Article

History: A Public Service User’s Guide

A nuanced approach to history is needed to help policymakers navigate increasingly contested public narratives. It can also deepen their capacity for analysis, reflection, and imagination.

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Date Posted

4 Mar 2021

Issue

ETHOS Digital Special Edition, 3 Mar 2021

In recent years, public discourse in Singapore has taken a decidedly historical turn. Government-led initiatives, most notably SG50 in 2015 and the Singapore Bicentennial in 2019, have attracted significant public interest while igniting controversy over issues once taken for granted, such as the status of Stamford Raffles as the founder of modern Singapore. Ground-up heritage initiatives, frequently led by young people, have also proliferated.1  Against this backdrop, history can pose challenging policy questions, even as it has the potential to inform present-day policy debates.

To better address historical controversies (“history as public policy”) and leverage history for decision-making (“history for public policy”), we need to embark on a whole-of-society journey towards historical literacy. Historical literacy does not simply mean a knowledge of trivia about the past, useful as this might be for pub quizzes. Instead, historical literacy is the capacity for “thinking in time”,2  and for seeing the multifaceted ways in which the past has shaped the present. This article discusses the place of history in policymaking and suggests some ways in which public agencies can bolster historical literacy.


Historical literacy is the capacity for “thinking in time”, and for seeing the multifaceted ways in which the past has shaped the present.

History as Public Policy

History is not the sole province of the state, but public agencies are nevertheless responsible for decisions that relate to heritage, commemoration, and our nation’s collective memory. These decisions range from the naming of buildings and MRT stations, to the preservation and conservation of historic sites, to the marking of anniversaries such as SPF200 or NS50.3  Given that the past consists of an infinite number of individuals and events, each of these decisions presents a dilemma of what, officially, to remember or to forget.

Governments have traditionally mobilised history to foster a shared sense of inheritance and destiny.4  Today, however, orthodox historical narratives are increasingly being contested. Globally, nationalist movements on the political right have wielded idealised visions of the past to reject the modern-day realities of globalisation. In the West, the Far-Right has, for instance, appropriated the imagery of medieval Europe to espouse nostalgia for a racial purity at odds with what scholars agree to be the demographic reality of the European Middle Ages.5  Conversely, on the global political left, ideas from post-colonialism and post-modernism have sparked fresh debates around historical names, monuments, and symbols. In the United States, for example, the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 led to protests over police brutality, which in turn ignited widespread demands for the removal of Confederate statues. This directly mirrors the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall movement, where students in Britain and South Africa have called for the removal of statues of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes.


Today, orthodox historical narratives are increasingly being contested.

While Singapore’s context is unique, we are unlikely to be spared such tremors. Neither is historical controversy unfamiliar to us. For instance, how Stamford Raffles should be remembered was a matter vigorously debated soon after independence.6  As S. Rajaratnam recalled, there were “well-meaning patriots in Singapore who were all for casting the Raffles statue…into what was then the revoltingly filthy and smelly Singapore River”.7  The eventual decision to retain the Raffles statue at Victoria Memorial Hall was motivated in no small part by the need to signal Singapore’s continued openness to Western investment. In fact, the retention of the statue was one of the first recommendations by Dutch economist Albert Winsemius when he was appointed technical adviser to the Singapore government.8

In 2019, following the re-evaluation of Raffles’ legacy during the Singapore Bicentennial, a handful of commentators have again called for the removal of his statue. If global trends provide any indication, it is not unimaginable that such calls will grow louder. A kneejerk reaction to such calls may be to cry out against the erasure of history. On further reflection, however, it is important to see such decisions about what to commemorate as themselves the product of a historical moment.

How, then, should public agencies navigate such historical controversies?

First, public agencies should begin from the premise that all history is subject to debate and revision. We must remain open to new evidence which challenges prevailing historical interpretations. For example, recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that pre-colonial Singapore was not a sleepy fishing village, but a thriving regional port city. Moreover, the fragmentary nature of historical evidence leads to diverse interpretations, depending on the questions we ask of the past. Not all interpretations may be equally valid, but neither does history lend itself to absolute truths. While there is value to tradition, continuity, and closure, every generation of Singaporeans must also have the opportunity to review prevailing narratives and decide if they remain fit-for-purpose.


Public agencies should begin from the premise that all history is subject to debate and revision. We must remain open to new evidence which challenges prevailing historical interpretations.

Second, public agencies should take into account community input and scholarly expertise when navigating historical controversies. The 2017 public backlash over the naming of the “Syonan Gallery” at the Former Ford Factory (which was later renamed “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies”) demonstrates that history can evoke repressed emotions and collective trauma.10  Deliberative platforms such as listening sessions and citizen workgroups can present an opportunity for constructive engagement with the past. Experts from universities and research centres can further inform these discussions by providing a base of context for all participants. Rather than seek consensus, we must accept healthy disagreement as a feature and not a bug of increased engagement with our shared history: to the extent that such conversations present an opportunity for healing and reflection, the process matters as much as the outcome.


While there is value to tradition, continuity, and closure, every generation of Singaporeans must also have the opportunity to review prevailing narratives and decide if they remain fit-for-purpose.

Finally, public agencies must formulate “first principles” to guide decisions on historical controversies. As custodian of the nation’s corporate memory, public agencies need clear decision-making criteria when confronted with historical dilemmas. Otherwise, their choices might come across as ad hoc and arbitrary. The experience of similarly-situated institutions illustrates the importance of well-articulated principles. In 2015, activists in the US demanded that Yale University change the name of Calhoun College, an undergraduate residence named after a leading pro-slavery advocate. Concerned that this might create a “slippery slope” and lead to the removal of other names and symbols, the university resisted these demands. However, widespread opposition forced the university to re-evaluate its position, and the university eventually established a set of quasi-legal tests to evaluate requests for the renaming of buildings. The use of carefully calibrated criteria enables the relevant authorities to justify the trade-offs which invariable arise when making decisions about the representation of the past in the public sphere.


We must accept healthy disagreement as a feature and not a bug of increased engagement with our shared history: the process matters as much as the outcome.

History for Public Policy

History may pose policy dilemmas, but it can also enrich present-day debates about public policy. Just as the economic tool of cost-benefit analysis can be applied to issues as varied as infrastructural projects and healthcare financing, history can provide a powerful analytic lens for understanding a wide range of policy questions.11  While it is impossible to divine grand lessons from history or extrapolate the future from the past,12  historical study can add several analytic approaches to the policymaker’s toolkit:

First, historical literacy sharpens our ability to conceptualise present-day challenges by offering us a deep pool of precedents to draw upon. Psychological research suggests that we naturally look to past experiences when confronted with an unfamiliar situation. Historical literacy helps us guard against hasty parallels and enables us to reach beyond our lived experience for the most appropriate analogies between the past and the present.13  At the onset of the current pandemic, for instance, COVID-19 evoked memories of SARS. While SARS taught us valuable lessons, it has since become apparent that COVID-19 differs in important ways. Unlike SARS, COVID-19 is here to stay in the medium- to long-term. In this sense, the fight against COVID-19 is more similar to post-war Singapore’s experience with tuberculosis, a parallel which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong drew in his ministerial broadcast in June.14  By exposing us to a fuller range of potential reference points (which, in this case, might include the cholera, Spanish flu, or HIV/AIDS epidemics), a broad knowledge of the past provides imaginative yet reflexive models for making sense of present-day challenges.

Second, historical literacy provides essential context about the operating environment. As then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong put it at the Administrative Service dinner in 1991, policymakers must contend with how history “has influenced the attitudes and perceptions of the various communities in the population”.15  History helps us appreciate that society is not a blank slate on which decisions are enacted, and allows us to perceive historical forces which mediate the relationship between the state and its citizens. This function explains why history courses have featured in the training of civil servants in key moments of transition. When Singapore’s newly-elected leaders set up the Political Study Centre in 1959 to sensitise civil servants to the realities of self-governance, the centre offered courses on the history of Western and Asian political thought, with an emphasis on the trajectories of nationalist movements.16  Twenty-five years later, fears that younger civil servants had no memory of Singapore’s early turmoil led the Civil Service Institute to introduce a course on the post-war history of Singapore’s labour movement.17


History helps us appreciate that society is not a blank slate on which decisions are enacted, and allows us to perceive historical forces which mediate the relationship between the state and its citizen.

Third, historical analysis enables policymakers to establish continuities between current events and longer-term processes. The exigencies of the day frequently consume the business of government, and rightly so. But viewed in their long-term historical context, phenomena frequently described as “unprecedented” or “disruptive” (in the sense of disruptive innovation) often have logical antecedents, which can illuminate the underlying causality at play. Conversely, by understanding the historical specificity of a particular practice or policy, we can come to see proverbial sacred cows as responses to specific circumstances of the day, rather than as pieties to be held valid for all time. In this way, history checks against status quo bias and disarms the seven most dangerous words in government: ‘It has always been done this way’.

Consider the policy of streaming in schools, which is set to be phased out by 2024. For those of us who grew up with streaming, it might appear to reflect a natural hierarchy of students grouped by academic ability. But seen through a historical lens, streaming represents a response to the specific problem of high drop-out rates in the 1970s, as set out in the Goh Keng Swee Report. Even the imagery used in the typewritten 1978 report points to its historical particularity. “If as a result of a world calamity, children in England were taught Russian and Mandarin”, the authors write, in a lyrical reference to prevailing Cold War anxieties, “the British education system would run into some of the problems which have been plaguing the schools in Singapore”.18


History checks against status quo bias and disarms the seven most dangerous words in government: “It has always been done this way”.

Thinking historically about streaming therefore invites us to exercise empathy—to suspend present-day judgements and appreciate that streaming might have been a logical response to past challenges. But it also requires us to think critically—to see educational tracks as naturalised rather than natural, and as constructed rather than self-evident. On its own, history cannot indicate what direction policy should take. But uncovering a policy genealogy can peculiarise the present, highlight alternatives, and prompt us to ask: “What if?”

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Deepening Historical Literacy

How, then, can the public sector institutionalise historical expertise? The launch of the commentary site Academia.sg in early 2020 suggests that scholars in the humanities and social sciences are in fact eager to partake in conversations about policy and public life. However, considerable gulfs persist between academic and policy communities. The pressures of academia do not necessarily incentivise public engagement.19  Moreover, as the historiography of Singapore extends in chronology to cover a 700-year period, and broadens beyond political history to include non-traditional subfields such as environmental history and gender history, academic history can feel removed from the day-to-day business of governance.

To facilitate the cross-fertilisation of history and policy, the public sector could appoint a Chief Historian at the centre of government as well as departmental historians in individual agencies.20  Like the Chief Statistician or Chief Economist, the Chief Historian would distil research findings into actionable insights, and connect policymakers with external subject-matter experts. Similar to Chief Data Officers, departmental historians would serve as advocates for historical literacy in their respective domains. When public historical controversies arise, the Chief Historian’s office could help agencies develop balanced and informed narratives. Similar roles can be found in Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as well as in some U.S. federal agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Central Intelligence Agency.

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By consolidating responsibilities for commemoration, heritage, record management, and policy advice, the appointment of a Chief Historian would build on existing initiatives such as Ministry of Communication and Information’s Policy History Project, which provides documentary evidence of Singapore’s policy paths. Over time, the hope would be to sensitise public officers to the value of historical methods, much as international comparisons, horizon-scanning, and scenario-planning have become integral tools of the policy toolkit. In recent years, evidence-based policymaking has received considerable attention from the public sector.21  Like other disciplines, history presents a base of evidence which can inform decision-making, albeit evidence that requires a greater level of interpretation and translation than quantitative methods.


On its own, history cannot indicate what direction policy should take. But uncovering a policy genealogy can peculiarise the present, highlight alternatives, and prompt us to ask: “What if?”

It bears reminding that history is not just the purview of historians and history majors. It is a shared resource which all of us can draw upon, as public officers and as citizens. In an age where “Big Data” promises ever-increasing levels of abstraction, historical reasoning expands our analytic arsenal by highlighting the agency of individuals and the contingency of events. And as history increasingly becomes an object of contestation, historical literacy will enable public agencies to work through historical controversies objectively. We would all do well to remember, as the American writer William Faulkner famously put it, that the past is not dead; it is not even past.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chua Jun Yan is completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at the National Institute of Education. He recently co-edited The Birthday Book 20/20: Seeing Clearly, a volume of essays on challenges and opportunities facing Singapore.

This article was written in the author’s personal capacity; the opinions in the article are the author’s own and the article does not reflect the views of the Ministry of Education or the Singapore Government.

 


NOTES

  1. Hannah Bock, “Youth Initiate Heritage Projects”, The Straits Times, June 9, 2020, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/youth-initiate-heritage-projects.
  2. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Freedom Press, 1986).
  3. SPF200 commemorated the 200th anniversary of policing in Singapore in 2020, while NS50 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the introduction of National Service in 1967.
  4. Loh Kah Seng, “Writing the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore”, Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12, no. 2 (1998): 1–22.
  5. Andrew Elliott, “A Vile Love Affair: Right Wing Nationalism and the Middle Ages,” The Public Medievalist, February 14, 2017, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.publicmedievalist.com/vile-love-affair/.
  6. Tan Tai Yong, “The Long and Short of Singapore History: Cycles, Pivots and Continuities”, (IPS-Nathan Lecture Series, September 5, 2018), accessed November 23, 2020, https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/ips-nathan-lectures_lecture-i_the-long-and-short-of-singapore-history_050918.pdf.
  7. Speech by S. Rajaratnam at a seminar on “Adaptive Reuse: Integrating Traditional Areas into the Modern Urban Fabric” (Shangri-La Hotel, April 28, 1984), accessed November 23 2020, https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/sr19840428b.pdf.
  8. Jon S. T. Quah, Public Administration Singapore-Style (Bingley: Emerald Group, 2010), 201.
  9. See, for example, Jeevan Vasagar, “Singapore Should Tear Down Its Statue of Raffles”, Nikkei Asian Review, June 17, 2020, accessed November 23 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Singapore-should-tear-down-its-statue-of-Raffles; Ilyas Sholihyn, “Amid Global Backlash against Colonialists, Netizens Ask What about Raffles?”, AsiaOne, June 11, 2020, accessed November 23 2020, https://www.asiaone.com/digital/amid-global-backlash-against-colonialists-netizens-ask-what-about-raffles.
  10. Melody Zaccheus, “Syonan Gallery renamed: ‘Never any intention to cause pain’”, The Straits Times, February 18, 2017, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/naming-of-gallery-never-any-intention-to-cause-pain.
  11. Catherine Haddon, Joe Devanny, Charles Forsdick and Andrew Thompson, What Is the Value of History in Policy Making? (London: Institute for Government, 2015), 6–9.
  12. Neville Morley, “Why Historians Would Make Bad Policy Advisers,” Aeon, November 2, 2016, accessed November 23, 2020, https://aeon.co/ideas/why-historians-would-make-bad-policy-advisers.
  13. Alix R. Green, History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 77.
  14. Prime Minister’s Office, “National Broadcast by PM Lee Hsien Loong”, June 7, 2020, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/National-Broadcast-PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-COVID-19.
  15. Speech by Goh Chok Tong at the Third Administrative Service Dinner (Marina Mandarin Ballroom, July 5, 1991), accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/gct19910705.pdf.
  16. “A Civil Service Study Centre,” The Straits Times, July 29, 1959.
  17. “Political Leaders Need a Sense of History,” Business Times, May 8, 1984.
  18. Report on the Ministry of Education 1978 Prepared by Dr Goh Keng Swee and the Education Study Team, February 10, 1979, 956-1792-02-10, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/956--1979-02-10.pdf.
  19. Cherian George, “Singapore’s Powerhouses Neglect Local Intellectual Life”, Times Higher Education, January 11, 2018, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/singapores-powerhouses-neglect-local-intellectual-life.
  20. For similar recommendations in the British and American contexts, see Anthony Seldon, “Why Every Government Departments Needs a Resident Historian”, Prospect Magazine, May 1, 2020, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/government-department-chief-historian-whitehall-number-10-coronavirus-covid-brexit; Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson, “Why the U.S. President Needs a Council of Historical Advisers”, The Atlantic, September 15, 2016, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/dont-know-much-about-history/492746.
  21. Civil Service College, “Evidence-based Policymaking in Singapore: A Policymaker’s Toolkit”, accessed November 23, 2020, https://www.csc.gov.sg/docs/default-source/resources/evidence-based-policymaking.pdf.

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