Seeking the invisible Malays: The politics of national myth making in Singapore

Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia

Michael D. Barr, Flinders University

Singapore’s state-directed historiography, seen naked in school History textbooks and curricula, is a shifting compromise between competing visions of Singapore, most of which were given full voice in the politics of ethnic identity that lay behind its Separation from Malaysia in 1965. The issue of ethnic communalism was a central feature of Singapore’s birth as an independent republic and it left the government in a quandary: how to talk about the country’s history when the main feature of its foundation was mired in contention between its dominant Chinese population and its large Malay minority? In answering this dilemma, the government adopted a range of strategies, including, at one point, discouraging the study of History per se. Yet whenever it did turn its attention to History, it has until very recently always selectively built it on scholarship that held Malay contributions to Singapore’s success at a discount, instead offering an overly neat story whereby British colonialism provided an environment in which Chinese enterprise could flourish. This precipitated a national act of forgetting that was achieved by two exercises of exclusion. First, centuries of Malay and other Asian agency were excluded from the dominant narrative by the simple expedient of declaring everything that happened before British settlement irrelevant. Second, the pivotal contributions of the 19th century ancestors of the Johor royal family in the foundation and the economic development of colonial Singapore were completely ignored, seemingly without even a conscious decision. These responses were determined most immediately by short-term political needs and sustained in the longer term by an insistence that national history must follow current national boundaries, but these are insufficient explanations. The consistent thread running through these responses is an implicit prejudice against Malays. This paper explores the shifting phases and drivers of Singapore’s official classroom and national historiography through to the latest developments, which involve the slow collapse over the last two decades of one of the two mainstays of Malay exclusion – the refusal to consider Singapore’s pre-colonial past as part of Singapore’s history. The rehabilitation of Malays in Singapore’s classroom History is still woefully incomplete, but it is a hopeful sign that the latest shifts are being driven by scholars rather than by politicians.


Michael Barr was awarded his PhD in History by the University of Queensland in 1998 for his thesis on the development of Lee Kuan Yew’s political thought. He received a national award from the Asian Studies Association of Australia for his dissertation and then won a Queensland University of Technology Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which he used to continue his research on Singapore politics while writing a book on the ‘Asian values’ debate. He subsequently accepted an ARC postdoctoral research fellowship, which he took at Queensland University. The second fellowship was dedicated to continuing his research on Singapore. In 2007 he joined Flinders University as a lecturer in International Relations and became the director of several degree programmes and majors. He has been an Associate Professor since 2014.

From 2012-2017 he was Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review, flagship journal of the Asian Studies Association of Australia and now he is Associate Editor of that journal. Articles accepted and managed under his editorship appeared from 2013-2018.

He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2018.

Michael has written 5 books and co-edited 2 volumes of collected essays, along with dozens of journal articles and individual book chapters – mainly on Singapore politics and history. He is a regular commentator on Singaporean and Asian affairs, and his commentary and op-eds have appear in many media outlets including the BBC, ABC (TV, radio and online), Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesAustralian Financial Review, CNN (online), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Straits Times (Singapore), Lianhe Zaobao (Singapore), Washington Post and The New York Times.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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