The IPS-Nathan Lecture Series by Professor Tan Tai Yong
In 2019, Singapore will be marking the bicentennial of a significant turning point in its history – the arrival of the East India Company and the establishment of a British trading settlement on the island in 1819. Marking a bicentennial might suggest that 1819 was a point of origin, where it all began. But, did our history begin in 1819? What was Singapore before the Indiana landed on its shores, and how far back does our history go? The Bicentennial is perhaps an opportune occasion to think more deeply about our history and to reflect on whether that history has meaning for our present and future.
In this lecture series, Professor Tan seeks to explain how Singapore has evolved over a period of 700 years. Throughout its long history, Singapore has taken many forms – trading port, colony, port city and city-state – and its evolution was often influenced by external forces and factors. He will identify some of the underlying continuities to show that history is not merely a thing of the past; but by understanding how our island has been shaped by its history, we will have a better appreciation of our current and continued challenges as a city-state.
Lecture I: "The Long and Short of Singapore History: Cycles, Pivots and Continuities"
How should we view Singapore’s history? It has often been seen in three distinct phases: a post-1965 story of a state and nation in the making, a long colonial epoch that began with the East India Company’s arrival on these shores in 1819, and a pre-colonial past shrouded in myths and legends.
Should we preoccupy ourselves with a national history starting from 1965, with everything else before it a long prelude to the arrival of the nation-state? Or, as the country prepares to mark a bicentennial, does it perpetuate the idea that our history began in 1819, when Singapore was set on the path to modernity and economic success as part of the British empire? More recently, there has also been talk of a 700-year history of Singapore. If we have been led to believe that our history started in 1819, how do we come to terms with this pre-history?
This lecture will analyse the state of history in each of these phases, and will attempt to cast a longer and broader frame that reveals a connected history marked by cyclical changes, occasional ruptures, significant pivots and underlying continuities. It will show that Singapore has taken many forms, and highlight certain consistent dynamics that have shaped its evolution.