“Welcome to Singapore!” said Chow Yun Fat in the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Indeed, for most of the 19th century, Singapore was an archetypal pirate port and frontier town. The British provided only the minimum government they could get away with. So who did Singapore’s people turn to when they needed leadership, security, arbitration? Who decided who got to be in charge and how? In this episode of “The History of Singapore”, PJ Thum discusses how the 99% of Singapore worked out their own systems of government, giving birth to Singapore’s strong brand of locally-oriented, indigenous politics – and how the British responded to it.
As mentioned, here is part 2 of the duology: the story of the 99%. I have long wanted to include the Pirates of the Caribbean metaphor in my work, but I could never figure out how to put it into the “serious” academic pieces of writing (especially given the word limit). It’s a fun metaphor, but I hope it will help people to examine their own assumptions about the nature of colonialism. Colonialism was fundamentally about the imposition of capitalism and the forced integration of local economies into world trade and commerce networks, in order to enrich colonial elites, at the cost of the destruction of local societies. Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your own values, but we need to recognise what colonialism was. It wasn’t just about conquest; it was about reshaping entire societies in order for them to be exploited by global capitalism. Java on the eve of Dutch conquest, for example, had living standards and per capita GDP as high as Western Europe. But once Dutch guns, germs, and steel appeared, they rapidly declined and have never approached European levels again.