Thursday, September 30, 2010

History is not an unchanging narrative

Sep 29, 2010


WHILE history is about the objective pursuit and description of 'truth' about the past, to the extent that truth can be objectified, there is no single, immutable 'truth'.

[I'm not sure if the writer even knows what this means.]

Our interpretations of the past are bound to change with time with the presentation of new evidence, new perspectives, new frameworks and even with linguistic drift. Setting history in stone would be to deny this ongoing dialogue between the past and the present; it would severely stymie our understanding of ourselves, our societies, our cultures and their evolution over time.

[If there is new evidence, then that would change the way history is written and viewed.]

It is in that vein that historical revisionism is vital. Without it, history would just be a dead science, as much a disservice to humanity as to the historians.

[History is a discipline, but it is not "science" as in having scientific theories or principles.]

Also, we must not see revisionism in simplistic binary terms: mainstream versus alternative, right versus wrong, good versus evil, yours versus mine. Historical discourse is about competing as well as complementary narrative strands and rational debate.

At the end of the day, there might not just be one history, but many, equally valid, alternative histories, told from differing perspectives.

That is where my quarrel with Mr Ong Weichong's commentary lies ('Guard against romanticising leftist past'; last Thursday). He presents the issue as a false dilemma: it is either the state-sanctioned narrative or a romanticised version.

[The rebuttal from the History professor was much better argued. This is at best a layman's attempt to rebut. It lacks... discipline.]

There is also the straw man fallacy here: The nuanced but unmistakable insinuation that revisionist Singapore historians are guilty of 'romanticisation', and their claims are hence, by association, invalidated.

When Mr Ong writes about 'plugging the gaps left by the state', it is not revisionism, but padding of the status quo, an enlargement at best. Revisionism consists of not only 'plugging the gaps', but also rewriting or modifying, even supplanting, existing narratives in response to new evidence, new readings and new perspectives.

His treatment of violence is also simplistic. Armed insurgencies and insurrections, especially in the post-World War II era, must be seen in the larger context of the fight for emancipation from imperial rule and colonialism.

Often, violence is the only weapon of the oppressed, the weak, the disenfranchised, and must be juxtaposed against the backdrop of state violence if a meaningful narrative and deeper understanding are to be arrived at.

Dr Leong Yan Hoi

[I don't disagree with the point which was that the original commentary was arrogant and reductionistic (I may be using this word wrongly), and pompously dismisses academic enquiry especially in disenfranchised voices. Certainly, for a full picture of history, the silenced minority, or the vanquished should be heard as well. But I think the original rebuttal was forceful, well argued, and addresses all the issues. A half-baked effort such as this to refute or rebut the original commentary unnecessarily opens up an avenue for a re-rebuttal.]

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