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Updating the Narrative: a Dialogue Between the Former Coloniser and Colonised




The British historian, Anthony Stockwell, once related an anecdote between a former coloniser and formerly colonised. This anecdote yields insights on how we should re-think the idea of ‘British legacy’ or ‘colonial inheritance.’ Stockwell writes that Mrs Margaret Thatcher was so impressed with Singapore’s progress that she once marvelled at Singapore’s success in front of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee apparently replied—I like to imagine, he was pretending to sound casual, like it was a walk in the park but the hint of sarcasm in his voice would be unmistakable —“We have applied the lessons the British first taught us and then themselves promptly forgot.”[1] When we use “colonial legacy,” we tend to think in terms of passive reception and grateful preservation of an inheritance. It is as if we were bestowed a Steve Jobs who made sure he left behind enough of his genius for Apple to thrive for an eternity. I bet Mr Lee would have none of this idea of ‘inheritance.’ His caustic retort underscored the extent Singapore has gone (way) beyond our former coloniser. To say he/we made good on an inheritance did not mean that the inheritance was inherently ‘good.’ Strictly speaking, one could come into a miserly inheritance and if one had the golden touch, one could still grow it substantially. The reverse is also true. It is, therefore, illogical to deduce that because Singapore was successful in growing our colonial inheritance, our apparent success somehow proves retrospectively that colonialism had been ‘good.’ There is at least one logical leap of reasoning here.

This anecdote points to a different reading of Singapore’s relationship with colonialism. Mr Lee’s riposte reminds me of this on-point explanation of how the logic of colonial rule worked. Radhika Mongia, a historian on migration and state formation in India, writes:

Colonialism could operate only by simultaneously advancing the uncivilised status of the natives and their impending civility. To push either of these positions to their logical end would have undone the ideological justifications for colonial rule. For, if the native could not be civilised, then what was the purpose of colonialism? Alternatively, if the native acceded to the trappings of civilization, then what justified the continued colonial situation? Rescuing and re-inscribing the narrative of the civilising mission, was therefore, a constant, threatened project within colonialism.[2]

To paraphrase Mr Lee using the words of the historian, Singaporeans had, in fact, ‘over-acceded’ to the trappings of civilisation, rendering continued colonial rule unnecessary. We are not a shining example of the good colonialism did; we are a shining example of how our former coloniser had become redundant. In short, Singapore no longer needed Steve Jobs. We simply took over Apple and did way better than him.

However, making the coloniser irrelevant by over-acceding to the trappings of civilisation is not the same as replacing colonialism with something else. That would be the proposition of the anti-colonialist. After all, Apple is still standing. It is absolutely crucial to recall that Mr Lee had in fact defeated the anti-colonial proposition which then created the conditions of possibility for his script of over-reaching the expectations of our erstwhile coloniser. Mr Lee’s relationship with the British was, therefore, ambivalent to say the least. He styled himself an ‘anti-colonialist’ during the early days of his political career but he would eventually work with the British to facilitate their departure. Unlike most nationalist leaders elsewhere, he refrained from running them down. Instead, Mr Lee’s Singapore Story went much louder and deeper on defeating an alleged conspiratorial Communist movement led by a left-wing group made up of his former allies than on beating up his former coloniser. And of course, it was Mr Lee who kept Raffles standing by the Singapore River to signal Singapore’s continued embrace of the Euro-American dominated capitalist system after 1965. The long afterlife of Raffles—now given a renewed lease of an additional 500 years—must, therefore, be understood as part of this post-1965 script. Raffles symbolises Singapore’s compromised decolonisation as we inducted ourselves voluntarily into the global capitalist order, exceeding ‘the standards of civilization’ introduced by our now forgetful coloniser.

What ‘standards of civilisation’ did Singapore embrace and expand upon independently of our coloniser? The short answer is those of Eurocentric modernity, invariably a product of colonial capitalism in most parts of the world. Arif Dirlik, a historian of China, gives us this succinct description of modern colonialism, grounded in an account of global capitalistic development. His is a fitting description given Singapore’s 1819 origin story which we have emphatically not given up. Dirlik writes:

Modern European colonialism is incomprehensible without reference to the capitalism that dynamized it, just as the formations of historical capitalism in Europe may not be understood without reference to colonialism. This intimate relationship distinguishes modern colonialism from other colonialisms, both in scope (the entire globe) and in depth (the transformation of life at the everyday level). If the goal of global conquest by capitalism/colonialism has become a reality only by the late twentieth century, the reality nevertheless has a long history behind it that is deeply entangled in colonialism.[3]


Extending the life of Eurocentric capitalist modernity in Singapore after 1965 has undoubtedly given us economic prosperity but that is not all. Consider the fact that this has entailed keeping alive structures ensuring the afterlife of Eurocentric modernity made under conditions of British colonial rule. Raffles’ statue is one such structure. Less symbolic and tangible are colonial-era racialised structures, that is, formulaic ways of thinking about ‘race’ as well as race-based practices and institutions that had fuelled Singapore’s economic development under the British from the 19th century onward. In February 2019, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim got up during the Budget debate in Parliament and said, “If we are to commemorate the bicentennial, we must also recognise the less savoury aspects of it—practices and ideas designed to meet the needs and maximise the profits of the empire at the expense of the indigenous population.” While Dr Yaacob stuck to the politically correct tone of Bicentennial-speak, he pointed to a lingering colonial-era myth about the Malay community arguing that “we need to acknowledge that different communities have different historical experiences and memories” of British colonial rule.” Dr Yaacob took issue with one particularly toxic stereotype—the myth of the lazy native—that had impacted the Malay community and Dr Yaacob personally. As he recalled: “when I was growing up in modern Singapore, my own teachers dismissed my community as being lazy and unable to study hard. This is the burden of history that my community carries. It is unjust and unfair.”[4] It is notable that Dr Yaacob was born in 1955 and would have been in school by the time the ruling party came into power in 1959. He belonged to the generation that grew up during Singapore’s uncertain transition to formal independence.

In the classic work titled The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and its Function in the Ideology of Colonial Capitalism, Professor Syed Hussein Alatas had combined historical inquiry and sociological theorising to trace the beginnings of the stereotype of the ‘idle Malay’ to the 19th century. Professor Alatas demonstrated that this racialised image of the Malays was not evident prior to the intensification of European imperialism in Southeast Asia. Rather, it had evolved from and was justified according to the demands of colonial capitalists whose key interests lay in labour-intensive plantation agriculture as well as the mining industries in British-ruled Malaya. Singapore was a crucial node in this political economy. In Professor Alatas’ words:

It is clear from the study of the philosophy of colonial capitalism, that for a labourer to qualify as industrious, he has to be the ‘mule among the nations—capable of the hardest task under the most trying conditions; tolerant of every kind of weather and ill-usage, eating little and drinking less; stubborn and callous; unlovable and useful in the highest degree.’ Preoccupation with other types of labour that fall outside the category of ‘the mule among the nations’ is qualified as idle or indolent. To be a chattel of colonial agrarian capitalism is a requirement to be considered as industrious.[5]


It is no wonder that the Malays, who had recourse to other means of livelihood, refused to allow themselves to be exploited for which they earned undeserving labels of ‘idle,’ ‘indolent’ and ‘lazy.’ As Professor Alatas also shows, the same logic driving colonial capitalism was responsible for ‘positive’ racialised stereotyping about the Chinese and Indian migrants. Relative to the Malays, these two racial groups were seen as ‘model’ labour migrants—the proverbial ‘mules among the nations.’ The ‘Chinese’ were famously hardy and diligent while the ‘Indians’ were docile and easy to control. Professor Alatas is telling us that colonial capitalism which supercharged Singapore’s early economic development was also guilty of supercharging racial stereotyping.

In a similar vein, the statement “colonialism had been beneficial” (even if only 60 per cent) judges colonialism using its internal logic and could not be proven objectively true outside of the logic of colonisation. I suggest that “beneficial” may even be the wrong adjective to use since the supposed ‘benefits’ flowed from the coloniser’s resolution of problems created by his colonial ambitions and interests in the first place. Using “beneficial” to describe the supposed ‘positives’ of colonial rule means giving credit to the British for solving problems they caused (us) as a result of their act of colonisation. Most significantly, if there were indeed ‘benefits,’ it is pertinent to ask who ‘benefitted,’ as well as how and if these ‘benefits’ were distributed fairly.

The history of Singapore’s labour migration is instructive. We credit the British for giving us ‘law and order’ and tuck this item under the ‘positive’ category of our colonial inheritance. In the late 1870s, the colonial government created an institution known as “the Chinese Protectorate” in Singapore. The Chinese Protectorate was first established to manage and control the large-scale migration of Chinese labourers into the colony but it soon evolved multiple functions of governing the Chinese migrant community.[6] Historical accounts and analyses of the Protectorate tend to commend its work in imposing ‘law and order’ on what was seen as an ‘unruly’ community.[7] The institution certainly possessed an impressive resume: it prevented abuses and regulated the trade in Chinese labourers, prevented trafficking in women and young children, as well as checked the power and influence of Chinese secret societies and later, political activism amongst the Chinese-educated intelligentsia. As this ‘positive’ evaluation of the Protectorate from a former colonial-era British bureaucrat enthused, “Malaya’s Chinese had contributed much to the development of the country and had benefited accordingly. It was their work and the tin and opium revenues made possible by their presence that had laid the foundations of the country’s prosperity. Thanks to the protectorate and the police, they had been shielded from their worst impulses and anti-social elements and thus allowed to reap great rewards from their labours.”[8]

It is hard to miss the potent mix of British paternalism swirling with assumptions about the character of ‘the Chinese’ that is driven by an intense preoccupation with benefits, prosperity and economic exploitation in this law and order success story. Narratives like these displace the burden of colonial domination and economic exploitation onto the subject populations. The Protectorate’s historical record of giving the Chinese community ‘law and order’ can only be seen as a ‘positive’ experience if we were immersed in the coloniser’s world that had been defined by his ambition, his interests, his priorities and his existential need to feel good, and if we constituted ‘problems’ that he had solved for which he received credit. Karuna Mantena, a political scientist who studies the history of British liberal imperialism, calls these racialised and/or culturalist explanations “alibis of empire.”[9]

We no longer inhabit the coloniser’s world. We should not rehash his logic. Mantena has argued eloquently that the displacement of the burden of empire onto the subject populations, in particular, onto their ‘nature’ or ‘character,’ evacuate arguments about the moral and political consequences of empire. In our case, racialised explanations for empire have deflected attention away from the fact that European empire-building in the region was reliant upon enabling and controlling the large-scale migration of labourers to extend their colonisation-exploitation of the Malay World, with enduring consequences for post-independence inter-relationships between the different communities. Most egregious is our stubborn resort to these “alibis of empire” in our history-writing. While the narrative of colonial exploitation of cheap ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ labourers has been converted into feel-good stories about migrant fortitude in post-independent Singapore, the Malay community, as Dr Yaacob observes, still bear witness to the coloniser’s world. We cannot unpack the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ racially charged myths without dismantling his world.


Sai Siew Min is a Taipei-based Singaporean who researches Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia with a focus on imperial formation in Southeast Asia, the cultural politics of colonialism and nationalism, language, race and Chineseness. She is a founder member of the s/pores collective.


[1] Anthony Stockwell, “Forging Malaysia and Singapore: Colonialism, decolonization and nation-building,” in Nation-building: Five Southeast Asian Histories edited by Wang Gungwu (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), p. 213.

[2] Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial Genealogy of the Modern State (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018) p.49.

[3] Arif Dirlik, “Rethinking colonialism: globalization, postcolonialism and the nation” in Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Vol. 4(3) 2002, p.441.

[4] All quotes attributed to Dr Yaacob Ibrahim in this paragraph are taken from “Parliament: need to acknowledge both good and bad of colonial rule: Yaacob” in Straits Times, published online on 28 February 2019.

[5] Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native (London and New York: Routledge, 2006) Reprint Edition, p.76.

[6] I have written about the Chinese Protectorate as part of a history of “racialised governmentality” that also connects to the control of labour migrants from southern India. See Siew-Min Sai, “Benevolent Technocracy: the Chinese Protectorate, Migration Control and Racialised Governmentality in Colonised Malaya” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, forthcoming in 2021.

[7] For example, this classic if outdated article by Eunice Thio, “The Singapore Chinese Protectorate: events and conditions leading to its establishment, 1823-1877” in Journal of South Seas Society, Vol. 16 (1960).

[8] Robert Heussler, British Rule in Malaya: the Malayan Civil Service and its Predecessors, 1867-1942 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981) p.166.

[9] Karuna Mantena, Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010)

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