Veteran Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh has suggested that British rule in Singapore was more good than bad, in a recent article published by the Singapore Law Gazette.
Dr Koh currently serves as Ambassador-At-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore. A distinguished diplomat, he has served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Ambassador to the United States of America, High Commissioner to Canada and Ambassador to Mexico.
Noting that Singapore is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the founding of Singapore by the British, this year, Dr Koh wrote: “It is fair to say that, if Raffles had not established a trading post for the East India Company in 1819, we probably won’t have the Singapore of today.”
Judging that British rule in Singapore was “60 per cent good and 40 per cent bad,” Dr Koh used the article to list the negatives and positives of British rule.
According to Dr Koh, British rule was bad in Singapore because the colonial society of Singapore “was racist and hierarchical” and treated the whites as first class citizens, Eurasians as second class citizens and the rest of the locals as third class citizens.
Asserting that “racism permeated the civil service, the police force, sports and even the social clubs,” Dr Koh noted that certain clubs were reserved exclusively for the whites.
He also said that there was no democracy, human rights and freedom of the press in Singapore during British rule as the nation was ruled by an appointed official who had near absolute power. Noting that those who were critical of the colonial masters and those who were suspected of disloyalty were punished, Dr Koh said that some who had not even been convicted by any court for any offence were banished to other nations.
Dr Koh cited the lack of encouragement for manufacturing, the limited economy, the minimal level of social services that were offered to the local population, the lack of trust in the foreign police and the poor state of law and order given the proliferation of gangs and secret societies as negatives that marked British rule in Singapore.
He added that “the British were arrogant and complacent about the security of Singapore. They called Singapore an invincible fortress. They assured the people of Singapore that they need not fear the invasion of Japan.”
When the Japanese army invaded Singapore, the unprepared and outnumbered British defenders suffered a swift defeat – a defeat that Sir Winston Churchill called the worst defeat suffered by the British Army.
Dr Koh, however, stated that “compared to the other colonial rules of Southeast Asia, the British were the least bad. In spite of all its faults, the British did leave Singapore with positive legacy.”
Dr Koh said that the free deep-water port the British left Singapore with is one of the secrets of independent Singapore’s success.
He added that other positive elements the British left Singapore with was a focus on free trade and being an open economy, as well as a strong belief in education, science, modernity and the rule of law. He pointed out that Singapore also inherited the English language, common law, and the public service from the British.
Dr Koh concluded: “On balance, I still think it was 60 per cent good and 40 per cent bad. One of the worst consequences of colonialism is that we continue to have a neo-colonial complex.
“Although Singapore has been enormously successful over the past 54 years, we must remain humble. We must continue to learn best practices from the world, the UK included.”
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