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11 - Engaging with Archival Research: Effective Windows onto the Past? 15 - The "Year Of No Significance" The Rhetorics of Historical Omission in Chinese Historiographic Tradition 18 - A Defence of Ranke 21 - Other Singapore Stories: Directions and Possibilities in Singapore’s Environmental Past 24 - Man-made Lagoons and Lacunae: Inventing the "Transsexual" Woman in 1970s Singapor

Historians have debated this term “Southeast Asia”. What debates have you faced yourself and how have you approached Southeast Asia? I think I’m a believer. Historians who have been at the forefront include people like Anthony Reid and George Cœdès in 1944 when he wrote about the Hinduized states of Southeast Asia, trying to think about what was connecting everything together. One of the things he identi ied was the position of women, which was one of the connections in the region. Historians have always tried to see generalities. In addition, they understand the depth of time and can see more clearly how change occurred and how it has come about. In history, there is a greater consciousness that what you see now is not what necessarily was, even a short time ago. People can be wonderful informants, but their memories may not be a re lection time of the truth. Memories are fallible, unlike archival documents. Recently, the ield of ASEAN studies is really trying to be comparative, but it’s not easy to be. I think it’s interesting, but you’re always picking lowers in other people’s gardens; it’s not easy to learn about all the different languages and cultures. It’s very hard to be a Southeast Asian specialist because of language issues. It’s a bit of a misnomer in some ways. One of the strengths of the ield is comparative studies. You can never get a job just looking at one country, you have to teach comparatively. Cornell has trained to teach me to learn comparatively. Did you have any dif iculty accessing old archival materials? The Dutch archives are very well organized. We irst started working in a very old and cold building. We had to wear gloves with the ingers cut off. The Dutch records come in these very heavy books. You request a book and people brought it down from somewhere. Reading a Dutch script from the 17th century was very dif icult. The vocabulary was different, there was no punctuation, and the writing looked spidery. Once you learned the different scribing techniques, the shortcuts, it’s not that hard. But for the irst part, I would copy and go home at night and try to decipher what it was saying. In the past, there aren’t any archivers present to decipher such materials. It was an interesting time because the Dutch had just left Indonesia and not many people were working on them. Now the archives span buildings; it’s a very different place. How can we de ine and approach gender history, especially in SEA? I think gender has been hijacked by women’s studies. Joan Scott talked about how you cannot look at women without looking at men, you have to look at both. I like to think gender is like a spectrum, rather than a binary. That’s the way people are. Otherwise gender history develops into men’s studies, queer studies, and women’s studies. That seems silly to me, but not everybody feels that way. Many women think that if you enlarge the ield too much, men might take over. But I’m not involved in such debates. The Flaming Womb was a study of women. But it’s something very personal and I wanted to do something meaningful to me. I prefer using chronological approaches to understand gender history in Southeast to Asia. I think there is a big danger if (Western) theory drives research. It cannot be just themes. I tend to start at a departure point and keep moving through time. I’ve started on a book about gender and sexuality in Southeast Asia from the beginning of time until now. It’s fascinating because I’m entering contemporary times in a relatively compressed book.


Joan Scott—a gender historian—has been so in luential in pioneering certain concepts. She also delves a little into theory. There are other gender theorists, often from an Anglo-Western tradition, such as Judith Butler. Do you think their ideas are applicable to Southeast Asia? No, not very helpful at all. You can take bits and pieces, ideas but it’s a bit. I just read an article about Peter Jackson. He does studies in Thailand. He was bemoaning the disconnect between area studies and theory. He doesn’t like theory. The import of Western-based theory doesn’t work very well, so he was arguing the need to develop an more Asia-based theory, but that’s a challenge too. What applies in Japan and Mongolia may not apply in Brunei. Theory has to evolve out of the material and not the other way. The best theory is based on case studies. I must say I don’t import theories very much. I don’t ind them terribly inter esting. On that note about colonialism, how do you think we can re-analyse gender concepts in history? I think for example let’s take the Indonesian revolution. So the main ighters against the Dutch were mainly Indonesian men doing the ighting. What did women do? There were couriers, backups, some wanted to be ighters. Mary Steedly did a great study on the Bataks. The women thought that was the most exciting period of their lives even though they weren’t doing much and men kept them in their place. But what I also found was that in the time of chaos, women were often victimized and raped. It was not at the hands of the Dutch soldiers but their own compatriots, due to conditions of warfare, someone drank too much. Warfare is an experience different for men and women. The nature of warfare is power, Warfare which complicates things. Women were negotiators, getting people together whereas men were ighters. The nature of leadership is contested when it is subjected to gender, there is every possibility of change. Consider the recent example of the New Zealand Prime Minister announcing her pregnancy and what that means about leadership and power. Attitudes change. But the problem is when women make mistake, it is blanketed for all women, that they are emotional or only care about material things. This really leshes out what Scott has discussed, that gender has analytical utility in addressing power. Yes. Yes. At the time of writing in the 1980s, there was a lot of discussion about government. It is clear to see how our different experiences are shaped by the body you are in. I think we can also carry the lessons learned from gender history into our world. Historical empathy is important. We can show that we can be gender historians and not commit to an ideology, to have lexibility, to see the world from different points of view. You’re not militant. History should be about seeing the world from different points of view, from another place, century, and/or culture. What are some advice you have for historians, not just for gender historians? Keep being curious. Just keep on inding out and do new things. Challenge yourself. One of the strengths of the discipline is footnotes. Someone can look at it once and another can look at it again. Any intelligent person should be able to pick up a history book and enjoy it.


Of Influences, the Musician’s Craft, and Weird Choices

“When you do music or art there is a creative licence to do things. This not to say that we disregard things that happen in history, but most people regard history as a Rankean ideal where we discuss things that (have) already happen(ed).” “But “But I think when we think about certain topics or themes or whatever there’s more than one way to approach it. With regards to memory and history, we can also consider their myth-making aspects… the kind of metaphorical ideas behind what motivates our memory and how we remember things and how we consider things. “I think one of the best way to do this is through art or “I performance.”

The band’s style of making music wasn’t always this eclectic and eccentric. Its members admit in luences from a wide variety of sources, including their time in NUS. “So, we started out playing this kind of… pop music, rock music wannabe thing that basically everybody does.” said Mark. “We’ve gone on a slow long evolution eventually ending up doing the things we wanna do now.” “In terms of musical style obviously we have our “In histories,” says Mark, who sang in choir with Zhizhong. “There’s a lot of that if you hear it. Jamie played in a church band for a very long time, (and John) also played in a pop-rock band… you can hear that as well.” “I think we’re all interested in different things.” adds “I Zhizhong. “And because the bulk of them are history majors, there’s a lot of interest in history.” “History gives you a unique kind of worldview, a way of looking at events or topics a bit more critically,” continues Mark. “When “When you consider all the different angles, you come to a more objective and comprehensive take on things. I guess that affects the material that turns out.”

Granted, The MadHatter Project aren’t academics, although the spirit and craft of history-making lows through their work. How then are artistic renditions of the past different from academic history? “I “I think the best academics write in a way where people would enjoy reading their works,” says Mark. “Very often, people try not to make it enjoyable and divorce writing from making things readable and funny as it may be seen as not serious.” “We think of ourselves as a group of musicians who are a bit more chill and we try to put that funny side of us. And we hope people ind it funny, where our ideas can resonate with them on another level.” John and Zhizhong agree that their work is merely history in a different form. “We just try to bring across history through different mediums like poetry or songs,” says John. Zhizhong adds: “There may be less rigour in academic research, but I think we have more research in terms of practice and engaging with the public.” “An essay is performative in its own way; a good paper is one where ideas low from one paragraph to another, and a reader would be attracted to the paper.” “Of course,… we don't have the same resources (that academics have). At the end of the day, we don't want to be academics. We just want to tell history in our own way through music and poetry.”


T h e

M a d H a t t e r

P r o j e c t


Other Singapore Stories DIRECTIONS AND POSSIBILITIES IN SINGAPORE S ENVIRONMENTAL PAST "Nothing can be understood apart from its context, and man is no exception...the first step to understanding man is to consider him as a biological entity which has existed on this globe, affecting, and in turn affected by, his fellow organisms, for many thousands of years" - Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 14921 From a wilderness of continuous greenery to a city of gleaming

it would suffice to understand

environment has undergone dramatic changes since a British official cunningly acquired it by treaty in 1819. However, amidst historical narratives of progress and prosperity, the story of its environmental transformation has remained largely untold. Despite the numerous ways in which nature has shaped the development of this

natural environment over time. Understandably and inevitably, there are issues with such an ostensibly straightforward definition. The premise, as Alfred Crosby (an eminent environmental historian) states, lies in trying to understand man not just in his social, cultural, or economic universe, but his physical and ecological one as well.





environmental histories.2 By now, any student of history would know that definitions are always suspect, contingent upon the contexts and concerns of the definers. The origins and definitions distinct subfield in the discipline of History are likewise as complex. For the purposes of this brief survey, however, (and at risk of being vilified by environmental historians)

volume, Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore follows a similar approach.3 As the title suggests, the book is largely a study of how man has studied, controlled, and environment since the 1800s.4 As Nature Contained fields an eclectic spread of topics by contributors from different disciplines.

It features ethnographic surveys of local farms, studies of state efforts to discipline its citizens through gardening campaigns, and even historical essays on man-eating tigers. Its studies of imperial institutions like the Botanical Gardens and the Raffles Museum, as well as personalities like Alfred connection to international (often imperial) networks of science, knowledge, and power. : Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, offers another glimpse into colonial interactions with nature.5 Here, Barnard roles and responsibilities changed with shifting state impulses and directorial visions. From forest conservation to economic botany, and then later to orchids, we are shown how the Gardens functioned as the epicentre for numerous botanical revolutions which shaped

1 Alfred

W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Pub. Co, 1972). 2 d fauna which first attracted Western imperial attention (and ambitions) in the nineteenth century. 3 Timothy P. Barnard, Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014). 4 Contained, p.1. 5 Timothy P. Barnard, Nature's Colony: Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, (Singapore: NUS Press, 2016).


thus sheds light on another set of relationships by which Singapore was intimately connected to imperial networks of science and power in the colonial period. Both

Nature Contained and Colony articulate the Singaporean past from previously unconsidered angles. We are provided with distinct examples of how science was bent to the service of empire through the work of centralised institutions like the Botanical Gardens. These are important foundations, but of further interest would be how nature was also experienced and encountered by ordinary Singaporeans. In the following sections, I review several other environmental histories, and reflect upon how their subject matters and approaches can be applied to Singaporean contexts to enrich this burgeoning field.

Environmental Histories Elsewhere

from his seminal book The Columbian Exchange, about the biological implications of the European colonization of the Americas, offers persuasive and refreshing insights into established historical events.6 that European, devastated the American landscape, paving the way for the European - reads almost like terraforming sciencefiction, but the sheer array of evidence he musters for his case from different sources is hard to disprove. . It also adds a tantalizing ecological dimension to our understandings of imperialism and colonialism. One wonders if we could gain new insights by understanding British colonialism in Southeast Asia through the lenses reforestation of Singapore with foreign plants first by British administrators, and then later by the national government reforestation of Singapore with foreign plants first by

administrators, and then later by the national government - are possible starting points to consider other ways in which Singapore is also a island is open not only to trade flows or intellectual streams but also biota from all over the world. Paper Landscapes, brings the focus to Indonesia, collecting studies on 7

The imaginative, original work in Paper Landscapes offers us exciting perspectives to consider. Historical investigations of biotic elements, like cultivated crops and animals, have yet to find parallels in Singaporean historiography. Scholarly histories of rubber, pepper, and gutta percha in Singapore have not been written, despite the fact that entire plantations of these plants economies and geographies of the island, and the lives of many migrants. Moreover, departmental reports from the colonial fisheries department in Singapore also paint a detailed picture of fishing in Singapore. Colonial observers, describing their methods, remarked that the skills of Malay fishermen who netted these fish were 8

The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, ed. Donald Worster, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 103-117. 7 Peter Boomgaard, David Henley, Freek Colombijn, and Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (Netherlands), Paper Landscapes: Explorations in the Environmental History of Indonesia. Vol. 178. (Leiden: KITLV Press, 1997). 6



However, like plantation crops, no Singaporean history of colonial fisheries, nor of local fishermen, has yet to emerge.

Whether encountered in the jungles, eaten at the table, or traded as exotica, animals offer us another ingress into understanding everyday reality encountered and experienced by the people who lived on this island. But how would we study them historically? Har The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age offers us a notable example.9 By examining how Victorian English imagined, and interacted with different animals, Ritvo examines how animals were understood, displayed, and bred, to uncover latent tensions and relationships in English society.

Ritvo masterfully maps these human-animal encounters to broader English concerns like class, progress, science, and empire. Her seemingly outlandish approach of utilizing animals to study humans ially to broader themes in Victorian historiography. useful given that her study centres on a historical moment coinciding Singapore, under colonial rule. Moreover, the book studies the very society from which

in colonial Singapore, where Britons represented only a miniscule sliver of the Such a potential study must be carefully qualified, however, because Victorian England is not colonial Singapore. work is situated in a society which, by the nineteenth century, was more linguistically and culturally homogeneous than Singaporean society of the period, which remained racially segregated until the mid-twentieth century. To conduct a similar study in Singapore would require the historian to be linguistically conversant and culturally sensitive to the various ways in which different ethnicities related to animals in this period.

were drawn from. One can thus

Other Singapore Stories

animals at the imperial centre to its animal laws and policies in colonial Singapore. How did the colonial state imagine, talk about, and treat the animals in its colonial realm? What were the animals which came to the attention of the colonial gaze, and how far did these policies reflect and parallel the understanding of its colonial subjects? Did the class dimensions in Victorian society, which Ritvo so consistently surfaced, also emerge

It is a commonly held belief amongst Singaporeans that the island has little 10 As a Singaporean who grew up on this island: stewing in its humidity, or taking for granted the disciplined greenery of its suburbs, I was

Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1987). 10 I derive this conclusion as a Singaporean who has lived the past twenty-five years on this island, having had to continually justify my choice of studying history at increasingly higher levels of education to different family members, friends, and acquaintances.

Whether they study plants, animals, or institutions, environmental historians writing in various contexts have shown the importance of the natural world in the human past. They give us new ways to look at old narratives, and increase our awareness of the world around us. If the stories we tell of the past can indeed change the way we act in the world, then I too, hope to recover perspectives which can further nuance a Story that has for too long been told too often, too similarly.

in Estate is presented in three parts: dealing with show animals bred for competitions (livestock and pets), animal-related institutions and diseases (the RSPCA and rabies), and the capture, killing and display of exotic animals. 9 Harriet

Choo Ruizhi | choo.ruizhi@gmail.com Ruizhi is a first year Masters Student at the National University of Singapore. He likes to listen to stories, especially the secret ones, told by people and places. If the past is another country; and history but myriad interpretations of the past, then studying history is just another way to sate his wanderlust. He also has a talent for getting cats to miaow back at him.

environment had been historicized. In reviewing some of the environmental histories here, I seek to find, in some small way, a direction with which to add, modify, or reshape the stories which have long been told about the Singaporean past.


Book Review Retrospective: A Historiographical Aesthetic in Contemporary Singapore and Malaysia 1

As the starting point of the book, this question resonated strongly with me as a student of history. I had borrowed the book on a whim, interested in the bridge it seemed to promise between the fields of history and art. Just how far can ideas in aesthetics and historiography be brought together, to inform and expand either fields? What happens when the boundaries between art and history are blurred? Indeed, what is a


curatorial experience. Yap analyses artworks produced by artists in/of Singapore and Malaysia between 1991 and 2012, noting that the works were more than representations of the past, as they confronted the very notion of history and the production of history.

(non)exhibition of different works. Given the time she has spent curating artworks and the relationships she has with various artists, it is unsurprising that she meticulously describes each work, including the circumstances under which they were made or presented. Beyond that, however, she had chosen works in a variety of forms such as visual art,

art that questioned how and which histories are being produced, and by whom performance and theatre to she suggests a framework for illustrate her thesis. organising and understanding Instead of tackling the artworks the artworks in relation to each chronologically, Yap divides her Retrospective is based on her other. She adopts a multianalysis into four sections, PhD thesis in the field of Cultural disciplinary approach; her book deconstructing the notion of Studies in Asia; and is clearly a pulls together the strands from aesthetic engagement with culmination of her background history, art history, philosophy in art history, sociology and and aesthetic discourse to that builds upon the previous philosophy, as well as years of describe the creation and one, though the artworks are not curatorial experience. Yap (non)exhibition of different always confined to one layer. analyses produced by works. 1 June Yap,artworks Retrospective: A Historical Aesthetic in Contemporary Singapore and Malaysia, (Selangor: SIRD, 2016), p. 3. artists in/of Singapore and Malaysia between 1991 and 2012, noting that the works

one, though the artworks are not always confined to one layer. which describes some of the historical context for the artworks on Malaya (the area that corresponds to Malaysia and Singapore today) during the last days of British colonialism. She also highlights the course of Malayan nationalism in the 1940s to 1960s with its diverging and heavily contested political paths, the Nanyang style of art during its golden period (1938-1965), as well as artists groups like the Equator Art Society (formed 1956) and The Artists Village (formed 1988). This brief narrative of art history in Malaya sets the stage for the rest of the book and is especially useful for the uninitiated reader. narrows in on material evidence and acts of memorialisation in relation to the historical event. For example, she draws upon the controversial performance work, Brother Cane (1994) by Josef Ng

the controversial performance work, Brother Cane (1994) by Josef Ng, and its subsequent reenactment by Loo Zihan in Cane (2012) to discuss how acts of witnessing can produce affect, and in turn be used to interpret the past in a different light.2 The works in this section functioned as political commentaries, highlighting how but is doing something else .3 Yap follows up with a section on the

historiographical artwork thus avoids the problem of necessarily becoming simply revisionist or counter.4 Referring to historiographical

tropes, the -critical, throwing doubt on whether connections can even be made between historical data, as pointed out in the preceding section. Yap also d analysis of poetic influence, as a

analysis of poetic influence, as a artworks in terms of how they engage or react to their precursors. After




with aesthetics by bringing in the philosophical dimensions to the discussion. Citing Hegel, Burckhardt, Nietzsche and White, Yap explores the promise and purpose of history, ultimately presenting the possibility of transcending historical limits through art. As an example, Yap Re:Looking (2002-03), an artwork that presents the fictional colonisation of Austria by Malaysia in the form of a documentary, a website, and a fictional living room.5 trajectory, a review of the work serious and convincing that, as an unprepared viewer, you still believe at first watching the report on the early expeditions of Malaysian sailors that your own knowledge of 6

artworks in terms of how they engage or react to their precursors. Wong Hoy Cheong, ReLooking (2002-03), mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and National Gallery Singapore.

Ho Tzu Nyen, One or several tigers (2017), mixed media, dimensions variable.


moral Yap, Retrospective, p. 144. 3 Ibid.,

p. 161. Ibid., p. 198. 5 Ibid., pp. 284-287. 4 6


Nafas Art Magazine, Dec 2004. Retrieved from


The power of the historiographical artwork is precisely in the putting its audiences in the uncomfortable state between knowing and not knowing. In historiography, the question we often ask is: why and how do people write (or if you prefer, record/present/construct) history? This is a book that addresses both questions, through the lens of aesthetics in this region. These artists create affect as they confront contentious issues, and unlike history-writing in the conventional sense, historiographical art has potential to use ahistorical elements and narratives to engage its audience. of





efficacy, Yap

dominance, argues


that re-

are methods that artists use to reveal Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that the historiographical artwork does not always spell out its intentions, and unlike historiographical writing, leaves the interpretation to its viewers - an issue that Yap could have e 7


have examined in her book. On a whole, Retrospective may have difficulty finding readers outside the circles of curators, artists and art historians. For those unfamiliar with cultural studies, aesthetic theories, and philosophies of history, the structure and language is occasionally inaccessible. As pointed out in another review of the book, the addition of an index for the artworks would be helpful,8 in addition to the photographs that are currently included. Because of its novel approach, the book is a valuable contribution to the historiographical historiography of the region, but it artwork is precisely in the putting leans heavily political its audiences in thetoward uncomfortable history and the history state between knowing and not of oppression. novel approach, the book is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the region, but it leans heavily toward political history and the history of oppression. While Yap identifies the key themes of Nation and Land at the start of her book, the examples she draws on seem to be from a more limited pool those that tend to deal with political oppression. Given the


Ibid., pp. 274-275.


https://artsequator.com/book-review-retrospective-june-yap/ 9

described do address the writing or portrayal of history in different languages, but this could be expanded much further through research. 10 It is noted by T. K. Sabapathy in The Road to Nowhere: The quick rise and the long fall of art history in Singapore (Singapore: National Institute of Education, ingapore. 11 Yap, Retrospective, p. 275.

Nathene Chua Qi Qi | nthnqiqi@gmail.com Nathene Chua Qi Qi is a Year 4 History undergraduate. If she had matriculated later, she might have done an art history minor.


analysis, the research could be well expanded to include works that deal with other issues in history, such as every-day or subaltern histories, and the use of different languages.9 In addition, one wonders about the audience reception of the works some of which have been exhibited outside of Singapore and Malaysia. Who is the art for, anyway? And who has access to this art? What kind of links do these works have beyond the geographical region of Singapore and Malaysia? With the recent exhibition of One or several tigers (2017) by Ho Tzu Nyen at the National Gallery Singapore, it seems that the trend of historiographical artworks will not abate. At the same time, our history department has brought back a programme for art history, albeit offered only as a minor.10 book contributes to the linking of these two rather separate disciplines (at least in NUS) and provides a new way of looking at how people have explored and told history. If the 11 then for the history student who wants to through art should not be too quickly brushed aside.

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Mnemozine: Issue Thirteen  

Mnemozine: Issue Thirteen  

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