Something which I wrote about a year ago, thought would be good to revisit it…
The reeling junks behind me and the racing seas before,
I raped your richest roadstead — I plundered Singapore!
I set my hand on the Hoogli; as a hooded snake she rose,
And I flung your stoutest steamers to roost with the startled crows.
Rudyard Kipling from The English Flag
Our Colonial Foundations
As we all know, the 6th of February is the day when Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore, and thus began the history of our island. But before I embark on the arguments proper as to why we should regard this day as our proper national day, instead of 9 August, I shall need to clear away some of the standard objections first.
In one of my history modules, the history lecturer warned us against what he calls the “Ichiban” mindset, “Ichiban” being in Japanese “the first”. The point, he told us, is not who did what or who came first, but what events are signifcant or historically important. Technically, there is some evidence that the Vikings actually came to America (via Iceland-Greenland) first long before Christopher Columbus set off for the Americas in 1492, but that fact means nothing as they did nothing nor did they established nor contribute anything to the subsequent history of America, thus, “Ichiban” facts means nothing, unless those facts are contribute to subsequent history.
Thus, all talk about previous settlements of Singapore by the Srivijaya empire long before Raffles, interesting as it is, is hardly relevant to the history of Singapore, as the Portugese incinerated the entire settlement, and thus that settlement, no matter how glorious or big it was, has no relevance to Singapore, as it was destroyed and contributed nothing more to the island’s subsequent history.
Doth Power a Nation Make?
Therefore the question of whether to regard 6th February as opposed to 9th August as our national day becomes a question of historical significance and meaning. First, let us examine what it means to make 9th August as our national day.
As we all know, 9th August is simply the day when Singapore separated from Malaysia. It was’t even the day when we were “freed” from British colonial rule. Thus, none of the standard anti-colonial rhetoric can apply to fixing that date as a date of anti-colonial significance. It cannot be that that was the day when we achieved self-government, as before 9th August 1965, the Singapore local government had considerable powers of “self-government” and administrative oversight over the island. When we were still part of Malaysia, Singapore already had its own elected legislature, its own cabinet of ministers, its own government and its own administrators. It can even be said that we had considerable powers of local government even before we joined Malaysia under the British, but I wouldn’t press that point for now.
It seems to me, that the only significant change which happened when we separated from Malaysia was that we became a “sovereign” state, by which it means that we had control over national defense and other functions of international significance (foreign policy, etc). One cannot cite as part of becoming a “sovereign” state the right to local elections and rule by the locals as we already had those when we were part of Malaysia, and one might add, even under the British! In fact, the one key and I believe, the most important, significant change which occurred when we were freed from Malaysia is this,
Our local government effectively acquired unlimited sovereignty and power over the island, unrestrained by any other body, and most vitally, power of international violence and the consciousness of ourselves in confrontation of “other” nations.
If, as I believe it is, this is the most important difference between pre-9th August and post-9th August, I do not see why this change is a cause for rejoicing but it should instead be a cause for fear and uneasiness. Should we rejoice that our community is fully realised in violence and confrontation? Or in the centralisation of all power in one body?
But besides these political consideration, the more historically significant fact of identifying 9th August as the founding of our nation is this: It identifies the nation of Singapore with its government. Thus, the government of Singapore has practically become identical to the nation of Singapore. Singapore is its government, because that is the date when the local government acquired unlimited power and sovereignty over Singapore, thus it says that Singapore only “really” became a nation when its government acquires unlimited power and the power of international violence and confrontation.
What Maketh a Nation
In one of the interviews which David Marshall gave before he passed away, he was asked how would Singapore turn out if he were in charge, and his answer is a paradoxical, poorer but happier. No doubt much good and development of Singapore came about as a result of the lack of restrain on our government. But these advancement are purely and mainly economic for which as much as should be thankful for, is now surely cause for concern. The focus on the economic imperative is effecetively turning our island nation into a nihilistic wasteland, where worth and citizenship is measured by economic performance and success, for now we are asking ourselves, is GDP growth truly the only thing that exalts a nation? Is an economically competent government truly the definition of a good government?
By fixing 6th February 1819 as opposed to 9th August 1965 as our national day, it is an act which calls into critique and question, the assumption that an economically competent government is identical to a nation. It says that a nation is larger, greater and much more than what form or powers its local government has. It is a union of its culture, history and language. Let’s face it, our multi-racial composition and mixture, is the work of the British who encourage migration of the chinese to this island on a large scale. Their establishment of our island as a trading post is the prime reason behind the convergence of diverse cultures unto our land, the presence of Indians is again the result of the import of Indians from colonial India.
Though on paper Malay may be our so-called “national language”, but in the reality and lives of Singaporeans on the ground, English is the practical uniting language for our land, the mediatory language between the diversity of cultures, the language on which is the standard for educating, administration and even advertisement. The fact that English is the uniting language for Singaporeans is once again, thanks to British rule.
Thus the cultural features which makes up our island nation, diverse cultures, English as the uniting language, etc, has its foundation in British rule. Even our system and form of government is itself inherited from the British, parliamentary system, common law and the civil service.
I guess the point which I am trying to drive at is that what happened on 9th August is merely political, a question of power transfer and management. But what happened on 6 February is something greater than mere politicking and power play, an entire history and culture and people came into being, diverse and different as the peoples may be, be yet somehow united together by the Will of Britain, and their colonial administration, which forged and laid the foundations for the idea of unified nation, living together in harmony and seeking to make a live for themselves on this island.
Does being a nation by definition exclude being subject to the British crown, therefore calling into question as to whether can truly be called a “nation” until we are freed from all foreign rule? I don’t think so, as I do not think Australia, New Zealand or Canada as being “lesser” nations, although they are still under the British monarchy. Or for the matter, do I think of pre-1997 Hong Kong or the Falkland islands as having any less integrity as a state, simply because they are colonies.
Normally I try to avoid the word “justice” as it has today become totally meaningless, a mere tag to ornament one’s ideology. But it is said in Proverbs 14:34, that righteousness exalteth a nation, we need to ask ourselves, is our nation exalted simply because its local government has unlimited sovereignty? Or is it something else? We need to ask ourselves as to whether David Marshall is right, whether we are truly happier for being richer. Singapore has grown, since its “independence”, in purely economic terms, we have higher buildings, richer homes and larger shopping malls and, as our gahment has never failed to remind us, larger GDP. But have we grown as a nation? As a culture? Does righteousness indeed exalt our nation? These questions become all the more important, in the light of the coming general elections.
Thus, as you consider these questions, I know that it is far-fetched and probably very insane to consider 6th February as our national day after years of brain washing from our gahment. But I do ask that at least you consider it, for by treating 6th Feb as our national day, it is to say that our nation, is not defined purely by how much power a government body has, but it is governed by a spirit, a culture, which transcends the ebb and flow of petty political interests or power play, but it has its foundation in a people, united by a common language, destiny, grown and developed by history and working towards a goal, happiness on this land we call Singapore, which was founded and came to be, when Sir Stamford Raffles planted the British flag on this land. Perhaps we will be more Singaporean, if we had remained under Britain, instead of the mugging-GDP churning faceless machines, which we are now fast becoming.