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

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In this second article of a two-part series examining the ideas of “firstness” and indigenous rights, we examine the extraordinary claims made by “leftists” in Singapore regarding the treatment of Malays.

Left.sg, a nascent Instagram page purporting to represent the views of Singapore’s “left” recently posted on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s since been removed, so we’ve posted it below.

In the event of a TL;DR, here’s a list of their ‘greatest hits’.

  • Singapore’s defence spending is a result of a “settler colonial narrative” taken from Israel.
  • Malay-Muslims are portrayed as lazy, hostile and backward (presumably by the government?)
  • Israel “plunders” the Palestinians and justifies it because they are “lazy, hostile and backward”.
  • Singapore’s CMIO framework is a racial supremacist’s ideal arrangement.
  • We must dismantle casual and structural racism which pervades SG society and marginalises, plunders and profits off of Malays.
  • We must frame the oppression of Malays as part of a larger narrative of struggle against oppressors.

Is there Extraordinary Evidence for Extraordinary Claims of plundering and profiting off indigenous peoples?

Left.SG has made the claim that there is “casual and structural racism that pervades Singapore society”, and that Singapore “continues to marginalise, plunder and profit off the indigenous peoples of this region”. 

We can agree in principle that racism is wrong, and share in the opposition to the plundering and exploitation of anyone. 

Yet, for such an extraordinary and sweeping claim, one would imagine Left.SG would have presented similarly extraordinary and compelling evidence of such grave injustices. 

However, the evidence presented by Left.SG is very thin. It says that Singapore has adopted the “Israel Model” for its military, pointing to how Israel helped build Singapore’s military and that both Israel and Singapore buy weapons from the United States. 

Left.SG adds that Singapore’s narrative of national identity has been one of a “settler colonial narrative” which portrays the “Malay-Muslim native” as “lazy, at times hostile and fundamentally backwards”. It adds that Singapore is “complicit in the violence of Israel”. 

Many of these arguments do not hold water. 

Do Singapore’s Military Connections with Israel make it complicit in Palestinian suffering?

Singapore has had military connections with many different countries, including Australia, Indonesia, and Malaysia. But does this mean that Singapore is complicit in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor? 

Singapore also exports weapons to many different countries, including the United Kingdom, Thailand, Chad and Nigeria. Does this mean that Singapore is complicit as a result in any and all abuses conducted by the governments of any of these countries?

It is, for example, immaterial that Singapore’s SAR21 and Israel’s TAR21 are essentially identical. To say that the use of the SAR21/TAR21 makes us complicit for what happens in Gaza is like saying that our use of the M16 makes us culpable for US atrocities in the Vietnam War, by mere association. Absurd.

States can do bad things, but that does not mean that their associates are complicit in those bad things. Complicity requires more than mere association. Complicity in wrongdoing requires a common intention to do that wrong, and some form of active participation in that activity. We see none of that here.

Besides, despite its relationship with Israel, Singapore is amply clear on its position: a two-state solution with a divided Jerusalem. The MFA was quick to urge restraint via diplomatic channels shortly after violence escalated two weeks ago and Singapore gives a substantial amount to the PA under technology transfers and the Enhanced Technical Assistance Package – though it is unequivocal about Hamas, which it condemns as a terrorist organisation. It has also told its partner Israel when it goes too far, as it did during Protective Edge in 2014. It would be quite incorrect to insinuate or conclude that Singapore has taken an uncritical approach to the issue.

If the argument is that Singapore should stop buying or selling weapons to certain countries, the argument can be made. Especially if it can be demonstrated that the weapons were routinely used for belligerent oppression as opposed to defensive purposes.

But these are not the arguments that Left.SG is making.

Does Singapore “Plunder and Profit Off Indigenous Peoples”? 

Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had a number of views that were politically incorrect and even morally questionable. However, his commitment to racial and religious equality was not one of them. In fact, it was integral to Singapore’s success as a nation. 

Can it be improved? Certainly. 

Singapore’s approach has been one of pragmatism, perhaps to a fault. As Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew said in 2009 that “The way that Singapore has made progress is by a realistic step-by-step forward approach.”

Exclusions of Malay-Muslims from sensitive military positions may be seen as problematic from the privilege of 2021, but under conditions of Konfrontasi’s recency (1966) to the establishment of the SAF (1967), and the separation from Malaysia just two years earlier in 1965, the Singaporean identity was still very much in flux. What “leftists” uncharitably frame as a distrust of Malay loyalty, is in fact a justifiable strategic imperative to not place them in positions of psychological and identitarian compromise when faced with the prospect of war with fellow Muslims. The instinctive, even primal zero-sum alignment of the vast majority of Singapore Muslims with the Palestinian cause to the exclusion of reasonable counter-arguments in favour of Israel’s position is instructive of the power of ‘tribal’ affiliation and loyalty.

What the “left” obfuscates however, is that that steps have been taken to reverse this. In 2015, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen pointed out that Malays now serve in the army, navy and air force. They hold respected positions in command ranks all the way up to the class of Brigadier General. Nevertheless the extent to which Malays enjoy full access to merit-based opportunity in the SAF is worth a more detailed look – perhaps in a future regardless examination.

On the other hand, are there dangers to claims of “firstness” and uncritically trying to correct perceived injustices to “indigenous peoples”? 

From a brief review of Singapore’s history as well as current geopolitical circumstances, such claims to “firstness” open the door to other problems. For example, as discussed in part one, since Singapore was once part of the Sultanate of Johor, can the Malaysian government or Johor government lay claim to Singapore’s territory or the Malay population living here, as part of their population? 

Or should Singapore go down the road of adopting bumiputera policies like in Malaysia? 

On this, Left.SG raises only poorly framed criticisms, and apparent “solutions” that may end up  causing more harm than good. 

We agree that there is a need to “draw connections between local and international struggles”, but not for the reasons proposed by Left.SG.

What can we actually learn from all this?

If there is anything to be learnt from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is a strong word of caution against adopting a binary “us” versus “them” mindset. Israelis and Palestinians have their own narratives of loss, exile and oppression. Each side sees the other as responsible for their suffering, and makes irreconcilable claims to the land. 

Singapore has assiduously moved away from that model and mindset. While there is room for doubt about how far the Singapore national narrative actually comports with history – such as the designation of 1819 as the founding of “modern Singapore” – we should be careful not to allow errors of the past to become errors of today. 

The forging of a common Singaporean national identity – regardless of race, language or religion – has been a long and hard-won struggle. Conversely, the price of unravelling that common identity may be to fracture the unity of a multi-cultural society into numerous identity groups, each with their own narratives of “us” versus “them”.

This only tears Singapore apart in the long run. So here’s a good rule of thumb. To preserve the Singapore we have left, run from the politics of indignation and race-baiting wherever you find it. There are always productive ways to improve the status quo.

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