I come from Singapore, a country that bears testament to the mixed legacy of British colonial ambition. Singapore’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed with the currents of conquest: First as a trading post under the Srivijaya and Majapahit kingdoms, and later as British port which served as a conduit for trade between China and British India. But the bounty of empire was extracted through oppression – along with trade came racism and inequity.
There is nothing wrong in recognising that colonialism does not lend itself well to simplistic moral evaluation. Singapore emerged relatively unscathed compared to most other British colonies. We had the good fortune of being spared a ruinous war of independence, and the British governed us less severely compared to what was then-Burma. The British were by no means altruistic; but in wanting to prosper off their colonies, they also saw fit to build up political institutions and infrastructure.
In that light, it is unfair to condemn Prof Biggar as a “white supremacist”, given that he, too, rejects the unalloyed celebration of colonialism. He concedes that it is impossible to ignore the terrible damage wrought by white Europeans on the territories they colonised. However, Biggar would have you believe that, despite its apparent costs, colonialism resulted in net benefits for the colonised. He cites the introduction of “political order”, and contrasts it against “the grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies”. However, he fails to discuss the possibility that colonialism might have tilled the soil for the rise of populist and subsequently authoritarian nationalist leaders. Neither does Biggar acknowledge the ethno-centric notion of “political order”, which disregards the pre-colonial systems of governance that thrived long before European colonialists saw fit to dismantle (or co-opt) them.
But even if colonialism gifted “political order” to the unwashed masses in the same manner as Prometheus giving fire to the uncivilised, this must be weighed up against how colonialism institutionalised and exported racism to the world. European colonialists did not invent racism, but weaponised race on a scale hitherto unseen. Key to this approach was the use of racial classification to support a divide-and-rule strategy; painting the colonised peoples as a racial “other”, then encouraging various racial groups (as defined by British bureaucrats) to jostle between each other for scraps of political and economic power.
British Singapore was a plural, but profoundly segregated, society. Each “race” was assigned a plot of land to call its own – the Europeans were granted prime land; the Chinese were located southwest of the Singapore River; the Indians congregated in Serangoon Road and Arab Street; and the Malays were located near the northern fringes of the town. To perform this task of ethnic sorting, the British had to conduct a census on a population whose idea of “community” vastly differed from the pseudo-scientific European theory of “race”. Non-Malay language groups such as the Bugis and Javanese peoples, along with non-Muslim groups such as the Aborigines and the Dyaks, were grouped under the clumsy heading of “Malays”. This census, in turn, influenced colonial policy – someone who self-identified as Bugis would have been housed in a Malay area; their children forced to enrol in Malay-language schools.
Erasure of identity was not the only harm. The European theory of “race” was founded on the premise that peoples were different not only in appearance and culture, but also in inherent capacities. European civilisation was seen as the most advanced, with other “races” lagging behind. It was no wonder, then, that the British administrators in Singapore developed damaging stereotypes for each “race”. George Leith, who was a senior military officer in Malaya, wrote that “(the Malays) are incapable of any labour apart from the cultivation of paddy fields.”
The scars of British rule remain. A few years after the British granted independence to Malaya, the racial enmity fostered by their divide-and-rule strategy contributed to a series of deadly mass riots. Even today, the trope of the “lazy Malay native” has been co-opted by the local Singaporean populace to explain why there exists a racial disparity in socio-economic outcomes. In every former British colony, colonisation created racial tensions and ethnic strife when there previously was none.
Perhaps the crucial lesson here is that the “benefits” of colonialism – the roads which were built, the trade which flocked to Singapore’s shores, the introduction of Western “political order” – will always be remembered, because they are easily quantified. But colonialism has also led to less tangible impacts on race, identity, and national conscience. These harms are harder to quantify, because you cannot point to a racist stereotype and say, “the British did it”; but you can point to a road and say, “the British built it”. Biggar is wrong: The real problem is that it is too easy to claim that colonialism was beneficial for colonised peoples. The real harm is that it is too easy to let the fog of history obscure the trauma that colonialism inflicted upon the colonised.
And this, mind you, applies to my homeland – one of the “best case outcomes” for colonialization. In places far less fortunate than Singapore, British imperialists enslaved black workers to work in diamond mines and farms. In 1893, Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company murdered 1,500 Ndebele for the sake of colonial expansion in Rhodesia. These are, without question, immoral actions.
Yet Biggar counters, “The massacre of up to 20,000 Ndebele in Zimbabwe in 1983-4 was perpetrated, not by the British but by that patriarch of African nationalism Robert Mugabe.” He, wrongly, fetishizes moral consistency. Perhaps it ought to be the case that we condemn the past in general; but in the absence of that, it is at least better to condemn some aspects of our past rather than none of it. That this occurred does not diminish the moral horror of British atrocities in Rhodesia. It only suggests that these crimes are as deserving of moral condemnation as Mugabe’s slaughter of the Ndebele.
To commit the lesser of two genocides does not make you a saint.