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

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Jee­van Vasagar Jee­van Vasagar is a for­mer Guardian ed­u­ca­tion ed­i­tor

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.

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