ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 6 DECEMBER 2006
On National Day, an interview done about a decade ago with the late Chief Minister of Singapore, David Marshall, was released on a blog. It was inundated with comments from readers.
What was disturbing was that some of the readers said they did not know who Marshall was. He was not only one of Singapore's finest legal minds but also contributed many years to public service, especially in promoting Singapore's image in Europe as ambassador to France.
It was even more disturbing that some thought he was a trouble-maker silenced by our Government, and one who never had good things to say about the achievements of the People's Action Party leadership.
This is far from the truth; at many points in the interview, Marshall emphasised how impressed he was by the performance and integrity of our Government, even as he felt there were things that could be improved in society.
This experience is not an isolated one.
Some older folk have shared how some young Singaporeans are under the impression that the success of modern Singapore is the legacy of one individual: Its longest-serving former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The success of independent Singapore was not the work of one person but, in fact, the legacy of not just a group of excellent leaders but also a cooperative, hardworking citizenry.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on this problem during the National Day Rally in August.
He said: "This year, several of our first-generation leaders passed away ... Many Singaporeans didn't know these people, what they had done. They didn't know that Mr Rajaratnam wrote the pledge or that Mr Lim Kim San was the reason that we all have homes in HDB flats."
Yes, we are at an unfortunate point in our history, where many of independent Singapore's movers and shakers have left us or faded from active public memory.
There is a critical need to capture and share some of the contributions and views of the many individuals who made Singapore what it is today.
Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong acknowledged this at Tanjong Katong Secondary School's 50th anniversary celebration last week.
"The Government is partly to blame for this state of affairs," he said bluntly.
"The leaders did not believe in glorifying their place in history. They did not name streets, MRT stations, buildings, stadiums and parks after their colleagues who have died.
"I think we should do so from now on, so that Singaporeans can remember the pioneers, philanthropists, social workers, leaders and others who had made a difference to the lives of Singaporeans. This will make the history of our nation alive for Singaporeans."
PM Lee had also offered some solutions to dealing with this problem: National education in schools and getting parents and grandparents to share stories about Singapore's history with their grandchildren. Unfortunately, more young persons today are being brought up by maids rather than their parents or grandparents.
PM Lee did recognise that many are spending time on the Internet finding information by "googling" things.
And, here, perhaps lies another solution: To expand the information available online on the Singapore story.
In adding to the public picture of the Singapore story, every citizen has a role to play, not just schools, parents or grandparents.
The Singapore Heritage Society is already playing a pivotal role with its online People's Encyclopaedia of Singapore History, and its recently-published Book of Singapore's Firsts.
The National Heritage Board, too, recently published the Singapore Encyclopaedia. Describing it as a work in progress, board chairman Professor Tommy Koh welcomed Singaporeans' input.
Some effort has already been put into capturing the legacies of some of our founding fathers. Groups such as the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies are taking this work further by commissioning biographies about them.
But independent Singapore is not just the legacy of these founding fathers. The Singapore story had its fair share of founding mothers, contrarians or even "villains". Their stories, too, need to be shared.
One example is the late war heroine Elizabeth Choy. In his tribute to her after her death in September, President S R Nathan remarked: "We have lost a truly remarkable woman and a shining example of courage and compassion."
Unless more effort is made to better share such tales, the Singapore story is at risk of becoming patchily remembered, or remembered as only one man's legacy.