HY3250 Approaches to Singapore History – Debunking and decolonising narratives

In this interview, Dr John Solomon shares his experience teaching HY3250 Approaches to Singapore History, a module offered to undergraduates in AY2021/2022 Semester 1.

Tell us a bit more about the module! Could you share some memorable experiences you had while teaching it?

The module will be focusing on Singapore historiography. We’re going to look at how we arrived at the current state of Singapore historiography – the history of Singapore’s history. In class, we’ll also address the methodologies, the blind spots, and the implications of some interpretations of Singapore’s history. Beyond that, this module is also about historiography as it relates to the discipline of history in a broader sense. We will explore some of the major subdisciplines that have emerged in history over the last several decades including social history and environmental history. 

We’re also looking beyond the academic component of Historical scholarship. History isn’t just about academic practice, but also relevant to the public, museum and heritage professionals. So we’ll look at applied history, and I’ll try to get a few people to come down and speak to the class, such as museum curators or practitioners who deal with History. 

Were there any interesting or memorable discussions or topics that came up during your classes?

I think one of the most interesting topics I’d come across in a student’s research essay was one on environmental history, particularly the marine environment and the dramatic changes that happened to the coastlines as well as Singapore’s territories underwater. He tied that to the larger history of Singapore’s developmental policies and the role of large corporations in altering the physical environment. I thought that was an interesting and original topic that was interdisciplinary as well, it utilised research on physical geography and other scientific sources. I learnt a lot from reading that essay. 

We noticed that you also teach GES modules, such as the one on popular culture in Singapore. How does HY3250 build on students’ existing knowledge of Singapore’s history?

You don’t have to have prior knowledge of Singapore’s history to do this module. Every semester, we typically have a number of international students who haven’t learnt about Singapore before, and many have done well in the mod. For students who have some understanding of Singapore’s past, though, a lot of the module will be about deconstructing what they already know, the narratives that they learnt in school, how these narratives came about, their socio-political contexts, and the kind of evidence and sources that have been used. In the module, we’ll be thinking about how to question these narratives, or in some cases what it means to decolonise our methodologies and frameworks. 

How might students relate your module to their personal understanding of current affairs and/or the way the world is headed?

Hopefully, by the end of the mod, students will come away with an understanding of how dynamic History is, and how historical knowledge changes over time. History plays a part not just in academia but in public life, in terms of heritage, identity, national priorities. We’ll get to understand how these narratives have changed quite dramatically in our lifetimes. Students will also get to see how narratives might be advanced further in the History discipline and think of ways in which we can take the “Singapore Story” forward. 

What can students look forward to in your class? (e.g. field trips, guest lectures)

There will definitely be guest speakers, but I’m in the midst of deciding who specifically to invite. I’m hoping to get museum professionals, and maybe someone who’s involved in History but works outside of public institutions. I’m also interested to invite historians who have pushed the field or have written pioneering works that shaped the field in a particular aspect.

Could you share one interesting approach or cool trivia about Singapore’s history?

The first general history of Singapore as a nation was written in 1977. Singapore’s first official Singapore history textbook for schools was only released in 1984. This goes to show you how the crafting of Singapore’s national history is a relatively recent process, and in many ways is still a work in progress. 

Lastly, do you have any advice for students who might be interested in your module?

Sign up for it! Students can expect a lot of self-directed research in this module, as with a lot of modules I try to do. You’ll be introduced to a lot of topics and you’ll have the space to choose which one you want to focus on. Throughout the semester, you’ll be developing your own research projects.

This interview is a part of the Humans of History series, which spotlights the stories of the people that make up the NUS History community.

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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