Why you should care
Why is this city-state commemorating the 200th anniversary of British rule? Because many of its institutions hark back to that time.
A 37-year-old White man sailed to Singapore on Jan. 28, 1819, and transformed “an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” Or so the story goes — never mind that British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles’ mission was actually part of the colonial plan. Today, his marble statue stands tall at this site — as if he’s looking at Singaporeans with a sense of pride. And a bicentennial is on throughout the island nation with art installations, musical performances, exhibitions and multimedia-storytelling to “commemorate” Raffles’ arrival.
But many Singaporeans are in no mood to celebrate. Instead, they’re raising a pertinent question: “Is there a need to celebrate the arrival of a colonizer?”
In this nanny state, where free speech isn’t encouraged, people have taken to social media to register their protest. One post on the official Facebook page of Singapore Bicentennial mockingly says: “By PAP’s [the ruling People’s Action Party] logic, I think, we will soon celebrate the Japanese occupation from 1942–1945 renaming Singapore as ‘Syonan-to’ [Japanese renamed Singapore Syonan-to meaning ‘Light of the South’].” Another Singaporean’s post says, “The romanticized version of Raffles and British Empire in Singapore highly questionable” given the “atrocities committed by the British Empire in their colonies,” including the murder of many indigenous people.
That sentiment is echoed by a section of students, historians, sociologists and political analysts. “The celebratory emphasis of the bicentennial adds to the impression that there is less desire to have a serious conversation about the less palatable aspects of colonialism and its consequences,” says Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore.
But there’s a reason why it makes sense for Singapore to look uncritically at its colonial history. Recalling the British era with fondness helps draw a line of continuity that justifies why so many of the country’s policies, institutions and mechanisms still mirror colonial rule. Singapore still relies on laws of repression from those times, such as the Internal Security Act. This allows preventive detention of those committing acts deemed subversive by the regime, and it’s been used against political opponents and trade unions. Then there’s mass surveillance — the government has the right to access all communication data of citizens — that remains a reality for Singaporeans. The country’s heavy reliance on “low-wage labor, particularly from Bangladesh and the Philippines, who live and work in quasi-slavery conditions,” says historian Pingtjin Thum, also carries shades of the indentured labor brought to the Malay peninsula by the British in colonial times.
Nobody is being told the precolonial Singapore was already modern.
Nazry Bahrawi, cultural critic
For sure, the British colonial period saw economic prosperity and stability that remain hallmarks of Singapore today, including that it has the world’s eighth-highest per capita GDP, second only to Qatar in Asia. The city’s free port, built by the British, is one of the world’s most important maritime hubs. But British rule also came with a significant human cost.
According to historical evidence, the British segregated the working class into enclaves according to race and forced them to live in subhuman conditions. Critics have accused the British of fanning racial conflicts first, then suppressed them with laws in order to exercise “control.” Opium addiction took a toll on the working class. You won’t find these dark tales at the bicentennial though.
In that embrace of colonialism, Singapore is rare. Other ex-British colonies in Asia, such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India, have been overtly critical of their former colonizers.
What’s also irking many Singaporeans is the narrative that Singapore’s success story began only with the British — devaluing the contributions of Malays, Javanese, Bugis, Indians and Chinese, who were part of the island’s history long before Raffles arrived. “Nobody is being told the pre-colonial Singapore was already modern,” says cultural critic Nazry Bahrawi of Singapore University of Technology and Design. He points to the 17th-century Johor Sultanate naval base on the island by way of example.
Only recently has Singapore installed statues of four early community leaders, including of Prince Sang Nila Utama, who founded the Kingdom of Singapura (pre-colonial name of Singapore) in 1299, next to where Raffles stands today on the banks of the Singapore River. Multimedia messages about Bugis, Javanese, Orang Lauts and other communities who lived in the precolonial era have been posted on the Facebook page of Singapore Bicentennial following the criticism. But the celebrations remain centered on the British period and its legacy.
There’s another reason to view the bicentennial celebrations with skepticism. The PAP has ruled Singapore continuously since the country’s separation from Malaysia in 1965 — and even earlier, when it was part of Malaysia. For its political future, the party needs to defend the country’s modern history with pomp and show — the PAP, after all, can’t blame anyone else for continuing colonial institutions and laws. Four years ago, in August 2015, the PAP government marked 50 years of separation from Malaysia with extravagant celebrations — just before elections that brought it back to power by defeating a fragmented opposition.
So, it was really no surprise when, at the inauguration of the bicentennial celebrations, Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong was uninhibited in his praise of the British colonial period. “Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today,” he said. So it’s a legitimate question to ask: Are the bicentennial celebrations also a political ploy in the run-up to the country’s next elections next year?
(Sonia Sarkar is a freelance journalist who reports from South Asia and Southeast Asia, including Singapore.)