Sharon Siddique: Continuing the Postcolonial Debate

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Samuel Chong’s thoughtful commentary on postcolonialism begins with a great title: “Never Can Say Goodbye: Colonialism’s Enduring Grip”. How true. I agree with much of what he says, and will focus a few thoughts on what I don’t agree with, or which I feel can be elaborated.

The overhang of perceived European superiority is indeed a postcolonial frozen moment. Samuel cites my observation that “many Singaporeans know London and New York better than, say, the neighbouring Indonesian cities of Palembang and Pekanbaru. This was part of her point that Singapore is most comfortable as a global city than a neighbourly one.” We don’t graavitate to London and New York solely because they are European, but because they are global, exciting, futuristic, and developed. They stand at the vanguard of the future. It is difficult to argue with the fact that for most, London is a lot more exciting than Pekanbaru.

And yet, Samuel makes a good point that with Singapore “assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, it is an excellent opportunity to promote inter-provincial interaction rather than established inter-state ties.” This supports the old property axiom that property value is about location, location, and location. Singapore is physically located in Southeast Asia, and therefore an interest in the region is important to national seurity and the value of cultivating and being located in a relatively prosperous and secure environment.

Samuel is clear that “although there are many factors in why less-developed countries are as they are, how much can we attribute them to the impact of past colonialism and present neo-colonialism?” I would argue quite a lot, and my point is that we should not ignore that fact. For me, we can clearly focus on past colonialism and understand it in its purely historial context, and we can use the term neo-colonialism. But is neo-colonialism synonymous with postcolonialism? I think not, and this could be an interesting debating point.

Samuel also introduces some value judgements regarding postcolonialism: “Upon reflection, even if we recognise not being ‘post-colonial’ as claimed, was colonialism and its ongoing legacy truly a bad thing? Going forward, how much of the post-colonial identity should we remember or even embrace? Would this do any good to post-colonial states? Or would it be better if we actively purged ‘post-colonial’ notions from our history and cultural identity altogether?”

I am uncomfortable with this line of argument because it assumes that we are consciously aware of these options. And my whole point is that we are not aware of our position within the (post) colonial. His title reflects this conclusion. Colonialism has indeed an enduring grip on our mindsets largely because it is not consciously recognised.


Dr Sharon Siddique is an Adjunct Professorial Fellow at Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)

Never Can Say Goodbye: Colonialism’s Enduring Grip

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Imperial Federation of the British Empire, 1886. Photo: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center / Flickr

When we see the term “post-colonial”, we take it to mean where colonialism is of the past and no longer affects anything. However, the world as we know it took shape because of what European colonialism created. It continues to create developmental disparities and shapes our cultural perceptions. We often overlook the continuing colonial influences in these areas, but it prompts me to wonder if sovereignty is enough to be considered post-colonial, especially if the West continues to exert such an influence and control over the economics and identities of these post-colonial states.

In the November 2017 edition of the Singapore Platform for East-West Dialogue, Dr Sharon Siddique spoke about how colonialism continues to shape our personal, regional, and international views despite nation-states constantly pronouncing beliefs of being in a post-colonial era; nation-states are in a “post-colonial frozen moment” from which we have not completely moved on from.

Dr Siddique shared that the Singaporean identity, while unique, is the product of the British and Dutch carving up territories between themselves, resulting in Singapore “gradually losing its original connection in the Malay World”; could we then re-evaluate other nation-state identities in view of colonialism’s legacy?

Moreover, by thinking that Singapore’s history only begins in 1819 with Raffles’ arrival, we fail to see the bigger picture of colonial politicking and our traditional, pre-colonial ties to the greater Malay World in Maritime Southeast Asia. To counter this as well as help us understand our neighbours better, Dr Siddique proposed taking short trips to countries in the immediate vicinity, seeing them not as places in a different country but rather as part of a porous region that one’s home state used to be so intimately intertwined with before colonial borders were set.

Beyond this, colonialism lingers on in economics and cultural perceptions, questioning whether we are truly “post-colonial”.

In terms of Economics and Development, colonialism is a key factor in Dependency theory. Dependency theory postulates that impoverished countries are as such because of their “peripheral” status, causing valuable resources to flow out to “core” wealthy states, enriching the latter at the former’s expense. Economists, like Andre Gunder Frank, have argued that this uneven state of wealth distribution is not due to geography or governmental policies, but the “ongoing legacy of colonialism, slavery and resource extraction.”[1]

This legacy can be seen in how aid packages from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are criticised for being conditioned upon states adopting Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) like allowing large foreign (usually Western) corporations to enter the local economy and compete with smaller-scale domestic firms.[2] Critics like Halifax Initiative have viewed this interference in sovereign states as neo-colonialism – the practice of developed countries using capitalism and globalization to influence a developing country instead of overt measures like direct military or political control.[3]

In his article, anthropologist Joe Lugalla summarizes the problem by noting colonialism’s original capitalist motivation and arguing that SAPs drive growth by “integrating more African economies into the world economy – the very source of their underdevelopment, poverty and misery.”[4] Although there are many factors to why less-developed countries are as they are, how much can we attribute them to the impact of past colonialism and present neo-colonialism?

Popular representation is another field to examine. Despite the ongoing movement to recognise diversity, why is it that Caucasians are more likely to be seen as embodying prestige? The advertisements for Pears Soap in the late 1800s are classic examples of the notion of White desirability. While such messages are reviled today, the contrast between Whites and Blacks are still been used in advertisements today. Swedish-owned fashion retailer H&M attracted controversy in 2015 after having a lack of Black models in their South African posters; H&M’s response that their marketing plan was “one which intended to convey a positive image”, drew even more fire for implying that black models do not convey “positive images”.[5] Yet Europeans are not the only ones guilty of this. A Thai advertisement for skin-whitening pills and Chinese advertisement for detergent also generated outrage in 2016-2017;[6] the latter examples are interesting as non-Europeans are the ones perpetuating colonial-era racism.

On TEDxRotterdam, historian Frances Gouda talked about the history of Oriental leaders being represented as effeminate and espousing unmanly virtue in contrast to Europeans being rational so as to justify European superiority and colonial rule.[7] Similarly, on the lingering notion of European superiority, Dr Siddique mentioned that many Singaporeans know London and New York better than neighbouring Palembang and Pekanbaru. This was part of her point that Singapore is “most comfortable as a global city” rather than dealing directly with neighbouring provinces. With Singapore assuming the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018, it is an excellent opportunity to promote inter-provincial interaction rather than established inter-state ties.

Upon reflection, even if we recognise not being “post-colonial” as claimed, was colonialism and its ongoing legacy truly a bad thing? Going forward, how much of the post-colonial identity should we remember or even embrace? Would this do any good to post-colonial states? Or would it be better if we actively purged “post-colonial” notions from our history and cultural identity altogether?

 

[1] Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism and Underdevelopment in Latin America: Historical Studies of Chile and Brazil (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967), 173.

[2] Dori Borrelli, “Neocolonialism in Jamaica: History, Practices, and Resistance,” accessed January 6, 2018,  https://debate.uvm.edu/dreadlibrary/borelli02.htm.

[3] Asad Ismi, “Impoverishing a Continent: The World Bank and the IMF in Africa,” accessed January 6, 2018, http://www.halifaxinitiative.org/updir/ImpoverishingAContinent.pdf.

[4] Joe L. P. Lugalla, “Globalization and Structural Adjustments in sub-Saharan Africa: A New Dimension of Neo-Colonialism,” accessed January 7, 2018, https://www.unh.edu/sites/www.unh.edu/files/departments/discovery_program/PDF/lugalla.pdf.

[5] Bernice Maune, “H&M in Racist Debate over ‘Positive Image’ Tweet for Lack of Black Models,” Sunday Times, November 6, 2015, https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/lifestyle/2015-11-06-hm-in-racist-debacle-over-positive-image-tweet-for-lack-of-black-models/.

[6] Oliver Holmes, “Thai ad with ‘White makes you Win’ Message Lambasted for Racism,” Guardian, January 8, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/08/thai-advert-white-makes-you-win-skin-whitening-lambasted-for-racism.; “Outrage over Racist Chinese detergent ad,” Channel NewsAsia, accessed January 8, 2018, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/outrage-over-racist-chinese-detergent-ad-8031122.

[7] Frances Gouda, “How the Colonial Past Influences the Way we see the World Today,” uploaded September 13, 2010 by TEDxRotterdam, video, 19:09, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7CyPpnZ7PU.


Chong Yong Kang, Samuel was a Research Assistant for Para Limes in 2018. He has a strong interest in 20th century history.