Conversing with our cosmopolitan past: Applying history to the present


“Knowing where you are going,” declared Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam in the 1970s, “is more important than knowing where you came from” (Tarulevicz 2009, 415). So convinced was he by this maxim that he echoed this exact sentiment a decade later in an article for The Straits Times, where he extolled the merits of forward-thinking leadership which “sees history in terms of the future”.

While the state has since embraced the centrality of history in society, historical narratives have largely been curated and mobilised to advance the goals of nation-building, and to buttress the legitimacy of the incumbent People’s Action Party (Goh et al. 2005, 211). As a result, history – in the ways the past is remembered and studied – has since become incapable of coping with the demands of the present.

The stories we tell ourselves about our cosmopolitan past and its importance for our survival now appear less resonant than ever. Amid an emerging trend of anti-globalisation elsewhere, increasingly more emphasis is being placed on narratives arguing that Singapore has “always depended on open trade” for survival and prosperity. These accounts are framed as irrefutable historical realities in order to account for past economic successes and to justify intensifying globalisation in the future. While global trade is indeed essential for Singapore’s economy, such openness has nevertheless increased the strain and anxiety confronted by many Singaporeans, making the idea of a ‘global and open’ Singapore a less attractive and endearing one. This is especially in the face of a growing sentiment that the country’s wealth has not been equitably distributed, and the perception that Singaporeans are being exposed to excessive or unfair foreign competition.

How, then, can a reappraisal of our national narratives address this dissonance? First, it allows us to better appreciate the nature and extent of the tensions inherent in the state-manufactured ‘Singapore Story’. Second, it leaves us better poised to remedy or mitigate these tensions. By employing the tools of historical analysis, we can begin to engage in a dialogue with our cosmopolitan past, and in doing so, glean fresh insights into our cosmopolitan present.

A view into the past: Intellectual cosmopolitanism

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Singapore’s “kaleidoscopic cultural milieu” originated neither from post-independence nation-building, nor from the demands of post-Separation economic survival. Instead, it stems from the “polyglot migrant world” that began to take form since the early 19th century (Harper 1997, 263-264). Studies about the economic dimensions of Singapore’s global connections have been well-documented (Wong 1978), and its repercussions have been debated in Parliament and also in this journal. What is of interest and relevance here is the ideological and intellectual dimensions of cosmopolitanism, which are often ignored.

In the 19th century, British expansion and penetration into what we now call Southeast Asia exposed the limitations of their knowledge about the region. They thus set about establishing ‘informational orders’ in which the furthest reaches of their empire could be rendered visible, known, and therefore governable. Yet, in this process of consolidating and codifying information, British colonial administrators rarely possessed dominance. They often depended on local informants, and had to jostle with the diasporic public sphere in their attempts to define the boundaries of knowledge, as well as to determine who among the myriad groups should enjoy centrality or suffer marginality.

It was through this process that Singapore “rapidly became a hub for official and mission presses” and positioned itself as “the centre of communications of the eastern Islamic world” (Harper 1997, 266-270). In a place teeming with intellectual vitality and a vibrant print culture, where no single group possessed cultural and ideological hegemony, the evolution of a cosmopolitanism of ideas thus became a central feature of society.

By the 20th century, the British had acquired greater primacy to shape social discourse, a dominance that was only briefly interrupted by the Japanese Occupation. Colonial officials, for example, gradually tamed the flux of intellectual and linguistic dynamism by narrowing and standardising the grammar and vocabulary adopted by various communities to communicate with one another (Harper 1997, 270). Yet, in other areas there nevertheless remained vibrant ideological cosmopolitanism. Indeed, as one historian observed: “Living on an island that had long been connected to transnational flows of capital and information, Singaporeans tended to be cosmopolitan and inquisitive” (Long 2008, 904). Postwar Singapore was rich with student and labour activism, where seemingly ‘global’ ideas like “Marxian socialism” and “high modernism” converged in the ‘local’ public sphere as debates raged over which (and whose) ideas should reign supreme. Indeed, other historians describe a Singapore in which “the ideologies were fluid, vague and contested” (Loh et al. 2013, 26-27).

In short, while ‘cosmopolitanism’ might seem like a contemporary buzzword mobilised by the state to further economic goals, an interrogation of our past suggests that this dynamism has much deeper roots, goes beyond economics, and is more complex (and less susceptible to control) than our narratives would have us assume.

The acquisition of internal self-governance and the gradual emergence of a strong party-state by 1959 meant that a group of local elites could now exert control over the unfettered exchange of ideas. Thus, when the American government tried to “combat Communist influence in Singapore using psychological instruments” (Long 2008, 906), the PAP “made a conscious decision to limit the transfer of culture to those aspects that were not perceived as detrimental to the… creation of a Singaporean culture and identity” (Frey 2003, 565). While exhorting the merits of economic cosmopolitanism, then, the state was to contain the influence of, and assert its dominance over, the intellectual realm.

Relevance to the present: Tensions from selective cosmopolitanism

Attempts by the state since independence to fashion its own brand of cosmopolitanism have indeed succeeded in the material realm. This unique recipe embraces foreign capital, technologies, and talent, but rejects ideas that may threaten the interests of the political establishment. In other words, what the state has consistently attempted is the decoupling of economic cosmopolitanism from ideological cosmopolitanism.

This strategy invariably produces tensions because flows of capital, technologies, and goods are inevitably accompanied by flows of ideas and information. Indeed, in a recent interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked to comment on a British politician’s statement: “…Theresa May… must raise issues of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in any trade talks with Singapore”. Such a sentiment implicitly assumes that flows of material and ideological ‘goods’ are organically inseparable, and this premise is shared by a number of Singapore’s major trade partners. The widespread use of the Internet since the dawn of the century has expedited the dissemination of ideas from around the world, weaving an even more complex web around existing seams of political thought, a trend from which Singapore is not exempt.

The state, however, has adopted numerous measures to contain and resist ideas that challenge its ‘Singapore Story’, such as by propagating the “ideology of survival”, instituting a “garrison mentality”, and championing “Asian values” (Chong 2010, 507-508). These narratives construct the idea that Singapore can benefit from exposure to Western capitalism while simultaneously preserving an authentic ‘Singaporean core’. However successful these measures have hitherto been, the contradictions inherent within are beginning to unravel, since these narratives result in policies that have very real consequences for ordinary Singaporeans. The upholding of such a ‘Singaporean core’ has resulted in the exclusion of values, ideas, and lifestyles that do not conform to the perceived interests and ideologies of the political elite and those they claim to represent.

One pertinent example is the lack of legal and institutional recognition of same-sex marriage, despite more Singaporeans developing greater acceptance of and expressing more support for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community. The tolerant nature of the liberal, cosmopolitan “Global City” model, adopted for economic expedience, clashes with the desire to preserve and entrench the heterosexual nuclear family unit as the basic building block of society. This has resulted in the de-legitimisation of homosexual relationships, where same-sex couples are precluded from enjoying some of the privileges of citizenship otherwise available to traditional family units. Such debates over what ideas deserve a legitimate space in the public sphere rage on unabated, particularly in civil society, and these tensions have the potential to aggravate the fault lines already present in the social fabric. Indeed, ‘cosmopolitanism’ is a slippery quality to possess, as many “subnational or local groups [have] similarly [adopted] cosmopolitan or transnational messages to challenge or resist… government expressions of nationhood and identity” (Chong 2010, 514-515, 517).

History in practice: Cosmopolitanism in perspective

If history can tell us about the different dimensions of cosmopolitanism, show how they have been variously (mis)managed, and shed light on problems caused by these management strategies, what directions might it offer us?

First, by revealing the unsustainability of divorcing economic cosmopolitanism from intellectual cosmopolitanism, we are forced to contend with the limitations of the narratives we have relied upon for the past 50 years. The stories we have imagined, constructed, and circulated about our “national identity” need to be re-examined and scrutinised. More emphasis in the history and National Education curriculum needs to be placed on Singapore’s transnational and global past. These narratives remind us that Singapore’s history did not begin only with political independence in 1965, and that the issues we face today do not exist in a vacuum, but possess historical and transnational roots. Far from depictions of Singapore as a paragon of stoic pragmatism, a broader and global approach to history suggests that the island was, and continues to be, a battleground of ideas – a reality we ignore at our own peril. A narrow focus on parochial national narratives will not provide us with the necessary context and hindsight to tackle such complex problems as climate change, terrorism, and immigration – all of which transcend national borders and challenge the stability and utility of notions of nationalism and sovereignty.

Rather than indulge in passive and didactic learning through rote memorisation of facts and entrenched narratives, Singapore’s students should be equipped with the skills to critique the arguments presented to them, and to interrogate the evidence used to support such claims. In the long run, this will arm the Singaporeans of the future with the tools of critical analysis to identify and address fissures in society before they become irremediable.

Achieving the above will provide us with the wherewithal to take the second step: to converse not just with our past, but also among ourselves. As one historian writing on 19th century Singapore commented: “What is remarkable about the first sixty years or so of Singapore’s history is… how little its residents bothered to find out about it” (Harper 1997, 266). Constructing narratives that resonate with and include every Singaporean requires us to suspend our assumptions, abandon our echo chambers, and speak to one another with open minds.

Idealistic as this may sound, such attempts to directly tackle divisive social questions are not detached from our historical experience. One key episode can be observed by returning to the example of language and national identity, a slippery quality to harness given the diversity of peoples and ideas converging in Singapore. While we take for granted the ease with which the issue of Singapore’s ‘national’ language was decided, there was great uncertainty and debate in the 1950s over which language should become the focal point through which a non-communal, multiracial Singapore could be built (Loh et al. 2013, 98-101). Though the 1956 government White Paper defended the prevailing emphasis on English language education, the policy was met with criticism from various quarters in society. The focus on English was arguably antithetical to the preservation of the indigenous Malay language and culture, which was especially critical given the question of merger and the legacies of colonialism looming in the background. Singapore’s cosmopolitan character, it seemed, was proving to be quite a handful.

Yet, rather than be contented with hurling volleys of criticisms around, a “major step forward” was taken to bridge the communication divide. In August 1959, the University of Malaya in Singapore Socialist Club organised a two-day national language seminar to “examine the advantages and disadvantages” of enshrining Malay as the national language. In particular, the seminar “targeted the English-educated community, who had the greatest misgivings about the feasibility of Malay”, and critically noted and questioned “unfounded prejudices” against the language. The seminar attracted a diverse group of speakers from academia, the government, and the press from both ends of the Causeway. Though it encountered some resistance and scepticism, the seminar nevertheless succeeded in providing a platform for animated and profound discussions over how best to bridge the English and non-English speaking worlds, as well as to address the tensions and vested interests of the various communal groups.

This episode from our cosmopolitan past suggests that open, active, and critical conversations about our differences are not merely possible, but also potentially rewarding. We can, however, only begin this process by acknowledging that knowing where we are going requires first to know where we came from.

Glenn is a third year undergraduate reading History and Political Science at the National University of Singapore. 

Image: Aotaro (; used under Creative Commons 2.0 License.