They were a bunch of loud and boisterous teenagers at the back of the bus — about five boys and a girl, all probably 17 years old. They began by talking about what subjects they were thinking of majoring in for their junior college years. Depending on the combination they chose, certain university courses would be closed off to them in the future, so a large part of decision they were about to make had to be intrinsically linked to that they wanted career-wise.
At seventeen, it is not an easy decision.
Anyway, at some point, one boy argued about the importance of having Humanities among the chosen majors. It would open a lot of avenues, he argued. There would be plenty of options at university. Among them, he said, was political science.
Yeah, that’s a good option to have, many of the others said. They agreed that it was something they might be interested to pursue.
“Politics can be damn interesting,” the first boy reiterated. “You know, I read somewhere, that there was an Operation North Star some time back.”
“And what was that?” the others asked.
“See, at that time,” the first boy continued, “Singapore had an opposition party called the Barisan, but they were socialist.”
A second boy chipped in: “The full name was Barisan National.”
First boy: “But they were socialist.”
Second boy: “Yes, they were, Socialist.”
“They challenged this Lee Kuan Yew guy, you see, ” the first boy continued with his story. “So you know what this Lee Kuan Yew guy did or not? He went and secretly told the British that Barisan National was a bunch of communists. And next thing you know, the British came in with guns and arrested them all.”
“When was this?” asked the lone girl in the group.
“1976,” the first boy said.
* * * * *
Overhearing it all, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It was quite obvious he was referring to Operation Cold Store (not North Star!), but that took place in February 1963, not 1976. By 1976, British forces had left Singapore already. Moreover, the opposition party was not Barisan National but Barisan Socialis.
And this imagery of British soldiers coming in with guns (blazing?) was straight out of some video game.
It may be a little depressing, but it did not surprise me. I have known for a while that the typical Singaporean youngster knows virtually nothing about our history. That even one boy in the group had heard of “Operation North Star” was already better than average.
On the other hand, I was amused. They referred to the prime minister of the day as “this Lee Kuan Yew guy”, as if he were just a character in a movie (or video game), as shallow as cardboard (or should I say as shallow as pixels on a screen, in keeping with the times?). Here is a generation that not only does not hold him in awe, but treats him as a character in a story from the past, and not a particularly positive one either.
We all know that a time will come when history will be revisited and our assessment of the man will be revised. Mortality does that. But the process may already have started. While those of us who are older wait for the man to die first before we revise history, our youth has not even imbibed such dated courtesies. They have reduced him to two-dimensional avatar-like thingey mucking around a distant historical story. He’s not even a hero, but more akin to Paris of Troy whose unethical impetuousness led to an unfolding tragedy. The accuracy of facts is not important. What’s the difference between 1963 and 1976 when we’re already in 2011? What’s the difference between Barisan National and Barisan Socialis when nobody even knows what “Barisan” means? For posterity, it’s the excitement of the narrative that matters more than anal regard for precision.
And so I am deflated. It may well be that by the time we finish with the funeral and sit down to revisit history, the whole exercise may well be irrelevant. A new story for a new generation may already have seized their imagination, more sexy, more exciting than any careful history will ever be: Operation North Star and the destruction of Barisan National. Good movie title, that.