Monday, November 8, 2010

Modern Singapore.

One of our seniors told us that the things we learn will become much clearer towards the end of the course. Of course, being impatient, I want to understand everything now, but I already start to see what she means. The professor for critical social theory, let's call him R, told us that what we're not learning in ISS, but unlearning. We start to unlearn everything we have taken to be the truth by being critical.

It felt like we are reaching an epiphany, but we're not quite there yet. This feeling started started when we were revising for Social Theory - there were about 5 of us from 4 different countries and we snuck into this classroom in the corner of the building to write notes and mindmaps on the whiteboard. What we realised as we were discussing, was that we had histories in common. We all grew up thinking that the version of history we were fed in school as definitive history, when in fact objective history (As it Happened) can never be known. The history that we learn is a product of the bias of historians. History can also be used to create nations.

There is a notion of a 'homogenous, empty time' which Benjamin Walter talks about. (He's a funny guy by the way, he got funded by the Frankfurt School of critical theory but he's still very into religion and myths, so his writings contain many allusions to the Antichrist and angels, all while he's talking about being wary of modernity.) This concept refers to the idea that history is filled up with memories of the present, in order to explain or justify the present.

So let's take the 'founding' of Singapore, for example. Of course Singapore as the physical island and its inhabitants (not just Orang Laut, but probably other people doing other economic activities as well) existed before 1819. But our history books have taken the arrival of the British, specifically that handsome English gentleman, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (I've nothing against him, since he is handsome and I went to his schools, haha.) as the moment where modern Singapore is 'found'. Modernity and presence in the global system is only possible by the presence of the coloniser, the British.

And what did modernity entail? Cutting down our forests and replacing them with rubber plantations, bringing in labour from other countries to work at low wages and terrible conditions, signing a pact with the British in order to become a 'Sultan', and letting our island be the site of political and economic competition with the Dutch.

Sultan Hussein Shah, you were deceived by worldly fame and wealth.

The effects of colonialism can still be felt. At the risk of distilling this too much, I'll just say that the marginalised position of the Malays today is in part due to the favoritist policies of the British during their occupation of Singapore. Granted, this is nowhere near the horrific experience of Africa being depopulated and used as slaves during its colonisation (and my African classmates did get quite emotional during the last tutorial on colonialism).

There is a dark side to modernity and its trappings, and the article I just read by Michael Mann, 'The Dark Side of Democracy', provides loads of really nice examples. We had been talking about a lot of abstract concepts in Social Theory, like how power invested in the state, along with science and technology, are used as 'instruments of domination' to justify racism, social segregation and genocide, even; and I didn't really understand it until I read Mann's article.

I'm not saying that modernity is a bad thing. Clean houses and streets, and good quality education and healthcare comes with modernity and are things everybody wants. But it is important to keep in mind that this modernity did not come naturally, but through the process of colonialism. So the underside of modernity, is coloniality.

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