Singapore Comes to Terms with its Malay Past: The Politics of Crafting a National History

Michael D. Barr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Ethnic tensions were central to Singapore’s birth as an independent republic, and they left the government in a quandary: how to talk about the country’s history when its birth was mired in contention between its dominant Chinese population and its large Malay minority? The surprising answer to this dilemma involved crafting a new national narrative that started in 1819, with the arrival of British imperialism. This move had the intended effect of excluding earlier centuries of Malay agency completely from the record, thus delegitimising the claims of one of the main communities in contention. The key element in the construction of the new national narrative was the implicit acceptance of colonial claims about Singapore’s achievements during the colonial era: that they were British achievements, building upon terra nullius. This mythology gave no credit or recognition to the Malays who had lived and traded in the region and on the island for centuries. This article explores the shifting politics of Singapore’s official historiography, paying particular attention to the role of scholars and education professionals in facilitating and reforming the national narrative. It posits that academic collaboration has been an overlooked feature of Singapore’s national myth-making.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalAsian Studies Review
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 16 Sep 2021

Keywords

  • ethnicity
  • historiography
  • history teaching
  • Malays in history
  • nation-building
  • national identity
  • politics
  • Singaporean history

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