The final scene from the movie which I would like to describe is called “Singapore: The Pearl of Southeast Asia”.
Singapore is special in many ways. In the context of our present movie, the important thing to note is that it is the only Chinese-majority city in Southeast Asia; a first for the Malay world. I remember discussing this with an Indonesian friend who told me, “Yes, Singapore is a pearl. It is costly and beautiful. But we never forgot how the pearl was produced: it began when a tiny grain of sand entered and irritated us.” A variation on this is the “little red dot”, which was coined in the late 1990s by the then-President of Indonesia, B. J. Habibie. Since then, Singaporeans have claimed that pejorative phrase as a badge of honour.
Singapore is a colonial creation adjusting to its own post-colonial frozen moment. I will illustrate this by talking about Singapore and her nearest neighbors to the North and South. By freezing the frame on Singapore, we can see what we are missing. What we need is to fill in the gaps of what we have missed from the first half of the movie so that we can better understand the narrative on post-colonialism
First, we need to concentrate on rebalancing Singapore’s post-colonial frozen moment. We are strong on Malaysia, but weak on Indonesia. We are knowledgeable about Johor, but quite clueless about Riau Island Province.
Why are these questions important to us? It helps us to see the impact of tri-lateral initiatives we have had various experiences since 1965, including Konfrontasi with Indonesia. We have tried several versions of tripartite cooperation such as SIJORI or the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle
, which was not very successful. At the moment, we have again swung to an emphasis on the comfort zone of bilateral relations with Malaysia, largely via developments in Johor, and this is growing. More than half a million people cross the causeway everyday; Johoreans cross to work in Singapore, and the competitive advantage is not only higher pay, but also a favorable exchange rate.
Second, Singapore is most comfortable as a global city. In the region, it interacts as an independent nation-state and deals with the capital of the its neighbors. It has more difficulty in carving out an appropriate identity for interacting directly with Johor and Riau directly, as neighboring state and province respectively. The result of this is that most Singaporeans are more familiar with London and New York than with Palembang and Pekanbaru.
In order to improve our success rate with our neighbors, we must not be drawn into dismissing the still present legacy of colonialism in our post-colonial frozen moment. We cannot afford to remain ignorant of our surroundings in terms of pre-colonial boundaries which were so drastically altered by intervention of colonizers. In Singapore and in Southeast Asia we have been stuck in “postcolonial” for seven decades. Our stalled position means that in our present, and future, we are missing vital analytical elements.
The third issue in assessing Singapore’s post-colonial frozen moment is that we need to be more aware of the rapid thaw in terms of the impact of forces external to the region. There are three forces at play—the rise of China, the opening of India, and the diminishing role of the Western world in Asia.
There is a rupture between colonialism and post-colonialism. This implies that we are, in some fashion, post-West. In the immediate aftermath of colonialism, the rupture, and the creation of a new era, was nationalism and the nation-state. However, rather than coalescing, nationalism appears to be losing its ideological grip, and the post-colonial nation-state does not appear to have ushered in a new era. In Malaysia and Indonesia, there is currently a great deal of re-scripting of the fundamentals; things which we thought had been settled decades ago. There are many complex reasons for this, but I will only speculate on a few.
First, and this is a huge generalization, post-colonialism turned its sights inward, and became preoccupied with the introspective exercise of re-evaluating contexts of colonialism.
Second, it is worth noting in passing that this thawing process appears to be global. Most countries in the Middle East, suffered from the fundamental problems over their national identities. More than a century after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, from which most of them emerged, these states have been unable to define, project, and maintain a national identity that is both inclusive and representative. The question is where and how the thawing of our frozen moment will proceed.
We will bequeath the challenge of answering this question to your generation. Choose to open yourselves to the many fascinating venues in our neighborhood. And I mean this personally. As a start, I suggest you take a two-hour ferry ride to Tanjung Balai Karimun and imagine where Singapore might have been. Or drive over to Forest City and see the Country Garden, a massive construction by a Shanghai-based construction company.
But if you really want an unforgettable metaphysical experience I suggest you take the 8 a.m. ferry from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to Nongsapura. You board the ferry at 8 a.m., and the trip takes 40 minutes. You will arrive at 7.40. That is, you arrive in Batam 20 minutes before you have left Singapore. Batam is on Waktu Indonesia Barat, which is one hour behind Singapore time. You arrive before you leave. This trip puts you in the mood to sit back and enjoy the Indonesian experience. As you tour Riau tune in to how Dutch it is. We live in a fascinating neighborhood. Don’t miss it.