Renowned local playwright Alfian Sa’at has criticised the Asian Civilisation Museum for participating in “colonial whitewashing” with its current exhibition on Sir Stamford Raffles and for failing to admit that colonialism is wrong.
Alfian shared on Facebook that he attended a talk by one of the curators of the Raffles Exhibition, yesterday evening. The talk, called ‘Curating Colonialism,’ disturbed Alfian when the curator said that Raffles was a “man of his time”. Alfian said:
“I found this deeply troubling, because it smacked of wrapping Raffles up in a bubble wrap of immunity, as if he was simply acting out a historically predetermined role and that any attempt to critique him would be accused of as presentism. This kind of argument carries the same force as ‘boys will be boys’. Well, ‘colonialists will be colonialists’ too. Apparently they don’t have any other choice.”
Alfian further said that the curator said several times that “pointing out that Raffles held some biased views, or made some errors in identifying Hindu or Buddhist statuary, then this was tantamount to ‘undermining him’ or ‘undermining his legacy’.” Alfian said that the curator further advertised other supplementary activities to “‘demonstrate’ how ‘open’ the museum was to dissenting ideas”.
Revealing that he “WENT OFF” during the question and answer segment of the talk, Alfian said he remembers saying this:
‘I went to the exhibition last Saturday. And it made me feel so much sorrow and outrage. As someone who is Malay and of Javanese heritage, I felt objectified. I did not understand why the exhibition was reproducing this colonial gaze. And there was no point where this gaze was turned back on itself, or where we could see the British through the eyes of the locals. I did not understand why my encounter with Java had to be mediated through Raffles’ eyes. In recent years we’ve seen a resurgence of imperial apologetics, like Bruce Gilley’s ‘The Case for Colonialism’ and the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project at Oxford. Why is the museum participating in similar colonial whitewashing? Might I suggest that one good way to really undermine Raffles is to not stage the exhibition at all?’
The curator apparently replied: “Well, look at the Rhodes Must Fall movement, the argument goes that the statues of Cecil Rhodes must fall. But wouldn’t it be better if we had plaques that described his colonial crimes instead? And leave the statues intact?”
Alfian said that they went back and forth with one another. He asked the curator: “If you really wanted to undermine Raffles why must you centre him in the exhibition? Why give his views this primacy? Why must you point out his flaws but only after hoisting him on a pedestal?”
At one point, the curator responded: “Whether we like it or not he’s always going to be there. So we just have to find ways to reckon with him,” prompting Alfian to reply:
“He’s there not because of any historical inevitability or historical necessity but because of sheer political will, because his myth provides the foundation for a host of other myths, such as the myth that a precolonial Singapore is not a proper subject of nationalist history
“And why is all the dissenting stuff in the talks and forums? Why is it the addendum? Why is it not incorporated in the exhibition itself? Doesn’t this look like gestural politics?”
The museum responded that it cannot take one side or the other and that it has to present its materials in an objective manner. Alfian criticised on Facebook: “Evidently to even say that ‘colonialism is wrong’ involves a feat of editorialising that nobody at the museum is prepared to perform.”
Asserting that a more accurate name for the talk would have been “Colonialism Curates Colonialism,” Alfian said that the talk “attempts to justify a regressive exhibition while deploying the language of ‘nuance’ and ‘neutrality’”
He concluded: “Just like colonialism, which talked about ‘civilising’ when it really meant ‘conquering and exploiting’, which labeled the theft of the cultural heritage of others as the rightful spoils of ‘war booty’, the exhibition, by convincing itself that it takes a critical stance, drowns in its own hypocrisies and self-deceptions.”
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