The Future of Our Pasts Festival

Opening remarks by Professor Tan Tai Yong, Chair of The Future of Our Pasts Festival Steering Committee and President of Yale-NUS College

at the launch of The Future of Our Pasts Festival

16 February 2019 at The Projector

Minister Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education

Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you for joining us today to celebrate the official launch of The Future of Our Pasts Festival. The Festival Team, our commissioned project creators, and I have been looking forward to this day for a long time. It heartens me greatly to see that there is so much interest in the festival from the public and our friends in the media, and we are grateful for your presence with us this afternoon.

We began this journey almost two years back, when Minister Ong first approached me to think about how we can support young people to lend a fresh perspective on our nation’s history, by telling the stories of communities and places that resonate with them, as part of the Singapore Bicentennial.

As a historian, I know full well that my subject of study is often seen as overly academic, textbook-based, even “boring”. Admittedly, it can sometimes be challenging for people to relate to a broad, national historical narrative on any deep personal level. The Future of Our Pasts Festival seeks to change that perception of history.

When Yale-NUS College opened our call for proposals for The Future of Our Pasts in 2017 then, we were looking to support projects by young people that explore historical narratives that resonate with them. We were happy to find numerous talented and passionate young creators, eager to reimagine these less explored narratives through a whole range of creative mediums, which they developed with our support over the last 18 months.

In that time, I had the pleasure to be part of several Crit Sessions organised for the teams. As they shared their works-in-progress with us, I heard fascinating personal and community histories, histories of places gone and still existing. There is Factory (Super)Women, a documentary film by a team of Yale-NUS students and alumni — Wei Han, Xin Run, Alistair, Monica, Lesha and Shelby — that was inspired by Wei Han’s mother and grandmother’s experiences of working in factories in the past. The project records and examines overlooked stories of female factory workers, who paved the way towards Singapore’s economic success. We also have Project IDIOM, a web repository and concert by a group of young Singaporeans who met as students at the Royal College of Music in London — Bertram, Lynette, Wilford and Zephany. As classical musicians themselves, the team wanted to archive and showcase the wide variety of local Classical music compositions over the years, interviewing and profiling numerous local composers to explore how identity, location and culture influenced their works. Closer to the present, a team of graduates from NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information — Kai Yuan, Matthew, Wenqi and Yang Yi — were intrigued by the stories that would unfold around the merging of 8 junior colleges this year. Through their interactive web documentary on the last days of Tampines Junior College before its merger with Meridian Junior College, they open conversations about the role of buildings in collective memory and identity formation, and give us a glimpse into Singapore’s changing education and urban landscapes.

This is still history, but unlike the history we are used to reading in books and journals, these projects spotlight stories of love and loss, discovery and identity — stories that we can all relate to in some way. In so doing, they moved beyond conventional definitions of what history is, and what forms explorations of our past can take.

I remember coming out of each Crit both impressed and inspired by the amount of heart and creativity that had gone into their works, which I hope you will soon get to experience for yourselves in the month to come.

Through the projects by these young artists and cultural advocates, we don’t just uncover overlooked historical narratives. We also become more aware of the complexities of historical representation and identity-making. In recent times, there has been a lot of buzz about history, especially with the Singapore Bicentennial this year. If anything then, we hope that The Future of Our Pasts Festival will add a fresh perspective to ongoing discussions around historical issues.

Across centuries, Singapore’s identity has been ever-changing, shaped by the flows of trade, people and ideas. Looking into history, we can seek out answers for how we came to be as a people. But what questions should we ask? And how should we frame our understanding of the invariably complex answers we find? These are just some of the issues that The Future of Our Pasts Festival seeks to trigger reflection and conversations about.

The festival’s programming is anchored in compelling narratives that draw attention to a spectrum of voices. Through these diverse stories, we hope to take audiences through an engaging journey from past to present, so they may find personal meaning in our collective history and chart their own paths for the future.

On top of our 11 Festival Commissions, the Festival Team has also organised a series of fringe programmes to further conversations about history, such as a curated film screening series, walking tours, writing workshops, and panel discussions. I am looking forward to seeing the exchanges that emerge out of all these showcases and events, both during the festival and beyond.

The Future of Our Pasts Festival would not have been possible without the collective support and efforts of many people. I would like to take this chance to offer my gratitude to Minister Ong, for planting the seed for this festival, inspiring and supporting us in so many ways. I want to also thank the many scholars and arts practitioners who we invited to advise our project creators at the Crits, held on weekday evenings and often extending late into the night. Thank you for giving your time and guidance so generously to our teams at these sessions. Our thanks also go out to all the agencies, partners, and vendors who have worked with us to execute different parts of the festival.

This project owes the most to Ms Yap Zhiwen, who has worked tirelessly over the last 18 months to bring the festival from idea to reality, and Ms Tan Li-Jen who has been integral in the planning of the festival. I am grateful for their dedication, support and professionalism in undertaking this ambitious endeavor. Thank you also to the team of hardworking and capable Yale-NUS Student Associates who have been working with Zhiwen and Li-Jen to put together this festival. Just a few days back, I saw first-hand how much invisible, behind-the-scenes labor goes into a festival like this, as the Student Associates spent an entire day just packing the festival collaterals and merchandise in preparation for this launch and subsequent events. Thank you as well to our army of volunteers from the public who have stepped up to help us at the many events during the festival.

And last but not least, I wish to thank and congratulate all our project creators for realising their projects. I hope that what you’ve discovered and will be presenting at the festival will generate lots of interest in Singapore, catalysing further ruminations about our nation’s history and identity.

Thank you all again for being here with us today as we kickstart a month of events and activities for The Future of Our Pasts Festival. I hope that you will enjoy the programmes just as much as we did putting them together.