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Bicentennial commemoration should recognise ‘less savoury’ aspects of colonialism, says Yaacob

SINGAPORE — The commemoration of Singapore’s bicentennial must recognise the less savoury aspects of colonialism, said former Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim during the Budget 2019 debate on Wednesday (Feb 27).

Bicentennial commemoration should recognise ‘less savoury’ aspects of colonialism, says Yaacob

While recognising that colonialism changed Singapore and its surrounding region forever, Dr Yaacob cautioned that overly ascribing Singapore’s present success to the coming of the British would amount to ignoring “larger forces at work” well before their arrival.

SINGAPORE — The commemoration of Singapore’s bicentennial must recognise the less savoury aspects of colonialism, said former Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim during the Budget 2019 debate on Wednesday (Feb 27).

Colonialism was “designed to meet the needs and maximise the profits of the empire at the expense of the population”, said Dr Yaacob, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

While recognising that colonialism changed Singapore and its surrounding region forever, Dr Yaacob cautioned that overly ascribing Singapore’s present success to the coming of the British would amount to ignoring “larger forces at work” well before their arrival.

At the official launch of Singapore’s bicentennial last month to mark 200 years since the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Raffles’ arrival in 1819 marked the beginning of a modern Singapore.

Notwithstanding the island’s long and rich history hundreds of years before his arrival, Mr Lee said that Singapore would not have embarked on the journey to where it is today without events that happened in 1819.

Dr Yaacob said that there is a “need to acknowledge the varying impact of colonialism on the indigenous population and other populations”.

“We need to recognise both the good and the bad,” he said. 

To foster inclusiveness, Dr Yaacob said that the bicentennial commemoration is not only about understanding the historical experiences and memories of various communities better, but also about banishing “myths and misperceptions” that are damaging to communities.

One of them is the myth of the lazy natives who lived in Singapore before the British arrived.

Such a myth is “toxic”, and Dr Yaacob said perceptions that Malays are lazy still linger despite having been dispelled by the late academic Syed Hussein Alatas.

His own teachers dismissed the Malay community as “lazy and unable to study hard”, said Dr Yaacob. “This is the burden of history that my community carries. It is unjust and unfair.”

Dr Yaacob said that he supports the idea of understanding Singapore’s history beyond 1819, which is one of the objectives of the bicentennial.

It should also show that Singapore’s history is intertwined with the region’s.

He added that the history curriculum in schools should be relooked, so that students learn about Singapore’s pre-colonial history and also the colonial history of its neighbours. 

“Talk about both the good and the bad so that we know ourselves better and will never again be divided or colonised.” 

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