01
March
2019
|
09:21
Europe/Amsterdam

S’pore and the UK: from 1819 to 2019

From left: Mr Ting, Mr Wightman, Tembusu College Master Assoc Prof George Clancey, Prof Koh and Prof Miksic shared their thoughts on the 200 year relationship between UK and Singapore

When did the story of modern Singapore begin? What is the historical significance of 1819? How do we evaluate British rule? These three questions, posed by Professor Tommy Koh, Chairman of the NUS Centre of International Law and Rector of Tembusu College, set the scene for the most recent Tembusu Forum, the 30th iteration, titled Singapore and the United Kingdom: 1819 to 2019, held on 19 February.

The motivation for this theme came from a recently released book, edited by Prof Koh and fellow panellist His Excellency Mr Scott Wightman, British High Commissioner to Singapore, which reviews the history and future of this relationship for the bicentennial of Singapore’s founding by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.

Prof Koh emphasised the important role of history in helping people understand the trends and developments in the contemporary world, citing some examples including the relationships between Japan and Korea, as well as China and Japan. He shared his opinion that the British rule was “60 per cent good, 40 per cent bad”, and he hoped that the forum could be a platform to discuss and evaluate both the positive and negative aspects of British influence.

“The relationship between Singapore and the United Kingdom has gone through a remarkable evolution in the last 200 years. It began as a relationship between the ruler and the ruled. It was a relationship between the rich and the poor. But over time this relationship changed. And today the relationship between our two countries is a relationship of two equals,” he declared, adding his hopes that the relationship will continue to progress.

The relationship between Singapore and the United Kingdom has gone through a remarkable evolution in the last 200 years. It began as a relationship between the ruler and the ruled. It was a relationship between the rich and the poor. But over time this relationship changed. And today the relationship between our two countries is a relationship of two equals.

The two other panellists at the forum were: Mr Kennie Ting, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum and Group Director of Museums at the Singapore National Heritage Board, who offered an evaluation of Singapore from an art history perspective, and NUS Southeast Asian Studies Professor John Miksic – who shared the results of his archaeological research that could throw light on the history of pre-colonial Singapore. Both panellists also contributed essays to the newly published book.

Prof Miksic’s archaeological digs have taken him to areas that the British were known to have inhabited, including the Fort Canning cemetery, the Padang, and Bencoolen Street. In the various excavations, Prof Miksic and his team uncovered 14th century Chinese and Malay pottery, 16th century Vietnamese, Thai and Javanese artefacts, and 19-20th century European ceramics and Dutch coins. The variety of objects found indicates Singapore was a melting pot of cultures long before the British colonised the country.

“The same sites have been used in both the pre-colonial and colonial era, and Singapore has pretty much maintained its role as a link between East and West for 700 years. How Singaporeans lived during the British colonial era was not a major change of direction; there were a lot of continuities during the pre-colonial, the colonial, and now the post-colonial era,” he said.

When viewed through the lens of art history, how can we classify Singapore? That was the question at the centre of Mr Ting’s presentation. “Singapore is a cosmopolitan, cross-cultural, formerly colonial Asian port city. With this in mind, you can immediately contextualise it against the other examples of this genre that exist across the world, like Manila, Bombay, Nagasaki, and Hong Kong. Our heritage in Singapore is formed closer to these port cities than to the traditional Chinese, Indian, or Malay cultures,” he explained. After Mr Ting outlined the commonalities of these cities, he noted that over the past 200 years Singapore seems to be the only one left that has retained “its essence and heritage as a cosmopolitan cross-cultural Asian port city”.

“In 1965 when everyone else was going violently anticolonial, our founding fathers decided for pragmatic and social political reasons, to retain aspects of our colonial heritage. The aim was to show that we were still open for business and also maintain a kind of equality amongst all races here,” he explained, adding that this heritage is part of what makes Singapore exceptional.

Rounding up the panel, Mr Wightman gave a brief overview of the book edited by himself and Prof Koh. The book frames Raffles’ relationship with Singapore in a larger regional context as well as from a local perspective. It also discusses the casual racism of the British residents, and explores the journey from colonial administration, to self-government, and then independence.  

“My personal hope is that the book and the individual essays will be seen as a constructive contribution to the collective reflection that this bicentennial has simulated,” Mr Wightman said, adding that he hopes that it will also help inform British readers.

Turning his eye to Singapore’s current relationship with the UK, in various areas including science and innovation, education, defence and security, Mr Wightman expressed a wish that the relationship will continue to deepen. “…while our shared history is rich…our shared future can be even brighter,” he said.

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Students in the audience were keen to engage the panellists on topics including the future of archaelogy, and how to be objective in analysing history