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Who writes the script? In the end, a purely academic question

July 21, 2010

On 4 June of this year, disaster almost befell the National Library Board, and if it is to be believed, possibly Singapore.

A former political detainee was going to appear in flesh and blood to address a public audience at an event of which the Library was a ‘venue sponsor’, meaning that the institution would let its premises be used without charge. The Library insisted that it was not aware that Vincent Cheng was on the panel of speakers and once it found out, certainly could not allow him to do so, for the target audience were junior college and upper secondary school students. Mr Cheng, detained as the ‘mastermind’ in the ‘Marxist conspiracy’ arrests and political detentions in 1987 was dubbed ‘the man at the centre of the controversy’, in the Straits Times report of 2 June, a position that he would hardly have courted or welcomed. Presumably, the NLB considered that it had a duty of care to ensure that the students were not exposed to ideas they were not ready for.

This made the Board sound so much like a fretful, fussing minder, the sort that turns students off. The event was organized by the undergraduate NUS History Society, whose members themselves in fact outgrew their school and national service uniforms not so long ago. College and school teachers too, it can be assumed, would turn up at the talk with their charges, for it was the stuff of assignments and debates in class, given the current orthodoxy of ‘less teaching, more learning’, ‘more questions, less answers’ and so on. Mr Cheng would have spoken for about 20 minutes, and flanked by at least two if not three heavyweight academics, the sort NLB approved as being right and proper to speak on ‘Singapore history: Who writes the script?’

Vincent Cheng would also not have been the only non-professional academic historian to address the audience. There was Mrs Jean Marshall, invited as special speaker. In response to a question from the floor, she urged for studies on the women pioneers in Singapore history. Perhaps Mr Cheng too should have been billed as a special speaker for somehow students then would know that these narratives were a different order from academic wisdom, if he tried to pass his views off as such pearls.

If Mr Cheng had spoken, would the students have simply lapped it all up? Well.they do not seem to necessarily lap up what their textbooks on Singapore history tell them (or is that in fact the problem?) And if not the students themselves, those over-18s in the audience would surely have taken issue with Mr Cheng had he made outrageous, untenable claims. A lesson for the youngsters on how open and productive debates are conducted would have resulted.

In the end, the students lost an opportunity to hear a former political detainee speak, which perhaps the academically high achieving JC students among them would have found handy when they appeared before the Public Services Commission for their scholarship interviews. The ‘NLB experience’ would have been a perfect subject to show off their critical thinking skills, ‘thinking out of the box‘, ‘passion’, or whatever the current buzzwords are.

As it turned out, the NLB placed itself between a rock and a hard place. Its main stand was that it had not been told earlier that Mr Cheng was to be a speaker, though this implies that had it known, it would have rejected him from the outset. Thus the only point it really had to be aggrieved about was that its stand was made public, thanks to netizens who wrote open letters of protest. The NLB came up with only one point in its defence: the event was meant for academics to address students, ostentatiously listing the impressive titles and university affiliations of the speakers it considered bona fide.

The Board’s ‘explanation’ (reproduced below) revealed nothing more than what a tight spot it saw itself as being in. I think there is the expectation that this piece would be an excoriating critique of the NLB’s view of history, but really it is plain enough how lacking in substance its letter to its critics is, even to junior college and upper secondary school students of today who are familiar enough with the notion of history being the story written by victors. To treat the letter as a serious exposition of the Library’s understanding of Singapore history is to hold it in far too low esteem.

Pioneers once more: the Singapore Public Service 1959-2009, a commissioned history was launched on 22 May 2010. Had the NLB consulted the book when it was trying to find a proper response, it might have arrived at a more ‘noughties’, more ‘edgy’ resolution. Refusing to grant Vincent Cheng the podium is just so last century, the book would have told them. Ministry and government-linked services personnel are now asked to re-examine long-held assumptions, take calculated risks, think of creative ways to work for the public good, and not assume that they themselves have all the answers. The highest levels of civil servants now regale us with how they broke the rules, took decisions for which there were no precedents, and simply acted according to what they believed was in the best public interest.

Perhaps to show that it can be ‘with it’ after all, NLB could invite Ms Teo Soh Lung, 1987 detainee and author of the just published Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a political prisoner (2010), to speak at its Experience Singapore Literature series, of which a recent speaker was member of parliament Irene Ng, author of a commissioned biography, S Rajaratnam: The Singapore Lion. [On this subject see the inaugural minimyna piece]

‘Singapore history: Who writes the script?’

It really did not need an entire afternoon, and the efforts of four professional historians to elucidate the question. What the high powered, cutting edge academics had to say earnestly about the breakthroughs in their painstaking scholarship that day can only be ironic, if not gratuitous, given the situation.

For the ‘venue sponsor’ had already drowned everyone else out with the answer, even before the speakers it professed to hold in high esteem had uttered a single word.

Not very courteous at all, I’d say.


For the benefit of General Paper and History students beating around for a smart topic to write on a couple of years down the road and who might want to revisit this event, here are the links from theonlinecitizen giving the correspondence between Fong Hoe Fang, ‘Arthur’ , Ravi Philomen and Vincent Cheng with the National Library Board:


For those who prefer to be able to have the letter follow on from my commentary for easy reference:

Dear Mr Fong (Hoe Fang)/Ravi (Philomen)/Arthur (Tan)/Mr Vincent Cheng

Thank you for your email to all the members of the NLB Board. We would like to take this opportunity to explain the context and background to the seminar that you had raised concerns. [Version to Vincent Cheng: We would like to take this opportunity to personally explain the context and background of this seminar to you.]

The National Library is the venue sponsor for the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Singapore History seminar organised by the NUS History Society. NLB had supported this seminar due to its focus on the personalities, events and agenda that shaped the history of Singapore. This was in line with NLB’s focus for its heritage programmes and exhibitions which explored the role of key movers in Singapore’s growth from a fishing village into a modern nation.

NUS History Society (NUSHS) had indicated that Junior College and Upper Secondary students were the target audience and that academics would form the line-up of speakers. The initial line-up provided by the NUSHS for NLB’s support were academics from the local tertiary institutions researching on these areas. The academic exploration that the seminar would pursue was also in line with NLB’s programming objectives to seek insights into Singapore’s history through research and study.  The late inclusion of Mr Vincent Cheng, by the society was not consistent with the direction of the initial proposed line-up, of academics, by NUSHS.

As part of our partnership and sponsorship conditions with all our programme partners, the content and details of the programme such as the panel of speakers need to be in line with the intent of the event and jointly agreed upon. For this particular seminar, the programme details did not follow the intent of the seminar based on our initial discussions with NUSHS.  The final line-up of speakers provided by NUSHS include Assoc Prof Yong Mun Cheong, Head of the History Department of NUS, Assoc Prof (Adjunct) Loh Kah Seng of NTU, Assoc Prof Huang Jianli with the History Department of NUS and Assoc Prof (Adjunct) Kwa Chong Guan with the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at NTU and the History Department of NUS. Based on this line-up, the National Library is still working with the NUSHS to hold this public seminar this Friday. Mr Vincent Cheng, like any member of the public, is welcome to attend.

Director, Communications,
(1 June 2010)


‘Why NLB did not want ex-detainee as forum speaker’
The Straits Times
2 June 2010

The National Library Board (NLB) yesterday explained why it stopped a former political detainee from being a speaker at an upcoming forum organised by some undergraduates.

The man at the centre of the controversy is Mr Vincent Cheng, who was accused in 1987 of masterminding a Marxist conspiracy and detained by the Government for three years.

The NLB said it asked the National University of Singapore History Society to remove Mr Cheng’s name from its line-up of speakers as it went against the original intent of the event.

It added that the society included the name at the last minute and did not consult the board, which was sponsoring the event by letting the students use facilities at the National Library Building along Victoria Street for free.

Mr Cheng, 63, was scheduled to speak at the seminar this Friday. Last Thursday, however, the NLB asked that his name be removed, History Society president Bernard Chen told The Straits Times.

The move led to a flurry of complaints on blogs and online forums, with some accusing the NLB of political censorship.

Yesterday, the board issued a statement setting out its position.

It said: ‘As part of our partnership and sponsorship conditions with all our programme partners, the content and details of the programme, such as the panel of speakers, need to be in line with the intent of the event and jointly agreed upon.’

The NLB also said the History Society initially indicated it would be inviting academics from local tertiary institutions.

Mr Cheng’s inclusion was ‘not consistent with the direction of the initial proposed line-up by the History Society’, the board explained.

However, Mr Cheng is welcome to attend the seminar as a member of the public and share his views as a member of the audience, said the board.

It also said it agreed to support the seminar, entitled ‘Who writes the script’, because the focus was ‘on the personalities, events and agenda that shaped the history of Singapore’.

When contacted, Mr Chen admitted that he did not consult the NLB before inviting Mr Cheng, but he added that he did not consult the board on any of the other names either.

He said he ‘threw up a few names’ during a meeting with the NLB a few months ago, but there had been no further discussion on the matter until last week.

‘The line-up of speakers was finalised only on Monday last week. In that sense, everyone on the list is a late inclusion,’ he said.


From → detention, history

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