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The Singapore Law Gazette

200 Years of Singapore and the United Kingdom

Tommy Koh, Scott Wightman, ed., 2019 Straits Times Press

Historian Edward Hallett Carr wrote that “History would not be worth writing or reading if it had no meaning1TLS 26 December 1954; but searching for meaning presents an interesting conundrum ever since Roland Barthes made us more acutely aware that there are two meanings in every text – that intended by the writer, and that understood by the reader. Historians do not record facts – that has been done by the people historians are writing about; people who are charged with the responsibility of preservation. The historian’s burden lies in interpretation, and as such, he has to deal with the question whether his views are “read back into the past and, therefore, whether the past is distorted, foreshortened, and its distinctiveness lost2Bernard Bailyn, 1994, On the Teaching & Writing of History.

This book is the result of the collaboration of two diplomats, and the effort of writers from two streams that merged in 1819, giving their accounts of two countries – Singapore and the United Kingdom – from that date to the present. 1819 has been hailed as the year Singapore was founded, and Stamford Raffles has been her acknowledged founder, and so, as if in anticipation of misunderstanding the purpose of this book, Professor Koh explains that he is not an apologist for colonialism, nor is he out to disparage the British. This book, in short, is not a celebration of the coming of the colonial masters nor a diatribe against them. It is an exploration of the “history of the 200-year relationship between Singapore and the United Kingdom and the British legacy”.3Scott Wightman, Foreword, 200 Years of Singapore & the United Kingdom

Parts I and II of the book raise the question of the roles of Stamford Raffles, John Crawfurd, and William Farquhar. The flamboyant Raffles had long been credited with the founding of Singapore, but as the contributors point out, the treaty that Raffles signed with the Johor Sultanate which had control over the island of Singapore at the time – the Treaty of 1819 – merely conferred the right to open a trading post, more specifically, a factory, here. The proper taking over was done in the later treaty of 1894 – signed by Crawfurd.

A trading post or factory, that was all Raffles and Crawfurd needed to establish Singapore as a free port, a status she enjoyed throughout the past 200 years although the advantages of such a port have changed, Singapore continues to be a busy stopping point for sea vessels; and that can be attributed to her position of first in line, establishing a pedigree that endured.

Much of the big history of Singapore is well-known by constant repetition, the result of which is having a nation that has little difficulty recalling its origins story. One of the values of this book is the numerous important vignettes woven together in chronological order that produced a much-needed flesh and spirit to the big story. One of the early stories that have a remarkable impact on the thinking of the island’s defence structure, was the mutiny of the Indian 5th Light Brigade. Though it paled in comparison to the infamous Indian Mutiny in India, the story of the smaller mutiny in Singapore will fascinate the younger generations who might not know that there was a general prison at Outram Road, above the present Outram MRT station, let alone the fact that many of the captured mutineers were executed by firing squad, watched by a crowd of 15,000 people.

Next, we have the heroic tale of Elizabeth Choy whose astonishing survival under the hands of the feared Kempetai is the kind of stories scouts and girl guides are told at campfires – or at least they should be. Another important story is that of Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army, an army he raised here for the purpose of liberating India from the British. Humoured by the Japanese, tolerated by the Germans, Chandra Bose’s dream fell apart when his Japanese allies were defeated, and he tried to regroup from Myanmar, only to die when his plane crashed. His is a story of the spirit of nationalism, but closer studies may yield divergent interpretations of his contributions; and the question as to whether he was heroic or Quixotic.

After any war, the rebuilding of a nation is always painful and laborious, but such times are the foundations of greatness to come; Britain and America as victors, rose to be economic giants, but so did the vanquished. Germany and Japan might be said to have an even more phenomenal growth. Smaller nations like Singapore struggled on and faced new threats that could have jeopardised its redevelopment. These are chronicled in this book, particularly in the chapters by Tan Tai Yong, Albert Lau and Shashi Jayakumar. The latter quoted Lee Kuan Yew who said that the Socialist ideal “From each his best, to each his need” had to be deferred in favour of a more practical rendition, “from each his economic best, to each his economic worth”. Decades since, the nation may begin to ponder whether the ultimate ideal is now within its grasp.

We are reminded of the many legacies left behind by the British, from education, language, town planning, public administration, commerce, sports (and the many sporting clubs and rules of sportsmanship that we had benefitted from their immersion into our society), and the bedrock of our society – law. Each of these delightful chapters could easily be developed into books on their own, but here, they blended homogenously together, presenting a wide-angled view of the contributions of a beneficent nation to a fledgling one.

Just as rain is a prerequisite for the rainbow, in a commemorative book, grief and sorrows are recalled that subsequent joys can be emphasised. This book is a book of optimism and reading it fulfils the reader the way a good meal satiates the diner, and though one might think that postprandial stupor is the only worry, Alan Hunt serves a gentle caution in his contribution from a British view, that “things can change rapidly and unexpectedly”.

Indeed, since the paths of the two nations crossed 200 years ago, Britain has since cast the moorings from her empire, and anchored herself to the European Union though that is now changing. Both nations now each have respectively different challenges ahead. It is thus apt that this book celebrates not just 200 years of history, but also of friendship. And in good times or bad, we all need friends.4The contributors to this book are too numerous to identify individually. They come from both Britain and Singapore and from varied backgrounds from diplomats to administrators, to scholars, writers and poets. Nothing and no one seemed out-of-place.

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.TLS 26 December 1954
2.Bernard Bailyn, 1994, On the Teaching & Writing of History
3.Scott Wightman, Foreword, 200 Years of Singapore & the United Kingdom
4.The contributors to this book are too numerous to identify individually. They come from both Britain and Singapore and from varied backgrounds from diplomats to administrators, to scholars, writers and poets. Nothing and no one seemed out-of-place.

Judge of the Supreme Court of Singapore