Many people tend to write about social political developments in Southeast Asia as if these countries were there from time immemorial. The truth is that many of these countries we see today and took for granted were never countries in the normal sense. Many were colonies or disorganized states of a different nature, and some have not even reached statehood in whatever counts.
Singaporeans used to use the familiar dates of 1819 as the founding of Singapore and 1959 when we were given self rule, but still a colony of the British Empire, not an independent country. Then came 1963 and 1965, when we became part of Malaysia and then truly independent as a nation. And there was the blip in 1941 to 1945 when we were conquered and became part of the Japanese Empire.
What was the state of Singapore in 1819? Was it a state, a country, with local govt, with a head of state, or was it a natural territory that was still evolving? There was the Johore Sultanate, with a Temengong and village chiefs. It was then probably called Temasek, or was it called something else? It did or did not have a name until Raffles landed and claimed this land as part of the British Empire and ceded it from the Johore Sultanate? It was so easy then. And he named the island Singapore or Singapura. The people, not citizens, became British subjects, owned by England. I don’t think they called themselves Singaporeans or British or Malayans. There was no Malaya as a single entity or country then.
Sounds quite funny really. There were the sultans who owned parts of the peninsula separately but no country that we know of today. They were regrouped by the British as Federated and non Federated states. There was no Malaya to talk about till 1946. A Federation of Malaya came about only in 1948 as a British colony. It only became an independent state in 1957. As a country, Malaya was even younger than me.
Singapore only gained self ruled in 1959, but still a British colony, not a country. Only in 1963 were we given the honour of calling ourselves Malaysians, citizens of a country. This short lived affair lasted for two years before we gained our independence as Singapore. Then could we call ourselves Singaporeans. Were there Singaporeans before 1965, Singaporeans of an independent country?
Until 1963, the people were a mixed of migrants with different nationalities and at best could called themselves British subjects. They didn’t have a country to pledge loyalty to but to raise the Union Jack and sing ‘God save the King/Queen’. Oh, in the period under Japanese Occupation, they were actually Japanese subjects, Japanese conquered people. And every racial group was on their own to look after themselves. You want schools for your children, go and build yourself. Raise your own fund, the govt of the day did not care who you were or your needs as a people.
No one bothered about integration or welcoming them. No one bothered what was happening to another racial group. Neither would the British be bothered. To them, all the residents were their subjects and each might hold different loyalties to wherever they came from.
And all the changes happened about 50 years ago. Could Singapore go and join the rest of the newly minted countries to claim the islands in South China Sea? We were just migrants, then British, then Japanese, British again, then Malaysian and now Singaporeans.
Now we talk about rights as citizens, equal under the law. We demand to be treated equally. We can get angry if feel discriminated. Before all these today, what rights could we talk about then? Everyone was on their own, to make the best of the day.
What’s next? American or International citizens?