How to inflict selective amnesia
February 1, 2009
Nation-building is a devious project. It is a project that invents heroes and creates villains. The Singapore Story, for example, is a story about a heroic PAP that galvanized the Singapore nation after expulsion from Malaysia. It is a grand story about an honest and capable group of men who pulled Singapore from Third World to First. It is a mythical story meant to be passed down from generation to generation.
Meanwhile, protagonists like Chia Thye Poh, Tan Wah Piao, Tang Liang Hong and JB Jeyaratnam are given roles as one-dimensional pantomime villains in this grand national story. They are the vaudeville baddies against the PAP superheroes.
The nation-building project is also about selective amnesia. It is a project that requires as much the writing as it does the erasing of history. All nations have their dark episodes they rather forget.
Singapore, however, has just taken the erasing of history to new heights.
Last week it was reported that in seeking to allow so-called “party political films”, the government was going to permit the filming of “actual events, persons and situations” [Straits Times, 23 Jan 09, "Changes proposed to Films Act"]. However, the clincher was the line: “But the events being filmed must first be held in accordance with the law.”
This means that any filming of acts of civil disobedience, gatherings without police permits, or unregistered speakers at Speaker’s Corner will not only land the activists in hot soup but the film-maker as well. Prior to this, the law was hazy, at best, on whether the film-maker was committing an offence but now there is no room for ambiguity.
But what does this mean? It means that the government is not only interested in silencing public expressions but also in stopping the documentation of this silencing. This is how selective amnesia is exercised. Look at it this way: if a public protest is illegal but not the filming of it, it doesn’t matter if the police snuffs it out because it will have eternal life on Youtube and other means of personal distribution. This protest will be seen by thousands and even perhaps generations.
But if both the protest and the filming of it are illegal, anyone who uploads the clip or distributes it can now be charged. By denying the right to document, you erase national memory. By silencing citizen journalism, you close the eyes and ears of a people. This is an example of shooting the messenger at its finest. You then fill up this vacuum with whatever stories you want.
This is how nation-building is done. And no one does it better than Singapore.