Past Week 7 LABs Week 7 LAB 2019

The Past in the Present: History and Memory in Singapore and Bintan

Duration: 27 September to 5 October, 2019

Leading faculty: Dr Clay Keller Eaton

This Week 7 LAB introduced students to the various ways in which the past is remembered in Singapore and its neighbours, the interconnected history of the region, and the shifting relationship between public memory and history.

It prepared students for the historical writings covered in the Literature and Humanities 1 (LH1) course of the first-year Common Curriculum immediately after Week 7, and brought them to sites directly connected to the Sejarah Melayu, one of the texts in that class.

Since the 1990s, the Second World War has loomed large in the Singaporean historical memory, dominating local history textbooks, museum exhibitions, and the landscape through monuments and historical plaques. In 2019, however, celebrations of the bicentennial encouraged museum curators, textbook writers, and everyday people to re-examine the history of Singapore before the Second World War and, indeed, before the arrival of the British in 1819. On this LAB, students examined the evolution of public memory in Singapore over the past few decades through walking tours, film screenings and museum visits. Students learned about historical events that have recently re-emerged into public consciousness, and those that are still largely ignored.

The group then travelled to Bintan, an island in nearby Indonesia. As the former centre of the sultanate that controlled Singapore before British colonisation, public memory in Bintan is focused more firmly on the pre- and anti-colonial past, while discussion of the Second World War is far less common and the trauma of this period is often mediated in less “historical” ways, such as through ghost stories. After visiting a local primary school and meeting the author and publisher of a local history, students spent an evening discussing the relationship between the genre of horror and the traumatic past (by telling scary stories in the dark). The following day, students visited historical sites associated with the Riau-Lingga Sultanate, learning why this history plays such a dominant role in local public memory and which groups and individuals have acted as caretakers of local history.

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  • In the minds of many people around the world (and on HBO) Singapore represents ‘the future’. It can be difficult to get a sense of Singapore’s rich history, especially beyond a handful of events that have dominated public memory over the past few decades. By the end of this LAB, however, our students produced one of the most nuanced exhibits on the fraught relationship between the present and the past that I have seen. Go team!

    Dr Clay Keller Eaton
    Postdoctoral Fellow in Humanities (History)

  • I think my Week 7 experience was quite a foundational one. I learnt much about Singapore and Bintan histories, and met classmates who have since become important close friends. I also got to know Dr Eaton, with whom I am now working for a history research project. In this way, my Week 7 unexpectedly paved the way for my budding interest and work in the field of obscure and hidden histories.

    Carine Chan Sze Ching
    Class of 2023

  • One of my favourite moments was when we sat by the beach in Bintan with a bonfire and smores as Dr Eaton shared regional horror stories! It was interesting to see unspeakable horrors and trauma from wartime manifesting in these 'horror' stories to be passed down. In learning to critically examine dominant historical narratives and public memory, I realised that history can be a matter of perspective and narrative framing rather than just facts.

    Thet Yin Zaw
    Class of 2023