The Stories Behind the Histories We Tell


How sensitive are we to the contexts in which we use ideas and words?

Recently began attending a series of discussions organised by Para Limes on “East-West” issues. This one (held on 14 June 2017) was with Vernie Oliveiro, Senior Assistant Director (Policy Strategy) with the Strategy Management Unit of the Ministry of National Development, who’s trained in history and has a strong interest in the Singaporean identity.

#1 The “West” has often been left un-interrogated

SouthEast Asia, NorthEast Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and…the West. (Also, whatever happened to Latin America and Africa?)

But there is some coherence in the “West”, you say – at least the European and North American “West” with Judeo-Christian roots and characteristics.

Even if we set the “West” aside, why has there been so much variance in “Asia” then?

#2 “Asia” to the ancient Greeks = An existence East of the Aegean Sea

For a start, let’s look at The History of Herodotus (440 BCE) by Herodotus of Halicarnassus:

Hitherto the injuries on either side had been mere acts of common violence; but in what followed the Persians consider that the Greeks were greatly to blame, since before any attack had been made on Europe, they led an army into Asia. Now as for the carrying off of women, it is the deed, they say, of a rogue: but to make a stir about such as are carried off, argues a man a fool. Men of sense care nothing for such women, since it is plain that without their own consent they would never be forced away. The Asiatics, when the Greeks ran off with their women, never troubled themselves about the matter; but the Greeks, for the sake of a single Lacedaemonian girl, collected a vast armament, invaded Asia, and destroyed the kingdom of Priam. Henceforth they ever looked upon the Greeks as their open enemies. For Asia, with all the various tribes of barbarians that inhabit it, is regarded by the Persians as their own; but Europe and the Greek race they look on as distinct and separate.

For the Greeks, “Asia” was simply the landmass (and “Asians” simply the people) across the Aegean Sea. “Asia”, around 440 BCE, thus spoke of an existence beyond a geographical frontier.

#3 Since “Asia” and the “East” do not speak of uniformity or coherence, but geographically-informed existence, it’s natural for “Asiatics” and “Easterners” to be different.

Indeed, they are.

Marriage: Polygyny / Polyandry / Monogamy

Social Structures: Patriarchal / Matriarchal

The Things of Death:


#4 Cultural exchange and fluidity between the E and W

Here, we began our analysis of this E-W divide where the lines are most blurred – At the edge of the Aegean Sea, circa 300 BC, when Alexander the Great died and his empire split into four major parts:

Power divisions, 301 BCE: Cassander in Macedonia and Greece (green); Lysimachus eastward in Thrace and Asia Minor (brown); Ptolemy in Egypt, Cyprus and nearby Asia Minor (blue); Seleucus to the Indus River (yellow).

Lysimachus took Thrace and much of Asia Minor; Cassander, Macedonia and Greece; Ptolemy seized Egypt, Palestine, Cilicia, Petra, and Cyprus (thus beginnng the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt which lasted until the death of Cleopatra VII in 31 BCE) while Seleucus took control of the rest of Asia (so founding the Seleucid Empire which was comprised of Syria, Babylon, Persia, and India).

“History” vs. “Story”: No distinction really in several EU languages.

Here, through the examination of artefacts and mythological stories in both Western and Eastern cultures, show how Greek influences lived on across the East-West line (Aegean Sea).

(a) Kandahar Bilingual Rock by Ashoka 258BCE

  • Top half of the rock written in Greek (ruling elites’ language of the time)
  • Bottom half of the rock written in Aramaic (bureaucrats’ language earlier on)

Essentially a Buddhist king fromIndia issuing an edict in the lingua franca of the region

(b) Statue of Heracles

Motifs consistently utilised in coins from as early as 460 BCE till :

Also, the rise of Greco-Buddhist art at the frontiers bordering India saw Heracles reinterpreted as Vajrapani (protector of Buddha, with a weapon in hand), as part of the adoption of Greek influences by local cultures.



(c) The “halo” effect, among other things

Early Buddhism was usually depicted through symbols and objects, such as the lotus, stupas, etc. Greco-Buddhist Art put forth the first anthropological representations of Buddha (“He looked pretty Greek”) and used the halo as a sign of divinity.


More importantly, the “halo” as a means of depicting divinity, scholars argue, travelled from the West to the East since the time of the ancient Egyptian god Ra (1275 – 1225 BCE), to the ancient Greek god Helios (500 BCE) and then to the East later on.

The Hellenistic world is where the East-West frame breaks apart.

#5 The E-W frame challenged by the making and breaking of empires at the frontiers

“Western” or “Mediterranean”? Or…?

  • Roman Empire: Stretched beyond the Aegean Sea, with Egypt as its “bread basket” but its founding myth involved Troy (Greek) too.
  • Byzantine Empire: Absorbed iconoclastic elements of Islam, defaced Christian sculptures.
  • Ummayad Caliphate: “Western” or “Mediterranean” Caliphate?
  • Ottoman Empire: Drew reference from Rome too. Constructed “Rumeli Hisari”, literally the “fortress that conquered Rome”

#6 Myths and appeals to antiquity for political legitimacy

Alexander the Great lived on, in stories, and not merely in the “West” or Central Asia, but…

  • Alexander in the Quran: Zul-Qarnain, or Dhul-Qarnayn, the man who went from West (where the sun sets) to East (where the sun rises)
  • Alexander in Persian lore (12th C): Introduced as Son of Darab, thought to be King Darius II of Persia
  • Alexander in Sejarah Melayu: Raja Secander —> “Iskandar” —> Son of Raja Darab of Rum (Rome) from Makaduniah (Macedonia). The Malay rulers were described as descendants of (Hindu kings and of) Alexander the Great, from whom came…Sang Nila Utama. (Didn’t see that coming, did you?)

Where is this insurmountable East-West divide?

#7 So What?

Increased sensitivity to the contexts in which we use Ideas and Words

  • “Asian Values” sharing similarities with the Protestant Ethic (Max Weber), the English Working Class.
  • Singaporean-ness: “Asian Values” as a response to the triumph of liberal democracy —> Shared values —> “Stayers vs. Quitters” and “Heartlanders vs. Cosmopolitans” in the globalisation narrative

Was there an Eastern equivalent of “Alexander” for the Western civilisations? Maybe Genghis Khan?

Not really! Genghis Khan’s legacy was less personalised but more of a Mongol achievement. It became more of a cultural phenomenon and less of a source of political legitimacy. But yes, still worthy of inquiry!

Other similarities in Origin Myths?

  • Deity going to the Underworld, battling somebody and then bringing new life, bringing about Spring and rebirth
  • Greek myths, Ramayana (Hindu) hero rescues female counterpart and brings about the “ideal state”

Isn’t it more the issue that people continue to use E-W frames and labels despite knowing the cross-pollination and blurred lines between the two?

  • Still interested in the context within which power plays take place
  • Post-Cold War, where the fight over ideologies has concluded (somewhat), ideology has been losing its hold on people. If the debate / our concern is not about ideology, then what? Culture? History?

#8 Singapore as a case study

Matching narratives of Singaporean-ness with the trends and events of the time

1978: Goh Keng Swee report on the MOE sparked a call for “cultural authenticity”

  • Coincided with increasing divorce rates, latchkey kids, glue-sniffing and other social phenomena – results of a society undergoing rapid changes –
  • But the solution was not social or political but “cultural authenticity”, where Confucianist ethics, Malay traditions and Hindu ethos were called to the fore and emphasised in the education system.
  • Reminds us of China’s self-strengthening endeavour in the late 1800s (1861-1895)
    中学为体西学为用: Spiritual edification vs. Industrial, economic, military applications

Late 1980s-1990s: Rising racial tensions motivated nation-building efforts

  • Move from differentiated ideals to shared values for nation-building
  • End-product: Asian Values + 5 Shared Values

1997: Asian Financial Crisis

  • Financial crisis diminished the explanatory power of “Asian Values”, especially for its qualities of conscientiousness, prudence, community-mindedness, placing the society before self, etc.
  • Globalisation as a threat and opportunity
  • Motivated the use of language such as “Stayers vs. Quitters” and “Heartlanders vs. Cosmopolitans”

#9 Going beyond

Different paradigms out there~

  • East-West paradigm
  • Middle Kingdom paradigm
  • Concentric Circles paradigm (Buddhist)

Key question to ask: What allowed towns along Silk Road to play the role they did? Soft skills for dialogue? Certainly not a strong concern for “cultural authenticity”.

Importance of the Nation-State

  • As a stabilising factor amidst globalisation; important for global flows to be connected to local communities.
  • David Goodhart: “Anywhere” Crowd vs. “Somewhere” Crowd.

On “culture”

  • Beware of what others tell us about culture; it’s what they believe of a culture.
  • Check our own beliefs of culture(s), the explanatory power of culture and its limits.
  • While culture doesn’t determine everything, and the circumstances are still important, but we can’t discount culture. Culture isn’t an individual “thing” but an interwoven web of _____ that helps us ascribe meaning.



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