on W!LD RICE’s Merdeka (Raffles must fall)

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I enjoyed Merdeka last night and would happily watch it again tonight. It’s good. However an American friend, caught between an impulse to stand and the fear of imposing peer pressure, asked me afterwards whether Singaporean audiences give standing ovations. I said sure. I’ve stood up to applaud Ian McKellen and Kevin Spacey in Singapore.

I believe Alfian, Glen and all the rest should aspire to those heights—especially when they are charging me $14 for a tiny drop of wine—so there is still quite a long way to go. Treat my below comments with that benchmark and perspective in mind. Also, pardon my ignorance on many things, I am not a theatre critic, just an armchair busybody.

I will focus on two things.

Acting

They impressed with their seamless change of roles, their singing, their power, their passion. I could watch each of them for a long time. Perhaps my main critique is that there seemed to me to be very little character development over the course of the two hours.

I would have liked to see the members of the reading group growing, maturing in some way, as they took on one chapter of history after another, as they revelled in some group realisation about Singaporean history and identity. As each told their story, the others became aware of new facts, sure. But there was not enough sense of wonder, of discovery, of change in the person (that cute little Chinese romance aside).

For instance, the seeming reconciliation of differences between the two actresses, Chinese and Malay, seemed terribly forced, especially the awkward apology from the Malay lady for her earlier snide “Chinese girlfriend” comment. I liked the initial, off-the-cuff, fiery comment—not the mawkish, tailored-for-strawberries retreat.

I have no experience in the craft of playwrighting, but I wonder if part of the issue is an over reliance, especially in the beginning, on large chunks of recorded text, rather than the individual character’s own voice.

Then again, perhaps there is so much fine detail packed into the play, which is necessary, which is informative, in this history-starved and -biased country of ours. So perhaps I am asking too much, I should be happy that each took on so many roles, that each served as wonderful interlocutors of history.

merdeka group

Story

At at a high level, I believe an important missing ingredient is the complicity of Singaporeans in colonialism. To put it glibly, the reason Raffles CAN’T fall is that we have all become Raffles. We are all the children of Raffles.

There was not enough in this play about how “the Singaporean” evolved from the early 1800s to be a handmaiden to the British, a bupati, a willing participant to foreign enterprises, EIC and otherwise, as we, collectively, exploited Asia.

To use a traditional decolonisation lens, the abuser and the abused, is inappropriate for Singapore. Other ex colonies, the Indias of the world, had sizeable indigenous populations with rich cultures and definable identities before the colonialists arrived. Singapore, like Mauritius, did not. Raffles may not be the “founder” of anything, but he certainly sparked the creation of “the Singaporean” as we know today. (Controversial assertion: please see notes and comments below for fuller picture.)

Singapore, as a trading hub of the British Empire, was the varnished administrative center, a glittering front that sheltered its inhabitants from tragedies elsewhere. Singapore, and Singaporeans, became rich off colonialism.

Not all of us, for sure. Yes, it is important to remember the fallen and the beaten and the skeletons paraded around town, especially given our whitewashed dominant narrative. But Singaporeans must ask the question why the colonial-era abuses in Singapore were negligible compared to those elsewhere, not least in Jogya just years before Raffles landed here.

I stress this not only for introspection and historical appreciation but also because not much has changed. Singapore, the Switzerland of the East, continues to preach about incorruptibility at home while gleefully welcoming (suspected) drug lords from Myanmar, bigots from Zimbabwe, absconders from Indonesia. We routinely underpay and abuse Bangladeshis and Filipinos—or ignore their abuse en route to Singapore—appeasing our conscience with neoliberal yarns about providing opportunities to the downtrodden.

Every time the Indonesian haze blankets us, we fall back on ignorant, superficial critiques of corrupt governors and lazy farmers—rather than taking aim at the real power mongers, the ones domiciled in Singapore itself: the unscrupulous palm-oil companies engaging in land grabs, and their bosses (I don’t believe all are unscrupulous but some surely are.)

Decolonising the mind, for Singaporeans, should not simply mean a rejection of the West or Western figures or the use of the name “Raffles” around town, but a rejection of the exploitative attitudes that still run through us all.

But then again, that would also imply a fundamental reform of core practices—free and open trade!—that make us economically successful, that were the very basis for the entrepôt.

Perhaps we are not yet willing to look so closely at ourselves, at what we’ve become.

Not even W!LD RICE.

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Notes:
On the creation of “the Singaporean”. There are at least two important, perhaps overlapping, caveats here worth further exploration: the extent to which the Orang Laut, as part of a broader maritime geography, comprised a cohesive “Singaporean” or “Straits” identity; and the extent to which pre-1819 Singapore was already part of a Malay-led commercial network that perhaps, among many other things, already had exploitative elements around South-east Asia.

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Finally, here’s a piece I wrote for Nikkei Asian Review on Singapore’s bicentennial commemorations, with some related thoughts.

Singapore—history haunts the ultra-modern state

Excerpt of my piece on Singapore’s bicentennial, i.e. commemoration of the arrival of Raffles and The British Empire in 1819, first published on Nikkei Asian Review

pioneer statues

From Cape Town to San Francisco, cities have been toppling monuments to historical figures with troubling legacies. In Singapore, authorities have opted for a more genteel way of dealing with the statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British colonialist who in 1819 chose the tiny island as the East India Co.’s new regional base.

They are diluting the imperialist’s prominence by erecting for the year four new statues of Asian pioneers near Raffles.

The government is commemorating the bicentennial of Raffles’ landing with a yearlong pageantry of exhibitions, essays and events (there may even be a national election).

It is a means to interrogate Singapore’s rich but oft-overlooked pre-independence history. Yet the process involves risks — it exposes some inherent contradictions about a global city’s identity, as interpreted by a heavy-handed state.

Compared with India and most other former British colonies, independent Singapore has always had a romantic view of colonialism.

Continue reading at Nikkei Asian Review

Mauritius diary 2: On race

A continuation of Mauritius diary 1: Friendly people

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Though the Arabs and others had visited before, in 1638 the Dutch became the first inhabitants of Mauritius, which they had earlier named after Prince Maurice van Nassau.

Ecologically, one can only wonder what it must have been like. Without humans or other big predators, unique flora and fauna thrived, most notably the dodo. They were severely affected by habitat loss and the introduction of non-native species such as pigs and macaques. The last sighting of the dodo was in the late 17th C.

Dodo Red Rail.JPG

A dodo, a one-horned sheep, and a red rail (all extinct), 1624 Dutch painting

In 1715, five years after the Dutch abandoned their colony, the French established one, renaming the island Isle de France. It became a key strategic outpost as well as a trade port for ships travelling between Asia and Europe. Amid the Napoleonic wars, the British won control of Isle de France in 1810, and revived its former name, Mauritius. They would rule till independence in 1968.

Importantly, a compromise was struck between the incoming British rulers and the French settlers, who were permitted to keep their land, the French language and French law.

Hence Mauritius today has a schizophrenic colonial heritage, with English as the official medium, including in parliament and school, and French Creole as the popular one—in a country named after a Dutchman.

During the recent Euro 2016 football tournament, “Franco-Mauritians” supported France while most Hindu-Mauritians supported England. When England seemed on the verge of playing France, I was told to ready myself for the sporting occasion of the year, a night when the whole country would shut down.

But then the plucky Icelanders ruined the party by beating the English to set up their own meeting with France. Football fans in Mauritius groaned.

Continue reading

Diamonds, Gold and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

I’ve just finished this excellent book by Martin Meredith, and thought I might record some choice quotes and passages. For future reference.

“It often strikes a man to inquire what is the chief good in life; to one the thought comes that it is a happy marriage, to another great wealth, and as each seizes on his idea, for that he more or less works for the rest of his existence. To myself thinking over the same question the wish came to render myself useful to my country. I then asked myself how could I and after reviewing the various methods I have felt that at the present day we are actually limiting our children and perhaps bringing into the world half the human beings we might owing to the lack of country for them to inhabit that if we had retained America there would at this moment be millions more of English living.

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence. Added to this the absorption of the greater portion of the world under our rule simply means the end of all war.”

– Cecil Rhodes, June 1877 (p. 127)

“The ‘native question’, he said, was the ‘big test question for South Africa’. He had arrived in the Colony, he said, as ‘the most rabid Jingo’, but he now considered that the Cape had allowed too many Africans the vote. ‘As long as the natives remain in a state of barbarism we must treat them as a subject race and be lords over them’.”

p. 200

“Once more, the Swazis were given no hearing. On 10 December 1894, Britain agreed a third Convention consigning Swaziland into the hands of the Transvaal as a ‘Protectorate’. According to Loch, this was ‘the price which must be paid to avert war between the two white peoples of South Africa’.

The Swazis remembered this passage of their history as a time when ‘the documents killed us’.”

p. 243

“As we travelled along, Rhodes kept on asking, ‘What building is this?’ ‘What building is that?’ He made no comment, but I could see he felt depressed on his first arrival. It was only when I pointed out to him the foundations of the Jewish Synagogue that he became cheerful once more and quite excited.

‘My country’s all right,’ he kept on exclaiming. ‘If the Jews come, my country’s all right.’ ”

p. 275

“A young chief who might best be described as insolent to the elders of his tribe and particularly so to the white men put in a pertinent question. ‘Where are we to live when it is over?’ he said. ‘The white man claims all the land.’ Rhodes replied at once, ‘We will give you settlements. We will set apart locations for you; we will give you land.’ The young chief shouted angrily, ‘You will give us land in our own country! That’s good of you!’ ”

p. 360

” ‘The Lord will protect us,’ Kruger told the Volksraad. ‘The Lord orders the flights of bullets. The Lord gave us the triumph of the War of Independence and the capture of Jameson. The Lord will also protect you now, even if thousands of bullets fly about you.’ ”

p. 422

Appeals went out for funds to support soldiers’ dependants and for gift of clothing, tobacco, cigarettes and ‘delicacies’ for the men. The most potent appeal of all was made by Rudyard Kipling:

When you’ve shouted ‘Rule Britannia’, when you’ve

sung ‘God Save the Queen’,

When you’re finished killing Kruger with your mouth,

Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine

For a gentleman in Khaki ordered South?

He’s an absent-minded beggar, and his weaknesses are

great —

But we and Paul must take him as we find him —

He’s out on active service, wiping something off a slate —

And he’s left a lot of little things behind him!…”

p. 429

“Other officers thought the results were justified. Captain R.F. Talbot of the Royal Horse Artillery wrote in his diary:

I went out this morning with some of my men ostensibly to get vegetables, but joined the provost marshal and the sappers in a farm burning party, and we burnt and blew up two farms with gun-cotton, turning out the inhabitants first. It is a bit sickening at first turning out the women and children, but they are such brutes and the former all spies; we don’t mind it now. Only those are done which belong to men who are sniping or otherwise behaving badly.”

p. 452

“He (Alfred Milner) envisaged two principal methods of achieving this foal. The first was large-scale immigration of people of British descent. ‘I attached the greatest importance of all to the increase in the British population,’ he told the Colonial Office. ‘If, ten years hence, there are three men of British race to two of Dutch, the country will be safe and prosperous. If there are three of Dutch to two of British, we shall have perpetual difficulty….We not only want a majority of British, we want a fair margin because of the large proportion of cranks that we British generated and who take particular pleasure in going against their own people.’ ”

p. 482

“In parliament, the Liberal opposition criticised the use of low-paid Chinese labour in the gold mines, claiming it was tantamount to ‘Chinese slavery’. What made matters worse was the discovery that Milner had authorised the flogging of Chinese labourers–without reference to magistrates–in cases of violence and unruliness. ‘At the time,’ Milner told his successor, Lord Selborne, ‘it seemed to me so harmless that I really gave very little thought to the matter.’

p. 493

“Lord Milner gave short shrift to African protests. ‘A political equality of white and black is impossible,’ he said. ‘The white man must rle because he is elevated by many, many steps above the black man; steps which it will take the latter centuries to climb, and which it is quite possible that the vast bulk of the black population may never be able to climb at all.’ ”

p. 495

” ‘We rather congratulate ourselves,’ a government minister, Frederick Moor, told the South African Native Affairs Commission, ‘that our Natives are the best-mannered, and the best behaved, and the most law-abiding people that we have got in South Africa.’ ”

p. 499

” In searching for the underlying causes of the rebellion, Natal’s white community placed much of the blame on mission-educated Africans stirring up trouble for their own purposes rather than on the harsh impact of white taxes, fines and land-grabbing. Most whites tended to distrust Christian African–kholwa, as they were known–far more so than ‘traditional’ Africans whom they believed to be more respectful of white rule. A Natal police commissioner attributed African discontent and the 1906 rebellion to education and missionary influence which, he claimed, ‘tends to inculcate an equality between black and white, which is a dangerous doctrine in Natal, and must result in discontent in the subject race.’ ”

p. 502

“With the help of Afrikaner academics, it fashioned a new, hardened version of Afrikaner ideology. Christian-Nationalism, as it was called, was essentially a blend of the Old Testament ad modern politics, influenced in part by the rise of European fascism. At its core was the notion once expounded by Paul Kruger that Afrikaners were members of an exclusive volk created by the hand of God to fulfil a special mission in South Africa.”

p. 524

Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Ten years before independence)

A wonderful short documentary looking at post-war independence movements in Malaya. The good old days of a nascent democracy. Chinese/Indians/Malays coming together to kick out the British colonialists. The part around 19:50 is particularly relevant in terms of contemporary race relations. Very exciting to see more and more perspectives on our countries’ histories.
Click here to watch it.

Here’s the official description:

October 20th, 1947 was a historical day in the rakyat’s constitutional struggle for independence from British colonialism. This short documentary film chronicles the events that culminated in the Malaya-wide ‘Hartal’ day of protest against the undemocratic Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals devised by the British Colonial Government and the UMNO, and the rise of the people’s democratic movement in Malaya, ten years before independence.