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If You Talk Like a Coloniser and Eat Like a Coloniser…

In the past few decades, Singapore has seen increasing numbers of upscale restaurants and cafes housed in European-style, colonial-era buildings leased out by the state to business owners. These edifices are preserved and protected under law as heritage sites, and managed closely by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) or the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), the governing body housed within the National Heritage Board (NHB). The SLA leases such buildings for both residential and commercial purposes, wooing business owners to refurbish and repurpose them in what they refer to as “adaptive reuse”[1]. While black-and-white mansions make up the bulk of these buildings, other colonial buildings, including former chapels, have also proven popular.

Clearly, these buildings continue to be repositories of cultural cachet, featuring in articles in the New York Times[2], Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest and Singapore’s own Expat Living. Singapore’s national narrative also continues to present colonialism as an ultimately positive historical occurrence. Look no further than this year’s Bicentennial events, which mark 200 years since the arrival of Stamford Raffles, to see how cultural institutions depict the British as business-minded benefactors who launched Singapore on a trajectory that brought it to where it is today: a hyper-modern, developed gem of a nation; the jewel of Southeast Asia.

In this context, while upscale colonial-themed restaurants may seem an innocuous part of Singapore’s culture, they can also be thought of as cultural institutions in their own right, often unwittingly reproducing British colonial ideas about racial superiority. This article traces how some of these restaurants reinforce a popular narrative that equates colonialism with luxury—aligning Anglophile culture with upper class elites, and naturalising the displacement of indigenous Malay people, reflecting contemporary racial inequalities.

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Like a Child With Two Parents

“The Sultan of Tringanu [Terengganu] was like a child who had two parents, one of whom stroked and petted him when he cried, while the other stilled his weeping by frightening him. The first … is Siam, and the other is Great Britain.” – Hugh Clifford, Acting British Resident in Pahang, 1895.[1]

Introduction: Race, Religion and Royalty

There is a stable, but complicated relationship between Malay nationalism, Malaysia’s national institutions, and the nine royal families of the Malaysian monarchy. This relationship was formally instituted with the emergence of the postcolonial Malayan state in the course of the Malayan Emergency and independence from Britain in 1957. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), founded in 1946, became the state’s enduring political vehicle, espousing a nationalism built around a historic conflation of the “3Rs” of Malay Muslim politics: “race, religion, and royalty.” Contemporary Malaysian politics remains organised around this conflation, making it a key conceptual development in the history of statist Islamism in Southeast Asia, as well as an important response by Muslims to European colonialism and decolonisation.

See: The End of Ethno-Centric Elite Rule in Malaysia by Ooi Kok Hin.

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A New Islamic Populism and the Contradictions of Development

This is a shortened, revised version of an article that first appeared as: Vedi R. Hadiz (2014) A New Islamic Populism and the Contradictions of Development, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 44:1, 125-143, DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2013.832790

New Naratif thanks the author and the publishers of the original article for permission to publish this version.

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Singapore: The Limits of a Technocratic Approach to Healthcare

This article is part of New Naratif’s coverage of the Singapore General election 2020. For more, please visit our Singapore General Election 2020 portal. It was written before the ongoing novel coronavirus crisis.

In 1982, Singapore’s then-Health Minister Goh Chok Tong bravely boasted that his country’s health system was among the “best in the world”. At the same time, he foreshadowed its complete overhaul: “We should not rest on our laurels, looking down from Mount Everest. In organisational efficiency, in the pursuit of quality and excellence, there can be no highest peak.”[1] In February 2004, then-Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan raised the bar for hyperbole, defining his ideal as a healthcare system that has no patients. A month later, he declared his satisfaction that Singapore’s healthcare financing system was “probably” the best in the world.[2]

By its own bold claims, the Singapore government has consciously set itself up as a test case: can the relentless pursuit of “organisational efficiency”, “excellence and quality” solve the problem of the cost of delivering healthcare in a modern capitalist society? This question also goes to a much broader element of the government’s legitimating rationale: its claim that its at times seemingly hard-hearted and overbearing governance reflects the application of dispassionate and disinterested reason, and is the basis of Singapore’s success and prosperity.[3]

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