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The death of Queen Elizabeth II is an appropriate time to talk about British colonialism. These discussions aren’t happening in Singapore.
When Singapore’s Parliament sits on Monday, they will observe a minute of silence for Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away at the age of 96 in the early hours of Friday morning. On the day of her funeral, state flags on all government buildings will fly at half-mast, even though Singapore is a republic with our own head of state.
On social media, politicians and ordinary citizens alike have to Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, some recounting their own memories of — or interactions with — the Queen during the visits she paid to the island. “Singapore and the United Kingdom share two centuries of history,” Singapore’s actual head of state, President Halimah Yacob, on her Facebook page. “Her Majesty’s passing is a profound loss to us all.” What wasn’t mentioned was that much of that 200-year relationship wasn’t consensual; we were colonised to serve the interests and profits of the British empire. Many Singaporeans fought hard — and paid the price with charges of sedition, detention without trial, exile — to be free of the empire that Queen Elizabeth II presided over.
When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I see users from different parts of the world split between memes and jokes and upset demands to “show respect.” In the Caribbean, there have been to not only remove the monarch — now King Charles III — as the head of state in former colonies, but also for reparations for the horrific harms inflicted by the British empire and its role in slavery. Across other previously colonized or occupied countries, people have actively expressed glee for the passing of the figurehead of a monarchy whose empire displaced Indigenous communities, participated in genocide, exploited both people and resources, stolen wealth and treasures, humiliated local traditions and cultures, and generally doled out pain and trauma. It’s created an opportunity to talk about just how cruel, racist and brutal British colonialism had been in so many lands, to so many people, for so long.
These discussions aren’t happening in Singapore. It’s unsurprising; even though it wasn’t all that long ago, Singaporeans today are largely ignorant of the anti-colonial activism that pushed for freedom and self-determination — with the rallying cry “Merdeka!” (independence) — from the colonial masters. (In fact, much of the anti-colonial movement has been recast in the national narrative as a Communist threat that the People’s Action Party had to withstand and protect the people from.) Instead, we talk about colonialism as . Streets are still . The government even proclaimed 2019 a bicentennial year, with a large-scale publicity campaign and activities, marking the 200th anniversary of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles of the East India Company arriving on Singapore’s shores. Many colonial era laws are still retained, including the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for detaining people without trial, and which has been extended so many times that the “temporary provisions” part is now little more than a joke. and have embraced the “colonial” as if it were an aspirational aesthetic rather than an act of transnational violence.
Because our period of colonization is viewed as generally a good thing, and because the ruling People’s Action Party has traced a linear national history from Raffles’ landing to their party’s rise to power — thus granting more legitimacy to their position — there is little appetite or space in Singaporean mainstream discourse to talk about how colonialism and imperialism are unjust and oppressive structures that rob, destroy, and subjugate. Solidarity with other post-colonial societies has been forgotten, which is why we can talk so easily about the benefits of colonialism regardless of the widespread death and destruction wreaked elsewhere by the same masters. We see decolonization simply as swapping out white British administrators for “our own people” — in which case, job done — and fail to ask ourselves what it actually means to be free. We don’t stop to wonder whose yardstick, whose values and judgements, we are deploying to come to the conclusion that colonialism was an overall win for Singapore. We aren’t questioning the logics that got entrenched by colonial practices that were all about expropriation, exploitation, and profit, even though these logics have created systems that cause us profound amounts of stress and worry as we struggle to keep up with rising costs even without corresponding protection for workers. We don’t think about whose voices, whose stories, have been cut out of our conversations, and how this perpetuates the injustice of colonialism even over five decades after Singapore came out from under British rule.
Queen Elizabeth II’s death could be an opportunity to kickstart such conversations, precisely because, for so many of us, she was the face and representative of the British monarchy and empire. Despite what the “respect the dead” contingent might argue, this is an appropriate time to talk about the history, the experiences, the impact, and the pain inflicted by the oppression she was the literal queen of.
It’s unlikely, though, that such conversations will start in Singapore now. Detached from the history of colonialism, the queen is seen as a British institution, a celebrity, a sweet little old lady with corgis who had visited in the past to shake hands, receive flowers, and smile politely at our public housing flats, which is why her death is an occasion for sympathy, reminiscing and mourning but not reflection. Although he’s much less popular than his late mother, King Charles’s accession to the throne is probably not going to trigger any major change in current mindsets about the British royalty and the legacy of colonialism. Unlike the Caribbean countries now asking themselves how they feel about recognizing Charles as their head of state, Singaporeans can just see him as some foreign dignitary who, no matter his performance as monarch, will be Someone Else’s Problem.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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