As Singapore mourns the Queen, there is little talk of its colonial past



It has been nearly six decades since the British monarchy symbolically ruled Singapore, but the death of Queen Elizabeth II has always sparked grief and reflection in the Southeast Asian nation.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent his condolences to British leaders and shared a photo taken with the Queen in 2018. « Her Majesty was the heart and soul of the United Kingdom, » Lee wrote in a accompanying article. shared on Facebook. « Her Majesty has also left a significant mark on the history of Singapore and our longstanding close relationship with the UK. »

« His passing is greatly mourned by everyone in Singapore, » he added.

Lee’s ministers and other senior members of his ruling party cabinet, including his political successor Lawrence Wongquickly followed suit – paying tribute to the late Queen by sharing letters of condolence and recounting past encounters with her during official visits both at home and abroad.

Singapore’s reaction to the Queen’s death this month at the age of 96 puts him in line with the outpouring of sadness expressed online and in many countries around the world – but is at odds with some other former colonies where the reaction has been more complex.

In India, where many see the monarchy as a symbol of colonial-era oppression, some have called for the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond; in parts of Africa, many refuse to grieve; while some Caribbean countries have suggested they will consider removing the Queen’s son – the current King Charles III – from the head of state in the next few years.

Experts say the reason for the difference is that Singapore – ruled by Britain for 144 years until 1963 when it became part of Malaysia and then fully independent in 1965 – emerged relatively unscathed from colonial rule compared to some other former colonies.

Indeed, its politicians have given Britain measured praise over the years for establishing a legal system that has contributed to the modern prosperity of the city-state, now a prosperous sovereign country with among the richest in the world per capita and has its own head of state.

Parliament observed a minute’s silence on Monday out of respect for the late Queen. « Her late Majesty was not only the Queen of the United Kingdom, but also the head of the Commonwealth, a family of 56 nations around the world of which Singapore is a proud member, » House Leader Indranee Rajah said.

« Beyond the formality and ceremonies associated with state visits, the Queen has taken the time and effort to get to know ordinary Singaporeans better, » she said.

And on September 19, the day of his funeral, state flags on government buildings will be flown at half-mast – under instructions from Prime Minister Lee.

In Singapore, roads, neighborhoods and prestigious institutions like government buildings and hospitals still bear the names of British lords and various military commanders.

Queenstown, a bustling central district, the Queen Elizabeth Walk and even Princess Elizabeth Primary School have been named after Elizabeth II to commemorate her coronation in 1953.

In 2019, Singapore held large-scale bicentenary celebrations with festivals and events marking the 200th anniversary of the arrival of British statesman Sir Stamford Raffles and the British East India Company arriving on its shores.

« Singaporeans, especially those in the ruling elite, tend to have a rather benign view of Britain and its monarchy, » noted political scientist Ian Chong of the National University of Singapore, who recalled the public fervor around visiting members of the royal family over the years.

A 2012 visit by Prince William and his wife Catherine as part of their Diamond Jubilee tour of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific drew large crowds across the island.

The Queen herself has been welcomed three times: in 1972, 1989 and 2006. As part of Singapore’s diplomatic charm offensive, she gave her name to a cultivated orchid hybrid, derived from orchids native from Singapore and Papua New Guinea.

« Overall, opinions of Queen Elizabeth II and the British Royal Family are positive in Singapore, » Chong said.

« Some of this is not surprising given that our departure from British colonial rule was negotiated, in contrast to states that experienced widespread repression and more violent ends to colonial rule. »

Prince William and Catherine at the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore in 2012.

But there were also darker sides to British rule in Singapore. Experts point out that the colonial administration suppressed local identity and made English the official language. They also say that modern Singapore’s infamously tough stance towards hard drugs was the result of colonial Britain’s lucrative opium trade.

« The official narrative deliberately romanticizes (colonialism) for political reasons while suppressing other perspectives, » said exiled journalist and historian Thum Ping Tjin, also a visiting scholar at Hertford College in Oxford. Like other critics, Thum questioned the admiration Singapore’s rulers sometimes expressed for their colonial founders and the erasure of anti-colonial activism.

“Singapore continues to be governed using the same values, institutions and assumptions that underpinned British colonialism, so the government cannot reject or repudiate colonialism without also criticizing its own values, institutions and methods of governance” , said Thum.

The complex legacy of empire was evident in various controversial colonial-era laws that remained in force in Singapore even after independence. The Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act allowed detention without trial and Section 377A criminalized homosexuality until it was recently announced that it would be repealed after decades of opposition.

« In many ways, independent Singapore is an heir to British colonial rules that we adapted – we see it in everything from government housing programs to specific policies and laws, » said Chong the political scientist.

“Our politicians often point out that the colonial system of laws and courts benefits our prosperity and stability. Thus, colonial rule is generally seen as benign and a foundation of Singapore’s wealth. Hence the festive air that surrounds (events such as) the bicentenary celebrations in 2019.”

After his mother’s death, Charles ascended the throne to become the new king, making him the head of state of 14 countries (in addition to the United Kingdom).

But several of these countries – including Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and Belize – are openly considering cutting ties with the British monarchy, and some have suggested the Queen’s death could be a catalyst for that decision.

In November, Barbados – Britain’s oldest colony – deposed the Queen as head of state and declared itself a republic.

But in Singapore, a republic that appoints a president – currently Halimah Yacob – as its own ceremonial head of state, Charles seems relatively popular.

While still a prince, Charles was a familiar public figure to many Singaporeans. In 2017, he received the same Singaporean honor as the Queen and other dignitaries of having an orchid – the national flower – named after him and his wife Camilla, now the Queen consort.

“A gift fit for a (future) king and perhaps well deserved after a grueling and busy schedule,” state media wrote.

Prince Charles, now King Charles III, had an orchid named after him in Singapore.

Experts now expect growth the interest and curiosity of Singaporeans surrounding the new monarch of England.

Memes of Charles among young Singaporeans have already popped up on popular local chat rooms, suggesting that the royal family’s legacy, for now at least, remains intact.

cnn en2fr2en

Back to top button