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Recognise both the good and the bad aspects of colonialism at the bicentennial commemoration

The former Communications and Information Minister warned against accrediting the success of modern-day Singapore to the influence of British colonizers




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Singapore—In this bicentennial year, one Member of Parliament (MP) is calling for the recognition of both positive and negative aspects of the country’s colonial past in order to avoid being “divided or colonised” again in the future.

Speaking at the Budget 2019 debate in Parliament on Wednesday, February 27, MP for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Dr Yaacob Ibrahim urged that the unpleasant parts of having been colonised be given attention to in Singapore’s bicentennial commemoration.

According to Dr Yacob, “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.”

The former Communications and Information Minister warned against accrediting the success of modern-day Singapore to the influence of British colonizers, as this would amount to turning a blind eye to the “larger forces at work” that had been in place long before the British reached Singapore’s shores.

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Although the Jalan Besar GRC MP also acknowledged that colonialism permanently changed not just Singapore, but the whole region that surrounds it.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong marked the official beginning of the country’s bicentennial commemoration in January, saying that when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 2019, this was the birth of modern Singapore.

The Prime Minister said that the Republic would not have gotten to where it is at present, had the events from 200 years ago not occurred, despite the long and storied past that the island already had prior to Sir Stamford Raffles’ coming.

But Dr Yaacob spoke of his awareness of the “need to acknowledge the varying impact of colonialism on the indigenous population and other populations”.

Moreover, he emphasised the importance of recognizing both the negative and the positive aspects of Singapore’s colonial history.

“We need to acknowledge that different communities have different historical experiences and memories,” he said.

For him, the commemoration of Singapore should encourage inclusiveness. “If we are to build an inclusive society… we need to ensure that inclusivity applies not just to how we view the here and now, but also how we view our history as a people.”

This means not only comprehending the historical experiences of different communities in a deeper way but also doing away with “myths and misperceptions” that cause damage to these communities, including one concerning the laziness of Singaporean natives before the arrival of the colonizers.

He called this myth “toxic” and unfortunately are still present, even if it was refuted by Syed Hussein Alatas, the late academic.

Dr Yaacob narrated that he had teachers who had called the Malay community “lazy and unable to study hard.”

He said, “This is the burden of history that my community carries. It is unjust and unfair.”

One of the main aims of this year’s bicentennial commemoration is to understand the history of Singapore beyond 1819.

Dr Yaacob is in favor of this thrust and says that it will show the story of Singapore in the context of a larger region. “The diversity that we see in Singapore reflects the diversity of the region and beyond.”

He also said that a look into the history curriculum in our schools needs to happen, to shed light not only on the country’s pre-colonial history but also that of our neighboring countries. Being part of this region, I strongly believe that we should have a good understanding and appreciation of the region’s history.”

The Jalan Besar GRC MP added, “Talk about both the good and the bad so that we know ourselves better and will never again be divided or colonised.”

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