Is the Past a Present?: The Timeless Compass History Dialogue

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Kuang Shane Qi (19A13A) and Wong Zi Yang (19A01D)
Photos courtesy of Michael Chow (18A13A) and Saksham Bambha (18S03F) from Raffles Photographic Society

What is History? Is it of any use at all? If you are a history student, you’ve probably asked yourself these same questions as you mulled over an endless stream of essays and source-based questions. To The Timeless Compass, however, big questions about History (with a capital H) are not to be trifled with.

The Timeless Compass (TTC) is an online youth publication and aspiring movement that aims to raise awareness on current affairs through a historical lens. From its humble beginnings as a three-person project in 2017, TTC has grown in scale, expanding to feature writers from China to Canada to Zimbabwe. Their aims are nothing short of ambitious: by tackling complex issues and making them more accessible, TTC hopes to debunk the notion that History is irrelevant to youths today.

It was in this spirit that TTC hosted their first ever dialogue, which revolved around the theme “The Past is a Present”. Through a series of talks and discussions, speakers from various fields explored the question of why understanding history is the key to shaping our future.

The keynote speeches boasted a fascinating lineup: Mr Chew Tee Pao from the Asian Film Archive, Mr Sonny Liew, author of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and Mr Lee Chew Chiat, Executive Director of Deloitte. Not all of these speakers were familiar with history; in fact, Mr Lee admitted that his expertise ended with current affairs, eliciting laughter from the audience. Nonetheless, this diverse group of speakers engaged the audience in a discussion about the relevance of history to the past, the present, and even the future.

The speakers sharing insights during the keynote session
From left to right: Neo Xiu Yang (18S06A), Mr Chew Tee Pao, Mr Sonny Liew, Mr Lee Chew Chiat

The keynote speeches began with Mr Chew’s presentation on the understanding of our cinematic heritage through film. As Mr Chew spoke, his passion for his work spilled through, the reserved and soft-spoken man bubbling with enthusiasm. Films, he said, are like family pictures— the remembrance of things that mean something to us. Preserving the films of the past is akin to safeguarding our cultural heritage while allowing all to appreciate it.

Mr Sonny Liew, being a comic book illustrator, was doubtful about his ability to contribute to the discourse in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, he shared the process behind his famous work, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Wishing to take a look at the ‘real’ history of Singapore, Mr Liew revisited the Singaporean narrative through the lens of his fictional character, creating a blend of fiction and non-fiction to create a riveting story. He espoused the importance of not simply taking the mainstream narrative at face value— taking a look at ‘alternative accounts’ and reading intelligently, he feels, is much more vital.

Mr Lee, standing proud as the ‘oldest person here’, shared his own history. Asking for us to consider what we learned in the mainstream narrative, he stressed the importance of stability: in moving from one generation from another, the maintenance of stability is of paramount importance. With the advent of technology, news has entered the digital frontier, setting the stage for fake news to propagate. Unlike the past, the internet now has the power to fray the social fabric through social media platforms, making the maintenance of the social fabric more vital than ever. Today, Mr Lee said, with our rapidly developing country, social media platforms and the like can be used to change people’s thinking, unlike in the past. Therefore, he argued, the social fabric is much more important than ever before.

Following the keynote session, the participants split into breakout sessions. These sessions dealt with History’s impact on national identity, art, and global relations, attesting to its far-reaching impact on society.

1) History and Art: Exploring the value of tangible products of history today

By Mr Theophilus Kwek

The boundaries of Singaporean Literature are elusive at best, and downright undefinable at worst. In this session, Mr Kwek took his audience through the process of “beating the bounds” of SingLit— which is to say, actively defining and redefining the boundaries of our literary canon.

A crooked timeline of SingLit was scrawled on the board. As the participants hesitantly named (whom they thought were) prominent Singaporean writers, a few trends quickly became apparent. Most of the writers named were men, and all were Singaporean citizens. These writers by no means represent every conception of Singapore, and yet they are the faces that dominate SingLit.

Exploring the process of narrative creation

“Singaporean-ness is defined by two parallel processes of mythmaking,” Mr Kwek said. “Writers create the myth of Singapore when they seek to represent us, and we create myths too when we choose writers to represent us.” Often, gatekeepers who decide what should (or should not) be SingLit define the narrative, inadvertently excluding certain groups. Mr Kwek raised the example of Nhan Chung, by Vietnamese refugees about their experiences in Singapore, and Stranger to Myself, by migrant worker MD Sharif Uddin. Such stories are not conventionally considered to be part of our literary canon, and yet the Singaporean narrative is made poorer by their exclusion, as these perspectives are sidelined despite being integral to understanding our country.

Beyond questioning the definition of SingLit, however, it is also important to question the institutions responsible for gatekeeping. In reality,  many sidelined groups have no access to the institutions (such as publishing houses) that prize certain voices over others. It is therefore the duty of privileged writers to actively decentralise themselves while recentralising others, in order to allow minority voices to be heard. At the same time, consumers are not powerless to challenge these institutions: showing support for books about sidelined narratives can pressure gatekeepers to diversify, slowly but surely redefining the narrative.

2) History and Global Relations: How understanding historical precedences allow youths to understand today’s conflicts in east asia and beyond

By Ms Koh Choon Hwee

What mental image is attached to the term ‘Middle East’? Desolation? A war-torn land? Terrorism? Not necessarily, says Ms Koh Choon Hwee. The Middle East is not merely a desolate wasteland of poverty and war. Amazing sights can be found in the Middle East- images of the snowy landscapes of Jerusalem and Tunisian buildings reminiscent of Greek architecture flashed across the screen as the participants’ preconceived notions were dispelled one by one.

The discussion centered around the currently ongoing Israeli-Palestine war— specifically, its historical origins tracing back to the Holocaust. Starting as early as 1948, the war has incurred startling human costs, with many suffering the injustices and horrors of war. To exemplify the human element of the conflict, namely the feelings of the people themselves rather than accounts on a history report, Ms Koh played the soulful rap song ‘Who’s the Terrorist’ by the rap band DAM, conveying something that simply cannot be shown through mere numbers and statistics.

Ms Koh gives a speech on the Middle Eastern history and its relevance to the present

But why even bother to understand such developments in the world? The answer is simple; This local problem has fuelled a global problem we are all familiar with: religious extremism. Extremist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State have often linked the motivation behind their terrorist activities to the injustice that Palestinians have faced in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But it would be remiss to consider this from a religious perspective, Ms Koh suggests. Instead, she recommends that one look for political and economic motives behind such incidents and to educate oneself adequately before making any judgements, recommending the news links at reference site From Suez to Singapore as potential sources of information. She concluded with a small piece of advice: do your homework, and form educated opinions based on self-evaluation of sources.


Many left the dialogue with more questions than answers, the complexities of History swimming nebulously in their minds. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: History is more than just dusty old tomes in an archive. Versions of History are always evolving, but at the centre of it all lies the individual, who shares a personal connection with the past. As Ricardo Tan, a participant from Pioneer JC, put it, “History helps us remember the hardships of those that came before us, dead or alive.”

Between memorising case studies and grappling with analytical handles, we often lose sight of History’s human element. “We tend to politicise things in history, and talk about it in clinical terms,” shared Ashley Tan (18A13A), a founder of TTC. It is true that the History curriculum is restrictive, but classroom learning can only go so far: the onus is on the individual to explore out of the syllabus, to ask and understand, to build a personal connection with history.

More than that, however, the different speakers explored various ways in which history does not merely exist in the past, but is also a background to current and future events that help us understand the present and shape the future.

Organising Team

Managing Team:
Ashley Tan 18A13A
Neo Xiu Yang 18S06A
Nicole Lim Jia Yin 18A01D

Li Yi De 18S06E

Hew Zi Heng (CJC)

Joshua Ng (ACSI)
Ruan Xinpei 19A13B
Arya Arun (ACSI)

Pubs Team:
Trevor Wee (Ngee Ann Polytechnic)

Michael Chow 18A13A
Saksham Bambha 18S03F

Jaryl Goh 19S03I

Luo Tian You 18S06A
Lee Yong Tian 18S03C
Minh Nguyen 18A01C
Zhang Xinyang 19S07A

Teacher I/C:
Ms Lynette Lim

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