Since the earliest civilizations, humans have always been interested in our past: who we are, where we come from and how people lived before us. The maintenance of traditions even until today all show some kind of remembrance of a culture’s past and helps to commemorate milestones in the community, which are important enough to be remembered by all future generations. These acts of historical recollection are crucial as history is closely tied to one’s personal identity and one’s sense of belonging. Therefore, a sense of one’s history is highly important, not just for the individual but for any nation such as Singapore. As Machiavelli once said, “whoever wishes to foresee the future must first consult the past.” The future of a nation be it in the economic or socio-cultural sense, thus hinges on its understanding of its past.
Specifically for a diverse and young state such as Singapore, having a sense of history is so crucial as it helps the country to establish its unique national identity. For Singapore, history and citizenship are closely interconnected. Therefore, not understanding one’s national history weakens one’s sense of belonging in the country. A nation like Singapore is a community shared by people of many diverse backgrounds. After all, Singapore’s days as a port meant that migrants from places like China, India and Myanmar all came and settled here. Thus, rather than focusing on the division based on where people came from, the shared identity of “Singaporeans” was emphasized. This was only possible because of the common history the migrants and their offspring shared when they came to Singapore to find opportunities, and their experiences during the Japanese Occupation. Hence, it is evident that for progress into the future to occur for a nation as a whole, a shared sense of history is needed so that people can look beyond their differences for a meaningful shared trait.
Some critics assert that national identity need not always hinge on rhetoric based on the past. The present realities of speedy economic growth, technological improvements and radical lifestyle changes define Singapore as we know it now, as well as the Singapore in the years to come. Understanding that as a society will no doubt help Singapore as a whole to progress even as the world changes. That said, the need to define the Singaporean identity in an age of globalization and fragmentation has become all the more important. The Singapore government today has recognized this and has therefore always placed great emphasis on multiculturalism as an important defining trait of Singapore. For such a claim to be made about Singapore society,the past has to be recounted, be it wartime accounts or articles on Singapore and Malaysia’s merger. As such, Singapore’s cultural identity as a nation with people of diverse ethnicities living in harmony needs to rely much on the shared knowledge of past events.
In the chase for modernity and instantaneity, many Singaporeans believe that holding on to the past is sentimental to the point of being impractical. They would rather Singapore be defined by where we are going, not where we came from. Sadly, such a perspective is self-defeating. Without retrospect, there can be no progress, nor purpose. After all, the past offers us valuable lessons and ideas that can help us progress and prevent us from repeating the mistakes we made in the past. One famous example would be how Singapore learnt its lesson from the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 that was sparked by tension due to the traditions of one race not being respected by the law. Thus, with such knowledge of the past, Singapore has managed to prevent race-related strife from brewing through adequate public education and respect for all races in legislation. This shows that with an understanding of the past comes a better understanding of how Singapore should manage the present and future generations in order to create an environment that allows holistic progress.
Yet another reason that a sense of history is so crucial to Singapore’s future is because a sense of history is not something static or unable to adapt with the times. Rather, it serves as a guide to prevent us from straying too far from the desired status quo for peace, harmony and progress. For example, after the horrifying terror events of September 11 and the Bali bombings of 2004, the peace in multi-religious Singapore became extremely fragile. This was when ministers such as then-senior minister Lee Kuan Yew reminded the country of how precious peace between ethnic groups was, and how Singapore needs to be resilient and not stray off from the mutual respect each and every ethnicity had for each other. Therefore, it was through an understanding and reverence for the past that Singapore has managed to solve the most pressing issues of its modern self.
Hence, for Singapore, or any country for that matter, to sustainably progress and succeed in the future, a shared sense of history is crucial, if not necessary. It stops us from repeating past mistakes, teaches us to handle current issues and bonds the country through the shared identity forged in the past. This not only helps the country to achieve pragmatic goals such as economic wealth and social wellbeing but also forges a country and community with soul and genuine patriotism.