Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Straits Times : Keep stories from the past alive

I agree with this writer that we need to step up on the effort to revatilse the Oral History Unit before many generations fade into oblivion.

History is not just about famous people and should begin at home.

We should all make an effort to know our own family heritage, however humble it might be.

Otherwise, a whole generation of Singaporeans will suffer from historical amnesia.

Kelvin, creator of the Tiong Bahru Heritage and Friends blog, is collecting old photographs of Tiong Bahru Residents, especially those who grew up here.

So if you are time starved to "ïnterview" your family members, perhaps you can just make an effort to pull out some old family photos and contribute them to Kelvin who is involved in this worthy project.

Mar 31, 2010
The Straits Times
By Ho Kwon Ping

HAPPY birthday, Father. This week you would have been 93 years old, and this remembrance is my birthday present to you. Although you left us a dozen years ago, and my youngest son barely remembers you - he was three when you died - I'm surprised by the sudden clarity of some memories.

I remember, after your initial series of small strokes but before you fell into the long coma, we'd have our weekly lunch. We'd often be the only customers; you'd always order the same food, often tell me the same stories of your life - relived afresh in each telling. Or how after dinner at home you'd retire to your study, smoke your cigarettes surreptitiously, and write laboriously in pencil another page of your memoirs.

Your memoirs started as something to do after you'd long retired. You had no great story to tell, no ambition to be a great writer, or to be remembered in history. You hoped your grandchildren might remember you, but it was at the end simply a story that you wanted to tell and leave behind, for its own sake.

Now, many years later, I realise you've left much behind, more than we had both thought. That slim volume entitled Eating Salt - a title you chose because the Chinese adage 'to eat salt' is to have tasted bitter hardship, which was your formative experience during the war years in China - is your legacy to us, a window into a world which only your generation experienced and understood.

Yours was a time in history which we can only imagine: The notion that it took two weeks, by steamship, rail and road, to travel from Singapore to Canton, for example, is inconceivable, not only to your grandchildren but also to me. And how your university life in Canton was disrupted for several years by the war and you decamped to Chongqing, and joined a student troupe to entertain the Red Army's peasant soldiers. Reading your memoirs has been a coming-of-age ritual for each of your six grandchildren, and a revelation for each of your children.

Recently, there has been a spate of biographies about the more famous people of your generation: Mr S. Rajaratnam, who was your friend and boss when you became an ambassador after independence, at a time when Singapore had no career diplomats to speak of; or of the many other old PAP cadres and Barisan Socialis activists whom you may not have known but who shared your anti-colonialist, leftist sentiments. Their voices, like yours, speak to us from a time which few living Singaporeans today remember.

Not only you, but my mother has also told the stories of her life. Her short, weekly, bilingual essays in our local papers gave glimpses into her childhood in pre-war Shanghai, and her adult years in post-war Burma and Thailand.

Despite all this, my knowledge of both your lives is patchy at best; my children's knowledge is even sketchier. Their knowledge of our country's founding fathers is limited to the social studies course they plough through in primary school, or the memorisation of facts concerning the story of Singapore's independence. They may know the bare facts about the political drama, the struggle in these transformative years, but how much do they know of their own parents' stories, and their parents' parents?

An entire generation of Singaporeans may soon suffer from historical amnesia, and we cannot afford to take this condition lightly. It is not just about remembering 1965 and beyond; it goes further and deeper into a need to understand our own individual, distinct heritage.

In all societies, the tribal tradition of oral history, the transmission of wisdom from one generation to another through the stories of the tribal elders, has been critical for the preservation of the tribe's identity. We are not so different. If we do not know from whence we came, how can we know where we want to go?

As we grow and mature as a society, knowing the history of our forebears is critically important to give us a sense of perspective, of identity and direction. And not just the famous names like Rajaratnam, Goh Keng Swee, Lim Kim San and more. How many of us know the stories of how our own fathers and mothers suffered during the Japanese Occupation, or how our grandparents left their villages in China or India, many never to see their families again, in order to escape unbearable poverty? For better or worse, economic prosperity over the last 30 years, globalisation over the last 10 and Facebook over the last five have somehow distanced our younger generation from remembering the fact that Singapore was a very different place as recently as 1950. Dr Goh's farsighted vision in creating the Oral History Unit to tape-record the recollections of first-generation Singaporeans has not carried on with much vigour after he retired. Neither have many people drawn on these rich legacies. One person I know who did was my wife Claire Chiang, whose book Stepping Out drew on the oral histories of Singapore's business pioneers.

Another commendable effort is the recently published Singapore: A Biography by Mark Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow in partnership with the National Museum of Singapore, with the intention of providing an alternative history by acknowledging the pioneers as well as ordinary immigrants who were all equally part of the 'Singapore Story'.

We need more such works, to remind our young that there are alternative stories of the Singapore dream, and the first place to find them is in their own homes over an extended family dinner.

The Government should revitalise the Oral History Unit, give it more funds and charge it with the task of recording the lives of my generation, the baby-boomers who are rapidly passing into retirement - and into obituaries.

By working through our schools, and by providing our students with the techniques and templates of interviewing, it is possible for every Singaporean family to receive a transcribed, professionally edited oral history of their clan or family elders, to cherish and pass on to the next generation.

Some American high schools do exactly this: Students are assigned to draw up their own family trees, and to then interview all surviving, contactable members of their family. After the phenomenal success of Roots in the 1980s - a book tracing author Alex Haley's slave lineage back to his tribe in Africa - many families started their own Roots projects. Whether Italian, Irish, African, Chinese, Korean - stories of each family's forefather and mother crossing the ocean to the Promised Land, became part of the American myth, the American Dream.

We too must extol our Singapore Dream. In the same way we attempt to stay on the cutting edge of technology, we need to devise the best methods to celebrate our history for subsequent generations. No doubt we are a young society - barely 50 years compared to America's 250. But it is no less compelling for us to begin to remember, in each Singaporean household, those who came before us.

'Remembering Singapore' - an active remembrance of our collective heritage - should be an effort embedded not just in our history curriculum but also in the arts and media - as well as the family home. Recent efforts by the National Museum to incorporate new means of photographic exhibition and digital media are good first steps towards generating more awareness. To this end, we need to actively embrace various formats of storytelling so as to engage our children and convey to them the times and lives of those who came before them.

Immigrant societies like the United States celebrate the achievements of their forefathers and mothers, no matter how humble. The American Dream glorifies in particular the little person who made good: the miner's son who went to college; the CEO whose father was a car-assembly worker; and so on.

Maudlin though this theme can be when milked by Hollywood, the American Dream remains powerful because of its omnipresence. It has affected almost every American household - regardless of race or religion - at some time in its history. Most American families know their immigrant roots, family heroes and legends of triumph against adversity.

It is not only Americans who are keenly interested in their family heritage. The younger generation in China is devouring memoirs by those who went through the Cultural Revolution, seeking to understand a dark part of China's collective heritage. Everywhere, the search for roots remains a strong impulse, as we increasingly find ourselves unmoored and drifting in a spiritually becalmed, global ocean.

My youngest son is still schooling in Singapore. He doesn't know it yet, but I'm getting ready (if his school picks up my suggestion) for a long, leisurely interview by him on the story of my life. And in turn, his day will come in due course.

And thus, our tribe continues: In the same way, Father, that your story has touched my children, I hope mine will inform future generations. And thus too, will the Singapore Dream be continually burnished - and nourished.

The writer is chairman of the board of trustees of the Singapore Management University. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures from Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.