Jul 26, 2010
Apathy? Far from it
I WAS impressed by Europe correspondent Jonathan Eyal's insightful comments ('History as it should be taught'; July 17) on the crossroads of teaching history in British schools, only to be disconcerted by his assertions about 'citizens of the old colonies'.
After suggesting the pitfalls of choosing between neglecting and engaging with the history of the British Empire, Mr Eyal concludes that the only 'consolation' is that formerly colonised citizens 'no longer care, one way or another'. He presents this ignorance as a post-colonial triumph. But why should apathy be considered a 'consolation', and for whom?
To say that the seduction of 'globalisation and economic growth' leads directly to such historical indifference is reductive.
Instead of being 'content to retain their Victoria streets', as Mr Eyal suggests, the Mumbai authorities bowed to pressure from Hindu right-wingers to rename Victoria Terminus in 1996. Replacing colonial names with names of local origin has continued since independence from British rule, pursued with growing enthusiasm in countries such as Myanmar.
Even if Mr Eyal was referring primarily to Singapore, with its seemingly superficial attachment to all names colonial, the reality is far more complex.
Rather than offer superficial, symbolic associations, the book, Singapore Through 19th Century Photographs, by Mr Jason Toh actively engages with colonial architecture and city planning.
Last year, a National Museum of Singapore exhibition featured public lectures, which interpreted the physical environment of colonial Singapore, while a tour of the landscape of 19th century Singapore through visual records was sold out.
Apart from such academic efforts, colonial history resounds in current affairs. The fact that the British administered Pedra Branca for 100 years heavily influenced the International Court of Justice case between Singapore and Malaysia in 2008.
More recently, it was revealed that the KTM railway land, originally thought to be Malaysian property, had in fact been leased from the British Straits Settlements from 1918. Such imperial developments reverberate strongly today.
Still, Mr Eyal surprisingly concludes that 'coming to terms' with the largest empire in history is, just 13 years after the return of Hong Kong, 'now a problem for the British alone'. I am one of these 'citizens of the old colonies' who Mr Eyal claims no longer cares how the history of the empire is approached. As a Singaporean undergraduate studying history in Britain, I could not disagree more.
[This letter doesn't really belong here because it is rather well-written and the author does have a point - that apathy should not be a consolation prize. But then again, I don't believe Eyal was presenting this as a "consolation prize". Rather, he was making a comment, perhaps cynical, that how the British represents themselves to their populace is not going to be very controversial as opposed to say the Japanese rewriting their history text to gloss over the events of World War II.
So Eyal is not wrong to say that citizens of old colonies (or ex-colonies) would not care one way or another how the British engage (or don't engage) their citizens. A a Singaporean undergrad studying history in Britain, the writer disagrees. Of course he would. He's a history student. Specialising in British History. But I think we can safely assume that he is the exception that proves the rule.
As for the cases of imperial rule reverberating to contemporary issues, they make an interesting footnote but are irrelevant to the issue which is how Britain will engage their citizens on their history. It is not about whether there are influences for the ex-colonies, but rather how to teach British history to the British. And on that most citizens of ex-colonies would not care how it is done. So Eyal is right, and the writer is confused about the point Eyal is making.]