Singapore bicentennial: Revising history, as it happens

These two sentences almost made me cough out my coffee:

“The journey towards prosperity and a First World status began only in 1959, when the People’s Action Party took over the government. Clearly, then, Sir Stamford could not have been the founder of modern Singapore.”

These assertions were contained in a letter to the Straits Times Forum, published 5 January 2019. Written by Anthony Oei, it was in response to an earlier letter by Loke Hoe Kit published on 31 December 2018.

Loke had been critical of the way the bicentennial narrative was focussing

“more on the island’s 700-year history with greater emphasis placed on the 500 years of history preceding 1819, instead of primarily focusing on modern Singapore’s 200-year existence.”

Anthony Oei’s response letter was full of poorly-founded statements, and I wondered how it made it past the editor’s eye. 

Arguments trotted out by Oei cry out to be demolished. Here are two of them:

“One of [Loke’s] points was that 1819 marked modern Singapore’s founding. Actually, in keeping with the purpose of colonisation, Sir Stamford Raffles came not to improve our lives and undertake nation-building, but to promote British economic and political power in Asia. The colonial government ruled with that mission in mind.

Thus, as the focus was on the welfare of the colonialists, many locals remained poor throughout the colonial era, living in a Third World country full of slums.

[Bold text marked by me for easier reference]

“Improve our lives”? This conjures a picture of us being present on this island when Raffles and his East India Company associates signed a treaty with one side of the Johore-Riau royalty to establish a trading post here.

The truth: We were (almost all) not here. There were only a few hundred or a thousand villagers and sea gypsies on the island. While some citizens today may be descended from them, the vast majority of us have no genetic connection to them. My rough guess is that 92-95% of today’s Singaporeans are descended* from migrants who came willingly from places as varied as Hainan, Sulawesi, Jaffna, Amoy, Chettinad, Malacca, Bawean, Baghdad, Meizhou, Kerala, Isfahan, Canton, Swatow, Java and so on. They came years after Raffles and company landed. The largest waves of immigration took place nearly a century later.

One cannot accuse Raffles of not improving “our” lives when our ancestors weren’t even here. More pertinently, the argument is turned around by the fact that our ancestors chose to migrate here when the East India Company and subsequently the British ruled this place. There must have been positive reasons why they came and, equally important, stayed. Overall, they must have found life and opportunities here an improvement from what they might have had if they hadn’t migrated.

Judging history by today’s priorities

Perhaps Oei meant that Raffles’ successors even a hundred years later made no effort at providing universal schooling, subsidised healthcare or social housing and thus didn’t improve lives. That, however, would be reading contemporary expectations into a very different period. Even in Europe and North America, such state policies didn’t materialise till some decades into the Twentieth Century, like the 1930s.

In any case, have we forgotten that the colonial government built roads, sewers, water supply, and the colleges that later became the National University of Singapore?

Either way one interprets it, Oei’s statement betrays an unfortunate lack of historical understanding.

Let’s not get started on nation-building. A local sense of identity is not a prerequisite of modernity. Just because the policy to create a sense of Singaporeanness dates from 1965 (post-separation from Malaysia) does not mean we could not have been modern before that. I’m curious what political narrative is served by inserting this as a criterion.

Nonetheless, one could in fact argue that the British engaged in nation-building too. Some people living through that period were quite proud to be part of the British Empire.

Third World slums

Now let me turn to the next bit of text that I marked in bold: “… many locals remained poor throughout the colonial era, living in a Third World country full of slums,” wrote Oei.

It is quite erroneous to apply the classification “Third World” to a period of history outside the label’s scope. This label is only relevant to the post-Second World War era to connote a country with a low standard of living, weak governance and low degree of industrialisation, when compared to Western democracies and to countries of the Second World – the Soviet Union, China and other communist states in their orbit.

Certainly, if one compared a country (say, France, Mexico, Japan, Turkey) in the Nineteenth Century with itself today, it would probably seem poorer, more lawless and undeveloped in the former period compared to the present. But would it make any sense to describe them as “Third World” in the earlier period? To do so would be silly and suggestive of a hidden agenda. The same can be said of Oei’s labelling of colonial Singapore.

As for slums, not only is it true that all over the world, people generally lived in poorer housing in the pre-World War 2 period, port cities attracting migrants have long tended to have unusually crowded accommodation. New York, Liverpool and Marseilles in the Nineteenth Century – and no, these weren’t colonies – were infamous for their slums.

Yet, we should not ignore the lovely townhouses built during the colonial period. We’ve demolished a lot of them since, but it would be hypocritical to celebrate the shophouses of Old Chinatown, Joo Chiat, Boat Quay and Little India and yet paint the same period as one of inescapably abysmal housing. Quite a lot of our forebears during the colonial period clearly did well and had the means to build and decorate nice houses. The photograph at the top is of a row of houses in Geylang.

And I need to say this: Don’t imagine for a moment that there aren’t people amongst us today with accommodation issues. We have poverty and homelessness amongst us. As for our migrant workers, hundreds of thousands continue to live in cramped conditions with no personal space.

Historical discontinuity

Further down in his letter, Oei wrote:

“The other point that Mr Loke raised was that features like a multiracial population and culture, and the rule of law and its institutions were absent in pre-1819 Singapore. According to the book Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea by Dr John N. Miksic, ancient Singapore was a thriving city by 1350. Among other things, it boasted a sophisticated and complex society, and a multi-ethnic and multinational population living peacefully under the rule of a local chief.”

While it is true that archaeological research and ancient records demonstrate the existence of a thriving town (known as Temasek or Singapura) with extensive trade relations in the Thirteenth to Fourteenth Centuries, it is fallacious to think that it continued to exist and grow until Raffles came and took over. That settlement and polity was largely abandoned around 1400 CE when the ruling elite decamped to Malacca.

There was a historical discontinuity between the trading town of Temasek/Singapura and the East India Company’s Singapore.

By contrast, there is no discontinuity between the colonial period and the emergence of a self-governing Singapore. Albeit that there have been further changes, and not always for the better, the Singapore that we see today cannot be isolated from events and developments that have occurred since Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah on 6 February 1819.

It is thus churlish to deny or downplay the significance of 1819. Like all historical events, its meaning and consequences can be read in positive and negative ways, often depending on one’s values, but it would be a breath-taking example of ahistorical dumbing-down to argue, as the headline given to Oei’s letter says, that “Raffles’ arrival did not mark founding of modern Singapore”.



*How did I make this guesstimate of 92-95%? My back-of-the-envelope calculations went like this: Assume 1,000 individuals on the island in 1819. There have roughly been 8 generations in the 200 years since. Assume, at each generation, there’s an average doubling of the individuals through reproduction. So, 1,000 individuals multiplying at a compound rate of 100% eight times, gives us 256,000, which would make up about 6.4% of our population of citizens and Permanent Residents (3.99 million). Of course, since it is likely the original inhabitants and their descendants copulated with migrants too, so these approximate 256,000 individuals also have migrant genes.


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