Jeevan Vasagar is a former Financial Times correspondent in Southeast Asia and is writing a book about Singapore.
From Christopher Columbus in the U.S. to King Leopold II in Belgium, statues of men who profited from slavery or colonial exploitation have been ripped down or removed in recent weeks. In Singapore, some are asking whether it is time to reconsider their country's relationship with Stamford Raffles.
Fifty-five years after the country became an independent republic, the name of the British colonial official, who died in 1826, remains ubiquitous, from Raffles Place at the heart of the financial district to the Raffles Institution, an elite school, to the Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented.
But the statue of Raffles on the bank of the Singapore river, where a plinth hails the genius of a man who "changed the destiny of Singapore," makes the boldest claim of all. Raffles transformed Singapore from "an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis," the inscription declares.
Singaporeans are now openly questioning this version of history, with its -- correct -- suggestion that Singapore pays too much respect to the West and not enough to its neighbors. It is time for the government to heed them.
Singapore's public veneration of Raffles was a deliberate decision. Albert Winsemius, the Dutch economist who advised Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first prime minister, in the country's early years, laid down two conditions for success. First: eliminate the Communists. Second: do not remove the statue of Stamford Raffles.
The monument to colonialism signaled that Singapore was open for business with Western multinationals.
For decades, Singapore has embraced the West and played down its Asian heritage. Singapore has an ethnic-Chinese majority but its rulers have tended to be drawn from students educated at English-language schools and sent on government scholarships to top-flight universities in the U.K. or U.S. Both the current prime minister and his deputy are Cambridge-educated.
The government promoted a "Speak Good English" movement to its citizens rather than the more flavorful local variant, Singlish, with its sprinkling of Chinese, Malay and Tamil words. Singapore's rulers closed its Chinese-language university, Nanyang, and dissolved two independent-minded Chinese-language newspapers.
While Singaporeans enjoy holidays on the beaches of neighboring countries, executives at multinationals say their Singapore staff prefer secondments to London or New York over the opportunity to work in Hanoi or Manila. The National University of Singapore launched a global entrepreneurship program in Silicon Valley in 2002, but only extended this to Southeast Asia in 2018.
This downplaying leads to Singapore's leaders ducking difficult conversations about race. A photograph of Singaporean schoolchildren in "blackface," apparently celebrating a dark-skinned classmate's birthday, circulated on social media in recent weeks, a reminder of the casual racism faced by minorities in Singapore. Landlords will openly advertise rentals with the proviso: "No Indians."
But the most uncomfortable aspect of Singapore's colonial hangover is its shoddy treatment of migrant workers. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has surged through migrant workers' crowded dorms, has exposed a developed world economy which relies on cheap labor imported from developing countries.
This is where Raffles comes in. "Should the statue of Stamford Raffles in Singapore be nervous?" screenwriter Sanif Olek asked on Twitter, posting a news story about King Leopold II. "Taking you down from a pedestal doesn't mean erasing you from history," playwright Alfian Sa'at wrote on Facebook this week. "It could mean un-erasing other parts of our history."
Singapore made a modest step in this direction last year, for the bicentennial of the British landing on the island, when four statues of Asian pioneers temporarily joined Raffles on the riverside.
The challenge to Singapore's official narrative is growing, and even the government has been prompted by the coronavirus pandemic to adjust its attitude toward migrant workers and bolster ties with its Asian neighbors.
As the virus swept through their dorms, a Singapore government minister recorded a video thanking migrant workers for their labor. The government has introduced measures to reduce overcrowding, but should follow up with action that offers these workers greater employment protection. At present, there is no minimum wage in Singapore and migrant workers do not have the right to unionize.
In the region, Singapore donated COVID-19 test kits to Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries. Ordinary Singaporeans offered space in their homes to Malaysian workers who were stranded by a national lockdown.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian government helped evacuate Singaporean citizens from Iran at the start of the outbreak. National borders became impermeable at the height of the crisis, yet governments and citizens showed that cooperation was possible between countries even at the worst of times.
Singapore is uniquely placed to benefit from the growth of Asia. Its multicultural society draws on three large Asian civilizations. Its economic strengths as a financial center complement the vast consumer markets of Indonesia and Thailand.
As the wealthiest member of ASEAN, Singapore could lead the way in the economic transformation of the region, building closer economic ties with similar commercial centers, from Jakarta to Ho Chi Minh City -- facilitating the free flow of goods, services, capital and perhaps even labor.
It is time for Singapore to tell a different story about itself. Through education and the arts, Singapore could do more to offer its people a broader narrative that acknowledges its long history of trading connections before the British arrived. It could offer political leadership that challenged racism in Singapore and a fairer deal for the country's migrant labor force.
This year, Raffles should disappear for good.