To be fair, our life under the British was not harsh, unlike the Japanese military Occupation of World War Two. Malaya was being developed, although Britain’s needs and wants were paramount. There were educational and employment opportunities. Hard work and enterprise paid off. I received an excellent education, superior to that provided to my children and their children in post-war Australia.
What rankled was that atmospheric overlay of not being free politically, and being denigrated socially and culturally. We felt that being governed badly by our own people was preferable to being offered better governance under foreign overlords. That surely is a very human attribute. No one likes to have his country under foreign control, and to be brain-washed. We were also keenly aware that Nehru (the man who rose to become the first prime minister of independent India) had been jailed simply for seeking independence for his people. He was no terrorist.
At the end of the Second World War, we Malayans were told that it would be 25 years before we would be ready to govern ourselves. Instead, the British left after about nine years. They were not driven away like the Dutch, French, and other European ‘powers.’ Yet, Hong Kong was denied adequate exposure to Western democracy structures almost up to the date of handover to China in the 1990s.
A terrible legacy of colonialism was the destruction of durable and viable local industries, especially in India and Egypt. So said Nehru. These were replaced by enterprises importing manufactured British goods, as well as supplying materials needed by Britain; especially opium, which was studiously fed to the peoples of China. Another dreadful legacy of European colonialism: new nations created by the colonisers, in Asia and Africa in particular, by drawing lines on the map to achieve a balance of power between themselves or to cause strife between local tribes for ever. Look at Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Local tribes were split in this process, resulting in perennial wars between these artificial nations; whereas nations normally reflect the integrity of tribes bonded by sanguinity, culture and geography.
History shows that the peoples of Asia had been governing themselves well, long before the Europeans did; that 500 years ago the Chinese people were the most technologically advanced peoples in the world; that the Indians had been the greatest traders in the world, pulling in vast amounts of gold from the Roman Empire for the finest of fabrics; that village-level democracy in India was commonplace more than 1,000 years ago; that philosophy and mathematics were so advanced in Asia that Europe was able to acquire these through the Arabs and Moors; that town planning in the Indus Valley civilisation of more than 2,000years ago set the standard for more recent cities elsewhere in the world; and that Persia, India and China had been producing high quality art centuries before other cultures were able to.
Yet, the racism of the colonial era was nowhere as brutal and un-Christian as reportedly practised in the USA until relatively recent times. Today, in Singapore, while there remain a few local greybeards who remember the arrogance of the European colonisers, there are many white people working without any special benefits. In my country of birth (now Malaysia and Singapore), multi-ethnic populations are governed by their own leaders. In spite of some serious complaints about the affirmative action policy favouring the Malays of Malaysia being maintained way past its use-by date, there is social, and some cultural, integration, with mutual community respect publicly evident. A unified people out of ethno-cultural diversity is indeed achievable, with none subservient to the other.
In this successful governance of former colonial territories, an essential underpinning is a worthwhile inheritance from Britain – a most valuable concept of justice, law and order; as in Australia, more law than justice. (Note QC Geoffrey Robertson’s ‘The Justice Game.’) The other great benefit from British colonialism is the (now universal) English language – the language of Malaysia’s courts as well. A thousand years from now, archaeologists may begin to believe that the Malay Peninsula had also been the home of the English.
Thus, there were benefits of some value from colonialism. It is easier to recognise this in the current atmosphere of relative freedom. Naturally, since change is inevitable, inherited Western democracy structures and practices began to be amended to suit traditional governance values, reflecting the communalism of the cultures of Asia. Yet, as long as the former colonial territories remain capitalistic in this revised framework of governance, the neo-colonisers of the dominant West will no doubt remain acquiescent.
Freedom can never be absolute.
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Raja A Ratnam