Time and history are relative in Singapore.
The city-state turned 50 in 2015, a Golden Jubilee celebrated with great ceremony and enthusiasm, all branded with merchandise, exhibitions and concerts. Just four years later, in 2019, Singapore will also become 200 years old, commemorating the bicentennial of its “founding.”
Sir Stamford Raffles, a British colonial official, arrived in Singapore on January 29, 1819, where he established a British settlement by treaty. He has since been widely described as the “founder” of modern Singapore.
Statues of the statesman stand near the Singapore River in the island’s civic district, and multiple institutions and businesses—from schools to hotels—bear his name.
“Sir Stamford Raffles’ landing in 1819 was a key turning point. Raffles set Singapore on a different trajectory, which brought us to where we are today,” said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his New Year address on the final day of 2017.
Lee announced government plans to commemorate the bicentennial in the same speech, sparking skepticism and speculation over his motivations.
Some noted his People’s Action Party (PAP) resoundingly won re-election soon after the feel-good SG50 celebrations and wonder if snap polls could follow in the colonial bicentennial’s celebratory wake. But the announcement also triggered a more critical discussion of Singapore’s relationship with its British colonial past.
When elaborating on the commemoration, the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO) and its advisory panel were quick to assure Singaporeans that the celebration would avoid glorifying colonialism by taking a more complex and nuanced view of the era.
The Straits Times reported Gene Tan, the SBO’s executive director, vowing that the event’s activities would take into account less savory aspects of the colonial era, including its “squalor and segregation.”
An office representative told Asia Times that the bicentennial commemoration would not focus only on the British, but would be “engaging… different communities to piece together the story of this shared journey through history.”
While other former British colonies have engaged in fierce discussions over the injustice and immorality of colonial rule—with some even seeking reparations from Britain—Singapore has long looked at British colonialism as benign and even beneficial.
The “Singapore Story”—an establishment narrative of Singapore’s development—begins with Raffles’ landing on an island with an extremely small population at the time. Those numbers quickly grew after Britain negotiated a treaty allowing for it to establish a trading port on the island.
“Had Raffles not landed, Singapore might not have become a unique spot in Southeast Asia, quite different from the islands in the archipelago around us, or the states in the Malayan Peninsula,” premier Lee said in his New Year speech. “But because of Raffles, Singapore became a British colony, a free port, and a modern city.”
Critical analysts and historians view that history somewhat differently.
“For one [Lee’s narrative] frames Singapore as being terra nullius; the scene is set up and ready for Raffles to stride in, without acknowledging the complex politics of Johor-Riau, and by extension this perpetuates a false notion of Singaporean exceptionalism – that we are separate from the history and politics of the region,” said Faris Joraimi, a student at Yale-NUS College who researches classical Malay literature and history.
Other critics say Singapore’s rose-tinted view of its former domination has led to some unfortunately tone-deaf references to empire and domination. In 2016, the National Gallery of Singapore was forced to make changes to its fundraising gala after its original theme—“The Empire Ball”— triggered an outcry.
A marketing campaign launched by the Singapore Tourist Board in October last year to promote the Singapore Tourism Awards features Raffles and Major General William Farquhar, Singapore’s first resident and colonial administrator, as a jovial, bumbling pair in search of enjoyment as “Singapore’s First Tourists.”
“Just like how historical seafaring explorers like Raffles were guided by the stars in their expedition, Singaporeans and visitors can also be guided by the stars of the Singapore Tourism Awards when seeking out the best tourism experiences,” the Singapore Tourism Board tweeted.
Raffles, of course, was not a “historical seafaring explorer”, but a representative of a company specifically established to seek trade and profit through colonization.
Prior to founding Singapore, Raffles was part of a successful military expedition against the French and Dutch in Java, Indonesia, that saw him appointed as Lieutenant Governor, a role he leveraged to subjugate several local Javanese princes during a brief period of British colonial rule.
The Singapore Tourism Board’s perspective is indicative of a questionable grasp of Raffles the man and the island-state’s colonial history. Oxford University historian Thum Ping Tjin, however, points out that there are also political motivations for the soft narrative.
“Fundamentally, the [PAP] governs Singapore in the same way that the colonial power did, via [similar] structures, mechanisms and values,” Thum wrote in email response to questions from Asia Times. “In order to intellectually [and] emotionally justify this, it has to then celebrate our colonial past as a positive one.”
Thum wrote that involves sweeping “a lot of the horrors of our past under the carpet,” namely colonial rule’s dispossession of native people, the fact that the port thrived due to the opium trade and slavery, and that British governors routinely used torture and oppression to maintain control.
Several laws passed by the British colonial government to control the native population remain on the books today. Earlier this month, the government proposed – for the 14th time – an extension of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, legislation introduced by the British in the 1950s that allows for detention without trial and originally intended as a temporary measure.
With the continuation of colonial structures, attitudes and many repressive laws under 58 years of uninterrupted PAP nanny state rule, Oxford historian Thum argues “that the people of Singapore have never enjoyed sovereignty over ourselves” – hardly a cause for celebration.