Dr Loh Kah Seng’s works have helped paved the way for a fresher perspective of Singapore’s post-colonial past, especially on the lives and identities of little-known personalities and characters – ranging from former leprosy patients to student activists to fire victims. In this interview, KRC finds out what fuels his passion for “work-class” history, his excitement on writing about fire, and his opinion on the state of history education in Singapore.
Born and bred in Singapore, he majored in history in NUS, taught in a junior college, and subsequently embarked on post-graduate studies in NUS and Murdoch University. He is currently based in South Korea’s Sogang University. He has written, co-written or co-edited six books: Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore; Oral History in Southeast Asia: Memories and Fragments; Controversial History Education in Asian Contexts; The University Socialist Club and the Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity; The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History and Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaysia.
KRC is grateful for his kind acceptance of our email interview. The author has also reported the launch of Dr Loh’s new book Squatters into Citizens here.
You were a teacher at National Junior College; why did you decide to leave teaching to join academia?
I learnt a lot from teaching and worked harder than I ever did up to that point! But doing postgraduate studies was always on my mind; although to be honest, I had little idea then what an academic career entailed. Honestly, all I wanted was to simply expand on the work I had done for my Honours thesis on the political use of history in Singapore. (Note: his thesis led to an article “Within the Singapore Story: The Use and Narrative of History in Singapore”, which is one of KRC’s recommended reading list)
You refer to yourself as a “work class historian”. What do you mean by that exactly?
Some people think I meant ‘working class historian’, and yes I care a lot about labour history and subaltern groups. This is a theme that runs through my work on leprosy, fires, student activism, and memory. I delight in uncovering the mental and social worlds of working class people, and their rationality, optimism, agency, and modernity. This is really common sense for anyone who has any familiarity with the working class, but is all too often bypassed for elite stories, great buildings and grand narratives.
But the phrase is also a play on ‘world class historian’. It questions the Singapore state’s fixation with international rankings, economic growth and the latest global fads. At the end of the day, it just says I have to work additionally hard to do what little I have done in research and writing.
How do you tread the line between academic integrity or objectivity, and empathizing with people who experienced traumatic historical events, especially your oral history interviewees? Have you felt challenged, and how did you respond?
Academic objectivity is not only a dated idea rooted in the positivism of 19th century Western science. We also indirectly sustain unequal power relationships when we avoid partisan positions in the name of objectivity; as Howard Zinn said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train’.
Objectivity is in fact quite peripheral to academic endeavour. To be angry, to be inspired, to want to make a difference is only the beginning of the enterprise. What is key to being a committed academic, I think, is to be rigorous in research, to carefully read and listen to different sources (including oral histories), to question powerful myths (not just state-sanctioned ones), and to be honest about one’s position. These criteria differentiate the academic from the politician, the activist, and the investigative journalist. They produce work that is nuanced, sophisticated and thoughtful. Most of Singapore’s histories are neither black nor white.
What is your opinion on the present state of history education in Singapore schools? At a time when there is falling enrolment of history at O-levels and the rise of a “distracted generation”, how do you think history education can be made more relevant? Do you foresee insights from your books will enter the history curriculum?
As with many things here, the history curriculum is economically driven – it seeks to groom entrepreneurs and thinkers for Singapore’s development. The curriculum planners adapt the latest educational and pedagogical expertise from the West (critical and creative thinking, multiple intelligences, group work, inquiry-based learning etc) to the nation-building imperative. All these sound good on paper, but it won’t work because Singaporean students are too smart for that and have become cynical towards the latest fashions. I suspect many Singapore teachers feel the same way. Teachers and students will go through the motions and give each other (and the state) the responses they want, but everything will be discarded once the exams end.
Teachers and students are also tired of the old national myths. How can you continue to teach and learn about our historic journey from a fishing village to a First World city-state, when our lives are affected by rising costs of living, competition for jobs and housing, overcrowding, unceasing change, and continual erasure of familiar places?
There are many good curriculum planners and teachers in the education service. I co-wrote the current Secondary 3 textbook on the history of modern Southeast Asia. The focus on historical sources in the curriculum is a sound one. But the biggest challenge is to bring excitement and controversy back to the teaching and learning of Singapore’s history. And academics must lead the way. This is the theme of a forthcoming book I am co-editing with colleagues from the National Institute of Education, Controversial History Education in Asian Contexts.
I understand Squatters into Citizens came from your PhD dissertation. What was your happiest or most exciting incident when you wrote Squatters into Citizens? What was also your greatest challenge?
Writing about a fire was exciting!
Going back to Bukit Ho Swee, where I grew up, to do my research was amazing and very humbling. It was a place I had associated with tiny one-room rental flats. Going back there to speak to the elderly working class people, and to research on a fire I never knew about, I felt I grew up a bit.
The greatest challenge, which I wrote about in the preface of Squatters into Citizens and also in the book, The Makers and Keepers of Singapore History, was getting past the archival and memory gates. Many public institutions denied me access to their archival documents, so some important questions on the Bukit Ho Swee fire are still unanswered, such as the cause of the fire. It was also difficult to broach this particular topic with my interviewees, although some of them did talk about it in the third person. For older people, to talk about the rumours of arson brought about an inner struggle between their roles as squatters (past) and as citizens (present). Hopefully the book will remove some anxiety about the ‘OB’ markers.
What hopes do you have for your book? What is your next project? Will you “move on” to something else?
I hope students will read the book and think about it a little; old people will read it and remember the changes they experienced; and young researchers will delve into our many unwritten social histories.
My current project is on the role of international experts in the making of modern Singapore and Southeast Asia. Some of us know about Albert Winsemius, the economist who advised the government in the 1960s, but what about George Pepler, F. J. Lyle, Charles Abrams, and Foster Pelton? These technical experts advised the colonial and postcolonial governments on the ways and means of organizing and developing Singapore in a period of decolonization, nation-building and the Cold War. Their expertise had a great impact on the lives of the people (and still do today). The research attempts to go beyond nationalist narratives in order to uncover the transnational influences on our social histories.
KRC thanks Dr Loh again for the interview, and we wish him all the best for his academic pursuits! We look forward to his future books on social history.