Dr John Solomon – Looking at Identity and Transnational Communities

What drove you to specialize in history?

I took history modules because I was interested in the specific subjects that I was studying, and not because I saw myself majoring in History. Initially, I wanted to major in Philosophy, but I just ended up taking more history modules because I was interested in the specific topics covered in those modules. However, as time went by in university, I ended up taking more history modules and became history major.

I’m interested in history as well because I like how it tells a long human story. Other disciplines may be focused on looking at our world and our society from one angle, but history takes a multi-faceted approach to it.

I enjoy the fact that I get to understand myself, my society, and my world from a multifaceted kind of point of view in how different things interact – culture, the environment, politics. Since individual human lives are short, it’s nice to see connections across a long span of time and also how transient everything can be.

Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?

Right now, I’m looking at the idea of citizenship during the colonization of Malaya. I’m looking at how people understood the concept of nationality at a time when borders were only coming up. People had to think about passports and mobility whereas previously, they might have been able to travel across the empire relatively freely. During decolonization, they had to make choices about where they were going to be. It is interesting to study how legal decisions were communicated to ordinary people, how they tried to understand and make sense of them, and how that affected their identities later on.

What were some difficulties you’ve faced in your research?

I’ve had one book about the history of an untouchable community who moved from South India to Malaysia and Singapore. The difficulty I had while researching that was trying to find interviewees. For various reasons, successive generations have undergone a process of erasure where they have consciously lost their class identity, and they haven’t told their children about it. Some people are reluctant to talk about it out of fear of continuing stigma. That was one difficulty I faced – trying to find a history of a historically submerged community that has disappeared and blended into a broader community by choice.

Were there any findings that surprised you?

In one aspect of my research projects, I was looking at the Japanese occupation and the varied experiences it was for many individuals through their oral histories. You have people who don’t really remember it through the trope of suffering. They remember it as a time of great unity, and as a time when women had a lot of rights. If you’re an Indian woman, for example, and you’re being sent off to military training, you were suddenly allowed into public life in ways that would have been unimaginable before.

How have your research interests changed over time?

It’s slowly shifted over time. When I was an undergraduate, I was very interested in genocides. I was interested in understanding how ordinary people can commit acts of brutality under different circumstances. When I did my own research in my Honours year, I became interested in how knowledge is constructed. I looked at missionary and representations in the 19th century and how that shaped ideas of race. Slowly, my research shifted from India to Singapore and Malaya through migration routes. Then I started researching more about Malaysia, Malaya and Singapore instead. The questions have changed as well – I’m more interested in broader themes of identity and how transnational communities have a sense of themselves.

There’s this practical aspect where people are afraid to take History because of the career uncertainty in the future. What’s your opinion about that?

I don’t think that’s an issue in Singapore. There are plenty of employment opportunities for history graduates in Singapore depending on what you want to be. I mean, if you want to be a chemical engineer, then don’t do History. However, if you enjoy History and the general sorts of occupations that history graduates find themselves in, go into it. You’re never really sure what you are going to do after university anyway.

Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?

Don’t do something that you can’t stand. Do something that interests you and that you feel gives you personal growth. It’s rational and normal to have concerns about the future, so be prudent about that as well. However, don’t do something just because of a future goal to the point where you’re no longer enjoying university because that would be a waste.


What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

One of my favourite authors is George Orwell. I also like Salman Rushdie. I really enjoyed reading his Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses.

What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?

I want to see Antarctica.

What genres of music do you like the most?

I like psychedelic rock, post-rock and various kinds of metal.

What’s your least favourite beverage?

Most sugary carbonated drinks, but amongst all of these, Dr Pepper.

Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?

I want to gain as much varied experience in my life as possible.

Thank you so much for the interview.

*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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