned by the Singapore Board of Censors as being against ‘the public interest’. The uploading of this video indicated that the ‘democratization’ of memory in Singapore was going beyond making public nostalgic memories of the past which did not challenge the Singapore Story. The memories of Lim were like the counter-memories that the Popular Memory Group uncovered, which fractured and subverted hegemonic interpretations of the past. Lim’s memories directly challenged authority (Popular Memory Group 2010:254-60). According to the Singapore Board of Censors, film footage of Lim’s address purportedly gave ‘a distorted and misleading portrayal of Lim’s arrests and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1963.’ Furthermore, the authorities said they ‘will not allow individuals who have posed a security threat to Singapore’s interests in the past, to use media platforms such as films to make baseless accusations against the authorities’.18
Singapore’s Films Act contains highly draconian clauses regarding films that might be deemed to have ‘political’ content. These apply to videos uploaded on YouTube, such as See’s film of Lim. Under section 33 of the Films Act, it is a criminal offence to make such a film, which can be punished by a fine of up to $100,000 and up to two years in prison. Even after changes to the Act in January 2009, which appointed a new Political Films Consultative Committee to vet such films with a view to approving some of them, the act of making a party political film has not been decriminalized in Singapore.
See was ordered to remove his video from YouTube or face a $100,000 fine or prison for two years. He complied; but by the time he had done so there were viral copies of the video on YouTube. The film was of a rather dull and turgid address by an ill Lim at a 2009 book launch. His voice was so inaudible that it required subtitles. However, the film was viewed by more people than it would have been simply because it was banned. Interestingly, See was not asked to remove his other banned film of Said Zahari from YouTube.
Historian Karl Hack sees this YouTube clip of Lim as offering a distinct counter-narrative to the official Singapore Story. He cites how Lim framed his memory of events. Hack highlights what Lim says in his clip:
The British and Lee Kuan Yew conspired and collaborated to crush the opposition before the 1963 General Elections. The whole aim of this merger was to crush the opposition . . . In examining their past records, they are standing on a pedestal that is leaking with worms and vermin (Hack 2012:37).
The fate of the YouTube film of Lim Hock Siew’s 2009 address contrasts with that of another video of him also uploaded by ‘Singaporerebel’ after a similar address. This time, Lim spoke at an August 2011 memorial event for fellow 1960s detainee and former Barisan Sosialis Party member Tan Jing Quee, who had recently died. Hearing Lim’s address at the memorial was striking. In contrast to 2009, Lim was in fine form as a speaker. Listening to him use Marxist economics to understand the Global Financial Crisis of the twenty-first century provided a remarkable insight into how he saw himself and what his world view might have been as a young man. For him, Socialism was ‘more relevant than ever’.19 Surprisingly, ‘Singaporerebel’ chose just to upload the last 15 minutes of his speech which only discussed his detention and relationship with Tan Jing Quee.20
The different fates of Lim Hock Siew’s reminiscences of 2009 and 2011 reflect perhaps a changing political climate in the prelude and aftermath of the General Election of May 2011. In December 2010, See publicly complained that while his 2009 video had to be taken down from YouTube there were now 30 political videos put up on YouTube by the PAP and the opposition Singapore Democratic Party even had 47 such films on YouTube.21
The reply from the Singapore Media Development Authority (MDA) was that they were now much more inclined to exercise what they called ‘a “light-touch” approach with regard to the Internet and no longer mandate that all Internet content providers (ICPs) send their uploaded films to MDA for classification’. Authorities ‘would only direct ICPs to submit films—for which there may be content concerns—to it for classification, if such films are raised to its attention.’ The MDA pointedly remarked this ‘light touch’ was also ‘the case with Mr See, whose blog has several films that have not been submitted to MDA’.22 This new ‘light touch’ offers the prospects of more reminiscences of alternative voices being filmed and placed on YouTube, leading to memory of Singapore history being further ‘democratized’.
Significantly, the Singapore state-run National Heritage Board started in 2008 its own YouTube channel—Yesterdaysg.23 By 2013, the National Heritage Board had placed over 70 videos on its channel, including fascinating testimony from ‘vanishing trades’, such as street barbers and lantern painters talking about their craft. For heritage places it created a series called Heritage TV, which showed clips narrated by their own reporters. The channel engaged in self-promotion with clips on their own museums and Singapore heritage attractions for tourists. Even Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts from 1 November 2010 to 20 May 2011, had his clips giving speeches in a batik costumes uploaded. Not surprisingly, Yesterdaysg steers well clear of any controversial topics that bring up political history. There is no mention of the approved PAP version of past political events.
Even Yesterdaysg’s eight minute clips with oral testimony from the some of the men who were forced to join the army under its compulsory National Service for 18 year old men glosses over just how contentious the introduction of National Service was in 1967. There are many comments from the men looking back fondly on the time. Written sources from the time paint a different picture of many men reluctant to join, others finding ways of getting out of doing it, and other young men publicly declaring themselves as conscientious objectors.
In 1967, the Barisan Sosialis Party opposed National Service, and 300 people demonstrated at street marches across Singapore against registration on the night of 27 March 196724 (Fong, 1980:183). Individuals in the Party had historically opposed National Service going back to colonial attempts to introduce it in 1954, opposing as well as the 1964 National Service Act (Hussin, 2005:103-105). Barisan Sosialis leader, Lee Siew Choh’s own son was a conscientious objector who was fined for failing to register (Straits Times, 20 September and 12 October 1969). National Service in the late 1960s was also not popular on the University of Singapore campus with students reported as reluctant to register and keen on getting out of it through the various ways they could.25 These dissenters’ voices, although vocal at the time, are never heard in reminiscences of the early days of National Service (Lee 2008:296). There is only masculine bravado in memories of the period.
All the dissension and contestation surrounding National Service is white washed away in a wave of nostalgia, with the now 70 year old men seeing National Service as a test of their manhood that they passed. Ong Hui Pheng, 74, a former warrant officer, says: ‘It was a concern then that, as the initial batch, we would fail’.26
Many of the videos of the Heritage TV series are indistinguishable from similar videos promoting Singapore as a tourism location. Yesterdaysg thus is a far cry from the ‘broadcast yourself’ ideology that YouTube promised. It is certainly heritage manufactured by the state for the purposes of the state. Its hits are surprisingly low given the resources that are put into its production—less than 1000 for most clips.
Web-Based Collections of Memories
July 2011 marked the public launch of an initiative in the mass collection of the memories of ordinary Singaporeans—the National Library’s irememberSG, or Singapore Memory Project, which ambitiously aims to collect five million memories by 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of Singapore’s independence. These are stored online, with photographs and home videos. To add memories to the site, members of the public can simply create an account and then deposit, title, and tag their memories for searches.27 Memories are arranged in clusters, such as childhood, neighbourhoods, and schooldays.28 These memories often are somewhat mundane and unrevealing, such as that of the Yuhua neighbourhood recalled by Mariarasu s/o Arumugam Pillai:
I have lived in Yuhua from 1984 onwards. In the past, I used to take the single bus that was available. There was only one bus service that went from Clementi to Jurong East and back. There also weren’t a wet market but one was only built about a year after I moved here. There used to be no car parks and community centres.29
The Singapore Memory Project also has its own Facebook and Twitter accounts.30 Individuals recording their memories online are encouraged to link them to their Facebook account so their friends can see them.
The scope of the Singapore Memory Project is breathtaking and goes well beyond what had been done in Singapore before it. Singapore’s Oral History Centre, part of the National Archives of Singapore, has since 1979 conducted 3,300 oral history interviews with 18,000 hours of testimony recorded. At the National Institute of Education, since 1998, 2,000 teachers have been trained in oral history interview techniques, each of them doing one interview to hone their skills.31
When interviewed on the Singapore Memory Project, officials in charge have given different accounts of how the project began, depending upon the audience. Gene Tan, the Director of the project, in October 2012, before a group of academics questioning him, openly admitted its origins lay in the bureaucracy of the state. Tan, in his own words, mentioned that he and his fellow state ‘bureaucrats’ had at first started ‘trying to create a stage in which all memories will come together, and you will see a grand narrative.’ He explained: ‘We started the project with a grand vision of wanting to construct a version of Singapore’, but ‘at this stage of its development [October 2012], it is not about developing grand narratives of the Singapore project, it is really about . . . capturing the messiness of it all . . . At this stage of the project I am interested in collecting everything that is messy, everything that means something to someone’ (Tan 2012).
In March 2013, before a different audience, Tan’s explanation of the origins of the Singapore Memory Project changed considerably. In a media interview, gone were the references to the project being a creation of the state because that would only inhibit people from recording their memories:
The project started, I think, with my mom . . . She has the habit of telling us incessantly of her girlhood times in Tai Seng, Lorong Tai Seng. And she was telling us about these stories. I thought how many Singaporeans out there have stories of that time . . . when Singapore was just becoming a nation. And this is a perfect opportunity, because we are still a young nation, to capture a sense of Singapore when we were still growing as a nation.32
Correcting Tan’s conflicting explanations on how the Singapore Memory Project was created is the statement in the Singapore Parliament of Sam Tan Chin Siong, Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), when he first announced the project on 12 March 2010. He said ‘that MICA will be embarking on a major national project, to capture the collective memory of our people and institutions.’ Acting Minister Tan elaborated on the purpose of the state-run endeavour:
Known as Singapore Memory, the project will capture all things Singapore. It will include the pioneering spirit of Singaporeans past and present, the milestones in our nation-building journey and also the creative expressions and aspirations of Singaporeans from all walks of life. In essence, we aim to create a ‘History of Singapore’ as seen through the eyes and experiences of our people—you and me. This will help build up a shared identity and also a greater sense of rootedness amongst all Singaporeans, many of whom have witnessed tremendous changes in the physical and the social landscape in just one single generation.
. . . besides capturing and digitising these memories, we also enable them to be shared in a borderless way; where they can be accessed, discovered and researched at all levels, by researchers, students, institutions or any individual interested in Singapore (Sam Tan Chin Siong 2010:4332-4333).
In his speech to the Singapore Parliament, the Acting Minister was very clear about his interest in the project, stating: ‘A key component of nation building and national identity is our shared heritage and memories’ (Sam Tan Chin Siong 2010:4330).
The mass collection of memories online is not unique to Singapore. Other countries had been experimenting with similar web-based collections of memories. Between June 2003 and January 2006, the BBC asked the British public to contribute their memories of World War Two to a website, which resulted in an archive of 47,000 stories and 15,000 images. The 47,000 memories were very well catalogued with categories, such as battles, prisoner of war experience, home front topics. For example, there were 50 entries on the topic of the fall of Singapore. The site was called WW2 People’s War: An archive of World War Two memories—written by the public, gathered by the BBC.33
The experience of Taiwan’s own national digital memory project offers some striking parallels to the Singapore Memory Project. Taiwan commenced its digital memories project in 2002. By 2012, it had produced a large number of digital libraries with over a million self-images and even more text. The purpose of collecting these memories was to help build a national identity through digitizing them and making them accessible. Yet the project was considered by Taiwan’s digital archivists to have failed because these images and text are completely decontextualized, thus making it hard for ordinary people to engage with them (Jieh 2012).
When the case of Taiwan was raised to Gene Tan in a question during October 2012, he outlined that the Singapore Memory Project would avoid this disengagement with the public as it was planned ‘to generate conversations’. He explained that ‘for each of these people who are sharing their memories we will be able to find two or three others who have that shared memory, and that will grow’. He defended the approach of not providing much context for the digital memories, saying that it gave what he called ‘specificity’ as people remembered their own very specific individual experiences (Tan 2012).
The Singapore Memory Project, in contrast to similar projects elsewhere, has since its launch had strong government support. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally Speech on 14 August 2011 gave his endorsement and highlighted two memories in his address, the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961 and Singapore’s soccer win of the 1994 Malaysia Cup. He saw these memories and others as helping bind the nation together: ‘When we talk about history and national education and a sense of belonging, it is not just words and abstract concepts. It is really the stories of people, real people, what they lived, thought, what it meant for them.’ His comments indicated that these stories complemented the Singapore Story rather than interrogated it: ‘Whether it is Geylang, whether it is Little India, whether it is events which we live through, important milestones—these are the human stories of people, ordinary people who struggled to improve their lives and lived through war or hardship or the turbulent early years of independence, and they achieved extraordinary results with good leadership’ (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 2011).34 By the time of his address, 30,000 memories had been collected.
At a conference on the Singapore Memory Project in November 2011, Yaacob Ibrahim, the Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, noted that there had been 220,000 contributions since its July launch. Yaacob ended his speech remarking that ‘these efforts will draw us closer together as a nation and leave a legacy for future generations’.35 The collection of memories in the neighbourhoods of Singapore has been facilitated by Members of Parliament. On 17 April 2012, Dr Ng Eng Hen, Defence Minister and a Member for Parliament for the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency, opened the ‘Memory Recording Studio’ for collecting memories on Toa Payoh. At the event, Justin Zhuang, in his twenties, nostalgically recalled the playgrounds of his childhood in a photo essay. On 20 May 2012, at Yuhua, 200 people were encouraged to record their memories online by Grace Fu, the Member of Parliament for Yuhua.
Online, history bloggers, such as Lai Tuck Chong, have been facilitators, and form what is called the ‘Memory Corps’. Other members of the ‘Memory Corps’ have been interviewers. They complete an interview with an elderly person and later that is uploaded to the Singapore Memory Project’s portal. There are about 130 volunteers, mostly in their forties and fifties, who record memories by interviewing people. Pauline Loh, a 47 year old housewife and a member of the ‘Memory Corps’, when interviewed about her own role in collecting memories from people who were very old and not able to upload them on the internet themselves explained: ‘Many of these people who have stories to tell are old or illiterate, and they don’t have a voice . . . I want to be that voice to help them record their stories for prosperity’.36
Yeong Chong, the online editor of the Singapore Memory Project, claimed that he was making what he called, ‘Everyman his own Historian’.37 He seemed unaware of the origins of this slogan with Charles Becker in his 1931 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association. Becker, while questioning the line drawn between the narrative that historians wrote and the story telling of ordinary people, did not suggest that the decontextualized memories of the past constitute histories (Becker 2011:122-26).
People recalling the past don’t become ‘their own historians’ engaging in contextualization, corroboration, assessing the reliability of their testimony. They are seldom in an objective position to exercise these historical skills over their own memories. Instead, they assert themselves and their unique experiences as sources for constructing history in the future. They reconstruct the past as they remember it, selecting certain memories and recalling them. Giaccardi suggests that this recording of personal memories in the digital media makes this way of engaging the past seem more like heritage that affirms an individual or group identity online by sharing common memories (Giaccardi 2012:2).
The conditions for the exercise of historical skills in Singapore are not easy because many of the records of the state are closed. For the release of Singapore state records, there is no fixed period of time after which state documents must be declassified and made available for public access. So even for professional historians, there is much material that may never be made public which could shed further light Singapore’s history (Loh 2010:3-27). Even simply researching the local history of an area and how it has changed from the 1950s to the 1980s is not possible because government records documenting these changes remain closed.
Many local neighbourhoods of Singapore, where there is little knowledge of their past, are better documented thanks to the web-based collections of memories. Josephine Chia offered her impressions of kampong or village life before the PAP Government removed most kampong dwellers to government housing estates in order to acquire the land they were on. Her memories tended to reinforce the Singapore Story’s emphasis on the country moving from backwardness to progress:
I was born and bred in Kampong Potong Pasir. The name of the kampong was derived from the sand quarries that were there from 1910 to 1937. Hence the Malay name, ‘cut sand’. I was born in 1951 and lived in the kampong till 1970 when the development for HDB [Housing Development Board] flats started.
During the kampong days, we did not have running water and electricity till the late 1960s (for some). As such, we depended a lot on hurricane lamp, carbide lamp and candles, which is why my eyesight is bad. Only later, did we get use generator to provide us with electricity.
There were no flushing toilets but we had jambans or outhouses with buckets. You even had to plan your visits to toilets well in advance. We used to depend on newsprints as toilet-paper (When wet, it marks your bottom!).38
The same question that Stephanie Ho had about history blogging just a few years after it began in Singapore can be asked about the Singapore Memory Project. The work of sociologist Chua Beng Huat and geographers Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh suggests that memory of the kampong days for many people does not produce a counter-narrative of the past to that provided by the PAP’s Singapore Story, but simply a nostalgia about a lost carefree childhood, which is at most a critique of the stresses and fast pace of modern living (Chua 1995:222-41, Yeoh and Kong, 1999:132-52). This simple critique could perhaps be what historian James C. Scott has called ‘the weapons of the weak’ (Scott 1985). It could also suggest Scott’s view that the weak have ‘hidden transcripts’ of the past that are distinct from those of the powerful (Scott 1991:xii). However, the politics of social resistance is completely removed from these nostalgic memories of resettlement from the kampongs despite its documentation elsewhere in places such as archival collections. Various academic studies done on resettlement have been able to uncover this social protest, but it never appears in the uploaded memories (Blackburn 2010:205-31, Gamer 1972:66-88).
Public memories of the kampong days in the Singapore Memory Project suggest Nora’s view of the ‘democratization’ of memory, that ‘the less extraordinary the testimony, the more aptly it is taken to illustrate the average mentality’ (Nora 1996:9). However, by ignoring social protest these nostalgic mundane memories fail to realize the full potential of ‘democratizing’ memory as advocated by the Popular Memory Group, which values counter-memories from the subordinate classes that fracture the hegemonic interpretations of the past (Popular Memory Group 2011:254-60).
The question remains whether the overwhelming amount of nostalgia collected by the Singapore Memory Project can allow the past to be seen from perspectives other than the Singapore Story. To some extent, as Ho suggested in her study of Singapore blogs in 2007, there is the potential for offering alternative narratives in the array of memories assembled online. But it remains unrealized. Toh Teck Bock, like many contributors to the Singapore Memory Project, expressed a strong nostalgia in which the past was seen in many ways as better than the present, but stopped well short of providing an alternative view of the past:
I grew up living in a kampong near Clementi and only moved to a three-room HDB flat with my family in the 1980s.
The Kampong days I dearly miss. Compared to the flat-dwelling lifestyle, in the past people were more open towards each other. People were more friendly, mixed with anyone and were more conversant in the variety of local languages. Even though a person might be Indian, he mixed well with the Chinese and Malay communities and spoke Hokkien, Tamil, Malay and English. He learnt Malay in school and Hokkien from his friends.
In my village, there were about 30 to 40 families and we depended a lot on each other. As such, we also knew more about our neighbours in those days unlike how it is when you live in flats, where people mind their own business and keep their doors shut. Race and religion wasn’t an obstacle. In those days, I liked playing soccer with peers amongst my neighbours and friends in an open field.
My local favourite national sportsman is Fandi Ahmad!39
The above is as critical as memories get of the PAP government’s Singapore Story in the Singapore Memory Project. Individuals recording their memories in the government sponsored Singapore Memory Project shy away from discussing political history or offering critiques of past government actions. The critique offered by Ho in 2007 of Singapore history bloggers, such as Lam, seems appropriate criticism of the Singapore Memory Project.
By August 2012, the rapid collection of nostalgic memories seemed to have reached its peak at 300,000, the level at which it remained for much of 2012. After a year, the project had reached only six per cent of its target of five million by 2015. Many memories recorded had few readers, and offered limited insights into Singapore’s national history. Gene Tan later publicly acknowledged this situation when he spoke of perhaps improving the ‘quality’ of the memories being gathered by getting more evocative accounts that connected with readers and obtaining memories in areas that may shed more light on the national past.40 Throughout 2012 into 2013, interest in the posted memories of the Singapore Memory Project paled in comparison to the over 54,000 hits of Lim Hock Siew’s 2009 YouTube clip on Singapore opposition politics in the 1960s. Even nostalgia buffs seemed to be tiring of reading impressions that appeared to many as prosaic and trivial or divorced from Singapore’s national history, such as material put up on country music in Singapore. Many memories had a considerable personal significance to the individual posting them or a small group of people who shared a common interest, but beyond that there were few connections to events that affected the lives of most people in the history of Singapore. Memories of the tumultuous and contentious political events of the 1950s and 1960s are entirely absent. There are no memories on the 1955 Hock Lee Bus Riots, politics in the Chinese middle schools, the 1964 racial riots, the merger of Singapore with Malaysia. Even memories of the birth of Singapore as an independent nation on 9 August 1965 when it left the Malaysian Federation are few. Perhaps this phenomenon of many important missing moments of Singapore history not mentioned in anyone’s recollections is far from surprising given the hegemonic nature of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore Story as Hong and Huang describe it (Hong and Huang 2008).
In the later part of 2012, Gene Tan admitted that the web based accounts set up for the public to deposit their memories were attracting little interest, although other channels set up for storing memories were doing well because they were more accessible, such as the Singapore Memory Project’s Facebook page (Tan 2012). It is likely that Gene Tan’s and his fellow bureaucrats’ initial assumption that people would rush to sign up to the website as instructed failed to take account of a widespread mistrust as to the uses to which their contributions might be put in a state-run archive if they were controversial or counter-memories (Blackburn 2009).
By late 2012, officials in charge of the Singapore Memory Project were concerned about the drop in interest and began thinking of new ways of encouraging people to record their memories, such as having ‘memory collection points’ at local branches of the National Library.41 The Prime Minister of Singapore was brought into the picture again to rouse the populace to participate. At the August 2012 National Day Rally Address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong again brought up the Singapore Memory Project. He reasserted:
These memories come together to define the Singapore Story for all of us. Individually, these are our life’s experiences. Collectively, these bind together to become the soul of the nation. We must cherish them, and build upon them . . . Our drive to keep the Singapore Story vital and fresh for all of us must never falter.42
Judging from the Prime Minister’s statement, the PAP Government’s Singapore Story seems ever adaptable in incorporating memories outside of it. While Nora believed that collective memory would be undermined by the proliferation of individual memories, the Singapore Prime Minister believes that these ‘collected memories’ will only complement the Singapore Story, not undermine it. So far, the memories in the Singapore Memory Project have not directly challenged the PAP’s Singapore Story.
In Singapore, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and the Singapore Memory Project are part of the process that Nora has called the ‘democratization’ of memory, in which anyone and everyone can record their reminiscences for public consumption. By April 2013, the Singapore Memory Project seemed to be back on track with an astounding 830,000 memories recorded, according to its officials.43 The sheer quantity of digital memories that has emerged in Singapore since the advent of the new social media platforms is similar to what has happened in other countries. What Huyssen has called the ‘memory boom’ and Hoskins the ‘post-scarcity culture’ are a worldwide phenomenon. In Singapore, several years on from Stephanie Ho’s original 2007 assessment of what the new social media was producing about the past, her comments on the predominance of nostalgia and the shying away of Singaporeans from talking about Singapore’s political history still resonate. The process of ordinary people recording their own memories in Singapore has not produced the kind of the memories the Popular Memory Group sought to uncover in Britain, whereby the subordinate classes brought forward memories that challenged and fractured the hegemonic interpretations of the past.
What has happened in Singapore during its ‘democratization’ of memory is closer to Giaccardi’s interpretation that says that individuals uploading their memories to the new social media are producing a form of personal heritage. The quest for a more searching critical history of counter-memories questioning the hegemonic narrative of the Singapore Story might have to wait a bit longer yet. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect the Singapore Memory Project to get beyond heritage to actual history? There may exist for a transitional period of time two separate arenas, one in which personal memories are recalled and another in which state history is reflected. It may be that full ‘democratization’ only arrives when a state’s history is being questioned, complemented, and discussed by ordinary people with counter-memories and alternative narratives of the past.
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