Just how old is Singapore?
Fifty? Nearly two hundred? Or some seven hundred years old?
Even as historians and nation-builders debate the intriguing question, and as political leaders of the day set about to map out the future, it is worth remembering that the past fifty years of stunning progress and development on the island Republic never happened in a vacuum. In fact, the first leaders of independent Singapore had inherited a working political and economic framework from a colonial administration skilled at running an empire for several generations. Today, as the nation crosses the threshold and moves on from the crucial and significant “jubilee” juncture, this article seeks simply to restate what is at risk of being forgotten, that a lot happened in Singapore before SG50.
"For the short period it has been in existence, Singapore is, without an exception, the most thriving colony which the British have in the East Indies... Within the last ten years, this place has increased and flourished beyond all calculation. An Indian village of forty or fifty bamboo huts has given place to a splendid well-built little city."
(Benjamin Morrell, A Narrative of Four Voyages, 1832)
"We live in a world that empires have made. Indeed, most of the modern world is the relic of empires: colonial and pre-colonial, African, Asian, European and American. Its history and culture is riddled with the memories, aspirations, institutions and grievances left behind by those empires. The largest if not grandest of these was the empire laboriously assembled by the British across more than three centuries. No less than one quarter of today’s sovereign states were hewn from its fabric. For that reason alone, its impact was second to none.”
(John Darwin, Unfinished Empire, 2012)
“The British Empire is so misunderstood.”
(Bernard Porter, British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, 2016)
In the wake of the exuberant jubilee celebrations that gripped Singapore in 2015, it almost seems inconsiderate to remind ourselves that Singapore is a lot more than fifty years old. But it is. Isn’t it? Otherwise we have made a mockery of all our history lessons tracing the island’s development from 1819, and of all the recent scholarship pushing the chronology back even more by another five hundred years. This debate over years (50 or 700?) underscores the delicate tension between the objective historical understanding of Singapore’s past, and the utilitarian value of “history” for nation-building purposes. However, it is clear that within that long time-frame, Singapore functioned as an active, dynamic and profitable trading port with a burgeoning, settled population since the early 1820s. She quickly became, after her acquisition by the British East India Company, what one visitor remarked in 1832, “the most thriving colony which the British have in the East Indies.” The historian C.M. Turnbull’s studied evaluation was that Singapore soon became “one of the most vital commercial keypoints of the British Empire.” This little book advances the simple notion that what took place before 1965 was as important as what occurred after. This is not to merely adopt another Anglo-centric view of Singapore’s history, for today’s Singapore owes so much to so many early hardy pioneers from innumerable lands. At any rate, British administration could hardly be maintained without the willing participation of some or even many “natives.” But even as scholars and historians continue to ask how old Singapore really is, it is worth the while to be reminded that the island will soon commemorate the bicentennial of the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. And so much of the colonial era, which his coming ushered in, still remains evident in Singapore today.
STIFLING HISTORY: There was a Singapore before 1965!
2015 was the SG50 year, and Singaporeans had much reason to commemorate this very important and significant jubilee milestone. Indeed, Singapore has come a very long way in the five decades of independence. Its stunning progress has been variously described as one from “mudflats to metropolis” and third-world back-water to city; her spectacular rise since 1965 has been hailed as a model of rapid, efficient and visionary nation-building.
It is widely acknowledged that the explosive growth of the island Republic was due to the good governance of the ruling party, and the forceful leadership of one man, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. That the first Prime Minister of Singapore was not present at the National Day celebrations in August 2015 was both poignant and poetic. The public outpouring of tribute, gratitude and honour was overwhelming and even unexpectedly massive. It demonstrated that the people of Singapore are thankful for so remarkable a leader.
However, it may be timely now to express a cautionary note. If the vibrant and independent nation of Singapore since 1965 is what it is today because of one man’s vision, then we must readily acknowledge that the very existence of modern Singapore is due largely to the efforts and activities of innumerable others, and especially the determination of Sir Stamford Raffles. In fact, the CEO of the National Library Board of Singapore, Elaine Ng, has only just reiterated, in the latest of a seeming unending stream of books on him, that “Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, is one of the most significant figures in our history.”1
Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing away in March 2015 marks the end of an era, when the first cohort of political leaders in post-colonial Singapore embarked on a remarkable five decades of nation-building. It is up to the current cohort of leaders to carry the nation through into the 21st century globalised world. In the wave of nationalistic pride and gush of patriotic sentiment that marked the people of Singapore in March and August 2015, it is easy to forget that the infrastructure of this lively and energetic metropolis was constructed so efficiently on a foundation that had been laid in British colonial times.
It is the duty of historians to write objective history. When applied to the reviewing of a nation’s past, this obligation often comes into tension with another important agenda, that of nation-building. When resorting to “history” so as to promote a present sense of national pride, there is the tendency to be selective about which events to recount and emphasise, which “heroes” to honour and which tragedies to relive, in order that the people not repeat those very same mistakes. Several historians have recently sounded the warning regarding too myopic a view of Singapore history,2 often written out by key stakeholders themselves.
Such a utility of history – or even “abuse of history” (a term used by the historian Margaret MacMillan3) - may have been well-meaning and seemingly innocuous, but none the less, the historian finds himself or herself at odds with the nation builder. For example, out of nearly two hundred years of existence as a trading port, colony and nation, why choose to commemorate the Fall of Singapore (15 February 1942), the Racial Riots (21 July 1964) in addition to the day of Independence (9 August 1965) above all other events? Of course, it will be argued that almost all countries indulge in the same preoccupation. Hence, the Battle of Britain for the United Kingdom, the War of Independence for the Americans, the Fall of the Bastille for the French and the stand at Masada for Israel. However these simply prove the point that, in attempting to nurture a sense of nationhood, governments and leaders all too easily misuse history.
The idea for this little booklet was first conceived in the years 2013-2014 when I taught local Singapore history to my lower secondary students in a government school. The textbook, Singapore: From Settlement to Nation, pre-1819-1971, divided itself into 10 neat chapters, with Chapter 1 focussing on pre-1819 Singapore, Chapters 2 – 5 on colonial Singapore before the Japanese Occupation and Chapter 6 on World War Two. A further two chapters delved into the movement towards Self-Government in 1959, Merger with Malaysia in 1963 and eventual Independence in 1965. The final two chapters explored the themes of nation-building in independent Singapore.4
I thoroughly enjoyed teaching this course. I felt that there was a balance in its presentation of chronology, appropriately objective without indulging in anti-colonial rhetoric or ultra-nationalistic jingoism. Enough coverage was given to the British era and the underlying sense of gratitude to the early pioneers of Singapore, whatever their ethnic group, was perceptible.
To my delight, my history students were very enthusiastic about the course content and had very little qualms about attributing modern Singapore’s success to both her post-1965 leaders and the British colonial government. In fact, I discovered any anti-colonial anti-European sentiments to be absent. This made me even more reflective, and I took time to ponder the relative objectivity with which the young approach the past. It also made me acutely aware of the history teacher’s tremendous responsibility to nurture that appreciation without exploiting it for personal or national agendas.
The history syllabus and textbook changed in 2014.5 It is now divided into four major units. Now, one whole unit is devoted to Singapore before colonial times; this, I suppose, is a response to the clarion calls for a “long duration” view of history. The colonial era has been somewhat condensed into one unit, and the final two units bring students through the war and occupation years to the period of nation-building. With the passing of time and the crossing into the landmark SG50 jubilee year, this development in school-history historiography is understandable.
Never the less, one basic premise remains even as we survey quickly the history of Singapore. That is that when independence was thrust so hurriedly onto her, she was not as ill-prepared as has been made out to be. Singapore in 1965 was not a sleepy backwater town by the standards of the day. Let us pause to re-examine the famous and oft-quoted words of Mr Lee himself, when he stated categorically, in September 1965, barely a month after Separation from Malaysia:
Here we make the model multiracial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community - it belongs to all of us…. Over one hundred years ago, this was a mudflat, a swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis – never fear!6
This is the text from which many today cull the catch phrase “from mudflat to metropolis.” What Mr Lee actually said was that, “Over one hundred years ago, this was a mudflat.” That is to say, in the 1860s. And he followed up with the words: “Today, [ie. 1965] this is a modern city.” This was a reasoned, generous, if somewhat tacit acknowledgment of all that had developed under colonial administration. This progress from the nineteenth to the mid Twentieth Century is borne out in history, and this progress was subsequently carried on in the independent Republic.
AN APPEAL TO HISTORY TEACHERS IN SINGAPORE:
Who writes The Singapore Story?
I am convinced that every history teacher ought first and foremost to function as a historian. Every time we face our students, we ought to avoid simply trotting out “the facts” of history as given in the pages of “The Textbook.” As historians, our access to all manner of primary and secondary sources (often available online) is tremendous. Even in the process of imparting “historical” facts, information and data, we should be interacting with primary sources, examining the relevant issues involved, evaluating factors afresh and seeking to explain one’s own personalised “version” of – what happened. When we thus approach the great events of history – revolutions, wars, tragedies, victories and achievements – there will always be a certain curious freshness to it all, as we query assumptions and seek to reconstruct stories.
To achieve this, it is also imperative to accept that there is no one, sacrosanct, view of historical events. Historical knowledge, argues the historian John Lukacs, is necessarily revisionist. There are gaps of historical knowledge that are, or ought to be, filled; but even that filling can never be permanent. Historical revisionism is simply the act of critically and carefully examining sources with a view of improving or correcting prevailing understandings.7
The task of the Singapore history teacher to act “critically and carefully” with a view to improving “prevailing understandings” may at times be quite daunting, because of the spectacular success in which nation-builders have conscripted “the past” for their own well-meaning purposes. Few people will remain unmoved at the stirring spectacle choreographed every August during the National Day parades, when invariably, scenes from Singapore’s past are dramatized to such good effect. In playing out “the past” literally before the eyes of the nation’s citizens, few can contain the pervasive sense of pride in being “a part of history.”
Not so long ago, it was boldly proclaimed by Tom Holt that – “We are all historians.” And so, those very happy spectators at each National Day Parade were all, in effect, historians, right there in their seats as their hearts responded to the pageantry unfolding in front of them.
History, after all, is past human experience recollected. Thus our own everyday experience is the substance of history …. To construct coherent stories about this collective experience – something we all do – is to create histories.8
Furthermore, the exuberant and joyous Jubilee celebrations of 2015, while understandable, also have had the effect of entrenching the year (1965), the event (Independence from Malaysia) and the people (the “Pioneer Generation”) in everyone’s minds at the expense of all other significant years, events or pioneers. This is unfortunate, but it does underline the delicate nature of utilising history for nation-building purposes.
In the process of fixing such events in our collective psyche for the purpose of inculcating common national values, there is always the danger of creating an imbalanced view of the past. As Margaret MacMillan explains:
The histories that fed and still feed into nationalism draw on what already exists rather than inventing new facts. They often contain much that is true, but they are slanted to confirm the existence of the nation through time, and to encourage the hope that it will continue.9
MacMillan would have us all beware the dangers of slanting history, or writing “bad history,” which only tells part of complex stories:
“Bad history also makes sweeping generalizations for which there is not adequate evidence and ignores awkward facts that do not fit.”10
What then can we do with history? Well, for a start, we should seek to write and teach “good history.” We must “do our best to raise the public awareness of the past in all its richness and complexity.” MacMillan goes on to urge the historian: “We must contest the one-sided, even false, histories that are out there in the public domain.”11 At the very least, we need to ask the simple question: just when did Singapore “begin”? Was it 1965? Or was it earlier? If the latter, then how much earlier?
We do well to heed MacMillan’s cautionary note when we survey the common, almost daily usage of (what scholars have dubbed) “The Singapore Story”12 in the attempt to forge a sense of national identity, particularly in the local schools. This “Singapore Story” refers to the quasi-official version of Singapore’s history which dominated from the 1990s. As historian Karl Hack explains:
From 1998, the “Singapore Story” was entrenched. First, there was the major public exhibition on the “Singapore Story,” emphasising the war years, the subsequent PAP struggle for independence and against communism, ethnic chauvinism and economic peril. Second, “National Education,” based around this narrative – and attached “lessons” about how Singaporeans must behave – was integrated into school curriculums, at first as separate lessons, and ultimately infused across subjects. Students were also taken on “Learning Journeys” to wartime and business sites to reinforce the story’s messages. There was an insistent state desire that students at all levels be imparted lessons through social studies at Primary School, and history at Secondary, such as “We Must Ourselves Defend Singapore.” There was also relentless emphasis on the need for social and economic discipline.13
There was an urgent political utility to this yoking of history for the cause of nation-building. For Singapore’s leaders “to function in the world system of nation-states, they needed to shape and disseminate a sense of national identity which privileges political identification at the level of the nation state.” The writing of the nation’s history thus became of great importance to those who sought to lead it.
The history that the state tells of itself, and the degree of its success in getting its citizens to embrace that history as their own, are thus central to the process of is nation-building.14
We are now also warned by no less an authority as the historian Sam Wineburg, that simply recollecting past experiences, even collectively (such as happens every day in the schools, annually on 9th August or once every fifty years) is not true historical thinking. Neither is the normal, innate human yearning to connect to traditions and stories that have brought us to the present. Wineburg’s tantalising proposition is that historical thinking is actually quite unnatural. It “requires an orientation to the past informed by disciplinary canons of evidence and rules of argument.” It seeks the verification of sources and questions mere stories. Wineburg asserts that the discipline of historical thinking involves:
...interrogating sources, putting them on the stand and demanding that they yield their truths or falsehoods...15
It is with this spirit of thinking objectively, founded on empirical evidence, the history teacher must embark on truly “teaching history” so that generations of young people will know more than just the specially selected milestone events of the nation’s past. What this also means for Singapore is that historians will continue to examine and re-examine her past from a gamut of angles. Based on newly surfacing historical evidence, they will revise it, if necessary, and propose different points of view from which to write the narrative.
Let us therefore, in the classrooms, endeavour to ensure that “The Singapore Story” is as long as possible – in time scope; as broad as possible – including many protagonists, and as honest as possible – acknowledging many viewpoints for complex issues.
For an in-depth discussion on the social roles Singapore teachers are expected to assume and how they grapple with the twin demands of having to exhort students to think creatively but within certain nationally prescribed boundaries, please refer to Loh Kah Seng and Junaidah Jaffar, “Academic controversy and Singapore history.” Ivy Maria Lim also writes about the importance of teaching historical controversies in Singapore, but points out that these “do not find a place in textbooks.” Furthermore, the very educational experiences of teachers themselves at times debilitate their own efforts at structuring academic controversy in class. See her “Teaching historical controversies using the Structured Academic approach.” Both articles are in the book Controversial History Education in Asian Contexts, edited by Baildon, Loh, Lim, Inanc and Jaffar. Details are in the Bibliography.
THE BRITISH EMPIRE AND COLONIAL CITIES
In his controversial book, Ten Cities that made an Empire, Tristram Hunt points out an awkward paradox that has emerged in the study of the British Empire. That is, while the legacy of Empire moves into the realm of official apologies, law suits and compensation settlements, certain phenomenon still persist. One of these persistent phenomena is the continued existence of former colonial cities dotted around the globe.
From the Palladian glories of Leinster House in Dublin to the Ruskinian fantasia of the Victoria Terminus in Mumbai to the stucco companile of Melbourne’s Government House to the harbour of Hong Kong, the footprints of the old British Empire remain wilfully in existence.
Hunt observes that this imperial heritage is now being preserved and restored “at a remarkable rate as postcolonial nations engage in a frequently more sophisticated conversation about the virtues and vices, the legacies and burdens of the British past and how they should relate to it today.”16
This striking, if somewhat uncomfortable, phenomena is very evident in Singapore today. If by “colonial” we simply mean the period before the 1960s, then innumerable “colonial” buildings, structures, edifices, monuments and institutions abound in Singapore. At the present time, the Urban Renewal Authority and the National Heritage Board are conscientiously conserving or preserving many historically or architecturally significant buildings, a great number of which stand in older, “colonial” estates beyond the core city centre – in Tiong Bahru, Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Katong, Geylang, Joo Chiat, Queenstown, Alexandra areas and more. Even if one were to confine the observation to European-style or influenced buildings within the “civic district” serving the administrative, judicial, social, religious and recreational purposes of the British Empire, the list is very long:
- The Armenian Church, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJMES), the Supreme Court building, City Hall, Empress Place (Asian Civilisations Museum), the old Parliament House, Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall, Fullerton Building (now Hotel), Hill Street Building, Central Fire Station, Singapore Musuem, the (Philatelic Museum), the ……. (Peranakan Museum), Raffles Hotel, Singapore Cricket Club, Singapore Recreation Club, to list the more obvious ones.17
A prime example of how the authorities have effectively retained and revitalised older, historically significant buildings for contemporary use is the brand new National Gallery Singapore. This latest masterpiece occupies two national monuments: the former Supreme Court and City Hall. The official Gallery website describes the two iconic buildings as “landmarks of Singapore’s colonial past and journey to independence,” which have “borne witness to many pivotal events in the nation’s history.”18
And it is not just these two splendid architectural treasures. Many grand and very much revered buildings are not only in no danger of being demolished for anti-colonial, ultra-nationalistic (“let’s be rid of our colonial past”) reasons, but are being voraciously preserved for future generations. The old street names of Singapore roads, many of which date back into the Nineteenth Century, and include British names, stand in testimony of a bygone era which we have come to accept for all its “good” and “bad.”19
And perhaps it’s just that we have come to recognise that the past is not so easily judged in the most simplistic terms of “good” and “bad” that has made it possible to incorporate elements of our collective, even colonial, past into the modern Singaporean psyche.
Indeed, the historian John Darwin has described Empire as “not just a story of domination and subjection but something more complicated: the creation of novel or hybrid societies in which notions of governance, economic assumptions, religious values and morals, ideas about property, and conceptions of justice, conflicted and mingled, to be reinvented, refashioned, tried out or abandoned.”20
This might explain the pragmatic approach taken by Singapore to keep and adapt many aspects of the colonial past. This practice tacitly recognises the solid foundations the Empire provided but also allows the present generation to skilfully review, revise, modify and improve on them so that ancient institutions, practices and traditions remain relevant and useful today. Singapore’s parliamentary system, judiciary and legal system, military organisation, education system, civil service and economic system all bear out the same imprint of Empire and yet most of these original institutions have been heavily “localised” and made relevant to the Republic’s current needs.
COLONIAL AND MODERN SINGAPORE
The nation’s jubilee celebration of Singapore’s success as an independent Republic was not only a campaign marked by emotional and sentimental patriotism. There was, and is, a clearly enthusiastic effort by the academic and scholarly community to chart, chronicle and document many aspects of this success. Earlier in 2015, the reputable World Scientific publishing company launched a 25-volume book series to commemorate Singapore’s 50 years of nation-building. The series sought “to bring readers through an informative reading journey on the challenging paths that the Singapore pioneers have so boldly charted.”21
The World Scientific definition of “pioneers” is aligned to the recently-made-popular usage, referring commonly to those residents of Singapore who were already young adults when nationhood was attained in 1965. Clearly this meaning of the term “pioneers,” when unceremoniously imposed on the population at large in the months leading up to the Jubilee year, as part of a whole slew of privileges granted to those newly-defined as “the pioneer generation,” disregarded the very long-standing historical utility of the term itself.
For a long time, everyone thought of Tan Tock Seng, Govindasamy Pillay, Whampoa, Eunos bin Abdullah et al as “pioneers” of Singapore. Suddenly, overnight, people of my parent’s generation became the true pioneers. Certainly, that generation of the 1960s did play a large part in the nation’s story, however, even they were surprised to be conferred the title of “Pioneer Generation” so instantly. Of course, the numerous privileges now accorded to them quickly overcame any nascent queries as to the scholarly validity of the new terminology.
It must be said, happily, that there is a symmetrical balance in looking back on the recent past as part of the Jubilee celebrations. The intelligentsia of Singapore have indeed adopted a generous and encompassing view of Singapore’s history. It is one that does not simply begin with 1965, but extends the story backwards to the time even before Raffles.
Not to be outdone, and to provide just that weighted balance needed, the Institute of Policy Studies in December 2015 launched the first few books of the fifty-volume Singapore Chronicles. This ambitious series, according to the Director Jenadas Devan, “provides succinct introductions to various aspects of Singapore.” Its diversity in subjects is very impressive indeed, ranging from “the fundamental to the practical, the philosophical to the mundane.” The series is a very serious enterprise, not to be taken lightly. To prove this point, the books are “written by experts for the intelligent reader” and aim to capture “the story of our island-nation.” The fifty volumes, when fully launched by mid-2016, will focus on “the milestones of our history – from pre-colonial Singapore to our separation from Malaysia.”22
It is very significant that Volume 1 of the whole series is Colonial Singapore, written by that most respected and admired of historians Nicholas Tarling, no less. The descriptive paragraph on the back of this book very clearly and unabashedly sums up the intent of this book, and is crucial to the thesis of this essay. I quote it in full – words underlined are mine for emphasis:
This book is a history of Singapore from the founding of a settlement by Raffles in 1819, to the post-imperial phase inaugurated by World War II and the Japanese invasion. It shows how colonial Singapore matured as an economy and developed as a society even as it grew into a commercial centre that was also a centre for the movement of people and ideas. The book captures the essence of the island-city’s place in the Asian economic and political scheme of things as European imperialism reached its zenith before giving way to Japan’s military advance. The fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 embodied the new times. The return of the British after the Japanese defeat in 1945 set the stage for a fresh phase of Singapore’s political development as the anti-colonial movement grew in strength.23
This essay proposes the simple argument that the foundations of modern Singapore were laid out in colonial times. The massive infrastructure has been built up in the era of post-1965 nation building. However, for a long time, even now, the colonial legacy remains evident. In many ways, it continues to provide the ideological, architectural, systemic and administrative pattern for life in Singapore today.
Professor Tarling himself writes of this superbly situated small island but maintains that its success was never only due to geographical positioning. Singapore, instead, is the “creation of many people.” These people (the real “pioneer generation”?) came from many lands, as settlers and sojourners. Tarling argues that what Singapore is today is due both to their own efforts, as well as “on the decisions of outsiders, colonial and post-colonial, and their handling of them.”
This short book aims to describe the trajectory its history took as a result, from the siting of a small settlement by the British East India Company in 1819 to the emergence of an independent Republic in 1965.24
In order for economies to prosper, there must be law and order, deriving from good governance. The rapid construction of political and judicial institutions paved the way for businessmen, traders, merchants and prospectors to venture in with confidence. The greater the prospects for individual and collective financial success were, the greater the draw for other immigrants to come in from afar. And Singapore in the Nineteenth Century was a magnet for many people from many lands to arrive in search of better fortunes.
WHAT SINGAPORE WAS NOT
Singapore was founded by the British in 1819. So we were all taught in school. Generally speaking, this is factually correct, but of course, the assertion begs clarification and explanation. For example, it was not really the “British” or even the “English” who founded the colony, but the Honourable East India Company, that ancient and venerable institution devoted to business and trade. With the royal charter, it had liberty and license to travel the world for commerce, business and profit. Invariably, good trade required local conditions of peace and stability, hence the many instances of flag following the trade.
It wasn’t even the whole island that the EIC acquired in 1819, but really just the area around the mouth of the Singapore River, for the purposes of establishing a trading settlement. It would have been too impulsive to have had taken the whole island and be saddled with a burden too big to bear. It was only in 1824, after five good and profitable years, that the Resident John Crawfurd sealed a deal with the Sultan, acquiring the whole island of Singapore. By then, the colony had proven its worth, business was excellent, and immigrants were pouring in from all over the world.
It wasn’t even only Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles who was responsible for the founding of the new settlement, though one would argue that he played the large and vociferous part. An ongoing academic debate has seen other good men put forward as instrumental in the acquisition and establishment of Singapore, William Farquhar and John Crawfurd, both Scottish men, being the most prominent.25 Indeed, Farquhar was on the boat that brought Raffles to shore in late January, and whom Raffles installed as the first Resident on the colony, and whose foresight and activity saw the colony fitted out with public buildings, paved roads, a harbour and port and a rudimentary police force.26 But other European communities played foundational roles as well. One mustn’t neglect to mention the Irish, the intrepid architect of early Singapore, George Coleman being among the most well-known. His public buildings still stand today, testament to his vision and enterprise. And who would have thought of the French who were there in the fray as well, doing good for the settlement.27 We must also mention that the historian John Bastin has put together a landmark collection of correspondences between Raffles and his superior in the EIC, the Marquess of Hastings, then Governor-General of India, demonstrating the major role played by the latter in Singapore’s founding, a fact thus far much overlooked.28
To highlight the contributions of the various European peoples to Singapore’s genesis and growth is not to denigrate the incalculable amount of labour, much of it back-breaking, put in by the Asian immigrant and settler communities in order to build the colony and, later, the nation. Witness not just the literature written to record their deeds and activity, such as the excellent “peoples’ history” by James Warren on the rickshaw-coolies and by Stephen Dobbs on the occupations and lives around the Singapore River29 but the number of new and older museums now established to archive their lives and educate the present generation of the monumental part played by their forefathers.30
However, while we must acknowledge the part of Farquhar, Coleman and the numerous Asian immigrants in building up the colony, we remain persuaded that it was Raffles who harboured the ambition to obtain some kind of trading port for British trade somewhere in the Malay world. It was Raffles who therefore set in motion the whole process of diplomacy and search for a new port of call.
It wasn’t Singapore, to begin with, that Raffles had hoped for. It was really the Riau islands, and that after Raffles himself had witnessed the inadequacies of Penang and Malacca. As it turned out, the Riau islands had been occupied by the Dutch, and left with diminishing options, Raffles headed north for the ancient island of Temasek, or Singapore.
It wasn’t even only for the China trade, although that has been the predominant historical reason given for the founding of Singapore. Singapore did lie on the tea trade route that linked Europe to India and to China, from whence the tea came. But Singapore was not so much obtained for Chinese reasons, as for Indian reasons. The question specifically of tea was not a major one in 1819. It was the influx of Chinese sinkheh (newcomers) into the island after the founding by the British that has bedazzled us all into assuming that the China tea-trade reason prevails. But the lucrative tea trade and the flood of Chinese would really only come after Raffles, and not before. Prior to 1819, the main thrust of policy was to find a port to serve as an outlying naval base for the British navy patrolling the Indian Ocean. The British had hoped Penang would be that naval base, but she was too exposed to the elements. Malacca, also British by then, had waters too shallow. Singapore, with her excellent deep harbour, turned out to be more suited. The island was located at the southern end of the busy Straits of Malacca, which was then not so much a passage to China as it was a passage from India.31
Finally, Singapore wasn’t even conquered. There was no bloody takeover, no fighting the natives, no battle, not even a skirmish or as much as a scuffle before Raffles could wrest control of the island for the Company. Instead, there was just a treaty signed and the island handed over in exchange for a tidy sum of money. It was, in all likelihood, it must be said, an unequal treaty. However, because it was a peaceful transaction, and because the vast majority of Singaporeans today descend from those immigrants who flocked in after 1819, and not before, we islanders do not suffer from any “victim” mentality. A good number of other ex-colonies do, and still struggle with building an identity detached from colonial rule. Singapore, in contrast, even with SG50 somewhat obscuring our clear vision, has had fewer difficulties with her colonial past. English is retained as the main language, English street names persist everywhere, grand colonial edifices remain in use, and in fact, are often renovated and made even more glorious in bearing. Institutions today abound which had their foundations in colonial times; and, quite remarkably, Singapore school students still sit for the General Cambridge Certificate Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations.
The “Long Duration” View of Singapore
In 2004, the Singapore History Museum published a book, Early Singapore 1300s – 1819: Evidence in Maps, text and Artefacts, and put forth “a convincing case for a 700 year-history of Singapore.”32 There are strong reasons advanced for casting the history of the island further back in time, all the way to the 1300s. Derek Heng has argued that if pre-colonial Singapore’s past is to become a relevant aspect of its social memory and historical narrative, then there is a need to consider the island’s history even beyond the time of its being a regional or global city to one that is indigenous.33
The National Archives of Singapore joined in the fresh discourse and in 2009, sponsored another new book, Singapore: A 700-Year History, whose editors were recognised and respected members of the nation’s academia. These editors were critical of the current popular strand of “The Singapore Story” and highlighted the “moral dilemma of whether propagation of The Singapore Story to promote civic virtues is an appropriate use, or misuse, of history.”34 Their own response to the whole issue was to relook Singapore’s history and cast it far back in time, and proposed a “long duration” view of the nation’s story.
Our rich current knowledge of pre-1819 Singapore has been derived from a wide range of evidence drawn from artefacts and archaeological data, traditional Malay literatures, early Dutch and Portuguese sources, as well as Chinese accounts. The resultant wave of scholarly works, have to a good extent, reinstated the days of ancient pre-British Singapore. Archaeological excavations and findings have abounded in recent years, yielding a wealth of material, artefacts and clues which have helped us reconstruct something of the island’s lengthened past before 1819. It has been established that even if Singapore was a “sleepy port” when Raffles set foot here, it was only because she had become one, and not that she had always been one.
As early as the thirteenth century, Singapore, or Temasek, had risen as an emporium serving the South Johor-Riau Archipelago economic area, with trading links to major Asian economies at Java, the Indian Ocean and China.35 The archaeologist John Miksic has argued persuasively that by the fourteenth century, there was even a settled population of Chinese in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, with very close links to China. In addition to economic activity round the Singapore River, Miksic even speculates, quite tantalisingly, that the Peranakan culture – “mixing Malay, Chinese and other crafts and objects into a distinct Straits blend” – might have roots as far back as this era.36
Old Temasek was indeed a vibrant, lively and prosperous maritime-based centre of trade in the region, within the geo-political structures provided by the Johor-Malacca Sultanates. That much we must acknowledge and teach our students, which we now do. However, the advocacy of any “long-duration” view of Singapore must consider this: ancient Singapore did not survive much. Due to a variety of reasons, her prosperity eventually declined and her reputation faltered, long before the EIC flag was raised at the River mouth.
Temasek’s role as a regional port-city lasted more than a hundred years, with several external factors causing her demise. By the fifteenth century, she was overtaken by Malacca, and for the subsequent three centuries remained a minor port in the Straits of Malacca, “relegated to the role of secondary port, servicing first Melaka… and then Johor in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.” It was:
Not until 1819, when Stamford Thomas Raffles established a factory in Singapore on behalf of the English East India Company, that Singapore emerged once again as an autonomous port-settlement, and was engaged once again with the international maritime economy.37
On the other hand, the evidences of colonial Singapore not only have so far endured but have, in some ways, even flourished since 1965. In addition to keeping the English language and parliamentary democracy, there still is National Service, a very British institution. The British tried to introduce it in 1955, but the Chinese schoolboys protested. Today, all their grandsons quietly board the transports for Pulau Tekong, a national rite of passage. It might even be argued that many values which formed the bulwark of the imperial system have been whole-heartedly retained today: judicial integrity, administrative impartiality, transparency, law and order and sportsmanship.
WHAT SINGAPORE BECAME:
A Thriving Colony
Under the benevolent rule of the British administration, first as part of the Straits Settlements governed from India and then later as a Crown Colony, Singapore’s population, economy and reputation grew by leaps and bounds. From all over the world, people made their way to this little gem at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Drawn by the prospect of fortune and assured of a relatively safe existence by the presence of British military and civil forces, men arrived in droves, and each contributed his part towards the story of Singapore. As early as in 1832, barely thirteen years after her founding, traveller Benjamin Morrell described with excitement the burgeoning town:
For the short period it has been in existence, Singapore is, without an exception, the most thriving colony which the British have in the East Indies; being admirably situated for all the purposes of trade, and is in fact, a centre depot for the commerce of the Chinese and Javanese seas.
All manner of goods, food and products could be found in Singapore. Among the more sought after items included tortoise shells, pearls, gold-dust, edible birds’ nests, birds of paradise, minerals, shells, pepper, coffee, sugar, hemp, indigo, gums and drugs, and precious woods. It was therefore no surprise that “within the last ten years, this place has increased and flourished beyond all calculation…to a splendid well-built little city.”38
Colonial rule provided the necessary structure and framework within which Singapore swiftly became prosperous. The new colony soon thrived with business and trade. John Turnbull Thomson, arriving by ship in Singapore in 1838 at the start of a lengthy tour of the Malay world, was delighted to hear the shout – “Singapore ahoy!” Before long, he was “anchored in British waters.”39
The River throbbed with life and the rapid increase in ships, sailors and soldiers was a simple testament that the island was pulsating with wealth. The River itself was the heart and soul of colonial Singapore. Not only was it where Raffles had stepped ashore in 1819, but by 1860, the very life of the city was to be found here. Its narrow waterway teemed with all manner of boats, junks and vessels, each bringing in the goods of the world from the larger ships anchored out on the coasts of Singapore. On both sides lining the River, trading houses, warehouses, banks and a whole variety of services kept the economy of the colony going. The merchants had their offices at nearby Boat Quay and Commercial Square, where crowds would gather each day to exchange business news and listen to travellers’ tales.
The ships kept sailing into Singapore, tribute to her robust growth as a trading port. In 1856, over half a million ships had arrived; the value of the island’s commerce by this time doubling what it had been fifteen years before. Clearly, trade was Singapore’s lifeline and the British brand of free trade was proving to be a success. Merchants who plied their wares in other ports gravitated to Singapore, and she quickly became the crucial hinge between trade in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the Java Sea.40
The first and second British Residents, William Farquhar and John Crawfurd laid the foundations for the swift progress. Within a few years, the roads were laid out, public buildings erected in the usual orderly fashion of Empire, a rudimentary but sufficient system of law and order prevailed, and the colony was set to go. A quick glance at the famous map of Singapore in 1823 as sketched by Lt Jackson certainly demonstrates the typical neat and business-like lay out of the settlement, from Chinatown, north of the River, to the Arab Quarters, south of the River. The races were kept apart, according to the prevailing notions of people management in the Nineteenth Century. The British appointed Kapitans, and worked with them, as they in turn maintained order among their own ethnic groups, or clans. In this way, the authorities could keep an eye on local matters without having to intervene high-handedly too quickly.
What the new colony also needed in large quantities and rapidly, were workers. These came in great numbers, and as a result, the population of Singapore burgeoned, from some 150 orang laut in 1819 to 30,000 just twenty years later. Almost half of these were Chinese from China. The reasons for migration have often been categorised simply into the “push” and “pull” factors. The former reasons are easy enough – natural disasters, civil war, lack of jobs et cetera. What pulled them specifically to Singapore is a rather more intricate question, but significant for our purposes. While family or clan relations did play a part, quite certainly, there were more distinct factors that drew the many here.
The possibility, and the perceived probability of economic wealth, combined with the reputation of the British for upholding suitable conditions amenable for business soon lured thousands upon thousands of young men onto the shores of sunny Singapore. The myriads of men arrived from all over the world – from places associated with the British Empire, which Singapore was part of now, as well as places outside the British Empire, such as China. This combination was remarkable, and demonstrated both the liberality of colonial administration as well as the adaptability of the expanding population of the island. Even in the 1830s and 1840s, almost everyone walking the streets of Singapore had not been born here. But having spent more and more time on the island, and the temptation to return “home” diminishing, the many men and few women of Singapore became resigned to the convenience of simply living here, hopefully making it big here, and quite likely, dying here. In other words, many had come to reckon Singapore to be their place of residence, if not home.
The colony rapidly defined itself by becoming multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious. Thomson’s observation of the inhabitants in the pulsating colony, is well worth quoting:
Here is a conglomeration of all eastern and western nations. Subjects of nations at war are friendly here, they are bound hand and foot by the absorbing interests of commerce. The pork-hating Jew of Persia embraces the pork-loving Chinese of Chinchew. The cow-adoring Hindoo of Benares hugs the cow-slaying Arab of Juddah. Even the Englishman, proud yet jolly, finds it to his interest to unbend and associate with the sons of Shem, whether it be in commerce, in sports or at the banquet.41
History books are replete with examples of how these new immigrants lived difficult lives in Singapore, how many made their names or filled their purses, and how each in their own way contributed to building up Singapore. There was specialisation too: the Chinese as planters, traders, businessmen, coolies, rickshaw pullers and labourers. The Indians worked in finance, money lending, laundry and managed general sundry stores. Many came as convict labour and numerous too by way of the British Army. The Malays worked hard as policemen, fishermen, gardeners and in the sea-related vocations.
Singapore was indeed a typical British colony. Its multitudes of people remained largely separate one from another both by choice as well as by design. It was a plural society, where the different ethnic groups lived and worked within their own community, keeping an arm’s length from other groups. It was not just that the European colonial society existed apart from the larger Asian masses, but even the Asian mass was never a homogenous group. We today are uncomfortable with ethnic quarters or ghettos, but it was the norm in the Nineteenth Century, all over the world. Social relations between the races were endemically laced with mutual suspicion, without always degenerating into armed conflict. Chinese clerks in the local law courts would surreptitiously refer to the “red devils” in their documents, just as the Manchus in China labelled their foreign visitors as barbarians. The Europeans did not expect to be invited to the clubs of the Asian community, but neither did the locals expect to be welcome into the sports clubs of the colonial society. Not yet, at any rate.
A “VITAL COMMERCIAL KEYPOINT” OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE
The diverse, varied and transient population proved no hindrance whatsoever to the swift rise of the colony. In 1867, the administering of the Straits Settlements – Penang, Malacca and Singapore – passed over from the East India Company directly to the Crown. This had occurred partly because of the growing financial difficulties faced by the East India Company and partly because the British government back home had come to value Singapore as a naval base for its ships. This transfer to the Colonial Office meant that from henceforth even more attention would be paid to the Straits Settlements. Singapore ceased to be an isolated settlement, “looking out to sea, living on her nerves and her wits in the uncertainties of international trade.” Her role in the region and the Empire would now take on even more greater proportions:
She acquired permanent status as a major entrepot on the leading East-West Straits of Malacca trade route, the focus of the trading wealth of the Malay peninsula and the Dutch East Indies, and one of the most vital commercial keypoints of the British Empire.42
When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, providing a long-awaited water-route through the deserts of Egypt and reducing the time taken for all sea travel to the East by a great deal, shipping to and trading with Singapore grew significantly. This, coupled with the latest developments in steam navigation, meant that the new Suez route gained popularity. The steam engines and clippers still required frequent replenishing of coal and fresh water between Europe and China, and this gave rise to the need for well-placed coaling stations. Singapore inevitably became another such coaling depot, thus acquiring a new strategic and economic significance in the global trade network. “It was Singapore’s singular good fortune to lie on the natural routes of both sailing and steam vessels.”43
The whole settlement rapidly transformed into an ever growing boisterous place and a heavily populated colonial port-city. In the 1840s, not long after Morrell’s report, her population still only numbered in the low tens of thousands. By 1871, this figure had mushroomed to 97,000 inhabitants, the vast majority of whom lived within or just beyond the town limits.
There were several effects of this sharp population growth. For one, the pressure forced the town of Singapore to spread out: to the west toward New Harbour (later Keppel Harbour), to the east toward Geylang and Katong along the East Coast Road; to the northwest, along River Valley Road and Orchard Road toward Tanglin; and to the north along Serangoon Road toward the far end of the island. Second, the port city that quickly emerged through this multitude of people was both “gentrified and dilapidated, prosperous and poor – European and Asian.”44
THE PROBLEM WITH IMMIGRANTS
However, with people came problems. Within a matter of decades, Singapore also became rather difficult to manage. As the numbers of people working here exploded out of hand, the tiny police force struggled to keep order. This was a critical issue because for any economic development to be realised, there had to be governance that upheld and enforced law and order. Perhaps one reason why the police force was so quickly overwhelmed was the nature in which the immigrants congregated.
It was quite natural for new immigrants to be drawn to those of their own community, especially if those ties of kinship or dialect group extended back to the original homelands. The Chinese sinkheh who arrived stepped into the comfort and security of his community. Secret societies, or triads, were prevalent everywhere, established initially to provide new arrivals with friendship, accommodation and assistance in finding jobs. These societies, however, also had a shady aspect, with dealings in money-lending, gambling dens, prostitution and the collection of protection-money. Gangsters were often recruited to ensure compliance and by the middle of the century, there were few Chinese businesses that remained out of the clutches of the secret societies. It was well known that even the big Chinese towkays, or businessmen, had either dealings with the triads or were even office-holders in them! The pervasive, far-reaching and troublesome tentacles of the Chinese secret societies posed a dilemma to the government: how to suppress the illegal and harmful activities of a community that brought in so much profit and business.
Open clashes between the gangs occurred for many reasons – over territory, membership, extortion and control of both lawful and illicit trades. In 1851, the Ghee Hin triad, regarded as Singapore’s first secret society, launched an attack against Christian Chinese-owned gambier and pepper plantations. Known as the Anti-Catholic Riots, the assault was directed at former Ghee Hin members who had eroded the society’s control over the gambier and pepper plantations when they left to join the Catholic faith. The attacks spread to all over the island, and left some 500 Chinese dead and 27 plantations destroyed, before being quelled by the British.45
Laws and ordinances were cumbersome and slow to check the growing social blights. Instead, the secret societies thrived on the increasing coolie movement as Chinese immigrants flooded into Singapore, attracted by opportunities for work in the British Malay States. By the mid-1870s, the November-February junk season brought 30,000 Chinese to Singapore annually; this number included numerous samsengs, or professional thugs lured by the demand for fighting men in the Perak tin mines. By 1872 the Singapore Ghee Hok society alone had 4,000 samsengs at its command.46
The Colonial Office viewed the mounting troubles in Singapore with some anxiety, as the numbers of riots sweeping through the colony spiked. The Coolie and Samseng Riots which broke out in 1871 after a minor pick-pocketing incident between a Hokkien and a Teochew, descended into open street battles which the police authorities struggled to suppress. In 1872, an official Commission of Enquiry outlined clearly what it felt to be the root causes of the trouble, which stemmed from the Mandarins back in China “clearing out hordes of rowdies and bad characters who have infested a district near Swatow” (in China).
Numbers of these roughs and bad characters who have escaped with their lives, have been brought to the Straits by sailing and steam vessels, and are now infesting this Colony with their presence. These men accustomed to live in their own country by plunder and violence bring with them the lawless habits they have acquired. They are attached to the various secret societies existing in the Colony, and pay implicit obedience to the orders, whatever they may be, given them by the headman.47
In view of such disturbances among and by the Chinese in Singapore, one historian has observed that beneath the surface, British rule did not have very much de facto authority. And that it was the Chinese who were the real power in Nineteenth Century Singapore. In fact, “Chinese riots were trials of strength, conducted with impunity as if the government did not exist.”48 While the government resorted to the military, the police, and the law, these were all with a mixture of results. It was later, with the appointment of Mr William Pickering as the first Protector of Chinese, that the tide began to turn.
Then there was piracy, an ancient but troublesome menace to the increasing number of ships and merchants drawn to the colony. Though likely situated in the Eighteenth Century, the blockbuster-movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, lures viewers into the dark and murky underworld of Singapore. When Captain Barbarossa alights from the ship, the pirate-gangster Sao Feng greets him with a barely-muffled hiss: “Captain Barbarossa, welcome to Singapore.” Piracy was a clear and present danger to legitimate trade. As the threat to merchandise and even life increased, traders debated the worth of navigating the Straits of Malacca and anchoring at Singapore. And since trade was the lifeline of the colony, it was imperative that the authorities do something effective and fast.
Still other problems existed and persisted as well - inter-ethnic tension and petty quarrels, the abuse of coolies, illegal smuggling and trade, street crime and the like. One ghastly scourge afflicted many Chinese immigrants: opium addiction. The drug was easily available, and was sold and consumed virtually without restraint. The habit of smoking was so pervasive that the authorities were well aware of the dens but unable and unwilling to suppress it totally. Travellers were quickly struck by its prevalence and tragic effects it had on its victims:
These haunts of the drug that enslaves were long and narrow rooms, with a central passage and a long, low platform on each side…. Ranged along on these platforms wide enough for two men, facing each other and using a common lamp, were scores of opium smokers…. One Chinese man was so far under the influence of the drug that his eyes were glazed and he was staring at some vision called up by the powerful narcotic. One old Chinese, seeing our interest in the spectacle, shook his head and said, ‘Opium very bad for Chinaman; make him poor, make him weak.’49
Opium dens proliferated, especially in the Chinatown area. In 1848, there were 45 licensed opium shops; by 1900 there were 550. The trade was so lucrative that both the colonial authorities, who monopolised the supply of raw opium, and the wealthy Chinese business men, to whom were leased the rights to prepare and distribute the opiate, reaped great profits. Consequently, the will to suppress this harmful trade was initially rather weak. Illegal gambling was another social ill. Although outlawed in 1829, enforcement was sporadic and ineffective. Punishment of offenders was light, and frequently, police officers sent to investigate the gambling dens or arrest the culprits were confronted by hired gangs of thugs.
The flood of Chinese coolies into Singapore throughout the Nineteenth Century resulted in both severe overcrowding in the Chinatown tenements as well as abuse of the coolies themselves. Largely uneducated, unskilled and poor, many coolies found themselves in labour-intensive, back-breaking work as construction workers, plantation workers, rickshaw pullers and stevedores. Often, their very existence and employment in the colony were controlled by those shady agents to whom many paid exorbitant fees in advance. One more burdensome social problem was prostitution, a not unexpected result of the disproportionate ratio of men to women on the island (1 female to 14 males in 1860). Prostitution ruined the lives of countless women and caused large-scale health issues.50
Often enough, the dark shadows of the gangs loomed over these venues of vice as well. Overwhelmingly, it was the secret societies and piracy that tested the problem-solving skills of the colonial administration. How the British authorities set about suppressing crime was a testament to their administrative ingenuity as well as technological prowess.
ENFORCING LAW AND ORDER
Thomas Dunman was appointed the island’s first Commissioner of Police in 1856. Realising how difficult it was to recruit good Chinese men into the police force where they would often have to confront their fellow-Chinese in the gangs, Dunman established the Detective Branch in 1862. This move allowed Chinese to enter the force as plain-clothes officers and work undetected by those they were trying to apprehend. The pay and working conditions of the police were improved, and consequently, morale and efficiency were also enhanced. In 1871, William Pickering, fresh from colonial duties in southern China, was posted to Singapore and in 1877, became the island’s inaugural Protector of Chinese. With the glorious title came manifold expectations, and Pickering certainly lived up to these.
Men such as Dunman and Pickering introduced a slew of new initiatives which in turn gradually gained the confidence of the local community. The delicate combination of stern measures to suppress the troublesome secret societies and more open, transparent dealings with the locals slowly won over many. The ability and willingness of Pickering to conduct his conversations in Mandarin was also a significant factor for his success, even as he prosecuted the tough stance of registering and monitoring the activities of the societies.51 However, as expected, the force and rapidity of the changes in law enforcement also incurred the wrath of many gangsters, who sought means to stem the tide. The attempted murder of Pickering in 1887 was one expression of frustration on the part of the offended.
English technology was crucial in giving the authorities the edge over criminals. On the high seas, piracy was dented, then checked by the advent of the steam-powered gunboat. These crafts, now cruising independent of the wind, deftly cornered many a pirate, slowly but surely wresting control of the waters away from the marine thugs. In doing so, trade and businesses were assured of greater safety, and the maritime-based economy of Singapore set on a more sure footing.
The telegraph, steam engine, finger-printing equipment and better weaponry were just several of the technological advances which gave the British sheer superiority of power over others. But it was not just technology. The administration of an Empire so vast and large, so diverse in peoples and conditions, required an educated elite force to manage it. The schools and universities of Britain churned out scores of young men ready to administer the Empire. The Victorians, it seemed, wanted their Empire ruled by the ultimate academic elite: impartial, incorruptible and omnipresent.52
In Singapore, such an efficient and well-oiled colonial administration was just what was required to keep the burgeoning population in check. Law and order was of the essence if the colony was to survive, let alone thrive. The presence of a robust police force, stern judiciary and stiff civil service all combined with the lively, highly-adaptable and hardworking inhabitants to quickly prove that the island was indeed a splendid little colony.
Although by our standards today rather inadequate and sporadic, the colonial authorities also initiated rudimentary education and health care services. One way by which the ruling elite could be assured of a middling-rank of supportive locals willing to collaborate was education. Not only were schools constructed, teachers employed (albeit mostly European to begin with), but intelligent and highly motivated young Asian men were provided with attractive scholarships to study in the best universities in England. Queen’s scholars such as Song Ong Siang, later “Sir,” quickly formed part of a loyal bureaucracy as lawyers, and civil servants. English-styled education in local schools such as the Anglo-Chinese School, Raffles Institution and St Andrew’s School turned out little Anglo-Asian boys (and later, girls) who spoke the Queen’s English and read the English language newspapers. The constant rewarding and decorating of such patriotic Asian subjects of the crown – or “ornamentalism”53 – had an impact which was both stunning and effective. This group of local loyalists were courted on many sides and conferred with such dignity so as to elevate their status in the eyes of the administrators and the rest of the ruled.
SINGAPORE AT THE HIGH NOON OF EMPIRE
The British Empire reached her dizzying heights at the turn of the century, in 1900, before the horrendous tragedies of the two world wars. A significant portion of the world was in some way governed by Britain – as dominions, colonies, protectorates or territories. Still fresh in the hearts of those in the metropolis as well as in the colonies was the grand spectacle three years prior. In 1897, Queen Victoria had commemorated her Diamond Anniversary on the throne. Every celebrating English person had cause to smile smugly as he or she surveyed the world map on the wall, a quarter of which would be coloured red.
…their pride was understandable, as they contemplated their possessions that summer. It was a world of their own that they commanded, stamped to their pattern and set in motion by their will. Their flag was, if not loved, at least respected everywhere. Their ships lay in every port, and majestically moved down every waterway. Their trams puffed to intricate time-tables across the plains of Asia. Their armies stood to their guns in gullys of Chitral or barrack squares of Canada, their administrators ordered the affairs of strangers from Lagos to Hong Kong…. In every continent the Queen’s judges decreed lives or deaths, the Queen’s warships swanked into harbour and the sounds of empire echoed: hymn tunes, reveilles, halloos, sirens, rifle chatter, “Play the game,” from their schoolmasters and “Boy!” from the lounging planters. It was a stupendous surge of their own energy that the British were witnessing and it stood beyond logic or even self-control: as when a man suddenly realises his own strength and expects life itself to obey him.54
The strains of “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves….!” were heard, sung and re-sung everywhere the Union Jack flew. Composed originally in the 1740s, the patriotic verses had been made even more popular by the deft inclusion into the plays of Gilbert and Sullivan, in 1887 – the play HMS Pinafore, celebrating the Queen’s jubilee – and even in 1897, rousing all at Victoria’s sixtieth year on the throne as “Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India.”
With the Empire at its pinnacle, travelling within and even without her boundaries was at its height. Major colonies such as Singapore became more accessible by ship from Europe as well as Asia. This fluidity of movement into the small island had no little impact on social relations there.
By this time the population of the colony was around 140,000, filled with those devoted to acquiring riches and those who simply came to eke out a living. The official 1907 handbook to Singapore declared that the streets of the town were crowded, busy all day and all night. There were “carriages, hack-gharries, bullock-carts, and jinrickshas pass and re-pass in a continual stream.” There was never any shortage of hawkers or food: “native vendors of various kinds of foods, fruits, and drinks, take up their position by the roadsides, or, wandering up and down the streets,” all shouting, haggling and extolling the excellence of their wares. In summary, “all is bustle and activity.”55
The ethnic variety, so long a feature of Singapore life, remained colourful and diverse so much so that the colony was a veritable collection-pot of babble:
In half an hour’s walk, a stranger may hear the accents of almost every language and see the features and costumes of nearly every race in the world. Amongst the crowds that pass him, he may see, besides Europeans of every nation, Chinese, Malays, Hindus, Madrassees, Sikhs, Japanese, Burmese, Siamese, Javanese, Boyanese, Singhalese, Tamils, Arabs, Jews, Parsees, Negroes etc etc.56
With so many groups of the earth’s inhabitants living on a small island colony, it is no surprise that there was such a great variety of religions present. The bustle and noise that emerged from the streets of the native quarters mingled with the ceaseless sounds of religious fervour – the ringing of bells, rapid beating of drums and hum of chants. According to Isabella Bird, an astute Victorian observer, it was altogether, “an intensely heathenish sound.” And befitting the frenetic nature of the town.
And heathenish this great city is. Chinese joss-houses, Hindu temples, and Mohammedan mosques almost jostle each other, and the indescribable clamour of the temples and the din of the joss houses are faintly pierced by the shrill cry from the minarets calling the faithful to prayer, and proclaiming the divine unity and the mission of Mahomet in one breath.57
THE “CODE OF THE PUKKA SAHIB”
However, in truth, many members of the colonial society did not like to be at close quarters to the “indescribable clamour.” Being in the vast minority meant that it was often very overwhelming to live in a tropical island which was so hot and humid and so full of mystery. For them, many Asian rituals, habits, temperaments and vices remained unknown and difficult to understand. It was always far easier to rule and administer the masses from afar rather than from among them; to remain separate from the natives rather than to “go native.”
To be sure, this propensity to be detached posed a very real dilemma to the colonial elite. This was because by the late Victorian century, the British Empire was run by men and women who were also convinced that as rulers, or colonisers, they had a major role to play in the uplifting of indigenous and immigrant societies. How to resolve the conundrum of ruling and uplifting the Empire’s subjects without getting too close to them was the whole function of The Code of the Pukka Sahib.58
This code of conduct for the white man – or pukka sahib - in the colonies, though never explicitly defined or formalised, had certain marked characteristics that served to guide his behaviour in the home, within the European community and towards other races. All these were meant to separate, rather than integrate, him from the larger Asian populace whom he ruled. Europeans preserved their prestige by maintaining among themselves a higher standard of living than that enjoyed by other ethnic groups, and by staying aloof from the alien world all around. “Separateness was a technique of dominance.”59
A sharp sense of the alien surroundings the English were in was vital to the maintaining of the code. As late as 1934, Roland Braddell advised his son:
If you want to be happy, remember that the country is just around the corner waiting to blackjack you. Don’t admit that you are living in an oriental city; live as nearly as possible as you would in Europe. Read plenty… keep yourself up to date… have your own things around you, and as much beauty as you can in your own home. Above all, never wear a sarong and baju; this is the beginning of the end.60
The colonial community did their utmost to “live as nearly as possible as…in Europe.” An English woman arriving in the British colony of Penang, (so similar to Singapore) north of Kuala Lumpur in 1911, for example, would spend her day first at the Botanic Gardens, where the sycamores and sloping lawns would remind her of Wiltshire. Dinner and dancing in the evening was predictably at the E & O Hotel. Here the chef was European and the lady might well have been eating in London. After a night’s rest, the lady could climb Penang Hill, either on foot, on pony or on a sedan chair borne on the shoulders of Tamil labourers.
All was calculated to make the white man’s Penang as European as possible. Nothing was foreign here, as long as he did not look too hard. Most of the British did not. Yet much of Penang was foreign. Near the E & O hotel were opium dens and child prostitutes and a large leper colony. There was the temple close by with its deadly snakes. Even in the Gardens, lurking among the oaks and willows were ipoh trees whose sap was poisonous and clumps of nibong palm, the stems of which were used as blow pipes. This Penang the newcomer chose to ignore. Their Penang was “an evening of foxtrots and clarets.”61
What the British ate at home in Penang and Singapore was telling. For breakfast – oat porridge, bacon and eggs, tea, toast and marmalade. For dinner, typically tomato soup, cold asparagus, roast chicken, mashed potatoes and canned peas. The Planter often ran recipes for bread sauce, parsley stuffing, lemon tarts and Welsh rabbit. At Christmas there were instructions on how to make trifle, brandy butter and mince pies. As for strawberries and cream, if no strawberries were available, one could produce a realistic substitute by mashing bananas with plain milk. After mashing and beating this for a few minutes, “it will smell like fresh, crushed strawberries. Add two or three teaspoonfuls of strawberry jam to complete the illusion and place on ice for half an hour before serving.”62
The institutions the British built in Malaya were to be replicas of those at home in England. These included clubs, race courses, gardens and cricket fields. For the Englishman or woman who resided in Singapore, they could, if they had wanted to, choose to live as if they were still in England itself, among English people only. As late as in 1927, a Helen Candee would write concerning the colony:
You live there in an English hotel, with English people about you, and English motor cars driving up to the entrance below your balcony. Across the square is an English club, and standing within the wide stretch of trees and lawn is an English cathedral with English chimes that ring out the English hours.63
The British enjoyed life as they would have in England – with bridge parties, dinner and dance functions and tennis. All was designed to delude them into thinking they had never ever left England. “The British were master illusionists. Like that recipe for faux-strawberries, nearly everything they did in Malaya was designed to deceive.” The British quickly decided that there was only one way to survive in a Malaya they had to rule but did not fully understand: they had to stick together.64
And stick together they certainly did. By the 1880s, the invention of the steam engine had facilitated transport to the East. Many more Europeans came out, so that it quickly became easier for the colonial society to find friendship within its own circle. The necessity for inter-mingling with the local races diminished with time. And once a few Englishmen (and women) were gathered together they quickly found numerous ways to amuse themselves.65
One result of such increasingly introspective socialising was the growth in the number of hill-stations. In Malaya, the British often resorted to these places for rest and recreation. Short stays in these stations, located at Fraser’s Hill, Cameron Highlands and Maxwell Hill were sought after for escape from the perceived health hazards of the lowlands. The tropical climate, it was thought, had a negative effect on the English constitution and would lead to mental and physical disabilities. Since regular trips back to England were too costly, tours of duty in Malaya were punctuated by retreats to these increasingly popular hill-stations. “In short, one rationale for the development of hill-stations was that they obviated the necessity of a long and costly journey home by providing more accessible places with a benign, home-like climate that promised physical and emotional renewal.”66
A major component of the pukka sahib’s code of conduct out in the colonies, was therefore to remain separate from non-Europeans as much as possible.
There was to be no consorting with the Other. Do that and they risked, not just themselves, but colonialism as well – history’s great effort to forge a better world. The British had not come to Malaya to assimilate. Nothing would have been more detrimental to their purpose. They were the stewards of Judgment Day, destiny’s children, history’s chosen instrument, Malaya would assimilate with them.67
Edward Ingram has forwarded a fascinating argument that the colonial in his own corner of the empire lived in a daydream peopled by fantasies; the stability of his life was owed to the confidence that his daydream would not be interrupted. He was required to daydream, but could not decide what to dream about or when to dream.
The Code of the Pukka Sahib did not emulate the public school tradition of trying to turn out a certain style of man; it merely trained everyone to live as if nobody were around. One was asked to follow a strict, all-encompassing routine, and one’s success in following it was measured by an ability to stand still. The ideal Pukka Sahib never moved.68
We pause now to caution that it is dangerous to judge the Empire and its servants by the standards and values of the 21st century. Singapore, like most other colonial cities in the Victorian century, was pluralistic rather than multicultural. That is, local society was characterised by a strict occupational and social stratification along ethnic lines. There was little common interaction, except for the basic exchange for daily necessities.69 Even the geographical layout of the town area, dating back to Raffles’ time, still existed quite unchanged. There were separate quarters for the Chinese, the Arabs, the Indians, the Bugis and so on. There was no national identity as we would know it today. There was precious little to move or to bind the races together.
THE CONTRIBUTION OF COLLABORATORS
However, some groups of people within colonial cities did assimilate with the rulers. This was in many ways a convenient and pragmatic move, one in which both sides stood to gain. Although today, the very idea of collaboration with the colonial elite raises eyebrows and elicits murmurs of disapproval, it was not necessarily so in the colonial era. In fact, such “collaborators” often carried themselves with great pride and were viewed upon somewhat enviously by others as an emerging prosperous and confident middle-class.
The British in the colonies were always on the look-out for such groups of subject-people who have come to be described by the historian Ronald Robinson as “a small modern elite of collaborators.” The ability to manufacture just such a group – westernized in outlook, sympathy and habit – where ever in the world the British governed contributed in large measure to the erecting of a secure colonial societal super-structure, with the European at the top, collaborating local elite just below and the other races in total subjection.
Collaborators were kept happy and therefore collaborating by a system of incentives and rewards – office, honours, contracts and social services.70
This above method of governing an empire certainly applied to the British in Singapore.
Empires rely not merely on force, but on eliciting support. The exertion of British influence in the world – and indeed not merely its maintenance of imperial and colonial relationships – depended on the collaboration of elites in the states and territories concerned. The British recognized this. They looked to such elites to govern, to preserve stability in, and to transform the states with which they dealt, whether within or outside the bounds of empire itself. Intervention might be needed if they failed. But an elite would still be needed even so.71
In Singapore, the Straits Chinese community emerged as that very elite. They were a socio-ethnic group which evolved by adapting the best of many cultures. Ethnically Chinese, they spoke their own Baba Malay patois, took on the localised Malayan attire and created a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine. With their distinct predisposition towards learning and using the English language, and comfortably ensconced in sectors of life close to the ruling elite, this Peranakan (or “local born”) community quickly became known as the “Queen’s Chinese.”
Over time, a mutually-beneficial relationship was formed between this group of Chinese and the colonial administration. The Straits-Chinese were familiar with local conditions and also with the colonial power structure and were therefore often co-opted to help administer the Empire as lower-ranked civil servants. For their part, the Peranakans found it in their interests to collaborate with the British government, as it gave them a measure of prestige, social leverage and pride.72
Associating the British with progress and advancement and seeing only one way by which they could ensure their own material success, namely by being loyal subjects of the British crown, the Straits Chinese often made professions of loyalty such as the following which appeared in The Straits Chinese Magazine of June 1900:
The Straits-born Chinese are subjects of the Queen. Let them look to the Union Jack alone for advancement, and let them identify themselves fully with the British cause. They must advance! They must reform!.... Let them be true Britishers heart and soul! Then the all-embracing aegis of the British shall be sufficient for them for ages to come. Rule Britannia!73
That very same year, the Straits Chinese British Association volunteered to assist British troops in China supress the Boxer Rebellion!
SOUTH AFRICA AND THE STRAITS CHINESE
“On the night of the fall of Pretoria (5 June – which marked the victory of the British in the South African war against the rebel Boers) there was a monster procession [in Singapore] of the China-born Chinese, followed on the next night, by a grand procession in which all communities participated…. And the premier place in the procession was given to a Chinese detachment of British subjects. After them came the members of the Straits Chinese Social Club, each wearing a Union Jack across his breast and carrying illuminated lanterns with the query – ‘Where are the Straits Chinese volunteers?’ The Straits Times says: ‘We most legitimately applaud, in the name of the Empire, the zeal and enthusiasm of the Straits-born Chinese.’ The immediate sequel was the formation of the Straits Chinese British Association, on the 17th August 1900.”
(From Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years History of the Chinese in Singapore.)
THE INCORPORATION OF COLLABORATORS
In September 1913, the British government decided to honour the native ruler of the Malayan state of Perak, Sultan Idris Shah, who they regarded as amiable, accommodating and progressive. In the investiture ceremony, the Sultan would be awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Victoria Order (GCVO), the highest award ever conferred upon a Malay Sultan at that time. The event itself, according to the political scientist and historian Farish Noor, was brilliantly orchestrated and “one of the most elaborate, overwrought and overstated spectacles played out during Malaya’s colonial era.” Noor has gone on to articulate, quite persuasively, the deeper significance of the whole episode:
“This incorporation of the native Colonial subject was clearly a forceful one for it required the colonised native subject to be first reduced to an instrumental fiction, to suit the ideological needs of a dominant discourse that was about to reconfigure him. It was, in short, a spectacle which incorporated the native while disabling him at the same time by reducing him to the status of passive recipient. In this way the Anglophile Sultan Idris stood inert, seemingly paralysed in his exotic native splendour, to receive his knighthood from a global power which had descended upon the native land and ‘civilised’ it in turn. As he stood to receive the GCVO, Sultan Idris Shah was undoubtedly aware of the fact that he was receiving an award from a superior political power that he could neither match nor resist.”
(Farish A. Noor, “The Sultan who could not stay put: the extraordinary life of Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor,” in The Other Malaysia: Writings on Malaysia’s Subaltern History)
“THE BRITISH EMPIRE IS SO MISUNDERSTOOD”
Singapore herself was a cosmopolitan city but largely an Anglo-Chinese preserve. The British rulers held a monopoly of official political power. They provided protection, justice and administration. To the visitor from Britain, Singapore was very English in appearance, “so flourishing and enlightened, so advanced and well-governed.”74 An observer in 1895 remarked that all this whole thriving, driven and prosperous city existed “simply because of the presence of the English law and under the protection of the English flag.”75
Historians have long debated which of the following agendas drove the British to acquire, sustain and govern an Empire – Commerce, Christianity, Conquest or Civilisation. It has in fact been fashionable in the last three of four decades to view Empire-building almost exclusively as a doggedly racialist and or economic global project of domination, abuse and exploitation.76 However, the truth is not quite so simple to unpack.
We have been recently reminded that numerous parts of the British Empire were not taken by force. The historian John Darwin has in fact outlined the complex, even confusing, manner in which the Empire was “acquired.”
Empire-building was thus a higgledy-piggledy process in which government policies, or decisions taken in Whitehall, were only a part (sometimes a small part) of the story.
Darwin sees Britain’s overseas empire as sorted into four different types, “almost different sub-empires.” There were firstly, the large number of self-governing colonies (North America, Australasia and the Caribbean); secondly, there was India, and with it, influence from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. Thirdly, those Darwin terms “a ragbag” of small territories originally acquired as bases or fortresses (Gibraltar, Malta, St Helena), booming trade entrepots (Singapore, Hong Kong), and a “sprinkling of minnows acquired for no discernible reason but hard to abandon. Fourthly, there was the “nearly invisible” informal empire, existing without the benefit of governors, flags or annexations, but dependent upon the influence of merchants, bankers and diplomats (Egypt, Argentina, Uruguay).77
Bernard Porter, esteemed historian of the British Empire, asserts that it was all even more fundamental and elementary in origin than that:
At the root of Britain’s expansion in the world in modern times was pretty obviously simple economics, in particular trade early on and then finance, fuelled by her industrial and capitalist revolutions, but tempered, when it came to ruling colonies, by this pre-capitalist survival. On top of this basic dynamic, however, were other factors. Once on its feet and running, the beast was mounted by groups of people with other ideas, interests and motivations that happened to point in the same direction. Among them were politicians, do-gooders and national glory hunters. Sometimes they thought the British Empire was their doing. It wasn’t; but they could make a difference to it.78
Singapore was one of those colonies where this “basic dynamic” of trade, once entrenched, paved the way for economic prosperity. Furthermore, it was not taken nor sustained by force. When Raffles departed from Singapore in 1823, he addressed the merchants of the settlement thus:
It has happily been consistent with the policy of Great Britain, and accordant with the principles of the East India Company, that Singapore should be established a free port; and that no sinister, no sordid view, no consideration either of political importance or pecuniary advantage, should interfere with the broad and liberal principles on which the British interests have been established…. That Singapore will long and always remain a free port, and that no taxes on trade or industry will be established to check its future rise and prosperity, I can have no doubt.79
We ought not to belittle the importance of this underlying motivation for the establishment of, and commitment to, the settlement and colony of Singapore. It was not one which was dependent upon slave trade, where countless nameless people were press-ganged into hard labour. Neither was Singapore conquered, which in itself has spared its modern descendants the numbing psychological shackles of the “victim” mentality. The lure of free-trade, with all its attendant risks of failure, proved a captivating enough draw to fortune-seekers from all over Asia and beyond, so that men arrived largely of their own free will. Considering the fact that Singapore never developed as a European-based settler colony like those in Australia or Canada, this liberty of movement in and out of the island also translated into a fluid social system, based on economic success – or failure. Eventually, the competitive nature of nascent (or primitive) capitalism also forged a certain resilience in the transient Asian population, and a notable level of commitment to the community whenever the difficult decision was made to sever familial ties with the country of origin and make Singapore their new home.
SINGAPORE’S CENTENARY CELEBRATIONS IN 1919
Singapore marked one hundred years of existence as a British colony on Thursday 6 February 1919. As expected, the excitement in the city was palpable and the flurry of happy activities, festivities and parades were fair indications of the mood of the residents there. The day itself was declared a public holiday. Sports and regattas were organised, and public pageants and colourful parades were attended by supportive crowds. A new statue of Singapore’s founder was unveiled, with the inscription:
THIS TABLET TO THE MEMORY OF SIR STAMFORD RAFFLES
TO WHOSE FORESIGHT AND GENIUS SINGAPORE
OWES ITS EXISTENCE AND PROSPERITY
WAS UNVEILED ON FEBRUARY 6TH I919
THE lOOTH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE FOUNDATION OF THE SETTLEMENT.
But perhaps the event of the day which was looked forward to with most interest by the general public was the procession of children of the various schools in Singapore, which converged towards the Racecourse shortly before 4 p.m. The vibrant scene, so obviously gushing with loyalty to Britain, yet with a hint of enforced joy, has been described in detail for us:
The Johore band led the way, followed by four Raffles boys bearing aloft the green, white, and black standard of Raffles Institution. Next in succession came St. Joseph's Institution, with its green and white banner heading the long line of boys, flanked by the Brothers and carrying numerous flags. Then followed the Anglo-Chinese School (blue and gold); St. Andrew's, with its beautiful banner of blue and white, held proudly in the van; the Victoria Bridge School; St. Anthony's Boys' School; the Outram Road School; the A.C.F.S., Adventist, and Pearl's Hill Schools. Then, as the last four of the almost unending line had passed to their places, the Volunteer band ushered in a long procession of girls, who made a pretty sight, dressed in white, and carrying a brave array of banners and flags. The pride of place was accorded to Raffles Girls' School, who were followed by the Convent girls, with the Sisters on either side, and bearing banners of exceptionally well executed design.
Among the schools which passed one after the other were St. Anthony's Convent, with banners of brown and pink; the Methodist Girls' Schools, with pink and green; the Fairfield School, with blue and gold; and the Singapore Chinese Girls' School, with pink and mauve. The colour heightened as the various Malay schools came into view with banners, a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, and flags innumerable; while the Chinese schools, with wonderfully conceived banners and shields, contributed to the kaleidoscopic effects of the triumphal progress.80
On a rather more serious note, the Committee in charge of the centenary celebrations was of the opinion that the most “suitable memorial” for the occasion would be a scheme providing for “the advancement of the education of the Colony” with a view to laying the foundations upon which a university may in due time be established. It proposed, firstly, the construction of technical and higher grade schools; secondly, the provision of science and arts university colleges; thirdly, and eventually, a university with power to confer degrees in sciences and arts.
This move was significant for the colony’s future. But in a sense, it merely echoed the sentiments of Raffles himself when he said, in 1823, while proposing the establishment of a Malay College, that:
Education must keep pace with commerce in order that its benefits may be ensured and its evils avoided; and in our connection with these countries it shall be our care that while with one hand we carry to their shores the capital of our merchants, the other shall be stretched forth to offer them the means of intellectual improvement.81
In 1928, the Raffles College was opened to promote the arts and social sciences at the tertiary level. It combined with the King Edward VII College of Medicine in 1949 to form the University of Malaya, which continued to provide first-rate education to students both locally and from the region. Writing in 2015, Tarling sees a neat continuum in all this development:
Reaching out into the Asia-Pacific, its heir, the National University of Singapore, takes up in a contemporary way the wider purposes Raffles had in mind.82
ON THE WAY TO BECOMING AN “IMPREGNABLE FORTRESS”
Outwardly, the colony was a well-fortified island, on its way to earning, many decades later, the reputation of being an “impregnable fortress.” Singapore, it was observed by Isabella Bird upon her visit to the island in 1879, was very much a military station:
Singapore, as the capital of the Straits Settlements and the residence of the Governor, has a garrison, defensive works, ships of war hanging about, and a great deal of military as well as commercial importance.83
Although the British had since the founding of Singapore in 1819 maintained several military forts, batteries and encampments around the island, external threats to the island continued to surface and affect the residents. By the 1860s, British imperial supremacy was dented by the expansion of the French into Indo-China. The takeover of Saigon in the early 1860s, in particular, meant that they presented a clear threat just five sailing days away from Singapore. The British navy, for all its reputation, was stretched thin over the empire and had at this time only one 18-gun vessel to patrol the Straits of Malacca and protect Singapore, Malacca and Penang. Added to this was the rise of Russian influence in Central Asia in the 1880s. All this meant that the colonial government spared no effort in heavily fortifying Singapore, their main naval station guarding the route from India to China.84
Even more close to home, the Colonial Office by 1874 had endorsed moves to intervene actively in the Malayan Peninsula. By the latter half of the 1860s, the Malay States were grappling with mounting disorder; there were the usual petty rivalries among the Malay princes, but these were complicated by open warfare between Chinese secret societies, particularly over the working of the profitable tin mines located all over the land. The British Governor Sir Harry Ord certainly felt that such chaos was detrimental to British interests, and “In all the states but Johore, the insecurity of life and property checked the spirit of enterprise … and deterred investment.” Ord advocated a more forward stance by the Colonial Office, arguing that “it would be greatly to the advantage of the Settlements if our influence could be thus extended over the Peninsula.”85
The heart of the military settlement at Singapore in the early 1870s was Fort Canning, which was “built upon a small pyramid-shaped hill, about 200 feet in height.” Its walls were mounted with “numerous guns of smaller calibre [and] some few 68-pounders,” and were garrisoned by 300 British and 700 Sepoy troops.86 However, even this was now bolstered by a sudden profusion of military personnel in the colony of Singapore due to all the foreign affair rumblings abroad. From Britain as well as the Empire, men in uniform poured into the island, representing the army and the navy. This, coupled with the existing numbers of merchant sailors, traders and businessmen, meant that the colony was truly on its way to becoming what would later famously be described as an “impregnable fortress.”
A COLONY IN A GLOBALISED EMPIRE
After one century of administration, Singapore was, by and large, a successful British colony. Several crucial factors relating to imperial rule had made this possible. These included advanced technology, effective governance, freedom of trade and movement, and the enforcement of law and order. As the colony entered the Twentieth Century, when transportation, communication and travel would power a new era of globalisation, it would become abundantly clear that Singapore was vitally connected to many corners of the world. This had its advantages, especially economically; but there were dangers too, especially militarily.
One indication that the colony was intricately connected to the wider global Empire was the manner in which events that occurred in far flung corners of the world affected the island. This was hardly surprising, since even the founding of the colony in 1819 had immediately placed the island along the line of strategic imperial ports that stretched from Britain all the way to China, and included Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope, Bombay, Madras, Ceylon and Hong Kong. By the early 1900s however, the rapid advance of technology had nudged Singapore to the forefront of the global stage.
In 1869, the partnership between France and Britain had resulted in the mammoth project to construct the Suez Canal through more than a hundred kilometres of Sinai desert. With the resultant sailing and steaming time cut by half, Singapore found itself busier than ever before. The old harbour facilities at the mouth of the River had become inadequate and the new harbour at Keppel quickly dominated the shipping and trade, utilising the modern machinery – cranes, forklifts, tractors – themselves products of the Industrial Revolution. When at last the Federated Malay States Railway line reached Tanjong Pagar at the southern end of Singapore in 1932, it was a justifiably proud statement of the importance of Keppel Harbour to international trade.
However, we have also observed that the growth of the colony as a global centre of trade had social ramifications which were both unavoidable and unsavoury to modern sensitivities. As a major trading and naval port, the sea traffic in and out of her waters brought great numbers of sailors, merchants, soldiers, traders, officials and coolies onto her shores. The administration remained firmly in the hands of the British government which, while benevolent in its disposition, nonetheless preferred wherever possible, a non-interventionist policy. The informal, unwritten but very real code of conduct for the European colonial society was one which affirmed and entrenched the separate-ness between themselves and the teeming masses of Asians that thronged the roads and byways of the city.
PERMANENCE AND INVINCIBILITY TESTED
The comfortable and staid manner of life was jolted by two global events of gigantic proportions, occurring in rapid succession. The first was more unexpected than the other, and although the second could have been anticipated, it was not. Both, rather eerily, shared the same date, the 15th of February.
Singapore remained largely on the sidelines while the First World War raged on in Europe between 1914 and 1918 which, unlike the Second World War twenty years later, was fought out mainly in Europe. Although the main protagonists (Britain, France, Russia, Japan and America against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Italy) faced off all over the world, these were more of skirmishes compared with the tragic warfare in Europe. In Singapore, all Germans had been rounded up and detained. And when the German cruiser the Emden, which had earlier raided Penang, was destroyed by the Allies in November 1914, its crew was interned at the Tanglin Barracks in Singapore. Interestingly, most of the British soldiers stationed on the island were deployed to the European theatre of war, since the colony was deemed fairly safe enough to be garrisoned by a small force.
On Monday the 15th of February 1915, however, the mainly Indian Muslim soldiers of the 5th Light Infantry, stationed at Alexandra Barracks, mutinied. Some 800 sepoys then fanned out along Keppel Harbor and Pasir Panjang towards the Tanglin Barracks, shooting at any Europeans they encountered. The fighting was gruesome, and one newspaper reported that “a very severe ditch to ditch, house to house, tree to tree engagement ensued, in which the regulars were gradually forced to give ground.”87 The uprising occurred because of rumours that the sepoys were about to be deployed to fight the Ottoman Turks in the War. Their suspicions had been further fanned by the German Prisoners-of-War whom many had to guard in Singapore.
When the violence ended, some forty Europeans lay dead, both soldiers and civilians. The small force of British army regulars was quickly reinforced by the Singapore Volunteer Rifles, as well as troops offered by the French, Russian and Japanese who had rushed in to help. The mopping up operations lasted ten days and the mutiny was effectively suppressed. Most of the mutineers were rounded up and by July, some forty of the ringleaders had been executed, and many others imprisoned or transported out.88
The mutiny had been a shock to the residents of Singapore, so accustomed to a fairly peaceful and stable way of life. Indeed, the quick and brutal killings of so many Europeans and the swift reprisals were rude reminders to the colony that nothing could be taken for granted:
A spirit of uncertainty and fear has been aroused in the minds of the residents of Singapore which is almost sure to outlast the war. At its worst, the fighting had been gruesome.89
The Sepoy Mutiny exposed the colony’s frail defences during a global war and demonstrated how vulnerable she was to international conflagrations. It showed how easy it was for any sedition to escalate into rebellion when the colonial authorities were caught even slightly off-guard. Although Singapore had long served as a military garrison for the British, many units had been sent to the European theatre of war to bolster the Allied forces fighting in France. At a time when there was a lapse of concentration, local elements and influences were able to exploit the weakness to their own advantage. Two such people were Kassim Mansur, a local coffee-shop owner, and Nur Alum Shah, a religious leader who surreptitiously stoked up anti-British sentiments among the sepoys already chafing under the rumours of deployment. The fact that the authorities required the help of foreign troops to quell the disturbance further illustrated just how vulnerable the colony could be. The whole episode was a dark portent of worse to come less than two decades later.
THE MUTINY UNSETTLES THE EMPIRE
“And now let us consider what the results of this mutiny have been or are likely to be. In the first place a spirit of uncertainty and fear has been aroused in the minds of the residents of Singapore which is almost sure to outlast the war. Everyone realizes that had the trouble started at midnight, as scheduled, instead of at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a general slaughter would have ensued. To everyone has been brought home the danger of a similar occurrence on a large scale taking place in India. Singapore is out of the zone of real Mohammedan agitation; the general atmosphere of the place is peaceful; the bazaars are comparatively free from rumours of a dangerous nature; it is a station which has always been well liked by all regiments stationed there. If this mutiny was possible under such conditions and at a place at which naval reinforcements were rapidly available, what might happen at some of the interior stations in India? Conditions there at present are far from tranquil. What may we expect in the future?”
(The New York Times, “Vivid story of Singapore mutiny,” 8 March 1915)
A VERY LARGE CAPITULATION
The defeat of British Singapore to the Japanese Imperial Army on the 15th February 1942 has been analysed extensively by historians. Many have asked the question just how a mighty fortress like Singapore could have fallen so swiftly. There are several standard, well-accepted answers. Firstly the authorities were too complacent about defences, preferring to assume that somehow, Asian armies and nations were unable to thwart, even overpower, more established Western empires. As a result, even the Governor Sir Shenton Thomas was reluctant to construct defences on the island’s northern shore, protesting that the very sight of barbed wire fences, pill-boxes and the like would be bad for morale. The military resources of the colony were also well and truly stretched, so that while the British had built a splendid naval base at Sembawang, it was poorly defended, and the navy could hardly spare any battleships to be stationed there. When the HMS Prince of Wales and the HMS Repulse finally arrived in December 1941, they had no air cover and consequently were bombed by Japanese planes and sunk to the bottom of the South China Sea.
However, the general colonial malaise and military apathy towards the rising threat of Japan had already set in a full decade before. Although worried over the menacing aggression of the new militaristic Japan of the 1930s, which had by then invaded Manchuria in 1931, there was British indecision as to Singapore’s role in the defence of the Empire. And when Japan loudly proclaimed and extolled to all of Asia the bountiful benefits should they successfully implement the grandly-named “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” debate over the function of the colony became more vociferous. More airfields were laid out and more military personnel started to arrive, but a gnawing sense began to set in, that somehow, the Royal Navy and the Air Force would not be able to defend the whole British Empire in the face of a coordinated, multi-theatre global war..90
As part of the process of military build-up in Singapore, a massive naval base was constructed and completed in 1939. Located on the northern shores of Singapore island, at Sembawang, Her Majesty’s Naval Base (Singapore) cost a staggering £60 million. The dock covered 54 square km and had what was then the largest dry dock in the world, the third-largest floating dock, and enough fuel tanks to support the entire British Navy for six months. Unfortunately, the naval base was not adequately complemented with a naval presence, due to the British fighting the war on two other fronts, in Europe and in North Africa. The whole “Singapore Strategy” depended on the colony and naval base somehow holding out, in the event of war, for up to seventy days, which was the time needed for battleships to travel there from other theatres of war. The upshot of this was that the British military authorities poured even more men onto the island to bolster the defenses.91
In late 1940, the Japanese intensified their planning to take over Malaya and Singapore, expecting to overrun the whole peninsula in a hundred days. The campaign was deemed so important that it was entrusted to the renowned 25th Army, under the command of the “tough, dynamic and very experienced Lt. Gen. Yamashita Tomoyuki, regarded as Japan’s best field commander.” He would receive the toughest veteran formations, the 5th and 18th Divisions, the highly regarded Imperial Guards Division, a well-armed Tank Brigade, ample artillery, strong engineering and bridging support units. In addition to his 80,000 combat troops, Yamashita could count on very able air and naval support, with some 600 fighter planes at his disposal, led by the formidable and fearsome Zero fighter plane. Battleships, heavy cruisers and numerous small vessels completed the flotilla which would back up the imposing army to be sent down to smash through Malaya and into Singapore.
The British army, in the meantime, struggled to put together a coherent plan for the defence of Singapore. With air and naval resources stretched very thin all over the world, the British and Commonwealth soldiers in the peninsula were very vulnerable indeed. Add to this the general apathy of the civilian population to matters military, taking comfort that the authorities would see to it all as always. Then there was the reluctance of the military administration to shore up the fixed defences on Singapore, reckoning it would be psychologically damaging! And so, while reinforcements did pour into the island by late 1941, particularly from India and Australia, the defence of Singapore still “looked gravely thin.”92
On 7 December 1941, the Japanese were able to deploy carriers and planes to attack Pearl Harbor and simultaneously land soldiers en masse in northern Malaya. The Japanese Zero fighter proved more than able to deal with the ageing British planes in the Asia-Pacific theatre; with the excellent Spitfire planes utilised in the defence of Britain, Singapore and Malaya were left with the left-overs. The typical Japanese soldier was fervently nationalistic, and frighteningly willing to die rather than surrender. As an army, they were united in their advance down the Malayan Peninsula, and the British retreat to Singapore was rapid and demoralising.
Even as the armies of the Japanese Empire landed at the north Malayan town of Kota Bahru, Japanese planes unleashed deadly bombs on the city of Singapore night after night. For the civilians in the previously peaceful colony, it was all a most frightening experience. Peter Wee, a small boy in 1941, recalls:
Then the bombs fell. Air raids wailed, eerily piercing the afternoon air. Japanese bombers directly overhead droned menacingly, unleashing their deadly load and filling our hearts with fear as we huddled together in our bedroom.93
Within seven weeks, Japanese troops and armour had swept down the country, quickly brushing aside the meagre defences of the British and Commonwealth forces. The sinking of the battleships, HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales off the east coast badly damaged morale, and by the end of January 1942, the invaders were encamped at the Johor side of the Straits of Johor, poised to cross into the military stronghold of Singapore.
The fall of British Singapore on the first day of the Chinese New Year, 15th February 1942, sent shock waves all over the world. The extravagant boast that she was an impregnable fortress was exposed to be hollow. A Japanese cameraman recorded one of the most hauntingly vivid images of the war, that of General Arthur Percival, “a spindle-shanked figure in voluminous khaki shorts with a Union Jack on his shoulder and a tin hat on his head, walking to meet his victorious counterparts.”94 Soon afterwards, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously lamented the surrender as the “worst disaster” and “largest capitulation” in British military history. But the Fall was always more than just a military catastrophe. To Churchill, Singapore had not just been a place, so much as it was “a symbol of British power….”95 One historian has judged that the “military, political and psychological reverberations of the capture of Singapore shook the Empire.” It would be difficult to recover from the blow “that had brutally exposed its internal weaknesses as well as its inability to defend its subjects.”96
The whole battle for and loss of Singapore also had another effect. The Japanese ousting of the colonial power had destroyed its legitimacy, demonstrating that Asians could defeat the European occupiers.97 Her capture was to have a deep and rippling impact on the prestige of the white man. Those few months had proved that the British Army was not superior in any way to the Japanese one; though they had more soldiers, they still lost the battle to an Asian power. Furthermore, the Malayan campaign demonstrated what a thus-far maligned Asian army could do successfully. The message, by implication, was very clear: however benevolent the British Empire had been, it was now time for the locals to step up and take on the mantle of government.
REASONS FOR AND IMPACT OF THE FALL
Two other factors contributed to the fall of “Fortress Singapore.” By early January 1942, the island had become a massive and messy refugee camp. Allied troops – British, Indian and Australian - from all over the Peninsula had retreated after nearly two months of fighting and poured into the island colony. Scores of civilians fleeing the bloodshed had done likewise so that by the end of January 1942, Singapore had become a cauldron overflowing with people in disarray, with her resources strained to the limits. The chain of command was severely tested and by 15 February, the commander of Allied forces, General Arthur Percival, felt compelled to surrender to the invading army.
Another possible factor for the rapid capitulation of Singapore was that the defence of the island was carried out mainly by the military and not by the whole population. This in turn was the result of the long-standing attitude of aloofness held by the British towards their local subjects. This informal but very real code of conduct for the white man had by this time regulated relations between the European community and other races to such an extent that it was a matter of pride for the former not to have to call upon the latter for military assistance.
Such prejudices were entrenched in the condescending attitudes adopted by many in the colonial society towards the local Asians, and this proved disastrous indeed in times of grave crisis. After all, it could hardly be expected of the larger populace that had been snubbed to suddenly rise in united and whole-hearted defence of the colonial government that had thus far ruled from on high. There were those who did rise to the occasion – the famous Malay Regiment and Lieutenant Adnan, the Singapore Volunteer Corps, scores of Eurasians, even the few Chinese and Indians who did what they could – and whose exploits are justly remembered and honoured today. But these remained in the vast minority.
The hard and bitter lessons of war and defeat would be quickly learnt by successive generations of governments in Singapore. The British were to introduce National Service in 1955, intending to call on the local young men to play their part in the defence of their homeland. This project was just as quickly scuttled by the vociferous and somewhat unexpected protests by the Chinese schools in the colony, whose pro-China, anti-British attitudes now prevailed. It would be left to the new independent nation of Singapore to enforce in 1967 what the British were unable to, just twelve years prior. Perhaps it was as premature a project as it was well-meaning.
What the war experience did for Singapore was to thoroughly disillusion her resident-peoples about the rule of the island by any foreign government, whether European or Asian. On one hand, the British had constructed the myth of inherent superiority so thoroughly that few Asians thought it worth the effort to challenge it, except for the Japanese. But ironically, even the Japanese Occupation convinced locals of the ultimate vanity of any sort of foreign domination. Mr Lee Kuan Yew observed that “once the Japanese lorded over us as conquerors, they soon demonstrated to their fellow Asiatics that they were more cruel, more brutal, more unjust and more vicious than the British.” There were those moments when even Lee allowed himself some sentimentalism, such as when he witnessed Japanese abuse of the locals:
whenever I encountered some Japanese tormenting, beating or ill-treating one of our people, I wished the British were still in charge.98
It came as no surprise that the war years dramatically affected the pulse of the colony and was instrumental in setting it on an irreversible course towards self-government and eventual independence.
COMMUNISM, NATIONALISM AND DECOLONISATION
In a series of insightful Reith Lectures in 1961, the historian Margery Perham made several perceptive comments which we do well to keep in mind as we now survey what must have seemed to be a tumultuous period of time for Singapore. It would be careless to simply assess the movement towards self-government and eventual independence as a tug-of-war between the colonial government and the colonised peoples. Perhaps the unfortunate bloodshed which occurred immediately after the independence of India in 1947 has coloured our minds against decolonisation in general. However, we should start by reminding ourselves that by and large, decolonisation in Singapore was peaceful and smooth. Power was transferred to a group of very educated, highly motivated, socially-conscious set of leaders who carried Singapore on into a new era of remarkable progress and prosperity.
Perham’s proposition was that the post-war political upheavals and aggressive nationalism in British colonies were really evidences of nascent positive underlying sentiments:
… this negative anti-colonialism is to some extent the reverse side of a positive force, the desire for freedom: and also that our relations with most of our ex-dependencies still remain basically friendly, though this base is often obscured by clouds of misunderstanding. The real significance of the end of the Empire has indeed been masked partly by our own increasing readiness to liberate, and partly by the voluntary decision of nearly all the former dependencies, including the great states of India and Pakistan, to remain within the Commonwealth.99
That is certainly true of Singapore, which was a case of “colony to nation” achieved without too much fuss. If it was the government of independent Singapore which constructed, with spectacular success, a glittering economic masterpiece with its reputable and clean infrastructure, then these were built upon the foundation that it had just inherited from the colonial government, for surely the transformation could not have occurred overnight!
To be certain, that foundation of colonial rule had been very badly shaken in the war and Occupation years. Indeed, the two-hemisphere empire could not be defended by a one-hemisphere navy, no matter how good it was. British prestige had been severely dented, and the exultation demonstrated by the people of Singapore at the return of the British was laced not only with grave disappointment at a military capitulation three years prior, but also with a growing realisation that in some way, a devolution of power must soon begin to take place.
The British Military Administration was not helped by the severe economic crisis that swept over post-war Singapore. So grave were living and working conditions in those days, and so slow were the authorities to deal with these that workers’ strikes became more and more common, with people taking to the streets to voice their grievances in the only way they knew how to. The uncertainties and upheavals were so keenly felt that the whole situation was ripe for the communist picking.
By 1948, the Malayan Communist Party, one-time anti-Japanese resistance army and ally of the British, now turned against the colonial masters in a series of vicious attacks in north Malaya which prompted an equally firm response from the authorities. The communist raids and consequent military reprisals quickly descended into an open but calculated warfare, with the objective of Chin Peng and his comrades the installation of no less than a communist government in Malaya. This, in the context of the increasing Cold War tensions world-wide, was simply unacceptable to Britain and many Malayans.
In Singapore, the communists were less brutal in their approach than on the peninsula, but no less zealous. Their strategy was to influence and undergird the labour movements and trade unions which in turn engaged the big companies with vociferous demands and harried the government with more and more strikes. The year 1947 was notoriously known as “The Year of the Strikes” with some 300 of the street protests taking place. Another insidious strategy adopted by the communists was to infiltrate the local Chinese-medium schools which had long felt neglected by the government who clearly favoured the English-medium schools in the colony. With China turning communist in 1949, and textbooks, materials and teachers flowing into the Chinese schools from the motherland, it was little wonder that these quickly became hotbeds of left-wing insurgency by the early 1950s.100
When the British announced in 1954 their intention to introduce National Service for the locals, the mixed response from the populace was somewhat worrisome. While the English-educated young men generally gave their support and spent many weekends in uniform, the Chinese schools rose in collective outcry against the new move. They had reckoned “NS” to be a mere ploy of the British to harness local men for the defence of Singapore and had no desire to be seen in collaboration with the colonial authorities. When the Chinese students marched outside Government House, violence broke out. The students and communists accused the British of high-handed measures and the latter charged the former two of starting the unrest.
In 1955, seemingly insurmountable differences between the employers and the unions representing the Hock Lee bus workers resulted in a labour shut down, with workers blocking the gates of their bus depot at Alexandra Road. These strikers were quickly joined by lorry-loads of Chinese school students, many of whom had simply skipped school, so as to lend their moral support to the workers. They came with food packets and drinks for the strikers, cheered them on and encouraged them by singing and banner-waving. When the authorities were once again forced into action to disperse the striking workers, various left-wing groups and communists not unexpectedly cried foul.
It was not all violence however. The 1950s witnessed a real and reasoned growth of political interest groups and parties, all keen to see or lead Singapore through to self-government and eventual nationhood. Early parties such as the Singapore Progressive Party, comprising local Asians, Eurasians and Europeans, were deemed too slow and too pro-British in their approach, but did never the less, represent the nascent nationalism of the people. The Labour Front, led by the enigmatic, eloquent but abrasive David Marshall, a second-generation Singapore Jew, was more forceful and consequently able to win enough local support in 1955 to form the majority in the now expanded Legislative Council, with Marshall becoming Singapore’s first-ever locally elected Chief Minister.
Accompanying, even providing for the growth of political parties was the process of decolonisation in British Singapore. This, among other things, meant the gradual devolution of power. In 1948, for the first time, locals were elected into the Legislative Council of the colony. Although it was just six seats available, it marked the start of rapid extension of the political process to the people of Singapore. By 1955, the six had become twenty-five seats which were hotly contested by 79 local politicians. The emergence of new and articulate political parties such as the Labour Front and the Peoples’ Action Party signified new found confidence and maturity. In effect, the British had moved towards a limited self-government, with local control over the following areas of Singapore life – education, health, housing, trade and industry. The British members of the Legislative Council continued to control internal security, external defence, law, finance and external affairs.
When David Marshall’s successor, Lim Yew Hock, flew to London in 1957, he was promised self-government for Singapore in 1959. This meant that the new State of Singapore would receive her first ever local President (Head of State / Yang di-Pertuan Negara) and a local Prime Minister. All ministers of the Cabinet were to be locals, and there would be a Legislative Council consisting of 51 elected members responsible for trade, industry, health, education, housing, law, labour and finance. There would be shared responsibility with the British for internal security. Most visibly, Singapore would have her own national flag and a national anthem (the Majulah Singapura).
The elections of 1959 were a process of democracy in action. The new Citizenship Ordinance allowed many to be citizens of Singapore and consequently, around 500,000 citizens voted in the elections. Thirteen political parties participated in these elections, with 194 candidates competing for 51 seats. Many political rallies were held, leaflets distributed, homes visited, as the parties tried to win support for themselves. The radio and newspapers all carried daily news. The Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) impressed many people. It was organised and had the support of many workers. The PAP also had a detailed plan to improve Singapore and the people. Eventually, the PAP won 43 out of 51 seats in the Legislative Council and formed the new government, with Lee Kuan Yew, becoming Singapore’s first Prime Minister and Yusof bin Ishak her first President. It was truly a momentous day on 3 June 1959 when, at the City Hall near the Padang, Lee Kuan Yew declared the start of Internal Self-Government for the new State of Singapore.
A SENSE OF HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
In a very real sense, the process of decolonisation in Singapore represented not an act of surrender but an act of creativity. In so doing, Britain was working out from a world view that relationships between states were more economic and diplomatic than territorial and imperial. This view suggested that in a general way, the first circle of interests prompted policies that sought minimum degree of control over other countries. Therefore, “empire”, in a restricted sense of the word, was an exceptional, even an undesirable, political arrangement. If direct intervention was needed or urged or even undertaken, it was regrettable or temporary. The assumption of responsibility was not necessarily welcomed, and might have been better avoided or limited.101
Viewed in this way, the bigger and larger view of Empire, taken with the perspective of time and space appreciated by the historian, is somewhat more generous, objective and less laden with emotion. TIME magazine’s report on Singapore’s newly gained independence in 1965 did all sides no favour. Speaking about the “revolutionary rulers” of the new nation:
Taking office, they poured out their avenging anti-Western zeal by ripping down Queen Elizabeth’s portrait, slashing British bureaucrats’ salaries, banning jukeboxes, comic books and other manifestations of what they called the West’s ‘yellow culture.’ Tieless, coatless puritans presiding over the sybaritic centre of the old South Seas, they rapidly got a name as Southeast Asia’s most honest administrators…. But Prime Minister Lee, a wealthy, Cambridge-schooled Chinese, soon grasped that Singapore by itself is an island emporium ill-suited to revolutionary socialism since, among other things, it lacks any major industries to nationalize. His revised economic policy: ‘Teaching the capitalists how to run their system.’102
Lee Kuan Yew’s heady and strong words to the British at the advent of self-government in 1959 were unapologetic and understandable in the context of the day, as Singapore made her first tentative, if determined, steps in nationhood:
Do you know, we wanted to use this Padang for our election rallies at night, but a small group of Europeans who were given this field by the former colonial government refused it, although they only use it in the day for a few people to play games? Well, times have changed and will stay changed.103
David Marshall was perhaps more measured in his acknowledgement of the colonial government in his 1954 political pamphlet, I Believe, in which he made the firm argument for Singapore’s movement towards self-government. Not mincing his words, he charged that the “colonial government’s basic interest for Singapore is still twofold – as a military base and as a ‘gold mine’ to support Britain’s economy.” However, he was kind enough to admit:
I believe that … Colonialism has brought to this country benefits and concepts of living – justice, security, integrity of government, medical and health services, education, amongst others – for which we are all deeply grateful.104
Even Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee had to admit to those aspects of British life which he came to admire while a law students in post-war England, and which he deeply longed for a post-colonial Singapore:
My generation of Singapore and Malayan students in Britain after World War Two were completely sold on the fairness and reasonableness of the Labour government’s programme. We were enthusiastic about the mature British system, under which constitutional tradition and tolerance allowed fundamental shifts of power and wealth to take place peacefully.105
In a brilliantly and eloquently argued book, Empire: How Britain made the Modern World, the historian Niall Ferguson sought to provide an articulate counter-balance to the vitriolic, socialist-influenced and even journalistic anti-British Empire books. To be sure, Ferguson does not expect that charges again the British Empire will ever be dropped. He knows that “the Empire was never so altruistic,” and that her misdeeds are numerous. For example, in the Eighteenth Century the British were as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out. Ferguson acknowledges that, but also warns that “the difficulty with the achievements of empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire.”
Ferguson’s own forebears were heavily involved in “empire-building” in the largest sense of the word, even as emigrants from Britain to the Dominions. He certainly is quick to point out that there were many achievements of Empire:
… the fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.
Here is the list of good things left by the British as legacies in their colonies:
the English language, English forms of land tenure, Scottish and English banking, The Common Law, Protestantism, team sports, Representative assemblies and the idea of liberty.106
Ferguson would have us imagine a world, or for us, a Singapore, without the following features: rule of law and an independent judiciary, financial transparency, parliamentary democracy, religious freedom and tolerance, team sports such as football and a clean police-force. What would Singapore today have been like without these imperial legacies? The following institutions in Singapore were inherited, even if in archaic form, from the Empire: military camps, police force, legal system, mission-schools and even sports clubs.
Of course, the ex-colonies would do with these what they would. Some have been discarded, some discarded and retrieved, some kept and guarded tenaciously, and others simply slipped unconsciously into the collective psyche of the ex-colonies. One wonders how cricket, for example, which took on nationalistic versus colonial overtones before the 1950s, continues to be played with a passion in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Or observe how parliamentary democracy persists in its practice in its varied shades and tones all over the Commonwealth. Observe the phenomenal recent street protests in downtown Hong Kong as many locals, especially the youth, stood up fervently for what they saw was constitutionally guaranteed to them. Who gave them the seed-thought of democracy? (the British) And who – may we ask – seemed to cast the giant impediment to all this? (the Communists) The Cold War, it seems, has not quite ended.
Take the case of English as an official language. In Singapore it has morphed and taken on rich and intriguing local flavours, yet remains recognisably a sub-group of Standard English. Not that many years ago, the government was persuading Singaporeans to be more diligent in using British, or at least, Standard English, in favour of the more colourful, if localised, Singlish. Malaysia, also an ex-British colony did away with English as the medium of teaching in schools several decades ago and is now trying to revive its use, since finding that many university graduates are obliged to refer to Western – mainly British or American – academic journals and upon graduation, interact with foreigners in this globalised world. Very prudently, the government of independent Singapore retained the English language as the official language of use in the nation. It was functional (already in use and not new) global (used in many parts of the world) and connexional, providing diverse ethnic groups with a common and neutral language.
WHAT DAVID MARSHALL SAID AT EMPRESS PLACE ON 21 MARCH 1956
A brilliant lawyer, a Sephardic Jew, Marshall was one of the most colourful personalities Singapore politics has ever known. He addressed the people that day as Singapore’s Chief Minister, defining the early days in the transition from colony to nationhood. His colourful speech, while critical of colonial rule, also outlined the deeper threat facing the island:
“To read the English press, we are a group of baboons who are trying to impose independence on you against your will. The Standard came out on Sunday with an article – not written by a Malayan, thank god. Well, he said, please don’t give us independence: we want papa and mama colonialism! [loud laughter, then Marshall imitates a child] Mama colonialism! Mama! A lost boy!
... The communists are the ultimate danger to this country. And whether it is today or it is tomorrow, whatever the threat to my own personal safety may be and to my friends and to my colleagues, we intend to act with all the firmness possible against those disruptive elements that call themselves communists. You don’t want, I don’t want, the people of Singapore don’t want a yanko merdeka. (a communist dance) We want a Malayan merdeka! [Loud applause] And we will get it!”
(From Frost and Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography).
THE COLD WAR AND SINGAPORE
In spite of Lee Kuan Yew’s vocal anti-colonialist rhetoric, there were major reasons why the British government was willing to hand over power to those such as him, who were seen to be moderate and non-communist. It was Lee’s group within the PAP which was the Western-educated, English-speaking political elite that was preferred over the Chinese-educated, left-leaning but highly influential group, of which the eloquent, youthful and charismatic leaders such as Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan had emerged as a real force to be contended with.
The early 1960s was a very tense period of time globally. Cold War tensions were at their very worst. The Berlin Wall, constructed by East Germany in 1961 to staunch the flow of escapees from the Eastern sector, epitomised the sheer division between the two spheres of influence dominated by democratic USA and communist USSR. The ever-increasing military build-up of both Soviet and American forces was not only of conventional arms, but included the nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The Communist Party had come into power in China in 1949; soon after the struggle between North Korea and South Korea broke out, with the clear support and involvement of the superpowers. Over in Central America, Fidel Castro had in 1962 allowed Soviet nuclear missiles to be placed on his island of Cuba, barely 100 km away from Florida, America. It was this move that sent Cold War tensions spiralling almost out of control and the world held its breath as Presidents Kennedy and Khruschev locked horns in a standoff that lasted the famous “thirteen days” but which almost triggered what would have been a cataclysmic and devastating nuclear war.
Closer to Singapore, the British had not long since suppressed a spirited uprising by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) in a protracted and bloody war known euphemistically as “The Emergency.” Founded in the 1930s, the MCP was originally named the Nanyang Provisional Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, with clear and definite support from the Soviet-backed Comintern.107 The army in Burma had come to power in March 1962, and had launched the Soviet-styled campaign, “The Burmese Way to Socialism.” There was severe trouble in Vietnam, where the French had been driven out earlier. By the 1960s, the Soviet-supported Viet Cong in the north had become increasingly aggressive and vociferous, leading in turn to American military intervention after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. All these Cold War tensions were brewing and boiling over as the British authorities pondered how to decolonise in Singapore and to whom legitimate power should be handed over.
In June 1960, following British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s initiative to review Britain’s overseas policy, an inter-department committee on “Future Developments in Southeast Asia” was established to “review the likely course of developments in the region during the next ten years as well as British aims and the means to secure them.” The Report argued that China would continue to grow in influence and seek to expel the West from Formosa, Japan, Korea and Indochina, and to weaken the West throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was therefore crucial to provide those free states with Western support, including military backing, without which they were unlikely to maintain their independence and might even fall or defect to the Soviet bloc.108 In this regard, British aims were in line with American Cold War objectives to contain communism and assist smaller, weaker countries struggling against the tide of Soviet expansion.
With planning for the British colonies in Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (Sabah), London had in fact, a “Grand Design.” This was based on a long-standing desire of British policy to see these colonies amalgamated into a single political entity as a necessary condition for eventual independence. Very importantly, the formation of this anti-communist super-federation, and the securing of the Singapore base, was the surest way to provide stability in Southeast Asia and minimise their internal security obligations in the region.109 Macmillan, when raising the issue with the Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, said that if the “mighty United States could not deal with a communist Cuba in the Caribbean, it was difficult to see how the small Federation could cope with independent communist Singapore on its very doorstep. A batik curtain would be too flimsy, too permeable, too inflammable.”110 And as historian Tan Tai Yong has argued:
The “Grand Design” for a “Greater Malaysia” would ultimately preserve British influence in post-colonial Southeast Asia, allowing her to maintain her position in the world and yet keep the balance of payments healthy and defence costs down.111
LEE KUAN YEW AND LIM CHIN SIONG
One major impediment to both Britain’s “Grand Design” and to the consolidation of power by Lee Kuan Yew was Lim Chin Siong. Lim was the rising star of anti-colonial politics in 1950s Singapore. Initially allied with Lee’s faction as part of the larger PAP, Lim was young (ten years Lee’s junior), highly intelligent, eloquent and persuasive in the Chinese language. His charisma and ability to win over the Chinese-medium school students, trade and labour unions was very useful to the PAP when the party was founded in 1954. It was the “Anglophone leadership” which immediately looked to Lim and others to “connect with what Lee Kuan Yew saw as a ‘world teeming with vitality, dynamism and revolution.’”112
The alliance between Lee and Lim was however, fraught with deeper tensions. These fault lines became more evident as the political emphasis shifted from anti-colonial rhetoric in the mid-1950s towards defining a pragmatic style of governance for what would be an independent Singapore. Invariably, a rivalry of sorts between the two enigmatic men emerged.
Within the PAP, [Lim] and a number of allies – notably Fong Swee Suan – built up a mass base for what was principally a caucus of the English educated elite. By building up a unified labour movement, and through his reputation as an orator capable of captivating an overwhelmingly Chinese-educated electorate, Lim eclipsed Lee Kuan Yew and other leaders in the popular following he commanded within the PAP.113
It was not just a clash of personalities. The main difficulty posed by Lim was his leftist-tendencies. In 1960, Sir William Goode, the Governor of Singapore, outlined the ways in which Lim was a threat to long term British interests:
There is a serious Communist subversive threat posed by suspected Communists within the PAP led by Lim Chin Siong. The development of this threat will depend on the effectiveness of Government action aimed at forestalling Lim, on the effect of economic conditions and on events outside Singapore. Unless checked by the Government by positive or negative methods, eg. re-detention, Lim will continue to consolidate his influence.114
The established British strategy for decolonisation involved facilitating the rise of a chosen individual into a highly placed position among those ideologically opposed to British rule. In this way, the British could transfer power to a political leader in accord with, rather than an adversary of, long-term British interests.115 Lee Kuan Yew, the preferred choice of the British, was adamant that Lim was clearly “a Communist open-front leader.” In his now famous series of radio talks to the people in Singapore in 1961 to explain the benefits of Merger with Malaysia, Lee included documents to “dispel any pretence that [Lim] is other than what he always has been, a Communist open-front leader.”116
For his part, Lim Chin Siong maintained that he was not a Communist, and that the accusations of him were politically motivated. In a letter to the Straits Times on 31 July 1961, around the same time as Lee’s radio talks, Lim adamantly stated:
Let me make it clear once and for all that I am not a communist or a communist front-man or, for that matter, anybody’s front-man.117
In 1992, four years before his death, Lim penned his own thoughts on why and how differences arose between himself and Lee during the struggle for independence from Britain.
Lee Kuan Yew soon became worried about the left wing within the party because it enjoyed tremendous grassroots support. He was fearful of being replaced or overtaken. In his calculations, the most ideal constitutional arrangement was to let the British continue to provide a safety net for him and to give him time to build up his own base. He would play the role of the moderate while the British could wield the big stick. On this score, Lee Kuan Yew and the British were hand-in-glove in that ‘the British must keep the final say in order to block the communists out.’118
On 2nd February 1963, Lim Chin Siong, together with some 100 others, were arrested and detained as part of Operation Coldstore, aimed to round-up those deemed a threat to Singapore’s internal security. The operation was authorised by the Internal Security Council which was composed of representatives from the British, Singapore and Malayan Federal governments. By this time, Lim had left the PAP and co-founded the Barisan Socialist party. Operation Coldstore effectively ended Lim Chin Siong’s political career and crippled the leftist movement in Singapore by decimating its leadership.
1963: EXIT THE EMPIRE AND ‘MASUK’ MALAYSIA
Crucially, for Britain, Lee Kuan Yew was firmly behind the concept of a Federation of Malaysia. As Singapore moved from being a British colony to a self-governing state, one key concern was its identity. The PAP envisioned a Malayan identity, and were prepared to merge and accept Malay political ascendancy; hence, in 1959, their appointment of a Malay Head of State (the Yang di-Pertuan Negara), the adoption of Malay as the national language, the recognition of the Malays’ special position as the original inhabitants of Singapore and the commissioning of a national anthem in Malay.
Economically, Singapore was also tied to Malaya. For a long time, it had acted as Malaya’s main port and gateway to the world. Singapore’s commercial and financial institutions had close ties with Malaya. If Singapore were to now develop a manufacturing sector, Malaya offered the ideal hinterland to sell its goods. There were close racial and family ties between the two territories. Many in Singapore had relatives “upcountry.” The majority of Lee Kuan Yew’s first cabinet had been born in Malaya. The commonalities ran deep:
Singapore and Malaya had a common British heritage in terms of their legal, governmental and education systems and infrastructures. Leaders on both sides of the causeway had attended the same schools, knew one another well and spoke the same language – English.119
As a result of the successful 1962 Merger Referendum, it was decided that on 31 August 1963, Singapore would join with the Federation of Malaya, the Crown Colony of Sarawak and the Crown Colony of North Borneo to form the new federation of Malaysia under the terms of the Malaysia Agreement.
Most conventional history accounts of Singapore fall upon the landmark year of 1965, when Singapore was ousted from the Federation of Malaysia and was forced into independence. Many will recall or would have learnt about how a tearful Prime Minister made the solemn announcement to a shocked people. The iconic moment has been immortalised as a pivotal chapter in the Singapore story. Likewise, the poignant and emotional words of Lee Kuan Yew when he broke down in front of the reporters:
For me it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories …. We are connected by geography, economics and ties of kinship...It broke everything we stood for.
I would like to bring this historical account to a close, not in 1965, but in 1963. Specifically, the 31st of August 1963.
Although it had been agreed that the Federation of Malaysia would be officially proclaimed that day, the federal government in Kuala Lumpur postponed it by about two weeks to 16 September in order to give the United Nations more time to complete its mission to determine whether the people in the Borneo territories of Sabah and Sarawak were truly in favour of being part of Malaysia. This was also undertaken to allay the objections by both Indonesia and the Philippines to the formation of Malaysia.
Despite the postponement of the official proclamation by KL, the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew went ahead and declared de facto independence for the island state. This unilateral action displeased both KL and Britain, both of which refused to send representatives to the ceremonial rally which was held on the steps of City Hall.
While tacitly acknowledging the delayed inauguration, Lee proclaimed full sovereignty in defence and foreign affairs, and stated that the government of Singapore would, for the next fifteen days, act as trustees for the Federal government.
On a raised dais, and in front of a backdrop of giant Malaysian murals, the Prime Minister then said:
In the history of a nation, there are moments when great decisions have to be made. Today is such a moment in our history. Had we wavered in a moment of stress then we would have lost our place in history, and Malaysia would have been just another name for the collective of 10 million Malays, Dayaks, Dusuns, Muruts, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Ceylonese and others brought together by an accident of British colonial domination of this part of the world.120
We have attempted to show that the “British colonial domination” of Singapore was not so much “an accident” but more a reasonable consequence of the very acquisition in 1819 that had led to an explosion of immigration which in turn fuelled the island’s powerful economic success. Modern Singapore prospered in the nineteenth and early Twentieth Century within the political, administrative and economic framework provided by the colonial government. Or, as recent biographers of Singapore have put it:
If Stamford Raffles set Singapore on her habit of always looking forward to a progressive, visionary utopia, then it was the PAP who handed her the schedule.121
On days of bright hope and glory, such as on the 31st of August 1963, men might be given some latitude for more hyperbolic extravagance. Certainly, in view of all the new challenges to be faced and confronted by new independent states, leaders will summon all oratorical resources to rally the people.
Still, it remains rather anachronistic to now discover that Singapore’s independence occurred for a fortnight in 1963. Or that SG50 could have been celebrated in 2013! However, when we look back (as people of Singapore) from our vantage point of today, and listen again to the fire in the voice of one Mr Lee Kuan Yew, I suspect there will be that palpable sense of reassurance at his steely grim hard-nosed resilience which mustered the new and infant nation in such Churchillian fashion.
We have the will and the wherewithal to be a nation in our own right. That is the right that we the people of Singapore today proclaim. … We have proclaimed our inalienable right to be free – free from colonial domination, in a manner of our choice. We have a right to say to the world that we do not wish to change masters.122
Indeed, Singapore has never since changed masters.
WHAT DID TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN THINK ABOUT 1963?
The first Prime Minister of Malaya (1957, then Malaysia, in 1963) had a counter perspective to the whole issue of Merger. Here, in a frank interview given in 1985, he provides his forthright views, which reveal his sentiments about Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee, and his opinions on why Singapore joined in with Malaysia for a short-lived and very tumultuous two years:
“Interviewer: Another thing, Tunku. Some people said that Lee Kuan Yew, like you, had all along planned first to get into Malaysia and then do something such you would have to kick him out, so that Singapore could become independent and he the prime minister of a separate nation. He did not think that the British would have given him Singapore independence on its own. What do you think of this?
The Tunku: True, the British would not give him independence. I gave him independence. When I gave him independence, there was nothing to stop Singapore’s asking to rejoin Malaysia. Somebody else different from Kuan Yew might one day do just that, but it is up to the government of Malaysia whether to accept Singapore or not. If you accept Singapore, the one danger will always be present, that the Chinese will dominate the nation with a surplus population of two million, and later on three million or even four million.
Interviewer: And aggressive (and industrious) too.
The Tunku: Yes.
Interviewer: Singapore was in a dilemma then. If it did not join Malaysia, the British would not give it independence and the people there wanted independence. Tunku, what is your view of Singapore after the separation?
The Tunku: I think Singapore is working all right now. We say nothing against Kuan Yew, and Kuan Yew says nothing about us. But, before he talked about Malaysian Malaysia. It was a very dangerous statement to make; it was a very provoking statement to make because it tended to break racial harmony and antagonise one race against the other. The Chinese, after listening to what Lee Kuan Yew had been saying about Malaysian Malaysia, felt they should have equal rights with the Malays. What equal rights can there be? Because they had all rights; we had nothing at all. And what we had; Kuan Yew wanted to share; what he had, he wanted to keep. So how can there be equal rights? So that was why I said to him, ‘It is better that you go your way.’
Interviewer: You wanted Singapore in Malaysia. I think, to me, it was a smart move on your part.
The Tunku: In actual fact, I wanted only Sarawak and North Borneo (now Sabah) at the time. But the British made a condition that if I wanted Sarawak and North Borneo, I must also have Singapore as well, because we would be the influence that could keep Singapore from the communist menace. I said that that was all right; if that was their condition, I would take Singapore in.”
(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman)
CONCLUSION: The Man in White
And so we bring to an end our brief survey of Singapore’s bright and exciting era as a colony set within the largest Empire the world has ever known. Her modern beginnings in 1819 as a European-initiated port city were prompted by several definite reasons such as a need for a suitable British naval base east of India, global and regional trade for tea and spices. Her subsequent rapid rise and progress were due to the influx of immigrants and a stable system of colonial governance.
Throughout the long years up till eventual independence, there would be this same dynamic interaction between both regional (Asian) and international (British) factors in the island’s spectacular growth. The political foundation was laid by Europeans but the social and economic boom were given shape by the large numbers of newcomers from all over China, India, Malaya, Ceylon, the East Indies and Arabia. And when, invariably, crime became a problem among the immigrant community, it was British law, police system and judiciary which brought things to heel. Many local Asians were brought into the system willingly as middle to lower ranked civil servants, businessmen and community leaders, but the colonial mores of the day dictated that the apex be strictly European.
Such a hierarchy was never easy to sustain, since the Europeans were always in the vast minority. This increasingly shrinking group (proportionate to the locals) of expatriates, ruling what was essentially a foreign land far from home, came to define their ever-tenuous role by governing from a position of separate-ness. Ultimately, such a social hierarchy was tested by the ghastly experiences of World War Two. After that, any form of government other than one from within the population that had settled in Singapore as home was hardly ever tenable. However, the long partnership between Asians and Europeans was called upon one last time for the herculean effort of conducting a peaceful transition from colony to city-state without destroying or even jeopardising the prosperity that had come to mean so much to both the rulers and the ruled. That this transition was carried out successfully without Singapore falling into communist hands was both a testament to a fairly strong relationship between the departing colonial government and the newly emerging citizen government, as well as a solid foundation from which a spectacular and new phase of the Singapore story might be embarked upon.
In this way, the Singapore story did not begin in 1965. It is almost a truism to restate that there was not only a Singapore before SG50, but that the Singapore of the colonial era was just as vibrant and important as the one in the subsequent period. And as with all major transitions, the manner in which it is conducted often provides an inkling of things to come – for better or worse.
We conclude with a final observation. One of independent Singapore’s esteemed foreign economic adviser from the mid-1960s to 1984 (from colony to nation) was the Dutchman Dr Albert Winsemius, who first visited the island as part of the United Nations industrial survey team in 1960. Thereafter, he worked closely with the government to help advance Singapore from being an entrepot trade port to a centre of manufacturing and industry. His advice was valued by the nation’s new leaders who came to regard him highly. Winsemius, and the succession of Finance Ministers – Lim Kim San, Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen – have been acknowledged as the architects of what came to be hailed as Singapore’s “economic miracle.”123
I have often pondered the somewhat intriguing yet seemingly natural state of this relationship – where a new nation, just coming to terms with a post-colonial existence, would call on the services of another European (a Dutch, how ironic, considering the pre-1819 Anglo-Dutch rivalries) to counsel and assist in her new dispensation. But perhaps it was not so puzzling after all, for Singapore was used to just such an arrangement borne out of a stable and peaceful colonial history.
Indeed, the historian Edwin Lee has made the insightful remark that this was evidence that “ideas from different cultures came together to effect Singapore’s economic transformation through the [Economic Development Board].” The British civil service tradition and Winsemius’ Dutch Calvinistic background were Protestant values; Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee represented Confucian values, and the first managing director of the EDB in 1961, E.J. Meyer, was a Jew from Israel.124
And when the new PAP government deliberated the removal of Raffles’ statue from its place of prominence outside the Victoria Theatre, as a symbolic shedding of the past, Dr Winsemius advised against it, stating that such a drastic move would be perceived unfavourably by the West, whose investors and businesses Singapore now needed and sought. The advice was heeded.
According to then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, writing his memoirs in 2000, the statue would stand as a "symbol of public acceptance of the legacy of the British and could have a positive effect" on Singapore's future development.125 Today, not one but two, statues of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles stand in Singapore, one in front of the Victoria Theatre and the other one, all in resplendent white, looking down on the Singapore River, where he stepped ashore in 1819.
POSTSCRIPT: What if Singapore had not fallen in 1942?
This is an intriguing question which came to me while on a trip in Hong Kong. I do not often consider and evaluate historical events in this way. To merely ask what-if such and such had happened or not happened, or to ponder what might have been should the actual events not taken the turn they did, mostly seems to me a fruitless exercise in hypothetical imaginations.
However, what historians term “counterfactual history” is more than just vain imaginations, and is indeed slowly gaining some traction these days. Not the same thing as “alternate histories” – which is a literary strategy often used by historical-fiction writers to propose other possible scenarios to the past – counterfactual writing conjectures on what did not happen, or what might have happened, in order to understand what did happen. (Jeremy Black and Donald MacRaild, Studying History; 2007)
Could a counterfactual approach to the Fall of Singapore and the ensuing years cast more light on the significance of those very frenetic events themselves? The surmising arose as I observed the society, politics and people of Hong Kong, the last great colony relinquished by the British in 1997, and handed over to the Communist Party of China. Although it was a peaceful transition in 1997, the years following have thrown up many questions over the nature of government in Hong Kong, not least of which is the extent of control Beijing has over the office of the Chief Executive.
What would Singapore have been like, or at least what would have been her experience, if the shocking events of the Fall and Occupation not taken place? This is certainly not an easy query to address. But we can at any rate be certain of this – Singapore would have remained a prized colony for some time to come. Perhaps even for a very long time. The real issue is - how peaceful or tumultuous would the transition to self-government have been?
Part of the answer depends on how Britain might have avoided surrendering Singapore in 1942. If say, the Japanese had not even set their sights on the island, then the status quo might have simply remain, with the colonial government taking a long and measured stance on decolonisation, universal suffrage and eventual independence. If however, Britain had faced a Japanese onslaught and had successfully defended Singapore, the sense of gratitude and debt on the part of the locals would have been immense so that decolonisation would probably have taken an even longer time to unfold.
Either way, colonial administration would have prevailed, perhaps for decades to come. Singapore might even have rivalled Hong Kong for the prestige of being that last prize of empire!
Inevitably, we need to consider that the world would still change, assuming that all else of World War Two occurred as it did save for Singapore’s capitulation. And so, the process of decolonisation took place in spite of Allied victory. War weary and cash-starved, post-war Britain embarked on the course of dismantling her empire with as much dignity as possible. This had to be accomplished in the midst of the Cold War whirlwind, with the very real threat of communist insurgencies in vulnerable societies and colonies. Such a volatile climate would invariably stir up the Chinese-dominated population of Singapore. And without the moderating effects of military defeat and shame, the response of the colonial authorities to demands for independence, even self-government, would likely have been torpid. This intransigence would certainly not have been well-received, and would possibly lead to outcry, civil disobedience and rebellion.
What the defeat of Singapore in 1942 did – beyond the immediate humiliation and sufferings – was to shatter the illusion of imperial permanence that even the British thought they possessed. Once the sense of resignation set in, and the inevitability of decolonisation acknowledged, plans could be made for a smooth transition and transfer of power. The ignominy of war and defeat in effect made the end of empire more palatable and therefore more peaceful for the British colonial government than it otherwise would have been. If Singapore had not fallen in 1942, her road to independence might have been a very violent and bloody struggle.
1. Elaine Ng, Foreword to John Bastin and Julie Weizenegger, The Family of Sir Stamford Raffles↩
2. Most notably, Lysa Hong and Huang Jianli eds., The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its pasts↩
3. Margaret MacMillan Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History↩
4. Singapore: From Settlement to Nation, pre-1819 to 1971↩
5. Singapore: From Settlement to Nation 1300-1975↩
6. Transcript of a speech made by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Sree Narayan Mission on 12 September 1965.↩
7. John Lukacs, The Future of History (2011), p 143.↩
8. Tom Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination and Understanding: Narrative, Imagination and Understanding (1990), p 9.↩
9. Margaret MacMillan Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History p 84.↩
10. Ibid, p 36.↩
11. Ibid, p 37.↩
12. This is, in fact, the bold title of the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story (1998).↩
13. Karl Hack, “Framing Singapore’s History” in Nicholas Tarling ed., Studying Singapore’s Past: C.M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore (2012), p 27 – 28.↩
14. Hong and Huang eds., The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and its pasts p 1.↩
15. Sam Wineburg, Unnatural and essential: the nature of historical thinking in The Historical Association (December 2007).↩
16. Tristram Hunt Ten Cities that made an Empire p.16↩
17. Local historian Edwin Lee lists these and many more in his book, Historic Buildings of Singapore (1990), which was sponsored, interestingly, by the Preservation of Monuments Board.↩
18. Official website of the National Gallery Singapore↩
19. See Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh, Toponymics: A Study of Singapore’s Street Names (2003).↩
20. John Darwin, Unfinished Empire (2012), p 11.↩
21. Official website of the World Scientific publishing company.↩
22. Janadas Devan, in the Foreword to Volume 1 of the Singapore Chronicles (2015).↩
23. Back cover of Nicholas Tarling, Colonial Singapore. This is Volume 1 of the Singapore Chronicle series (2015).↩
24. Nicholas Tarling, Colonial Singapore (2015), p 7.↩
25. See Ernest Chew, “The foundation of a British Settlement,” in Ernest Chew and Edwin Lee eds., A History of Singapore (1991).↩
26. A recent publication by Graham Berry, titled From Kilts to Sarongs: Scottish Pioneers of Singapore (2015) details the many ways in which Singapore has benefitted from early Scottish administrators and leaders. In the Preface, Professor Tommy Koh goes so far as to state: “I wanted to highlight the contributions which many Scottish pioneers had made to Singapore….to draw attention to the unjust manner in which history had dealt with Singapore’s first Resident and Commandant, William Farquhar…. If Raffles was the visionary and idealist, Farquhar was the practical man of action…. I think the time has come for us to restore him to our collective memory.” (p 9 – 10).↩
27. Rosemary Lim, An Irish Tour of Singapore (2008); Maxime Pilon, The French in Singapore: An Illustrated History 1819 – Present (2011).↩
28. John Bastin, Raffles and Hastings: Private Exchanges behind the Founding of Singapore (2014).↩
29. James Warren,Rickshaw Coolie: A Peoples’ History of Singapore (1986); Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History 1819 – 2002 (2003).↩
30. See for example, The Malay Heritage Centre (2004), Indian Heritage Centre (2015), The Peranakan Museum (2006), Eurasian Heritage Centre and the Chinatown Heritage Centre.↩
31. Samuel Wee, British Strategic Interests in the Straits of Malacca 1786 – 1819 (1993).↩
32. John Miksic and Cherly-Ann Low Mei Gek eds., Early Singapore 1300s – 1819: Evidence in Maps, text and Artefacts (2004), p 13.↩
33. Derek Heng, “Indigenising Singapore’s Past: An approach towards internalising Singapore’s settlement history from the late thirteenth to twenty-first centuries,” in New Perspectives and Sources on the History of Singapore: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach (2006).↩
34. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng, Tan Tai Yong, Singapore: A 700-Year History, from Early Emporium to World City (2009), p 6.↩
35. Kwa, Heng and Tan, eds., Singapore: A 700-Year History, from Early Emporium to World City p 19.↩
36. John Miksic, “Temasik to Singapura: Singapore in the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries,” in Karl Hack, Jean-Louis Margolin and Karine Delaye, Singapore from Temasek to the 21st Century: Reinventing the Global City (2010).↩
37. Kwa, Heng and Tan, eds., Singapore: A 700-Year History, from Early Emporium to World City p 52.↩
38. Benjamin Morrell, “A Narrative of Four Voyages” (1832) in Iain Manly, Travellers’ Tales of Old Singapore (2010), p 26.↩
39. John Turnbull Thomson, Glimpses into Life in Malayan Lands (1864), p 14.↩
40. Mark Ravinder Frost and Tu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography (2009), p 89 – 90.↩
41. Thomson, Glimpses into Life in Malayan Lands, p 15 – 16.↩
42. C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore (1989), p 76. Also, L.A. Mills, British Malaya (1925, 1966).↩
43. Wong Lin Ken, “Commercial Growth before the Second Wold War,” in Ernest Chew and Edwin Lee, eds, A History of Singapore (1991), p 52.↩
44. Frost and Balasingamchow, “Jewel of the East,” in Singapore: A Biography p 132 – 133.↩
45. Lim Tin Seng, “Coolies, Triads and Pimps: Chinatown in Former Times,” in Biblioasia (Oct-Dec 2015).↩
46. Turnbull, A History of Singapore p 80 – 81.↩
47. Quoted in Edwin Lee, The British as Rulers: Governing Multi-Racial Singapore 1867 – 1914 (1991), p 34.↩
48. Edwin Lee, The British as Rulers: Governing Multi-Racial Singapore 1867 – 1914 p 47.↩
49. George Hamlin Fitch, “The Critic in the Orient” (1913), quoted in Iain Manley, Tales of Old Singapore (2010), p 76.↩
50. Lim, “Coolies, Triads and Pimps: Chinatown in Former Times.” in Biblioasia↩
51. Ang Seow Leng, “Men in Blue: A History of the Singapore Police Force,” in Biblioasia (Oct-Dec 2015).↩
52. Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain made the Modern World (2003), p 186.↩
53. David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (2001).↩
54. James Morris, Pax Britannica (1968), p 522.↩
55. G.M. Reith, 1907 Handbook to Singapore p 35.↩
56. G.M. Reith, 1907 Handbook to Singapore p 35-6.↩
57. Isabella Bird, The Golden Chersonese and The Way Thither (1883), p 119.↩
58. Samuel Wee, The Illusion and the Code (1993)↩
59. S. Robert Aiken, Imperial Belvederes: The Hill Stations of Malaya (1994), p 31.↩
60. Quoted in Maya Jayapal, Old Singapore (1992), p 37.↩
61. Eric Lawlor, Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya (2000), p 94.↩
62. Eric Lawlor, Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya (2000), p 96 - 99.↩
63. Quoted in Jayapal, Old Singapore p 35 – 36.↩
64. Lawlor, Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya p 99 – 100.↩
65. John Butcher, The British in Malaya 1880 – 1941: : The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South East Asia (1979), p 97 – 111↩
66. Aiken, Imperial Belvederes: The Hill Stations of Malaya p 2.↩
67. Lawlor, Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya p 100 – 101.↩
68. Edward Ingram, “The Pukka Sahib as the Henty Hero,” in Empire Building and Empire Builders (1995), p 175.↩
69. J.S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India (1928).↩
70. Ronald Robinson, Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism: sketch for a theory of collaboration p 132 -4.↩
71. Nicholas Tarling, The Fall of Imperial Britain in South East Asia (1993), p 2 – 3.↩
72. See Kwa Chong Guan, “The Colonial State in the making of the Peranakan Community,” in Leo Suyadinata, Peranakan Chinese in a Globalizing Southeast Asia↩
73. Quoted in Png Poh Seng, “The Straits Chinese in Singapore: A Case Study of Local Identity and Socio-Cultural Accommodation” in Journal of South East Asia History, 10 (1969), p 99 – 101.↩
74. Quoted in Turnbull, A History of Singapore p 112.↩
75. H Norman, The People and Politics of the Far East (1895), quoted in Turnbull, A History of Singapore p 112.↩
76. See for example, John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (2006) and Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain’s My Lai (2013).↩
77. Darwin Unfinished Empire p 390 – 392.↩
78. Bernard Porter, British Imperial: British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t (2016), p 33.↩
79. Quoted in Walter Makepeace, Gilbert Brooke and Roland Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore (1921), p 579.↩
80. Quoted in Walter Makepeace, Gilbert Brooke and Roland Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore (1921), p 582 – 583.↩
81. Quoted in Walter Makepeace, Gilbert Brooke and Roland Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore (1921), p 571.↩
82. Tarling, Colonial Singapore p 92.↩
83. Bird, The Golden Chersonese and The Way Thither p 103.↩
84. “Britannia Rules the Waves: Singapore and Imperial Defence 1867 – 1891,” in Murfett, Miksic, Farrell and Chiang eds, Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (1999)↩
85. Quoted in Nicholas Tarling, Imperialism in Southeast Asia (2001), p 48.↩
86. Jun Frank Vincent, “The Land of the White Elephant,” in Travellers’ Tales of Old Singapore edited by Michael Wise (1985).↩
87. “Vivid story of Singapore Mutiny,” 8 March 1915, in The New York Times.↩
88. Information drawn from Frost and Balasingamchow, “Cracks in the Empire,” in Singapore: A Biography (2009), p 216 – 219; Chiang Ming Shun, “The weakest go to the wall: From Money to Mutiny 1892 – 1891,” in Murfett, Miksic, Farrell and Chiang eds, Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (1999); R.W.E. Harper and Harry Miller, Singapore Mutiny(1984).↩
89. “Vivid story of Singapore Mutiny,” 8 March 1915, in The New York Times.↩
90. For information, see “A keystone of imperial defence or a millstone around Britain’s neck? Singapore 1919 - 1941,” in Murfett, Miksic, Farrell and Chiang eds, Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal (1999). Also, Brian Farrell and Sandy Hunter eds, Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited (2003), Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack, Did Singapore Have To Fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress (2005).↩
91. See Brian Farrell, “Churchill and Imperial Defence 1926 – 1940: Putting Singapore in Perspective,” in Brian Farrell, ed., Churchill and the Lion City: Shaping Modern Singapore (2011).↩
92. “Too little, too late: Preparing for war 1941-1942,” in Murfett, Miksic, Farrell and Chiang eds, Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from First Settlement to Final British Withdrawal p 177 – 185.↩
93. Peter Wee, From Farm and Kampong (1989), p 2.↩
94. Lawrence James, Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist (2013), p 276. (In fact, Percival was not the officer carrying the Union Jack flag).↩
95. Allen Packwood, “Heart versus Head: Churchill comes to terms with the Fall of Singapore,” in Brian Farrell, ed., Churchill and the Lion City: Shaping Modern Singapore p 59.↩
96. Lawrence James, Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist (2013), p 276. ↩
97. Richard Evans, “Decolonization: The End of Empire?” Lecture (2012) ↩
98. Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story, p 53. ↩
99. Margery Perham, “Lecture 1: Anti-Colonialism and Anti-Imperialism” in The Reith Lectures: The Colonial Reckoning (1961)↩
100. This whole fascinating subject is taken up by Bilveer Singh, Quest for Political Power: Communist Subversion and Militancy in Singapore (2015).↩
101. Nicholas Tarling, The Fall of Imperial Britain in South East Asia (1993), p 1 -2.↩
102. TIME magazine (1965).↩
103. Lee, The Singapore Story p 309.↩
104. Chan Heng Chee, A Sensation of Independence: A Political Biography of David Marshall (1984), p 79.↩
105. Lee, The Singapore Story p 309.↩
106. Ferguson, Empire: How Britain made the Modern World p xxii - xxiii.↩
107. Singh, Quest for Political Power: Communist Subversion and Militancy in Singapore, p. 9.↩
108. Tan Tai Yong, “The Cold War and the making of Singapore” in Malcolm Murfett ed., Cold War Southeast Asia (2012), p 137.↩
109. Tan Tai Yong, “The Cold War and the making of Singapore,” in Malcolm Murfett ed., Cold War Southeast Asia p 141.↩
110. Quoted in Singh, Quest for Political Power: Communist Subversion and Militancy in Singapore p. 32.↩
111. Tan Tai Yong, “The Cold War and the making of Singapore,” in Malcolm Murfett ed., Cold War Southeast Asia p 141.↩
112. T.N. Harper, “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story,’” in Poh Soo Kai ed., Lim Chin Siong in History: Comet in our Sky (2015), p 19.↩
113. T.N. Harper, “Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story,’” in Poh Soo Kai ed., Lim Chin Siong in History: Comet in our Sky (2015), p 14.↩
114. Quoted by Greg Poulgrain, “Lim Chin Siong in Britain’s Southeast Asian Decolonisation,” in Poh Soo Kai ed., Lim Chin Siong in History: Comet in our Sky (2015), p 122.↩
115. Greg Poulgrain, “Lim Chin Siong in Britain’s Southeast Asian Decolonisation,” p 116.↩
116. Lee Kuan Yew, Introduction to The Battle for Merger (1962, reprinted in 2015),
117. Lim Chin Siong, “I am not a Communist,” (31 July 1961), in Poh Soo Kai ed., Lim Chin Siong in History: Comet in our Sky (2015), p 177.↩
118. Extracts from Lim Chin Siong’s posthumous manuscripts, edited by Lim Chin Joo, in Poh Soo Kai ed., Lim Chin Siong in History: Comet in our Sky (2015), p 184.↩
119. Jim Baker, Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore (1999, updated 2014), p 274 – 275.↩
120. The Straits Times, 1 September 1963.↩
121. Frost and Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography p 392.↩
122. The Straits Times, 1 September 1963.↩
123. C.M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore 1819 – 2005 (2009), p 302.↩
124. Edwin Lee, Singapore: The Unexpected Nation (2008), p. 269 – 270.↩
125. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First, The Singapore Story 1965 – 2000 (2000), p 67.↩
Samuel T.W. Wee
|Singapore in 1942
Song of the Wild NFD
Farewell To Our Darling Conrad
Imperial Belvederes: The Hill Stations of Malaya
by Aiken, S. Robert (1994)
Tales from the South China Seas
by Charles Allen (1983)
Men in Blue: A History of the Singapore Police Force
Ang Seow Leng in Biblioasia (Oct-Dec 2015).
Controversial History Education in Asian Contexts
by Baildon, Mark, Loh Kah Seng, Ivy Maria Lim, Gul Inanc and Junaidah Jaffar eds (2014)
Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore
by Baker, Jim (1999 & 2014)
Raffles and Hastings: Private Exchanges behind the Founding of Singapore
by Bastin, John (2014)
The Family of Sir Stamford Raffles
by Bastin, John, and Julie Weizenegger (2016)
From Kilts to Sarongs: Scottish Pioneers of Singapore
by Berry, Graham (2015
The Golden Chersonese and The Way Thither
by Isabella Bird (1883)
Did Singapore Have To Fall? Churchill and the impregnable fortress
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The British in Malaya 1880 – 1941: : The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South East Asia
by Butcher, John (1979).
Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire
by Cannadine, David (2001)
A Sensation of Independence: A Political Biography of David Marshall
by Chan Heng Chee (1984)
Singapore: 500 early postcards
by Cheah Jin Seng (2006)
The foundation of a British Settlement
by Chew, Ernest in
A History of Singapore (1991)
Great Peranakans: Fifty Remarkable Lives
Chong, Alan, ed. (2015)
Darwin, John (2012)
The Singapore River
Dobbs, Stephen (2003)
“Decolonization: The End of Empire?” Lecture
by Evans, Richard (2012)
Churchill and the Lion City: Shaping Modern Singapore
by Farrell, Brian, ed., (2011)
Sixty Years On: The Fall of Singapore Revisited
by Farrell, Brian and Sandy Hunter eds (2003)
Empire: How Britain made the Modern World
Ferguson, Niall (2003)
Singapore: A Biography
by Frost, Mark Ravinder and Tu-Mei Balasingamchow (2009)
Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India
by Furnivall, J.S. (1928)
Studying Singapore’s Past: C.M. Turnbull and the History of Modern Singapore
by Hack, Karl. “Framing Singapore’s History” in Nicholas Tarling ed., (2012)
Singapore from Temasek to the 21st Century: Reinventing the Global City
by Hack, Karl and Jean-Louis Margolin and Karine Delaye, eds (2010)
Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain’s My Lai
by Hale, Christopher (2013)
Lim Chin Siong and the ‘Singapore Story'
by Harper, T.N. inLim Chin Siong in History: Comet in our Sky (2015)
by Harper, R.W.E. and Harry Miller (1984)
New Perspectives and Sources on the History of Singapore: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach
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