Confronting British History in Singapore

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ and editors’ own.

BY JESSICA MANN

When we think of colonialism, empire, and its implications from the British perspective, we often envisage Africa, India, and the Commonwealth islands. It is rare however, that Southeast Asia enters our line of consideration. From a personal standpoint, SEA had never once been mentioned during my time in the comprehensive (state) education system here. My only preliminary knowledge of Singapore, as I was considering it as a field site for a Summer research project, was a vague recollection of the fact that my Grandfather had once been sent there during his time in the British Navy.

As a native English speaking person, I am of course accustomed to the luxury of being accommodated for when travelling to other countries. Not always fluent, but often it’s at least viable to communicate the basics wherever I go. Even in countries where it’s more of a challenge; English translations are at least accessible on key signposts and important documents. Among the tougher to navigate destinations, in relation to language, have been Tunisia and Mexico, as their respective colonial histories lend themselves dominantly to the languages of French and Spanish. Despite the fact that it may have been therefore glaringly obvious that English is a primary language in Singapore, something about this took me by surprise.

I had known before I chose to travel that Singaporeans are fluent in English. It was one of the critical reasons the location had become the subject of my social research. However, I believe there is something noteworthy in the phenomenon of travelling thirteen hours across the world, and being able to fit so effortlessly within a nation, which in so many other ways, is remarkably different. Reflecting now, it is obvious how these initial thoughts began to flourish and transform, the more that I observed. What I wish to share in this short piece, is not a diary of my trip, but rather a key theme that appears to reoccur the more I reflect upon it. This is in itself; the duality that is faced by a British person, confronting how the history of their nation has manifested in another.

I remain cautious regarding the language I use here; it has been suggested that we discuss the ‘scars’ that Britain and empire have left on this nation. Certainly, it left its scars throughout the nation’s history, but I use the word ‘manifested’ to illustrate the observations that can be made at present, because it’s far from appropriate to portray Singapore as a nation clouded in devastation. It stands now clearly and proudly, as a nation within its own right, boasting a thriving economy and competitively high living standards. My purpose for being there was in fact to study its National Service scheme, a practice which has since been abolished here in the UK. I was keen to understand its purpose, and to explore how male citizens feel about this compulsory obligation.

As such, visiting the military museums became a central focus of the trip, in order to better understand the history and context of the country. After a little research I concluded it necessary to make a visit to the Former Ford Factory (museum of the Japanese occupation). At this site, it is possible to see the place where Britain made its iconic surrender of the nation, handing it over to the Japanese forces during the second world war. I perceived the entire experience to be something of a landmark moment. I was standing face to face with a narrative which was intertwined with my own history as British citizen, and yet I was an outsider to it. Never before had I encountered this narrative, one which offered an account of events during the second world war but within the Southeast Asia region. Let alone had I grasped an understanding of the paradox: of the British colonising a nation, profiting from its presence in this part of the world; only to surrender it to a brutal regime, when times were difficult on the ‘Homefront’. The museum itself provides a time-lined exhibition of documents and information leading up to the event, and chilling accounts of the abuse the nation suffered upon its occupation. One can only ponder how different its history may have been if it were left alone instead of claimed by the greed of empire. Further exploring these themes, I later visited the ‘Battlebox’ museum, which presents these events from a more strategic perspective. It demonstrates the choices that the British forces in Singapore were left to make, and subsequently how the decision to surrender was reached. The narrative I felt, was sympathetic to the options available to the British military left there within the situation. But of the army as a force itself, it seemed clear that Britain had failed to invest enough of its resources to combat the Japanese advancements through Malaysia and Singapore. As such, the museum boasts and sells itself on being dedicated to the event which Churchill referred to, as the “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”. Again, I can only emphasise, this ‘worst disaster’ was certainly missing from our history lessons.

My concern therefore lies within the fact (primarily), that my fundamental understanding of the history of the world war, prior to university education, was grossly narrow in knowledge. Our teachings of events covered Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the US. We focused on those who were largely in control, of other empires, those who had been the perpetrators of colonisation. We failed to subsequently understand and acknowledge the outcomes for those who had been colonised, and the repercussions which are still playing out for them today. They rarely even caught a mention, to the extent that my understanding of ‘world war’ was probably only truly recognised during my time in Singapore. From those that were forced to fight on behalf of their colonial identity, to the chain reaction of countries which reclaimed their independence following the fallout from it.

Naturally the question arises, why are these histories so excluded from our schools? Common answers include the notion that British history is so vast and complex, we can only cover selective topics. We focus often then on symbolic markers of British identity; the evolution of the monarchy, the dawn of industrialisation and the exploitation of the working classes, and the lives lost among two separate wars. It appears that only university environments at best have strived to move beyond this dangerous cherry-picking of information. For when we truly scrutinise our perceptions of British history, it is nothing but contradictory to teach industrialisation and world war, without an explanation of colonisation. We cannot, on the one hand glorify industrialisation and boast the expansion of empire, whilst simultaneously claiming that Britain can only be understood in depth as this sole (falsely portrayed) isolated island nation. 

We are encouraged to know Britain as it is represented in this one locality, and yet multiple versions of ‘Britishness’ have been played out across the world, with varying consequences of severity. As Alex Smith has observed, these imagined concepts of, ‘Britain and Britishness need to be unpacked and explored, their consequences and political effects accounted for and taken seriously,’ (2014).

One such example of this ongoing paradox springs to mind through the recent controversial article, ‘Can colonialism have its benefits? Look at Singapore’ (Jeevan Vasagar: 2018, in The Guardian). Although the article is more complex than the overtly click-baiting headline suggests, it is reminiscent of a pervasive mentality which appears to discuss the effects of colonialism, only when they are seen in conjunction with a ‘successful’ narrative. Notice that neighbouring countries which were also colonised by Britain didn’t make the cut. Additionally, it does a wonderful job of claiming that the colonially instilled values which apparently contribute to this success, are those of high levels of state social control, state interference, and strict methods of punishment. It seems somewhat ironic that such qualities are often perceived by Western states now as repressive, and yet the writer cites them in this context as positive legacies of colonialism which continue to directly contribute to the nation’s preservation and success. It is also interesting that there has recently been talk on comparing the UK to Singapore as an ‘independent island nation’ following Brexit, or rather suggesting that we should follow its example. Whatever the initial intentions of this article were; I would argue that opinion based journalism which discusses colonialism with any kind of positive implication, is not what’s needed from our ‘news’-papers today. One only needs to enter any British pub on a Friday night to reinforce ideas about the positives of empire. In essence, immediate justification is already the status quo. Naturally, it is assumed when there is such invisibility of the contrary, that empire made a progressive contribution to the world.

It is often thought that to discuss or to teach the negative consequences of colonisation, would ultimately result in a lack of patriotism or pride in Britain. Politicians who are open about such histories, or are understanding about the chain reactions of events produced by colonial actions, are soon penalised for being ‘anti-British’ or traitorous to their nation. But I believe that there are ways to reconcile with these histories, whilst remaining positive about our place in the world today. Countries such as Japan and Germany are known to ensure the extensive teaching of their wrongs in history to citizens, as a means of instilling respect and signifying that a shift in attitude has occurred. It seems ludicrous therefore, that we continue to vote in support of the narrowing of our historical curriculum, in favour of protecting the ‘British values’ which we repeatedly struggle to define.

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