Colonialism can work: just look at Singapore
The postcolonial rulers of the country seized the advantages left them by the British empire and used these to benefit the wider society
Bombay is Mumbai, Léopoldville is Kinshasa, Cecil Rhodes has been hoisted from his plinth by a crane; but when I moved to Singapore a few years ago it quickly became clear that much of its colonial legacy had been left intact. There is a gleaming white statue of Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore, at the riverside spot where he is said to have landed. Unusually for a colonial figure, it was put up in 1969, four years after Singapore became an independent republic.
The country’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once said the statue reminds his people of Raffles’s vision of Singapore becoming “the emporium of the east”, adding that Singapore was different from most of its south-east Asian neighbours because it had “no xenophobic hangover” from colonialism.
It’s an attractive story. In other countries, the end of imperial rule has required a detox regime of new names and new doctrines. Singapore has taken a different path.
The Singapore model combines economic liberalism, a politics that subordinates the individual to the collective, and efficient government. The city’s skyline is a mix of Victorian neoclassical pomp, neon-lit office towers, and Taoist temples with bearded gods and sinuous porcelain dragons on their roofs. In this version, Singapore offers the best of both worlds: a place where Asian cultural traditions remain intact but western knowhow is harnessed to build a prosperous society.
Singapore’s progress leaves a deep impression on visitors from other former colonies. When Helen Zille, a prominent South African opposition politician, visited Singapore last March she tweeted that there was much to learn from a country that had built on “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”.
Zille is not alone in admiring how Singapore has exploited its imperial inheritance; from the strategic location between China and India that Raffles identified to the English language and the English common law system. Its admirers range from Deng Xiaoping to Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president.
Unlike some other Asian nations, Singapore does not have a simple story of colonial victimhood. It shows us that colonialism can work. Its postcolonial rulers seized the advantages left them by the British empire and used these for the benefit of wider society; Singapore at independence was a profoundly unequal society in which many of its people were unskilled labourers living in slums.
It is now a rich country in which most of the population lives in municipal housing while their children attend excellent state schools. There is a further crucial difference from the colonial past: Singapore now holds elections to choose its leaders.
But the Singapore story also shows us the price societies pay when their rulers make use of the tools colonial authorities left behind. Under British rule, detention without trial was used to stifle the threat of communism while a licensing system kept the press contained. As many Singaporean dissidents have argued, Singapore has embraced this illiberal colonial tradition to create a tightly controlled modern state.
The consequences are a country that, while wealthy, has a chilling climate for free speech and no independent trade unions. While Singapore does hold elections, there is little space for opposition politics – human rights groups say defamation laws have frequently been used to silence opposition voices.
Western rule is not required, as Singapore shows, only an openness to modern ideas – which, in the future, will not always come from the west.