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History, memory, and identity in modern Singapore: Testimonies from the urban margins

Loh, K.S. (2009) History, memory, and identity in modern Singapore: Testimonies from the urban margins. Oral History Review, 36 (1). pp. 1-24.

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In 2006-2007, I interviewed elderly Singaporeans on their experiences of resettlement from an urban kampong (village) to emergency public housing after a great fire in 1961. I learned much about the lives of semiautonomous dwellers in an unauthorized settlement and the individual and social transformation following their rehousing. My informants also highlighted what the experiences meant to them and their identity in a modern city-state. This paper treats the testimonies as both source and social memory and seeks to avoid the essentialism into which many social historians, oral history practitioners, and memory scholars have fallen in their approach toward the craft. As a source of social history, when used in conjunction with other historical sources, the reminiscences are patently useful for understanding the role of public housing in transforming a marginal population into an integrated citizenry. This enables the writing of a new social history of postwar Singapore that departs from the discursive official accounts of urban kampong life and of the 1961 inferno. At the same time, the oral history also underlines powerful social and political influences on individual memory, being marked by nostalgia for the kampong and ambivalence toward the imagined character of younger Singaporeans. Statements on the rumors of government-inspired arson in the 1961 calamity, however, constitute a significant countermyth in contemporary society, revealing a more critical side to the social memory.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Asia Research Centre
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: © The Author 2009
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