By Lynn Hong (18A13A) and Yeo Kee Hwan (18S03Q)
What’s in a name? For many, it is respect. Naming a public institution after someone singles them out as the best of us, as epitomes of our values and aspirations. For others, it is controversy.
In February, Yale’s Calhoun College was renamed in view of Calhoun’s history as a white supremacist and slave-owner. In May, there were calls to remove Australian tennis great Margaret Court’s name from the Margaret Court Arena after she expressed homophobic views. As we celebrate our school and nation’s heritage and achievements, it is perhaps worth re-examining the significance behind the name of our own institution.
This institution honours Sir Stamford Raffles’ role as founder of both the nation and the school, perhaps rightly so. The British were comparatively benevolent colonial masters. Locals were not brutally suppressed as in Indonesia or Vietnam, and some semblance of an education policy was in place. They groomed our political elite, helping to lay a foundation for a stable independent government.
While this may be true, we should question why we view the colonial era as deserving of not only acknowledgment, but celebration. In the past few years the nation has been increasingly willing to question historical narratives. The debate has delved into contentious issues such as Singapore’s early social policies and the detainment of Communist leaders. But the colonial chapter of our history remains largely untouched. Its legacy looms large in the public life of our nation – we need only look to the name emblazoned on our front gate.
The world has come to recognise colonialism as an inherently unjust practice. Colonial masters are condemned for having exploited their colonies, putting the proceeds of locals’ toil into their own coffers. They segregated populations by race and divided society in ways which often left lasting consequences. In many instances, they made insufficient provision for the welfare of locals.
The principle of colonialism is one of robbing smaller, weaker states of their sovereignty and using them for one’s own ends. No matter how well-treated the people, it is still the theft of another country’s right to self-determination. Singapore is vehemently opposed to larger states strong-arming smaller ones into agreements, and rejects the prospect of being a larger state’s vassal. Colonialism is anathema to this preservation of autonomy, and is thus a model we should never support, much less celebrate.
Some might argue that honouring Raffles is a matter of preserving our history. He is, after all, widely considered to be the founder of modern Singapore. However, we must recognise that this narrative is not unassailable historical fact, but a conscious choice. Decisions are made regarding where to begin and what to leave out of the historical narrative. This inevitably alters the lens through which we view history, so no narrative is truly objective and hence incontestable.
Couching colonialism as the turning point at which a “sleepy fishing village” becomes a bustling trading hub, for instance, erases Singapore’s history as a trading port in the Majapahit and Srivijaya Empires. The 13th century port settlement was significant enough, to traders and cartographers alike, to have appeared on ancient maps named Temasek.
More importantly, preserving history in and of itself has never been regarded as an a priori good. The history of a community is often so preserved and presented because it adds to the collective identity. These histories inspire camaraderie, or caution us against repeating past mistakes.
In practice, the calculus behind the construction of official historical narratives is the societal good derived from it. This is not to say we should condone Stalinist campaigns of erasure for political convenience, but that we should consider if our narrative of colonialism aligns with our nation’s current interests.
That said, the past is not unchanging, at least to the people who remember it. After almost two hundred years, colonial legacies, like the names of founders and governors, have taken on new associations. The institutions and brands carrying colonial names have made reputations for themselves on their own merit – saying that their names only draw meaning from their namesakes is unjustifiable.
From Raffles Hotel to Raffles Medical, the Rafflesian name has come to be associated with prestige. Amongst schools, it has built its own reputation for academic and extracurricular excellence. Perhaps in the eyes of the modern day Singaporean, the history behind the name is but a small matter.
In many cases, ours included, the names of our colonial masters are here to stay. They have reinvented themselves and established a strong public presence. The dedication of landmarks and schools to these historical figures is by all accounts a valid way of preserving our cultural heritage and enriching our landscape.
But in elevating some figures over others, we are selecting the parts of history we believe are worthy of being placed on pedestals. Histories are more than feel-good slogans for national celebrations, or ponderous yarns headed for the dusty embrace of museum archives. After all, the men we immortalise and the acts we celebrate reflect pertinent present-day attitudes. So even as we take pride in our heritage and hard-won achievement, perhaps consider the name under which we strive: why Raffles?