PARLIAMENT: Budget 2019 debate

Parliament: Need to acknowledge both good and bad of colonial past: Yaacob

As Singapore commemorates its bicentennial and reflects on its history, the country must also accept that the colonial experience has had a different impact on its various communities, said former minister Yaacob Ibrahim in Parliament yesterday.

"We need to acknowledge that different communities have different historical experiences and memories," said Dr Yaacob (Jalan Besar GRC). "We need to recognise both the good and the bad."

Although 1819 marked a turning point in Singapore's history, it has also given rise to myths and misperceptions that damage communities here, he added.

One of these is the myth that Singapore was a fishing village "waiting to be discovered by enlightened British imperialists", rather than the vibrant economic hub that historical evidence suggests.

Another is the toxic myth of the lazy native, which has been studied and debunked but yet still lingers in the minds of some people, said Dr Yaacob, the former minister for communications and information as well as former minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs.

"When I was growing up in modern Singapore, my own teachers dismissed my community as being lazy and unable to study hard. This is the burden of history that my community carries. It is unjust and unfair," he added.

"If we are to commemorate the bicentennial, we must also recognise the less savoury aspects of it - practices and ideas designed to meet the needs and maximise the profits of the empire at the expense of the indigenous population."

 
 
 
 

Referring to Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's Budget statement, which touched on building an inclusive society, Dr Yaacob said: "If we are to build an inclusive society... we need to ensure that inclusivity applies not just to how we view the here and now, but also how we view our history as a people."

Dr Yaacob said it is right to acknowledge every event for what it is worth, and that the colonialists' arrival changed the region forever. But overly-ascribing Singapore's present-day success to the arrival of the British ignores "larger forces" at work before they set foot on Singapore's shores, he said. Rather than focus on the past 200 years, Singapore should look at 1819 as "one milestone among many".

He urged Singaporeans in this bicentennial year to see how the country's history is intertwined with that of the region. "The diversity that we see in Singapore reflects the diversity of the region and beyond."

In doing so, more Singaporeans - especially the young - will understand how Singapore is a part of the larger region, and how its good location and the talents of its diverse peoples can create a peaceful hub for trade and commerce, he said.

Dr Yaacob suggested changes to school curriculum, including relooking at how history is taught to ensure students are well-versed in pre-colonial history and have a deeper understanding of the region. National education can be expanded for local students to understand the colonial experiences of other Asean countries, he added, noting: "Being part of this region, I strongly believe that we should have a good understanding and appreciation of the region's history."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2019, with the headline 'Need to acknowledge both good and bad of colonial past: Yaacob'. Print Edition | Subscribe