In the article “More Critical View Of Britain’s Colonial Project Needed”, the author, Ng Qi Siang, framed Britain as a colonial master that ruled Singapore in a malignant manner which ultimately made Singaporeans seek sovereignty (Ng, 2019).
Ng first states that Britain instituted its educational and scholarship system in Singapore that was steeped in malignancy, with the foremost goal of training a local populace to administer and expand the British empire in Southeast Asia. Next, Ng argues that the British billed themselves as colonial masters, erased the experiences and achievements of non-Westerners, and deemed their cultures inferior in order to further a British narrative. He adds that an expansionist Britain colonised and administered Singapore through discriminatory and incompetent rule, ultimately birthing Singapore’s independence. Furthermore, Ng claims that the British leeched off the resources and capital of land under their rule in the name of colonial expansion. Finally, Ng draws attention to the achievements and sacrifices of Singapore’s leaders, such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the fledgling nation into modern times despite the “malign motivations of British colonial policies”.
To some degree, I agree with Ng on British incompetence. I can even contend that it bred the conditions for Singapore’s independence. After all, it is a fact that Lee (2014) was determined to secure Singapore’s independence after having witnessed and lived through the Japanese occupation as a result of British surrender ostensibly due to incompetence. These events taught Lee crucial lessons in national sovereignty and defence. I can further acknowledge Ng’s tenacious counter-colonial perspective. However, I find his overall perspective lopsided and misguided in places. My views thus stand squarely opposed to Ng’s.
First, Ng claims that the British curriculum was formed to inculcate citizens in furthering the expansion of the British empire and strengthening its hold on Southeast Asia. Yes, the British have their own agendas to push. But, it is in everyone’s interest that schools be set up; No one can argue against that. Next, Dr Emelyn-Jones (2019) pointed out that Singaporean leaders, such as Lee Kuan Yew, piloted the nation while armed with a British-centric education. Lee (2014) attended Raffles Institution, Raffles College, London School of Economics, and Cambridge University. Consider that 17 out of 44 politicians and national leaders also attended Raffles Institution (“Politics”, n.d.; “Top schools in Singapore and Malaysia”, 2020). That same school spawned future leaders who would later be a part of the formidable Singapore government that went on to craft sound policies which entire generations of Singaporeans benefited from. The benefits of an education, despite being fueled by a malignant British curriculum, cannot be understated (Yiannouka, 2015; Ng, 2017).
Next, Ng argues that the British ruled Singapore as discriminatory and incompetent colonial masters, expunged the experiences and achievements of non-Westerners while regarding their cultures as inferior that inadvertently birthed the independence of Singapore. We can acknowledge that the British implemented discriminatory practices by administering citizens into Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India. However, Ng fails to consider the other perspective. Britain colonised an island of people with various cultures, traditions, norms and values. They did not attempt to homogenise the citizens. Instead, they acknowledged the differences in race and ethnicity, and regionalised the population accordingly (Chua, 2003). Though it is now recognised as discriminatory, the British institutionalised race in order to administer Singapore out of necessity then (Bella, 2017). Furthermore, upon independence, the government not only adopted the same model, they built a thriving metropolis without discarding the colonial racial system. That “CMIO” (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) mentality permeates Singapore society even till today. Nevertheless, leaders acknowledged racial divides and the Singapore government is far wiser for having learnt lessons from its colonial past (Lee, 2017; Paulo, 2019).
Additionally, Ng claims that the British siphoned away the resources and capital of the lands under their expansionist rule. This is a logical statement since Britain, having colonised these lands, gets to extract resources as a consequence of asserting control. Yet, such actions barely dented Singapore’s growth especially when the island-state declared scarcity in land and natural resources. Lee Kuan Yew (2014) even acknowledged that Singapore prospered under British rule and subsequently thrived despite lacking in resources, whether natural or not (Ortmann, 2009).
Finally, Ng pins the reason for Singapore’s independence as being the result of British incompetence. In doing so, he draws attention to the achievements of Singapore’s leaders, such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the fledgling nation into modern times despite the “malign motivations of British colonial policies”. I should caution Ng that Lee was competent enough to make use of his British education and lead Singapore through tumultuous times (Bella, 2017; Yiannouka, 2015). To claim British incompetence is to disregard the complexities of the world and other events that shaped Singapore’s history leading to its independence.
To Ng’s credit, he hones in on the malignancy of British education and its effects, fortifying his arguments to build an abundantly clear stance with some semblance of logical flow. Yet, it is difficult to side with one-dimensional claims rooted in the past. Without tactful consideration of contrasting perspectives, Ng’s arguments verges on complete denial of British contributions. Though worthy of consideration, his words hold insufficient weight.
Ng could do better to consider the broader Singapore-Britain narrative in its totality. By constraining his view, Ng did a disservice to all by abhorring the British perspective. It is one thing to speak of Singapore with passionate vehemence, but it is another to disavow Britain’s contribution especially when the histories of both countries are entwined (“About the Singapore Bicentennial”, 2019). Though Britain is no longer our colonial master, we can recognise them as a valuable ally instead. Dr Emelyn-Jones is not asking for Singapore to forgive Britain for its colonial ways but merely asking for credit to be given. Hence, it is only fitting that Singapore accords due credit to Britain for having played a critical role in shaping our history. Singapore, is after all, big and powerful now.
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