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Outside the iconic Raffles Hotel    © LightRocket/Getty Images

Singapore -- history haunts the ultra-modern state

City's 200th anniversary celebrations stir controversy over past and present identities

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh | Singapore

SINGAPORE -- From Cape Town to San Francisco, cities have been toppling monuments to historical figures with troubling legacies. In Singapore, authorities have opted for a more genteel way of dealing with the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonialist who in 1819 chose the tiny island as the East India Co.'s new regional base.

They are diluting the imperialist's prominence by erecting for the year four new statues of Asian pioneers near Raffles.

The government is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles' landing with a yearlong pageantry of exhibitions, essays and events (there may even be a national election).

It is a means to interrogate Singapore's rich but oft-overlooked pre-independence history. Yet the process involves risks -- it exposes some inherent contradictions about a global city's identity, as interpreted by a heavy-handed state.

Compared with India and most other former British colonies, independent Singapore has always had a romantic view of colonialism. The country's most famous hotel and school are named after Raffles. In 2015, when UNESCO designated Singapore's Botanic Gardens as the country's first and still only World Heritage site, it was remarkable because rarely does a post-colonial state nominate a colonial landmark rather than an indigenous relic.

Four statues of Asian pioneers were erected near Raffles in January. (Courtesy of Singapore Bicentennial Office)

Colonialism's Singaporean fans suggest that the modern city has thrived partly because of its legacies, including the English language, common law and the port, still one of the busiest in the world.

Critics say that colonialism was fundamentally corrupt and exploitative, pointing to some debilitating vestiges of the era, such as lingering racial biases and a neoliberalism that excessively benefits the owners of capital and land at the expense of workers.

An engraving of British colonialist Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles   © Corbis/Getty Images

Three of the four pioneers whose images now grace the new plinths thrived under British rule in the 1800s. They are Munshi Abdullah, a Malay-language author and translator, who was of Arab-Tamil ancestry but was accepted into the Malay community; Indian businessman Narayana Pillai; and Chinese merchant Tan Tock Seng.

The fourth is Sang Nila Utama, a visiting Srivijayan prince who in 1299 bestowed the Sanskrit name Singa-pura, or lion city. His inclusion reflects a grander aim. Singapore is using the bicentennial not simply to reconsider its colonial past, but to stretch its history back by a further 500 years. Singapore's popularly recognized history is, in other words, going from two centuries to seven. A society hitherto obsessed with the future is waking up to the power of the past.

As somebody born into an ethnic Indian family and brought up in Singapore in the 1970s, I see this as an ambitious effort that could help Singaporeans, often caricatured as unmoored economic digits, better understand our place in this world. It will, for one, serve as a reminder of Singapore's centrality to the Malay world, and Southeast Asia at large.

A view of Singapore in the late 1800s   © Corbis/Getty Images

That could in turn prompt further scrutiny of The British Empire. For even if Singapore's colonial experience was relatively mild, horrors were never far away. In 1812, for instance, Raffles led British and Indian soldiers in a violent sacking of the royal palace of Yogyakarta (some of his spoils are on display at an even-handed new exhibition at Singapore's Asian Civilizations Museum, held in conjunction with the British Museum).

Meanwhile, even as merchant Pillai was moving to Singapore with Raffles and building a successful career under the British, thousands of his fellow Tamils were being indentured by the British for backbreaking work on plantations in Fiji, Mauritius and Malaya.

Singapore, then, as a trading hub of the British Empire, was the varnished administrative center, a glittering front that sheltered its inhabitants from tragedies elsewhere.

Today, Singaporean society is coming to terms with its potential complicity in contemporary global nefarious activities. This includes serving as a corporate hub for unscrupulous palm-oil companies engaging in land grabs in Indonesia; a transshipment point for the illegal trafficking of humans and wildlife; and a tax haven for multinationals and millionaires alike. "The Switzerland of the East" is growing a conscience. A broader understanding of Singapore's role in the British Empire's global network will help in that maturation.

Critics wail that the bicentennial pomp is nothing but a cynical ploy by the ruling People's Action Party to energize citizens ahead of a possible general election. Yet it is not clear how a richer historical appreciation might affect the PAP's modern standing. The PAP's enduring creation myth is that it miraculously transformed Singapore from a "fishing village" in the 1960s to a modern metropolis by the 1990s. "From swamp to skyscrapers," screamed a fawning BBC tribute to Singapore in 2015, on the anniversary of its independence.

Yet just months after Raffles landed, people were flocking to the fast-growing trading colony. "Merchants from every country came to trade," wrote Abdullah of early 1800s Singapore. "But they did not care so much to do business as they did to see the new town."

St. Andrew's School, which I attended, was founded in 1862. In the 1950s, Singapore was already no swamp but one of Asia's most well-developed and multicultural cities.

The bicentennial commemorations should finally bust the fishing village myth, indicating that the PAP in 1959 took over a bustling, multicultural port well-positioned to capitalize on East Asia's industrial boom. This could rub some of the sheen off the party's (nonetheless impressive) legacy.

Any reassessment of colonial misdeeds could also lead to an exploration of potential post-colonial injustices, most notably the numerous alleged communists imprisoned without trial by the PAP, in an intermittent campaign (inherited from the British) that lasted from the 1960s well into the 1990s, when the last prisoner was released. For the PAP, it may be tricky urging the electorate to scrutinize only the British legacy -- but not its own.

Colorful colonial architecture in Singapore's Chinatown   © UIG/Getty Images

The new statues are also a reflection of the PAP's dogmatism in codifying identity and organizing society through an unchanging racial lens, known colloquially as CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, others). In a system derived from colonial-era classifications, every Singaporean is ascribed by age 15 one of the four "races," which then determines what second language the person can learn in public school and in which neighborhood they can purchase public housing, among other things.

The four pioneers chosen each belong to one of the three major ethnic groups in the country while Raffles himself is the representative of that amorphous "others" category, which includes everybody from Armenians to Yemenis.

It is a reminder that state-ordained representation was a bigger consideration in erecting the four statues than fame. After the unveiling in January this year, Singaporeans rushed to Google "Munshi Abdullah" and "Narayana Pillai," the respective Malay and Indian figures we now have to commemorate. Few knew who they were.

Yet any effort to comprehensively represent identities in a global city is doomed to fail. Almost immediately, women complained about their exclusion from the all-male statuary. Today, Singapore is home to scores of ethnicities, each splashing their own color onto the city's always-somewhere-between-Asia-and-the-West palette.

Moreover, the multicultural dogmas of CMIO do not gel with the reality of Chinese predominance, say critics. The PAP recently chose its next leader -- and thus Singapore's probable next prime minister -- from a longlist comprising six ethnic Chinese men. (Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the immensely popular Indian deputy prime minister, was the notable exclusion.)

Singapore's stated immigration policies, meanwhile, give preference to ethnic Chinese migrants to ensure the group always retains its supermajority, currently over 70% of the population of 5.6 million.

All of this reflects the ethnic determinism of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, who said that Singapore's success was due to the fact that the majority of its people are Chinese who are "practical," in contrast with Indians, who "believe in the politics of contention." He separately noted that Malays are "not as hardworking and capable as the other races."

Under the British, Singapore thrived as a free port where, as evidenced by Abdullah, Pillai and Tan, a person of any color could succeed -- as long as they did not challenge white rule. The PAP is, in some ways, the colonialists' natural successor.

Ethnic nationalists everywhere might draw succor from the paradox of a global city run meticulously along racial lines by a dominant group.

Nevertheless, history is not destiny. Many younger Singaporeans yearn for the day when race and gender (and sexual orientation) no longer matter, and society strives to protect the downtrodden as much as it elevates the elites.

If and when that comes, perhaps Raffles will be joined not by just four other men on the Singapore River but by dozens of figures representing the city's many hues.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. He is currently working on a book about China and India.

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