By Colin Pangolin
I refer to the 26 May 2017 Straits Times letter “Inappropriate to mark anniversary of colonisation” by Mr Anthony Oei.
Unlike Mr Oei, my parents and grandparents feel / felt neither shame nor humiliation with our colonial past despite having lived through the colonial era like Mr Oei has. Far from being subjugated, colonial Singapore offered many of our forefathers the opportunity to escape the poverty of their hometowns and to prosper through hard work and entrepreneurship.
To those who know their Malaya from one end to the other, no less than to the casual visitor, it is a constant source of wonder how so many different races and communities live and work together in the utmost harmony … we repeat, that the different communities live and work in harmony because the British system of justice and administration enables them to obtain fair play. There are no discriminatory or repressive laws, there are few, if any race prejudices in the bazaars and counting houses, there is nothing to prevent the humblest coolie from rising to great wealth – many indeed have done so …
[The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 26 July 1935, Page 8]
Privileged class still exists today
It wasn’t just colonial era Europeans who enjoyed privilege, colonial era towkays enjoyed privilege too. They may not wine and dine at the same places but they certainly had their own exclusive clubs like those on Ann Siang Hill. It isn’t as though privilege ended with the end of colonial rule.
Today, Caucasians continue to live more prosperous lives than the average Singaporean, often becoming our bosses, getting better paying jobs and staying at better houses. Our GINI inequality index remains one of the highest amongst advanced economies. Our indigenous per capita GDP lags behind our per capita GDP showing that indigenous Singaporeans aren’t making as much as their foreign counterparts.
Wrong to say that Raffles colonised Singaporeans
Mr Oei is mistaken in saying that Raffles came to colonise us. When Raffles came, there were only about 120 Orang Lauts in Singapore. There were zero Chinese or Indians for Raffles to colonise. Raffles imported tens of thousands of Chinese coolies to build up Singapore. While life certainly wasn’t a bed of roses for these early Chinese coolies, they came of their own accord, to escape poverty and to find riches in this land of opportunity.
Raffles’ contribution far more consequential than given credit for
Raffles’ establishment of Singapore as a free port wasn’t just a useful contribution. It is the reason for our birth and of our prosperity. Three out of four reasons Dr Goh Keng Swee gave to explain Singapore’s prosperity are directly linked to our port and the British institutions that we inherited.
There are four reasons which enabled Singapore throughout her history as a British colony, and today as an independent republic, to survive and even prosper in the face of apparently insurmountable difficulties.
First, there is the well-known fact of a superb central geographical location with a natural harbor swept by currents flowing between the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca.
The second reason must be ascribed … to Sir Stamford Raffles’ great vision of the island growing into a great emporium founded on the Victorian belief in the virtues of free trade. Successive colonial governors zealously nurtured the port, maintained lean and efficient administrators, and allowed merchants and bankers full scope for the exercise of their talents. In the modern idiom, the Victorians who governed Singapore established and maintained an infrastructure at minimum cost with maximum efficiency.
The third reason derives from the second condition, the nurturing of the free enterprise system. In the absence of monopolies and privileged business interests, keen and free competition ensured efficient business.
Finally, what made Singapore grow as a trading centre despite mercantilist policies of neighbours was that the economics of the business did not add up to a zero sum game. This happy result emerges from the continuous and rapid economic development of the countries in Southeast Asia under British and Dutch colonial administrations.
For well over a hundred years Singapore learnt to adapt her economy to changing circumstances. This ability to adapt which was won in the hard school of experience remains an asset which the government of independent Singapore decided to retain. It might have been politically expedient to rid ourselves of institutions and practices that bore the taint of colonial associations. Had we done so, we would have thrown away a priceless advantage.
[Goh Keng Swee, The Practice of Economic Growth, Chapter 1: Why Singapore succeeds, pages 6-7]
Sizeable poverty remains today
Mr Oei’s lament about the colonial government not doing enough to enrich our lives similarly applies to the PAP government today. According to the SMU paper “Measuring Poverty in Singapore: Frameworks for Consideration”, page 60:
· In 2008, Straits Times reported 23-26% of Singapore households fall below social inclusion levels
· In 2008, the Lien Centre reported 20-22% of households fall below relative poverty estimates
· In 2006, Asher and Nandy reported 26% of workers fall below relative poverty estimates
We must also consider the fact that a great number of people living in Singapore during colonial times were foreign workers who were neither citizen of Singapore nor British subject until 1959. There was thus no onus for the British government to enrich the lives of non-British subjects during colonial times just as there is no onus for the PAP government to enrich the lives of approximately 1 million foreign workers in Singapore today.
Colonial Singapore wasn’t poor Third World
Mr Oei is wrong to say that colonial Singapore was a poor Third World country. Singapore’s 1960 per capita GNI of US$4,794 (Penn World tables with some conversion) in 2010 PPP USD was already within World Bank’s classification of an Upper Middle Income nation, one rank below a High Income nation but two ranks above a Low Income nation. Colonial Singapore was thus Middle Income, not poor Third World.
Our per capita GDP in 1960 was already $1,330 which gave us a middle-income status
[Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: wealth, power and the culture of control, page 166]
Unreasonable to expect prosperity immediately after Japanese Occupation
Mr Oei unreasonably laments about Singapore slums in 1947, just two years after the end of the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation. Does Mr Oei seriously believe that Singapore could overcome the ravages of the greatest calamity that ever befell us or the world for that matter in just two years?
Even for London, 1947 was described as a year of decay, decrepitude, sagginess and rottenness where housing was a disgrace (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-495096/Britain-1947-Poverty-queues-rationing–resilience.html).
It wasn’t just Singapore that had to deal with shortages of food and other life essentials in 1947. 1947 was also a year of food rationing in Britain that wouldn’t end till 1954 by which time Singapore had already become the most important communications centre in the Far East.
Singapore was the most important communications centre in the Far East, not just for shipping but a focal point for airlines, telecommunications and mail distribution at the beginning of the 1950s.
[The Economic Growth of Singapore: Trade and Development in the Twentieth Century, W. G. Huff, pages 31-33]
Britain failed to defend us against Japanese
While lamenting Britain’s failure to defend us against the Japanese during WW2, Mr Oei fails to consider that Britain itself barely survived the Battle of Britain and that Japan wasn’t any ordinary, run of the mill enemy but a powerful one that had also pushed the mighty Americans out of the Philippines. Does Mr Oei think that if Singapore had its own indigenous forces at that time it would have successfully held out against the Japanese? Even today, can Singapore’s indigenous forces resist another Japanese invasion?
Singapore is more than just Lee Kuan Yew and his government
Mr Oei mistakenly credits late Lee Kuan Yew and his government for lifting us from poverty to First World metropolis status. Lee Kuan Yew himself said that Singapore was already a metropolis back in 1967. How could Lee Kuan Yew have lifted Singapore to metropolis status in just 2 years of independence?
On my first official visit to America in October 1967, I recounted to 50 businessmen at a luncheon in Chicago how Singapore had grown from a village of 120 fishermen in 1819 to become a metropolis of two million.
[From Third World to First, memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, page 74]
Surely common sense should tell Mr Oei that either Lee Kuan Yew was lying in 1967 or that Singapore was for all intents and purposes already a metropolis or very nearly so by the time the British handed Singapore over to Singaporeans.
Furthermore, the one true hero of our post independence industrialization and rapid economic growth wasn’t Lee Kuan Yew but Dr Albert Winsemius. Both Straits Times and Lee Kuan Yew himself credited Dr Winsemius for what Singapore is today.
He was Singapore’s trusted guide through economically uncharted waters for 25 years from 1960. Through him, Singapore borrowed ideas and strategies that worked for Netherlands and other developed nations. Singapore’s economy is flying high today, thanks in large measure to his sound advice and patient counsel. He is the Father of Jurong, the Dutchman behind Singapore Incorporated. Dr Winsemius was a special person for he had changed Singapore to what it is today. For Singaporeans today, a huge debt of gratitude is owed to the Dutch economist.
[Straits Times, Dr Albert Winsemius Singapore’s trusted guide, 7 Dec 1996] He was behind the 10-year development plan that saw the island state transform into today’s high technology, high value added industrial hub.
[Straits Times, He Believed in Singapore’s Future, 7 Dec 1996] Singapore’s economic miracle owes something to Dutch economist Dr Albert Winsemius. Dr Albert Winsemius was not merely a consultant, he was someone who revolutionalised and set Singapore’s economy in the right direction.
[Tactical Globalization: Learning from the Singapore Experiment, Aaron Kon, page 170] Singapore and I (Lee Kuan Yew) personally are indebted to him (Dr Albert Winsemius) for the time, energy and devotion he gave to Singapore. I learnt much about Western business and businessmen from him … He gave me practical lessons on how European and American companies operated … showed me that Singapore could plug into the global economic system of trade and investments.
[Straits Times, Singapore is indebted to Winsemius: SM, 10 Dec 1996]
The question Mr Oei should ask himself is this: If Lee Kuan Yew hadn’t been around in 1965, would Singapore have degenerated into something worse than Malaysia or Indonesia today? Southeast Asia is prospering, China is prospering and fellow East Asian tiger economies like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong have been prospering for fifty years. Surely common sense should tell Mr Oei that even without Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporeans could not have been so singularly useless that we alone would fail while practically the whole of East Asia prospers?
Raffles is the only founder of modern Singapore
Mr Oei mistakenly regards Lee Kuan Yew as the founder of modern Singapore. Modern Singapore refers to Singapore post 1819 and it has only one founder – Sir Stamford Raffles. Modern Singapore can be clearly distinguished from ancient Singapore by the more than 200 years gap during which Singapore lay in ruins and was practically devoid of civilisation so much so that when Raffles arrived in 1819 and saw only 120 Orang Lauts with a few huts and fishing boats, it was literally Ground Zero. Everything had to be built from scratch by mostly thousands of Chinese coolies who literally carved a city out of virgin jungles.
Mr Oei should not whitewash Raffles’ and colonial era contributions towards Singapore’s nation building. The Singapore that we know today can be continuously traced back to 1819. Many of Singapore’s grandest monuments and most cherished inheritances originate in the colonial times which began with Raffles. Our only World Heritage site – the Botanical Gardens, the world famous Raffles Hotel, old Supreme Court and City Hall, National Museum, Fullerton Hotel, Asian Civilisations Museum, old SJI building, the Peranakan Museum and beautiful shop houses along the Singapore River are all inheritances from colonial times.
The Singapore economy today is built upon the solid foundation laid by the British. Our climb towards World No. 1 port status was from World No. 5 or 6 in the 1930s.
Singapore was already the estimated 5th or 6th most important port in the world by the early 1930s and the key port in the Straits region by the late 19th century
[Goh Kim Chuan, Environment and development in the Straits of Malacca, pages 107, 114]
Even our status as a financial centre has its origins in colonial times.
In the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century Singapore was the most important of the three British “Straits Settlements” functioning as trade entrepots on the Malayan Peninsula. The sizeable flows of goods channeled through Singapore supported a significant business in banking and trade finance. During its colonial period Singapore thus served to a limited degree as banking and financial centre for the immediately surrounding region.
[Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley, page 337]
Our first public housing precincts and first high rise flats were built by the British. HDB inherited and continued from that solid foundation.
The Singapore Improvement Trust … did provide the basis of a public housing bureaucracy with a valuable accumulation of experience, which could later be utilized by the Housing and Development Board. An illustration of this transition is the development of the first satellite town, Queenstown, which was originally planned by the Trust but was left to its successor to accomplish.
[The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore, Michael Hill and Kwen Fee Lian, page 114] The housing of 150,000 Singaporeans by the SIT had no parallel elsewhere in Asia. Straits Times, 2 Feb 1960
[Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity, Ryan Bishop and John Phillips and Wei-Wei Yeo, page 57] … He told the Straits Times: “I have never seen such wonderful blocks of flats … The S.I.T. flats, which he toured yesterday, “staggered him.” … “People in Liverpool where we consider ourselves to be in the forefront of town planning and slum clearance, would fight to get an S.I.T flat in one of the new blocks I saw to-day.
[The Straits Times, 10 June 1952, Page 5, He is all praise for SIT homes] The S.I.T should be congratulated for developing Queenstown into a beautiful estate which was once covered with shrubs and graveyards. Queenstown should now be considered a model housing estate for Singapore. It has the highest building, schools, markets, good roads and plenty of playing grounds for children and very good flats.
[The Straits Times, 8 September 1956, Page 12, A SLUM IN THE MAKING]
By falsely declaring Lee Kuan Yew the true founder of modern Singapore, Mr Oei not only robbed Raffles of its rightful place in modern Singapore’s history, but also sullied what it means to found. George Washington founded America by fighting British colonialism. Lee on the other hand, enjoyed the patronage of his British masters and came to power under the auspices of British colonialism instead.
Mr Oei should be clear; Lee Kuan Yew received education at Raffles Institution. Lee was educated in Raffles’ name and was the product of what Raffles founded, not the other way around.
Wrong to say that Raffles usurped the Singaporean household
Mr Oei is wrong to say that the British usurped the Singaporean household. Mr Oei should get his facts right. When Raffles landed in 1819, there were only 120 Orang Lauts in a few huts. There were no Chinese or Indian households for Raffles to usurp in 1819. Practically all Singapore households today came after Raffles or were descended from those who came after Raffles. So the truth is that we are all sons of Raffles. Raffles built a city and a home for us all; he did not usurp our homes or our household. He got land, essentially undeveloped land from the then Temengong and Sultan of Johor. So if Mr Oei is so righteous about returning usurped land, he should fight for Singapore to be returned to Johor. Is that really what Mr Oei wants?
· Mr Oei begrudges the privileged class during colonial times but turns a blind eye to the privileged class today.
· He makes the false claim that Raffles colonised us when nearly all our forefathers weren’t even around in 1819 for Raffles to colonise.
· He takes too lightly Singapore’s founding as a port and our British institutions which Dr Goh Keng Swee attributes as being 3 out of 4 reasons why Singapore succeeded.
· He begrudges poverty during colonial times but ignores poverty today.
· He makes the false claim that colonial Singapore was poor and Third World when our 1960 per capita GDP shows otherwise.
· He expects life to return to normal just 2 years after the end of the Japanese Occupation when even in Britain, life did not return to normal until 1954.
· He laments British failure to defend Singapore against the Japanese but fails to acknowledge that Japan was so strong militarily it was able to sweep the mighty Americans off the Philippines.
· He credits Lee Kuan Yew for transforming Singapore to a First World metropolis when Lee Kuan Yew himself admitted that Singapore was already a metropolis in 1967 just 2 years after our independence. Singapore could not have catapulted to metropolis status in just 2 years. In all likelihood, Singapore was already a metropolis or nearly so when the British handed Singapore over to Singaporeans.
· He ignores the fact that our post independence industrialisation and rapid economic development was under the guidance and blueprint of Dr Albert Winsemius, not Lee Kuan Yew.
· He falsely proclaims Lee Kuan Yew as the founder of modern Singapore and ignores the fact that much of what Singapore is today evolved continuously from Raffles.
· He wrongly claims that Raffles usurped Singapore households when there were no Chinese or Indian households in Singapore for Raffles to usurp in 1819.
The Singapore story began in 1819, it didn’t begin in 1965. The years 1819 to 1964 are an integral part of who we are as a nation. Singapore could not have sprouted from nothing in 1965 but owe much to what have been built up from 1819 to 1964. They are our cherished roots and heritage that we should not deny.