More critical view of Britain's colonial project needed

British Union Jack at the European Parliament, on July 4, 2019.
British Union Jack at the European Parliament, on July 4, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

Dr Daniel Emelyn-Jones seems to believe that colonial misbehaviour and violence can be excused carte blanche by the "white man's burden" (Don't forget role of colonial Britain in shaping Singapore, Aug 24).

The fact that so many of the nation's leaders were educated in British schools, he claims, means that Britain ought to have its share of the credit for Singapore's present success.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that Britain's desire to open "Western education" to the colonised peoples was far from benign. The establishment of Western-style schools in Asia and the provision of scholarships to study in Britain were for the purpose of training a colonial elite to administer the empire on Britain's behalf.

Before the 1950s, most Singaporeans lacked any access to state-sponsored public education.

The curriculum in Singapore's colonial education system was, moreover, designed to create a class of local bureaucrats loyal to British domination.

The achievements and experiences of non-Western peoples were silenced in the name of insisting on the inferiority of their cultures and dependence on their colonial masters.

British provision of education in Singapore, therefore, is analogous to Britain's construction of railways in India. While this new transport system had the positive side effect of making travel more convenient, the project was pursued not so much for this benign purpose as to speed up the extraction of capital and resources from the subcontinent. Likewise, British education policy in Singapore was undertaken not to ensure Singapore's successful development, but rather to tighten the British grip on its South-east Asian empire.

To overlook the malign motivations of British colonial policies cheapens the achievements and sacrifices of national leaders such as Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It was the discriminatory and incompetent nature of colonial rule that ultimately prompted Singaporeans to seek independence from Britain.

Today, British universities are becoming more aware of their complicity in colonial rule. Not only is post-colonial scholarship growing in influence at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, students and faculty at both universities are increasingly calling for the "decolonisation" of their respective curricula to ensure that more non-Western voices are represented in the classroom. Yet, the views expressed by Dr Emelyn-Jones suggests that much remains to be done to encourage a more critical view of Britain's colonial project.

Ng Qi Siang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2019, with the headline 'More critical view of Britain's colonial project needed'. Subscribe