Singapore, still a colony? A look at “Firstness”, Indigenous people and Rights. (Part One)


This is a two-part piece on whether Singapore is abusing its indigenous people. First, regardless looks at the idea of “Firstness” and how it applies to the indigenous people of Singapore. In part 2, we address claims that the indigenous peoples of Singapore are systematically abused under a “settler-colonial narrative”.

Photo: The Island Foundation & Tony Byrd

As rocket-fire is met with air strikes in the Middle East, some Singaporeans have taken liberties to link the conflict to supposed “rampant and systemic racism in Singapore”. According to a nascent, self-described “leftist” platform, Singapore “plunders and profits off the indigenous people of this region,” taking cue from Israel. Beyond the tenuous links with the Middle East, we take a closer look at the claims about Singapore.

Let us first examine the idea of indigeneity.

On “Firstness” and Land

From time immemorial, human beings have had a special connection to land. One of the most common links between human beings and land is the notion of being the “first” inhabitants of the land, prior to the establishment of modern nation-states.

Claims of indigenous communities to “firstness” exist on every continent, from the First Nations peoples of Canada, to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia, to the Māori of New Zealand.

Some of these principles of “firstness” have translated into concrete rights, such as the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms that indigenous peoples “shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories”.

Other claims of “firstness” continue to be hotly debated and contested. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the world’s most intractable conflict: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis and Palestinians alike have put forth historical, political, religious and cultural claims to the Holy Land, each arguing that they were the “first” in the land and therefore entitled to to it.

In neighbouring Malaysia, the term “bumiputera” refers to “sons of the soil”, and there are Bumiputera policies enacted according to such principles. There are continual debates over the Bumiputera policy, including criticisms from non-Malay Bumiputeras such as the Orang Asli or aboriginal peoples about how the policy unfairly privileges Malay bumiputeras.

Who Was First in Singapore? 

According to Derek Heng’s article on maritime Asia and Malay state formation in the pre-modern era, an autonomous port polity was founded on present-day Singapore Island in the late 13th century, known as “Temasek” (or “Temasik”). It lasted as such until the beginning of the 15th century when it was overrun by Majapahit forces and the last ruler of Temasek had to abandon the port city and flee towards modern-day Johor. It became a minor settlement whose population and economy was eventually hollowed out by Malacca.

Malacca then fell to the Portuguese, and the Sultanate of Johor was established in 1512, which had a territorial domain over a certain part of Southeast Asia, including present-day Singapore Island. 

When Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, the situation was far from simple.

The previous Sultan of Johor, Mahmud III, died in 1812 without an heir from his royal wives, but had two sons of commoner Bugis wives. While the Bugis faction and the Dutch supported the younger son Abdul Rahman, the Malay faction supported the elder son Hussein Mohamed Shah.

To cut the long story short, there was a prolonged dispute from 1819 to 1824, which resulted in the division of the Sultanate of Johor into two separate spheres of influence. One belonged to the Dutch sphere of influence covering the territorial domain of the Riau-Lingga Sultanate under Abdul Rahman, and the other falling under the British sphere of influence covering the territorial domain of the Sultanate of Johor under Hussein.

British colonial rule continued over Singapore virtually uninterrupted until World War II and the Japanese Occupation from 1943 to 1945. 

The British had originally planned to reconstitute the Straits Settlements, the former Federated and Unfederated Malay States, Penang and Melaka into a Malayan Union, while leaving Singapore as a separate entity and a base for the Governor-General. However, in light of opposition from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the British redrew the plans and inaugurated instead the Federation of Malaya on 1 February 1948, with Singapore remaining a separate colony under direct British rule.

Singapore was only merged with the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963. Obvious differences in political visions emerged, as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of a “Malaysian Malaysia” conflicted with the federal ruling government’s vision of certain special rights for Malays. 

Following fractious politics that played into sensitivities on race and religion, as well as racial riots in 1964, Singapore was ousted from the Federation on 9 August 1965, and became an independent State. 

Singapore’s Approach on Racial and Religious Equality 

As a result of historical circumstances, Singapore’s identity was sealed as a multicultural society distinct from the British, Japanese and Malaysians. It was founded upon – in the words of the Proclamation of Singapore dated 9 August 1965 – “the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society”. 

Does this mean that “firstness” is irrelevant? 

No. However, concepts of “firstness” are relativised in light of the wider interests of racial and religious equality. 

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew declared at a press conference shortly after Singapore’s Independence, that Singapore would be a multi-racial nation: “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everybody will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion. And we will carry on helping the Malays as we promised to do in competition with UMNO.”

According to Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution, it shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore. 

The article requires the Government to “exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays, who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly, it shall be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.” 

An ode to its indigeneity, Malay is the national language of Singapore. The Singapore national anthem is Majulah Singapura. Since around 99% of Malays in Singapore are Muslims, government policies which benefit Muslims, also benefit Malays.

In this regard, Article 153 requires the Legislature in Singapore to make provision by law for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the President in matters relating to the Muslim religion. The Administration of Muslim Law Act thus establishes the Islamic Religious Council, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), to oversee Muslim affairs. Singapore also recognises for a parallel, religious judicial system, in which the Syariah Courts govern Muslim family law, including marriage, divorce and inheritance. These are privileges not extended to any other religious or racial group.

Correspondingly, in order to respect “the freedom of minorities to practice their religious and personal laws”, the Singapore Government has made reservations to various provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). These include provisions regarding granting the same rights to men and women in the context of family law.

What is clear, is that the indigenous people of Singapore have constitutionally enshrined rights and privileges which substantively protect their culture and way of life. From these provisions alone, we have sufficient reason to regard with suspicion, the agendas of those who suggest that the Malay peoples are systematically oppressed, plundered and exploited. Regardless examines these claims, as well as others made in’s post, in part two.

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