In 2 years, Singapore will be 200-years old since it was discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles.
“The bicentennial should be a time for us to celebrate the heroes who built Singapore prior to 1965,” said Michael Seah Swee Lim, in a letter to the Straits Times on 22 May.
“I hope there will be a significant celebration of the occasion and the opportunity to relate and reflect on our short 200-year history,” Mr Seah said. “Had Raffles not established Singapore as a British colony, our history and outcome would have been very different.”
Mr Seah said “Singapore grew from a small fishing village to a thriving colony till our independence through Malaysia in 1963”, and that “[we] should not be afraid or ashamed of our colonial past.”
Mr Seah’s views, however, are not shared by Anthony Oei, who responded to the former’s letter with one of his own to the newspaper on 26 May.
“Having lived in the colonial era, I cannot agree with Mr Michael Seah Swee Lim, who asked us not to be ashamed of our colonial past,” Mr Oei wrote.
“I have to say that the period was a shameful and humiliating experience. We were a subjugated people and dubbed “lesser mortals”.
“The British and other Europeans living and working in Singapore were a privileged class. They had the best in housing, jobs, food, transport, recreation and other necessities of life. They were served first everywhere, even in hospitals.”
Mr Oei said that “Raffles did not come to improve our lives per se, but to colonise us for the cause of the erstwhile British Empire.”
While he acknowledged that the British “made several useful contributions to Singapore”, the colonial government “did not do enough in nation-building to enrich our lives further, and life remained basic for most of us.”
“A 1947 British Housing Committee Report criticised Singapore as having “one of the world’s worst slums… a disgrace to a civilised community”,” Mr Oei said.
“There was a dire shortage of jobs, food, public housing, schools, hospitals, water, electricity, proper sanitation, public transport and other essentials of life.”
He also reminded Mr Seah that the British “also failed to defend us against the Japanese military invasion during World War II, resulting in more deprivation for us that lasted more than three years.”
Instead, Mr Oei said, the real hero of Singapore was Lee Kuan Yew.
“It was Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his government who salvaged us from the depths of poverty and exalted us into a prosperous First World metropolis,” Mr Oei wrote.
“In the light of this, I would say that Mr Lee was truly the founder of modern Singapore, not Raffles, and we should spare no effort in honouring him and our other pioneering, nation-building forefathers.”
“It would be inappropriate to go to town on a bicentennial celebration of Raffles’ visit. One does not shout with joy over a person who invades and usurps one’s household.”
He said that a simple ceremony to mark the nation’s 200th year would suffice, if such a thing was necessary.
The debate over the issue would perhaps raise comparison with the recent controversy over the renamed war museum episode.
In February, the news reported that the revamped war museum would adopt the new name, “Syonan Gallery”, which in Japanese means “Light of the South”. That was the name given to Singapore, after the British surrender in 1942 in World War 2.
The renaming was criticised by many, especially the older generation which had lived through that period in history.
They saw the name as one representing repression and subjugation under a foreign occupier.
The National Library (NLB), which oversees the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) which manages the museum, defended the name.
“‘Syonan’ is also a historical name easily recognisable and associated with the Japanese Occupation in Singapore when the nation was renamed Syonan-to after the surrender of the British,” the NLB said.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also seemed to defend the new name.
He said the episode had “understandably caused strong reactions” but Singapore cannot “bury the past”.
“We cannot erase our history or bury the past. The exhibition is a reminder of a traumatic period in our history and the suffering our pioneers experienced when Singapore lost its freedom and even its name,” PM Lee said in a Facebook post.
Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, however, later apologised for the name change and acknowledged that it had caused “pain” to the community.
He then announced that “Syonan Gallery” would be removed.
“I have reflected deeply on what I heard,” he said, referring to the reaction from the public. “We must honour and respect the feelings of those who suffered terribly and lost family members during the Japanese Occupation. I have therefore decided to remove the words “Syonan Gallery” from the name of the exhibition, and name it “Surviving the Japanese Occupation: War and its Legacies”.”
Some may see the celebration of the colonisation of Singapore in the same light – that pre-Independence Singapore was a subjugated nation where its people were servants to a foreign power, and thus a period and an anniversary not worth celebrating.