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From Port City to Nation State: Cycles of Singapore’s History

Professor Tan Tai Yong provided a fresh perspective with his energy and passion for the subject, keeping us engaged when he gave his recent lecture at The Institute to a packed audience made up of Senior students, parents, faculty members, and the wider Tanglin community. They were all interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Singapore’s rich and varied history and it was great to see an inter-generational audience engage with him at the Institute.

As one of Singapore’s foremost Historians, he fluidly explained the many twists and turns of Singapore’s history in a way that engaged all ages. His lecture focused on addressing two key questions: what were the dominant themes in Singapore’s historical development, and will the factors that shaped Singapore’s past be relevant in its future?

He began by speaking about his own love of history, explaining to the students that he followed his interest in History which has taken him from NUS to a doctorate at Cambridge University where he specialized in South and Southeast Asian History. Prof Tan is the President of the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), former President of Yale-NUS College, and was a Nominated Member of Parliament.

He went on to explain the three main themes that make up Singapore’s historical development, the importance of geography, maintaining the relevance of the country on the global stage, and the flow of people in and out of Singapore.

He highlighted that while we are typically given a linear perspective on history and historical events in national school curriculums, there are cycles in history that recur and impact the way history evolves or how current leaders make decisions. e.g. Singapore’s position within trade network as far back as the 14th Century has had an impact on its development during and after colonial rule and connectivity and openness to global business continues to be a critical part of Singapore’s economic strategy. He delved into the concept of the unexpected events (or the ‘twists and turns’ in history) having an impact on historical and future trajectories e.g. Singapore's separation from Malaya. He emphasized that the study of History remains relevant to young people because when we look ahead at future scenarios, History provides a framework for critically thinking about context, how and why things happened in the past, and what that could mean for the future.

His insights provoked many questions from the audience as they shared their perspectives on the fascinating topic of Singapore's evolving history.  In addition, Professor Tan’s ability to compress and explain extensive historical facts into a lunchtime talk, speaks volumes about his historical expertise. His deep knowledge debunked many historical myths and offered an interesting reframing of Singapore's diverse and fascinating journey over the past 700 years.

We look forward to welcoming back Prof Tan to Tanglin!

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