Nominated MPs: A flashback of Tan Tai Yong

Nominated MPs: A flashback of Tan Tai Yong
Professor Tan Tai Yong, Vice-Provost (Student Life), NUS and director of the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS)

Prof Tan co-authored a book on Singapore history together with Mr Kwa Chong Guan and Professor Derek Heng. In this article, Prof Heng shares his perspective on the book.

Singapore's mainstream history until recently has been confined largely to a story that commenced in 1819 with the arrival of British colonialism and therefore the modern era, with the implication being that there was only a mere sleepy fishing village before that.

Research over the last two decades has, however, uncovered significant material - both textual and archaeological - that sheds substantial light on Singapore's port-cities between the late 13th and 17th centuries, and the international history of Singapore's waterways between the 16th and early 19th centuries.

These developments have enabled historians of Singapore to reconstruct aspects of Singapore's pre-modern history.

The key findings are summarised in a book, Singapore: A 700-year History - From Early Emporium To World City, written by historians Kwa Chong Guan and Tan Tai Yong of the National University of Singapore, and myself, published by the National Archives of Singapore (available in bookstores at the end of next month).

This narrates Singapore's history over the longue duree, giving a continuous account from the late 13th century.

Yet, the question remains to be asked: Does Singapore have a 700-year history? And more importantly, why should Singaporeans in the 21st century be concerned about events that occurred more than half a millennium ago? How can the pre-modern past be relevant to our present-day experiences?

Singapore: A 700-Year History puts forth the central argument that the Singapore of today is very much the same as it has been throughout its documentable history: a port-city par excellence.

If one were to put aside the apparent differences in ethnic composition, ancestry, and contextual issues such as technology, a longer chronological perspective can accord us a better understanding of the present social, economic and cultural state of affairs in Singapore.

Take demographics.

Presently, approximately one-quarter of the population comprises foreigners.

Why is there such a large contingent of foreigners? How unique is this in Singapore history? How should citizens view the presence of so large a group of foreigners in their midst?

One common way of framing this issue has been to argue that our forebears were immigrants who came during the British colonial era, and so we should continue to be accepting of new citizens and foreigners in our midst.

Yet this may dilute the notion of exclusivity of a nation- state, particularly since most Singaporeans have been domiciled in Singapore for many generations.

Extending our perspective into the pre-modern past opens up new dimensions.

What we then see is the recurring theme of manpower challenges that societies in our immediate region have faced over the centuries, borne out of the absence of a large indigenous population, creating the need to co-opt foreigners of exceptional ability to contribute to the well-being of society.

This has been a constant imperative for Singapore's successive societies over the centuries.

Indeed, Asian port-cities, whether pre-modern, colonial or present-day, have had populations that are multiethnic, highly mobile and constantly renewed by inward migration.

Today's practice of including foreigners, particularly those of exceptional talent, as a critical part of Singapore's population is part of a longer history of such practices by port-cities in the region.

Indeed, understanding Singapore's past from a 700-year perspective gives us a more nuanced understanding that our situation as a small country finding its way in a harsh asymmetrical world order is not just a post-1965 reality.

As a small port-city, Singapore's fortunes have waxed and waned with the vicissitudes of history - but it has so far been able to reinvent itself to stay relevant into the 21st century.

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