On Passports

One of the most important documents while embarking on a travel fellowship is the passport. Indeed, travelling anywhere in the modern age most definitely involves a passport. On this sleepless night, I investigate the history of the passport and its ramifications. 

Sitting on the corner of my table is the red, dog-eared pamphlet stamped with memories of exciting experiences abroad. I think of those who move through life without it — a barrier not only to travel, but to all forms of security. Indeed, I regard my passport as the most important piece of paper I ever own. It bears the mark of my citizenship on its cover, and a biometric page with my stunted portrait on it. For such a small document, the passport is as complicated, fraught, and powerful an object as has ever existed.

I wax lyrical about the passport, but for many, including myself, the passport is mostly a booklet that reads like a diary — tucked away in our cupboards and hotel safes when not in use, or between the skin of our clothes as we roam the streets abroad. Flipping through the pages of my passport gives me a hit of nostalgia, each visa conjuring up vicarious memories of countries travelled, and the respective comfort zones transgressed. However, the inscription on the reverse of the particulars page betrays much more colourful history, and indeed, a larger purpose. It reads: “The President of the Republic of Singapore requests all authorities to allow the Singaporean citizen named in the passport to pass without delay or hinderance, and, if necessary, to give all assistance and protection.” On this sleepless night, I decided to do a little bit of digging into the document that drives travel, and indeed, this fellowship. 

The earliest use of the term passe-port I could find was of 15th Century French: meaning “to pass a sea port”. According to Craig Robertson’s The Passport in America: History of a Document Benjamin Franklin required an official looking document to send a congressman to Holland. Franklin, ever inventive, wrote out a passe-port in French, and voilà, the passport was born. Its historical and biblical antecedents might be of some interest too. In his book, Robertson cites an example from the book of Nehemiah from the Hebrew Bible of papers of having “letters … so that they may provide him safe conduct”.

Indeed, the earliest passports were not conceived to let people travel freely as we think of them today. They were conceived as a way of keeping people in — to account for people and to make sure that they did not wander into places that they were not supposed to go. This is the document that best indicates to the state that you’ve been avoiding military service or dodging the law. And in the years between WWI and WWII, the passport — thanks to an international bureaucracy — evolved from a standard sheet of paper folded into half twice for all governments to identify “the criminal, poor, insane, and to a lesser extent, immigrants”. One only has to pay attention to the myriad of insta-stories of passport-flaunting during our Week 7 LABs, to realise that the passports from across the world are standardised in size and form. It is no coincidence.

Within living memory, this quaint little red (or whatever colour yours is) booklet tucked into the pocket of your jeans has existed as the material summation of modernity’s most complex problems: the rise of the nation-state (and nationalism), international relations, and technological advances in policing and surveillance in a “social-media era”.

Of course, rather broadly, the passport is generally thought (by normal people) as something that confers the rights and privileges of citizenship upon its bearer, with permission to travel abroad and return under the nation’s protection”, and in doing so regulates the flow of human traffic, shoring up boundaries and creating new ones. My pessimism is perhaps only fuelled by the late-night whiskey and digging of library archives. After all, what bliss it is to live with the most (is it?) powerful passport in the world — the Singaporean passport.

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