The history of a community is perhaps routed through the memory of its people. History then assumes a condition of being settled, because memory foregrounds an object – a moment definable and opaque. One remembers someone, some thing, some place. And, if history is indeed constituted by memory, it implies that it is in the act of remembering that history comes into existence. History takes on a form which necessitates an action – history must be conjured, called upon.
The danger of thinking of history as contingent on memory, though, is to concentrate on the objects of history: That history is a body of marked moments situated across the progression of time, ready to be singled out and spoken of at our convenience and desire. Surely, history assumes more complexity?
This question bears relevance to our community, and it also lays bare the contradictions of our community. We speak of a multiplicity in our identity, exemplified in a tagline so embedded in our psyche that we almost always invoke it. We are so familiar with it, it need not be mentioned, again, here, for that would be an excess. Yet, the singularity of our history is plain, and peculiar. Our sense of history is one-dimensional and exclusive.
The fact that residence in Tembusu spans only two years (in most cases) means that, upon its beginning, our time here has already been punctuated with finiteness. The clarity of an end, or a limit, to our being-here informs our sense of history. We perceive of and remember our Tembusu life as a bounded span of time with certain starting and ending points. It is as though history may be delineated into compact, solitary units.
The particularity of names, such as Third Year or I/G Head, also immediately excludes many (in fact, the majority) from the narrativising of history. A certain illustriousness, too, seems to privilege one voice over another – he/she has been here for a long time, he/she has done a lot, therefore he/she would know. We learn of historical narratives through an association with individuals whose particular agency conjures and calls upon these frames of history. It is as though history were guarded and beholden to, and only to, the performance of memory by a few. Only too often, territoriality naturally develops from ownership.
The singularity inherent in our sense of history, hence, is apparent. And problematic. A focus on the objects of history – as slices of time, as units that gain signification upon the function of memory – leads to a discontinuity.
Already, we are witnessing a speaking of history as such. During Formal Dinners, Teas, or conversations, there is often a tendency to call out to a past. However, the distance of time and absence of experience means that there is a difficulty in identifying with these modals of recollections. All there is is a feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity. History is reduced to a series of facts, discontinuous, the significance of which is ambiguous and only further dilutes with the further passage of time.
This precisely is the danger of thinking of history as, only, memory. Perhaps it is time to re-consider history – our history. To better represent and remember the plurality of our community is perhaps to turn our care to the multiplicity in our history – a layering of history, or histories; That is, to situate the action of making history, a historicising, at the forefront of our community-making. As opposed to the existing focus on the made, the done, the happened, we ought to connect these with the making, doing, happening.
That we begin our time in Tembusu with a bearing on its finiteness, is not to say, that our presence and engagement should bear finality. Yet, this is also not to say, that we disregard, or worse, conflate, one’s beginning and ending. For, it is in the distance between then and now that provides for progress, to observe our being one before, and another, different, better, one after. Nonetheless, to re-think history would perhaps be to seek a seamlessness among these units of history. This not only involves a belief by individuals of the continuity of their Tembusu life beyond the markers of time, but also a belief on the part of Tembusu as an institution in each individual beyond his/her placement on its programme.
Furthermore, to re-think history would also be to transcend the notions of ownership and the particularity with which historical narratives are bound to. Thus, it is perhaps imperative that we create a space for the giving and receiving of experiences, and for the speaking of and listening to histories. The alumni very likely hold the key to this dialogue of and between the past and present. This, regardless of where they stood and where they stand within and without Tembusu. As members in the present, we need also to open ourselves widely and extensively to histories before us and to the historicising that will live beyond us. This, then, is a historicising that is inclusive and full. We find openness.
At the same time, we may also find upon ourselves incompleteness, because openness suggests vastness and endlessness, neglecting to profess a finality. Notwithstanding, this sense of abundance and boundlessness, speaks of the multiplicity of our history. This lures us back and brings truth to our tagline.
Thus, history is memory, and more than memory. More than the objects of history, it is a historicising that entices and fulfills. It is an openness and incompleteness that brings the very beauty of the passage of time and building of a community – the Tembusu community.
All images by Jesslene Lee.
About the Author
Mad for adventure and stories, Jesslene often walks down unmarked streets and talks up wild strangers. Leading quite a monochromatic, unplugged life, she also loves wandering about.