Whose History? Whose Truth?
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Many of us would be familiar with this poem in various versions attributed to Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a prominent Protestant pastor who openly spoke out against Hitler. The poem criticizes those who remained silent and therefore, were complicit in the Nazi atrocities, but it also speaks of the usual tactics of a repressive regime, which ruthlessly purges its “enemies” and critics one by one. The end result is a regime that reigns supreme over a docile and fearful population cowed into silence.
Those who know Singapore history would be struck by how aptly the poem captures our evolution into the PAP-dominated state, where party influence penetrates almost all aspects of the citizen’s life, from the language he speaks, the news he reads, to the history he is taught in school.
The 1963 Operation Coldstore, through indefinite detention without trial, effectively wiped out PAP’s political adversaries who were conveniently branded as communists for decades till recent evidence proves otherwise. No viable political alternatives have emerged after that and till today we have a parliament that is dominated by PAP.
After decimating the left in Operation Coldstore, PAP embarked on a “mopping exercise” targeted at Nantah students. In June 1964, more than 1,000 policemen were called in to arrest 51 students. A White Paper released after the arrest claimed that student leadership was “dominated by the underground Communist Party of Malaya…” (source).
Trade unionists, of course, must also be eradicated for the PAP to further consolidate its power. A number of left-wing trade unions that had been fighting for workers’ welfare were deregistered in 1963 on allegations of involvement in “communist united front” activities, misuse of union funds etc. (source).
Its appetite for repression whetted, the regime next clamped down on the press. In May 1971, Lee Kuan Yew accused the Nanyang Siang Pau, Eastern Sun and Singapore Herald of links to communist forces and their role in foreign-backed “black operation” to disrupt Singapore’s progress. Four Nanyang Siang Pau executives were detained under the Internal Security Act; Eastern Sun closed down, and the Herald’s license was withdrawn.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Addressing PAP members at the party’s biennial convention on 8 December Sunday, Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said,
We must not concede the space – physical or cyber. We will have to learn from the 1960 generation of PAP pioneers – to fight to get our message across at every corner – every street corner, every cyberspace corner, be it in the mass media or social media. We will have to do battle everywhere as necessary.
Chan’s message goes to show how little the PAP has changed over the past decades; the ruling party is still adamant today, in this Internet age, to be the singular voice and to have the last word on all matters pertaining to Singapore.
Before the information technology revolution, PAP was able to propagate its version of our nation’s history as the story of the party’s triumph over communist insurgents. Contesting narratives were obliterated through the detention and banishment of contenders, and through monopolizing ideological state apparatuses such as education and media.
But today we know better. Our understanding of history and events no longer has to be shaped by one party’s interpretation.
Reflecting on Sunday’s Little India riot, I was struck by the breadth and depth of narratives that have surfaced in cyberspace within days. Addressing multiple facets of the issue, eyewitness and insider’s accounts, thoughtful insights and analyses, and sociological perspectives have enriched our understanding of how the riot might have come about.
Contrast these narratives to the evolving “official” version of the Littler India riot based on what some Ministers have already said. Alcohol, no doubt, will bear much of the blame and predictably, the incident shall have nothing to do with foreign workers’ unhappiness with employers or the government, despite numerous reports on the deplorable living conditions and exploitation of blue-collar foreign workers.
This interpretation of Sunday’s unfortunate incident, reducing rioters to a mob of mere irrational beings acting under the influence of alcohol, is what the government wants us to believe. It will justify what the government knows best and does best: more repressive measures –further segregation, tighter surveillance, curfews, alcohol ban and so on – to “discipline” the foreign worker community while brushing aside the underlying causes.
Unlike in the past, however, today we have a choice. We do not have to subscribe to the government’s interpretation of the Little India riot. As this writer reminds us,
the accusation of mindlessness, the lazy language of the “mob”, and the use of discredited deindividuation theories, is not just wrong. It is positively dangerous. It stops us paying attention to what crowd actions tells us about how rioters understand their society. It stops us from addressing how these understandings come about. It dooms us to more disaffection, more division and more violence.