What you need to know
The question of whether and how Singapore marks its bicentennial in 2019 throws up searching questions over its colonial and political past.
Arms folded, a white polymarble statue of Thomas Stamford Raffles looks inland towards the old colonial center of Singapore. Behind him, across the Singapore River, are the glass towers of the financial district and the rather grim strip of expat-friendly sports bars on the far bank of Boat Quay.
The statue, a copy of an 1887 bronze, was installed in 1972 to mark the place where Raffles first set foot in Singapore in January 1819. Within weeks of landing, he and his comrades had negotiated a deal to install a minor Malay royal as Sultan of Johor in exchange for the use of the island as a trading post and free port.
It is this that led to Raffles being credited as the “founder” of modern Singapore, and his name remains synonymous with the city. His landing in 1819 was undoubtedly a defining moment in the island’s history, setting it on its course to becoming a meeting point for global trade and capital. However, colonial rule over what was then Malaya was often brutal, exploitative and guided by racist ideologies. Next year’s bicentennial marks an opportunity for Singapore to reassess its colonial history — a difficult prospect in a nation which discourages critical examinations of the narrative of its rise.
The bicentennial dilemma
In his New Year’s address, Prime Minister said that 2019’s events — the government has been careful not to call them celebrations — would be “an important milestone for Singapore; an occasion for us to reflect on how our nation came into being, how we have come this far since, and how we can go forward together.”
The fact that Raffles is still so prominent in Singapore is remarkable in the context of decolonization in other former parts of European empires. Independence in many parts of the world meant stripping away the symbols of colonial occupation. In Malaysia, many streets that used to bear the names of British administrators and royals were replaced with “Merdeka” (freedom) but in Singapore, which was briefly part of Malaysia between 1963 and 1965, the statue of Raffles remains standing.
This, says historian PJ Thum, was a conscious decision based on a desire to stand apart on the part of Lee Kuan Yew’s government – to distance itself from other newly-independent nations who were being courted by the USSR and China. The Dutch economist Albert Winsemius, who advised the Singaporean government throughout the 1960s and 70s, reportedly said that they should “let Raffles stand” as a symbolic gesture that Singapore would be safe for Western capital, even as the wars in Indochina raged on and Malaysia battled a Communist insurgency.
“In that context… for Singapore to say, ‘we are open for business’ and to keep the Raffles statues up was a powerful symbol that we would continue to welcome Western capital,” Thum says.
Though there were voices in Singapore arguing that this was little more than submission to neocolonialism, and advocating a more aggressive approach to decolonization, many were caught up in the “reds under the bed” paranoia that infected Cold War politics. Some were embroiled in the purges of political opposition, others were discredited, Thum says.
Keeping Raffles had other benefits for the new nation, which had separated from the rest of Malaysia in 1965 and suddenly had to define a new, distinct identity for itself. Between 1949 and 1963, the People’s Action Party (PAP) — which has governed Singapore since independence — had advocated independence and unification with the rest of Malaya. Suddenly, they needed a new story.
“It was about asserting a sovereign idea of a nation that fits exactly into the island,” he says. “That can only happen if you ignore the Malay past, ignore the sultans, ignore Singapore’s links with the Malay world. So, you focus on Raffles.”
Somewhat paradoxically, the 1819 “foundation” of Singapore became a symbol of the country’s modern outlook based on free trade and global capital — a forward-thinking, diverse land of opportunity. That also meant excising the darkest aspects of colonization. Raffles came to the region as a representative not of the British crown, but of the East India Company – the embodiment of 18th and 19th century capitalism, an international trading conglomerate that used a private army and navy to carve out vast monopolies around the world.
The East India Company’s vision for Singapore was as a free port to counter the dominance of the Dutch port of Batavia, now Jakarta. In practice, that meant that Singapore was to act as a hub for the opium trade and as a drop-off point for indentured workers who would go on to work in plantations and mines across Malaya. Ethnic segregation was enforced and driven by an ideological belief in a hierarchy of races. Although in later years, Chinese traders did become very wealthy, many migrants came as indentured labor and lived in poverty and squalor. That version of history was inconveniently inconsistent with the values that post-independence Singapore wanted to emphasize, however.
“You don’t want to emphasize that our ancestors were press-ganged, signed away their freedom,” Thum says. “You want to emphasize … individual responsibility, meritocracy, capitalism and the empowerment that comes from participating in the capitalist economy.”
In this way, the colonial period was reinterpreted in line with modern Singaporean obsessions – quantifiable success defined on economic lines, rules, regulations and an almost pathological desire to be globally competitive.
“A lot of what is taught in schools about the colonial period is that they brought law and order, they brought the port, the port did well, everybody made a lot of money—basically, economic success as measured by things like GDP, not by individual quality of life,” says Singaporean writer Yu-Mei Balasinghamchow.
In many ways, the PAP’s approach paid off. Singapore outstripped its neighbors in most metrics of prosperity and security. International capital, largely from the West, helped it to become a global financial center and a thriving modern port. Singapore is the second-richest country per capita in the region, behind only the tiny petro-kingdom of Brunei; standards of living are high for most Singaporean citizens and for the wealthy expats who flock to the city to work in its financial sector.
Politically, however, its development has not been as rapid. Civic space remains narrow, and although there are free elections, the PAP’s control over political messaging and its unwillingness to countenance criticism has made the country a de facto one-party state.
Asserting control over the country’s narrative has been one way that this dominance has been enforced. The official version of Singapore’s rise is one of visionary leadership by Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP, one which binds together the country’s identity and success with the ruling party and makes it unthinkable that they should ever be replaced. It has little space for the compromises that were made along the way, such as the detentions without trial of political opposition. This informs the implicit social contract in Singapore, that people trade a degree of freedom for stability and security.
Alternative views do exist, but they tend to be pushed to the fringes. Academia remains heavily reliant on government money, meaning that there is little space for revisionism. Even fictional accounts are discouraged.
In 2015, the launch of Sonny Liew’s "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye", a graphic novel charting the city-state’s post-war rise, was disrupted when a National Arts Council grant was suddenly withdrawn. The NAC later said that the book “undermine[d] the authority and legitimacy” of the government. The book went on to win an unprecedented three Eisner Awards — known as the “Oscars of comics” — and to be translated into several languages.
In 2017, Jeremy Tiang’s "State of Emergency", a novel that follows a family caught up in several generations of anti-Communist purges in the city-state, also had its grant withdrawn, leading to questions in parliament.
The absence of public debate in Singapore makes it difficult to gauge what appetite there might be for a genuine reassessment of the colonial era, or a closer look at the lessons that could be drawn from it. There is no plan for a public consultation, and few details have been released by the newly formed Singapore Bicentennial Office, which sits within the Prime Minister’s Office.
Whatever the outcome, it is likely that it will be consistent with the existing message, which for historians like Thum and Balasinghamchow makes it a missed opportunity to breathe life into a moribund academic culture around the subject, or draw important — if uncomfortable — parallels with contemporary society; such as those between the indentured laborers who built Singapore, and the low-paid migrant workers from South Asia who do so today.
“Our public culture has a very all-or-nothing, take-no-prisoners approach to intellectual debate,” Balasinghamchow says. “This approach can be traced to the [Lee Kuan Yew] era… He never gave an inch, he wasn’t one to acknowledge grey areas. As a result of which, we have a civil service and public service culture now which does the same, and in our schools and public discourse there is very little appreciation for greyness, tensions, subtleties and nuance.”
TNL Editor: Morley J Weston