Friday, June 12, 2009

Ambiguous legacy of 1959

June 12, 2009

Statehood achieved that year is an occasion well worth celebrating

By Chua Mui Hoong

SINGAPORE had not one, but two births. Or three. Or four. It depends on your point of view and the historical facts you wish to emphasise.

Its first birth - as Singapore, not Temasek or Singapura - was 1819. This was when Stamford Raffles, an ambitious young executive at the British East India Company, decided to make a name for himself by setting up a British trading post in Singapore to resist the expansion of Dutch influence in South Sumatra.

This 'founding' of modern Singapore was met with hostility and consternation - from the Dutch who felt Singapore fell within its Riau sphere of influence and threatened military action; and from the Colonial Office in London, which had not sanctioned Raffles' plan. The British merchant community in Calcutta, though, supported the move, seeing in Singapore a 'fulcrum' for commerce in the region.

In the end, the British settled their differences with the Dutch, who accepted that Singapore was British.

The 1819 setting-up of a trading settlement here was an epochal event. But apart from having erected a statue of Raffles, we do not celebrate the moment. The main national birthday we celebrate now is Aug 9, 1965. Expelled from Malaysia, Singapore had independence thrust upon it that day. Its future was uncertain. Citizens reacted with anxiety, tinged with relief at getting out of an increasingly acrimonious merger. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew shed tears and described the moment as one of anguish. Singapore was birthed in pain.

If these two births - in 1819 and 1965 - were unpropitious and marred by the fear of conflict, the other birth was remarkable for its relatively quiet tone.

Past midnight, in the early morning of June 5, 1959, the last British Governor of Singapore, William Goode, handed power over to the first locally-elected Cabinet.

But the year has not been highlighted in national education efforts as a year of great significance, compared to 1819 or 1965.

Unlike the euphoric tone of 1984 to celebrate 25 years of nation-building, or the celebrations to mark Singapore's 40th birthday in 2005, events so far to mark the 50th year of internal self-government have been remarkably muted. More events are being planned as part of this year's National Day celebrations to mark the 50th year of self-government.

Do we feel some ambivalence commemorating 1959? If so, the hesitation is understandable.

Self-government was just a precursor to independence. 1959 marked the year the People's Action Party came to power - and it is difficult to run away from the whiff of partisanship in commemorating that year. Some will ask: What is being celebrated: 50 years of self-government, or 50 years of PAP rule?

Some Singaporeans well-versed in history will also argue that you can put forward a strong case that 1955, not 1959, was the year that Singapore became self-governing, and embarked on the road to independence.

After all, if internal self-government is the yardstick by which 1959 wins its place as a birth year for Singapore, 1955 was the year the process began, when the Labour Front formed the government. And it was the Labour Front government that led an all-party delegation that successfully negotiated the terms of full internal self-government in 1959.

And if the yardstick is local elections to the Legislative Assembly, then 1948 was the year when election to the assembly began. In that year, six seats were elected. In 1955, 25 out of 32 seats were elected seats. In 1959, all 51 were elected.

Does a former colony celebrate the first time seats to the national legislature were elected, the year the majority were elected, or the year all were? Ironically, today's Parliament has 84 elected seats, nine Nominated MPs and one Non-Constituency MP. In other words, it has 10 MPs who are not elected, but appointed or admitted under special circumstances provided for in the Constitution.

Singapore was able to chart its own destiny only to a limited extent with self-government in 1959, for defence and foreign affairs remained with the colonial authorities, and internal security was the responsibility of the Internal Security Council, on which both Britain and Malaya were represented. Moreover, the British High Commissioner in Singapore retained the power to suspend the Constitution in an emergency and take charge of the government.

So though 1959 was an epochal year, its legacy and meaning are not as clear-cut as that of 1965. Perhaps this is why events to mark 1959 have been low-key.

But in fact, there need be no ambivalence about the importance of 1959. The 1959 election was the first election when the Singapore voter was truly able to exercise his right to vote

Before that, the vote was restricted to British subjects. In 1951, the electorate size was just 48,000. In 1955, automatic registration of voters swelled the number to 300,292, but only 52 per cent of that number voted.

In 1957, citizenship rules were changed to give citizenship to local residents. About 300,000 Chinese were able to register as citizens, becoming eligible to vote. As a result, the electorate swelled to 587,797 in 1959, of which nearly 90 per cent voted. The year thus marked the point at which Singaporeans became conscious that they could determine their own destiny. A people will never forget such an act of empowerment - one reason why they resisted being bullied later when Singapore was part of Malaysia from September 1963 to August 1965.

Another point about 1959 is unassailable: it was in that year that Singapore became a state of its own, with the right to confer citizenship. The first Singaporean citizen was thus born in 1959, not 1819 or 1955.

Whatever the twists and turns of Singapore's history, 1959 marked the start of a journey for the state and its people, from a poor self-governing state, to the prosperous, confident metropolis of today.

That alone surely is reason to bring out the cymbals on this occasion - the 50th anniversary of the start of the journey.

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