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Launch of 200 Years of Singapore and the United Kingdom Book

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the Launch of the “200 Years of Singapore and the United Kingdom” Book 

29 January 2019

Professor Tommy Koh,

Your Excellency Scott Wightman,

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Singapore's Bicentennial Comemmoration

1. Good evening everyone.

2. 200 years ago, two East India Company employees – Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar – landed on an island along the maritime trade routes between Asia and Europe.Agreements were signed with Temenggong Abdul Rahman and Sultan Hussein Shah which established a “small factory” as part of a new trading settlement.

3. The anniversary of this seminal moment in our history – the Singapore Bicentennial – was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Singapore River yesterday, in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum. Taking 1819 as a symbolic marker for the beginning of early modern Singapore, the Bicentennial adopts a broader approach and commemorates the longer historical evolution of Singapore from the 14th century.Our hope is that the Bicentennial will provide an opportunity to reflect on Singapore’s development over the past 700 years, but most importantly how we want to move forward in the future. 

200 Years of Singapore and The United Kingdom

4. The book just launched offers both breadth and depth for such reflections.  Co-edited by Professor Tommy Koh and British High Commissioner to Singapore Scott Wightman, it captures major historical developments before the arrival of the British, as well as during the last 200 years.  More significantly, the book offers insights from experts on a wide range of areas - history, sociology, education, art, literature – from the perspectives of both Singapore and the UK.  Scott describes this as a “warts and all” book in his foreword, and it is indeed a rich source of knowledge which can be drawn on to enrich discussion and debate on the relationship between both countries.  It is full of nuggets of treasure, and I have personally found it hard to put down.  It is a fitting contribution to our Bicentennial Commemoration.  Thank you Tommy and Scott for creating the book, and inviting me to its launch.

5. What emerges from the book is a clear picture that Singapore enjoys a strong shared heritage with the UK, without which this would be a very different place today.  As Kwa Chong Guan notes, our “history would have taken a rather different course” if the Portuguese or Dutch – both of whom “recognised the strategic location of Singapore” – had the resources to implement their plans for the island prior to 1819. 

6. The British legacy spans the use of the English language, to sports, the public service, healthcare, and town planning.  It also encompasses Singapore’s emergence as an independent nation.  This took place against the backdrop of developments such as the decolonisation movement, and the militant turn of the Malayan Communist Party in the post-World War II period, which coincided with other communist movements in the region.  At that time, merger with Malaysia was seen as the only viable way for Singapore to successfully attain independence, secure our economic future, and quell the growing security threat of communism.  Measures such as Operation Coldstore were also taken to pre-empt communist front organisations from disrupting the formation of Malaysia.  However, the deep political, economic and ideological differences between Singapore and Malaysia – which Anthony Stockwell describes as “a furnace of conflicting aspirations” – led to our separation on 9 August 1965. 

7. In the years since independence, Singapore has built on many of the attributes and foundations left by the British, as well as the features which led to the British coming here.  For example, Brian Farrell succinctly captures how “the very things that made Singapore so prosperous and vibrant in the first place – its location, its outstanding port, its role as part of a global economic network – also made it a target” in World War II, with the Japanese keen to capitalise on Singapore’s “central position” in Southeast Asia.  These are advantages which we continue to enjoy today, and which continue to require careful protecting and shepherding.  It was therefore instructive to read Vineeta Sinha’s description of the establishment of “compulsory military service for all Singaporean men”, with a “reserve force…for physically fit men over the age of 40”, as early as 1915 – long before we began National Service!

8. At the same time, Singapore has taken a different path from being a colony of UK in many areas.  We have found our own footing and identity as a young nation, anchored on our own common experiences and shared values.  For example, Farish Noor suggests that “colonial multiculturalism was not about bringing communities together, but rather to keep them apart”, with communities divided along ethnic lines as well as “their perceived economic and political roles” which included “policing and defence” and “administrative and colonial vocations”. 

9. The interactions between our multi-ethnic and multi-racial communities are part of Singapore’s culture and heritage since before 1819.  They form an important feature of our multi-cultural identity today.  Singapore is a diverse country, but one where we seek to foster a cohesive society and a confident nation by expanding common experiences, and leveraging on our diversity as a strength.  We also work hard to develop a fair and just society, and seek to promote social equality and mobility through our meritocratic system, as well as through our housing, education, healthcare and tax policies.

Looking Ahead 

10. 200 Years of Singapore and the United Kingdom concludes with Scott and his Singapore counterpart in London – High Commissioner Foo Chi Hsia, affirming how Singapore and the UK are keen to “maximise” our historic and warm relations going forward.  I could not agree more.  Earlier this month, our Foreign Ministers launched the “SG-UK Partnership for the Future”.  This is a commitment by both countries to pursue closer cooperation in areas which we think can bring value to our peoples – the Digital Economy; Sustainable Business and Innovation; Defence and Security; and Education, Culture and Youth.

11. In culture, the UK continues to be a key partner for Singapore.  For example, an MOU between the National Arts Council and the British Council was recently renewed, while the National Heritage Board also has MOUs with key institutions like the British Museum and British Library.  In 2015 and 2016, major exhibitions were presented here through our cooperation with the British Museum and Tate Britain.  I look forward to more such collaborations that will enhance the vibrancy of both our countries’ cultural landscape and heritage.

Conclusion

12. The Singapore Bicentennial is an opportunity to appreciate our present through an understanding of our past, so as to better prepare us for our future in a rapidly changing and complex world.  There will also be many diverse events throughout the year as part of the commemoration, which I encourage you to visit and support with your friends and family.

13. On that note, please join me in congratulating Tommy and Scott for the successful launch of an important book. I am sure it will spark further reflections and debates on the occasion of our Bicentennial.

14. Thank you, and I wish you a pleasant evening.

Last Updated: 30 January 2019

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