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”. 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, 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.
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
The colonial roots of Chinese privilege: Raffles’ Town Plan
There’s a long-standing connection between urban planning and racism in Singapore. British colonisation from 1819 brought a monumental influx of Chinese and Indian migrants, while “pre-colonial migration flows” had been “largely restricted” within the region. Although the British legally recognised Malay people as indigenous people with special privileges and reserved land, the colonial racial vision also constructed them as lazy natives lacking in intellect. The Malay community’s “unwillingness to become a tool in the production system of colonial capitalism”—because they were unwilling to labour on their own land for the profit of the British coloniser—“earned the Malays a reputation of being indolent.”
By contrast, Chinese people were viewed with a sense of “hostile admiration”; they were seen as entrepreneurial and “capable of civilisation of the highest kind”. These racial dynamics placed the Chinese population in a position to be rewarded for their willingness to work as coolies and to become “ensnared in the colonial capitalist system of production”.
There’s a long-standing connection between urban planning and racism in Singapore
Colonial racial thought in Singapore formed around the idea that Malay people should be excluded from the narrative of progress due to their supposed laziness, a stereotype which in reality had roots in their refusal to be chattel labour for the British.
These racial hierarchies were reflected in the Town Plan of Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s chief coloniser. Raffles’ Town Plan was a spatial and racial vision, introduced in 1822, which organised Singapore’s multiracial population by dividing all the races into discrete, bounded spaces with no overlap. Raffles saw fit to correct, through this, the geographic distribution of his subjects who, until then, had organically “settled wherever they wished”, with “the Chinese mix[ing] with the Malays and Europeans”.
Raffles’ Town Plan was a spatial and racial vision, introduced in 1822, which organised Singapore’s multiracial population by dividing all the races into discrete, bounded spaces with no overlap
The plan produced a “colonial narrative” which used a “modern, rational way of structuring space and society” to ascribe ethnic groups “different positions in this hierarchy”. White Europeans were located at the very top: their favourable positioning directly on the “north bank of the Singapore River”, the main centre of trade and mercantilism, was motivated by economic profit, and was also a deliberate performance and assertion of racial and class dominance. By erecting “large stone and brick colonial buildings” in the civic district (i.e. the “seat of the colonial government”), Raffles’ Town Plan manifested a racial vision that projected the superiority of whites, the strength of the British Empire, and the infallibility of colonial “moral authority”. The colonial administration attempted to forge a hegemonic system of rule, buttressed by the display of “imposing colonial buildings”, that made their local subjects understand their absolute sovereignty—“controlled by [their] prestige and not by [their] strength”.
Beyond positioning themselves at the very top of their invented racial hierarchy, the British colonial administration meted out “a very different system of entitlements and privileges to each of the different racial groups” among the colonised. Chinese people occupied a comparatively privileged position in the British colonial racial imaginary, and this was made clear in the Town Plan, where Raffles notes that, in the “allotment of the Native divisions of the town … the first in importance of these is beyond doubt the Chinese”. Understood by the British to be industrious and closer to achieving the British ideals of civilised order and modernity than other local ethnicities, the Chinese were prioritised not only for their “contributions to the new colonial society and economy”, but for their yet-unrealised potential as lynchpins of colonial progress in Singapore—a capacity that Malay people allegedly lacked. Thus the Town Plan reserved “the entire south bank of the Singapore River” for the Chinese, an area “second only to European Town in location and importance”.
The colonial administration attempted to forge a hegemonic system of rule, buttressed by the display of “imposing colonial buildings”, that made their local subjects understand their absolute sovereignty—“controlled by [their] prestige and not by [their] strength”
Meanwhile, Malay people in Singapore were gradually excluded from the trade economy. Rural Malay people—viewed by the British as “backward and poor”—were allocated a marginal position in Raffles’ Town Plan, and were not allotted a “separate urban, ordered space”, reflecting the colonial assumption that Malay people “were not expected to be part of the new, modern Singapore”. “[S]tripped of authority and marginalised”, they were relegated to the jungles, to become mere features of the natural landscape that would disappear as a matter of course while Singapore moved towards urban development.
The area named Kampong Gelam was also allotted to an “urban community” of Malay people that did not fit the “colonial stereotype of the rural Malay”: specifically, Sultan Hussein, his retinue and other Malay traders known as the Bugis. This section, just east of European town, was a royal Malay enclave that also ultimately served as an effort to keep Malay people out of colonial commerce by placing indigenous trading “apart from Chinese, Chulias (South Indians), and Europeans”. While the Bugis Town and Kampong Gelam granted urban Malay people an ostensible special zone, and their indigenous status was recognised in title, their autonomy was severely limited and ultimately they were excluded from the international commerce that characterised Singapore’s growth as a port city during this period. The trade connections, routes and relationships that had been developed by Bugis and Malay traders for hundreds of years before Singapore’s colonisation was expropriated by the British, who shut them out, preferring to use Straits Chinese middlemen and compradors.
Malay people in Singapore were gradually excluded from the trade economy.
A proximity to privilege
The privileges and limitations associated with race motivated certain ethnic communities to fashion a racial and cultural identity that would gain them favour with the British colonial masters. Among Chinese people, there existed even finer grains of class difference, often dictated by language and wealth. For example, “wealthy merchants were not compelled to live in the areas allocated to their community”, and “money could cut through this [i.e. the racial] hierarchy, at least to some extent”, with “Straits-born Chinese” experiencing an elevation of race/class status due to their wealth.
As a “social and economic merchant elite”, the Straits Chinese had developed “close links with the British trading community” throughout the 19th century, resulting in a community that was “Anglophile in their political and cultural outlook”, with many fluent in English due to a British education. Embracing the role of “privileged middlemen” who moderated between the British and the Chinese, the Straits Chinese also referred to themselves—and were known—as the “King’s Chinese” or the “Queen’s Chinese”. Their political loyalty to and support for the British crown was reciprocated, and they were legitimised, via their election as local officials to the Legislative Council in 1948, as “Singapore’s indigenous political elite”.
The privileges and limitations associated with race motivated certain ethnic communities to fashion a racial and cultural identity that would gain them favour with the British colonial masters.
As the British headed towards granting Singapore full internal self-government in 1959, they continually “cultivated and favoured the English-educated local-born section of the Chinese community and nominated English-speaking Straits Chinese as the [Chinese] community’s representative in the government”. By appointing Straits Chinese leaders to various roles in government, including to the Municipal Commission, Executive and Legislative Council, Chinese Advisory Board and the Governor’s Straits Chinese Consultative Committee, the British signalled their intent to “transfer power eventually to the English-educated section of the population who felt at ease with colonial rule”.
The primacy of Anglophone Straits Chinese leaders as the heirs to British rule resulted in a political and cultural marginalisation of the identities that the Straits Chinese had to eschew in order to ascend the heights of government. The Malay community and the Chinese-speaking portion of the Chinese community, therefore, remained colonial subjects under Anglophilic, Western-leaning rule.
Upon the British reoccupation of Malaya in 1945, British Malaya was reorganised to prepare for eventual British decolonisation, and Malaya was partitioned into two. Singapore was separated from the rest of Malaya and given a separate autonomous government, for fear that its inclusion would threaten the Malay majority of Malaya, due to its sizeable Chinese population and its powerful (Straits) Chinese elite. The process of decolonisation was still heavily coloured by the racial frameworks that colonialism had put in place, and political parties composed of English-educated, Chinese middle-class elites led the struggle for a multicultural, “non-racial” independent state. The Anglicised, Chinese-dominated People’s Action Party (PAP) came into power in 1959, with a core clique of Straits Chinese leaders drawing from the political influence and leadership of their ethno-cultural forebears in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With the tacit support of the waning British administration, the PAP (steered by the Straits Chinese party leader, Lee Kuan Yew) thrust Singapore into a merger with Malaysia in 1963. The contradictions inherent in merging two states constructed upon opposing racial hierarchies quickly became apparent. Lee took Singapore out of Malaysia in 1965, and the party has continuously held power to the present day.
Today, English-speaking Chinese people continue to command immense power and privilege
While the “first generation of top political leaders in Singapore” were indeed Straits Chinese, the subsequent cohorts of Singaporean governors and politicians were “not necessarily Peranakan but were English-educated”. Chinese rule, then, became a racial matter of fact, and the more distinguishing feature became language: whether someone was more comfortable in the medium of English or Chinese. Today, English-speaking Chinese people continue to command immense power and privilege, with “colonial modernity” implicitly forming the basis of Singapore’s rule and the very condition for its “existence as a modern nation-state”.
British colonial architecture as Singaporean heritage
The modern Singapore state not only repurposes the political architecture of the British colonial period, it also literally reuses the physical architecture of British colonialism and claims it as Singaporean heritage. Following a “modified form” of Raffles’ Town Plan, the PAP has retained the original civic district as the seat of the government, using the colonial district to convey both symbolic and practical state authority. The re-inhabitation of this area by the Singapore government implies the continuation of a “citizenry modeled according to a European cultural template”. Using the civic district as a symbolic “bedrock” of the government reflects modern Singapore’s continuing conceptualisation of itself as a “successor state” of British coloniality: a country “forged on the anvil of the colonial legacy”. Singapore’s “post-colonial” identity continues to be framed “within an Eurocentric telos of progress and development” that is necessarily colonial at its foundation.
The modern Singapore state not only repurposes the political architecture of the British colonial period, it also literally reuses the physical architecture of British colonialism and claims it as Singaporean heritage
Take, for example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks at the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial, noting that Singapore’s “rule of law, our parliamentary system of government”—the very tenets of modern society—are fundamentally British in nature. Singapore’s civic district shows how the government has taken great pains to preserve the buildings and their spatial mapping nearly exactly as they were left, with these monuments resisting the encroachment of steel-and-glass skyscrapers in the background.
Heritage buildings are especially heavily regulated in Singapore. The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Civic and Cultural District Masterplan sets out which architectural features must be preserved and which can be demolished. For example, in 2000, it mandated the demolition of the original National Library Building, itself an example of British architecture, but one built in the late 1950s, when Singapore was negotiating independence from the British. As physical (re-)“constructions of the past”, heritage sites are entirely designated by the state, which “has the power to define what constitutes heritage and what elements of the past are worth conserving” in its agenda to build a particular national identity. The original library was an iconic site marking Singapore’s decolonial period and its hope to wrest free of British colonialism, expressed in the form of modernist architecture; it also became an “intimate public space”, a community hub, and a site of memory for many people who grew up in post-independence Singapore. However, this was ultimately unimportant to the Chinese-led government in Singapore which maps itself onto British colonial spaces and activities in order to create a “narrative of continuity” between British colonial enterprise and the dominion of the Chinese state.
As physical (re-)“constructions of the past”, heritage sites are entirely designated by the state, which “has the power to define what constitutes heritage and what elements of the past are worth conserving” in its agenda to build a particular national identity
Romanticising colonialism in Singapore’s conservation policy
The colonial black-and-white bungalow is a quintessentially colonial structure that has captured the public imagination, and which has been well-protected by the government. These mansions are located in affluent areas that map directly onto historical colonial districts—particularly green spaces that “one might mistakenly compare to an early twentieth-century upper, or middle-class European suburb”. Spacious and grand, many were built to house high-ranking British military officials during the pre- and post-war periods, or to serve as the headquarters of colonial police and military operations. The photograph below shows the guardhouse of Seletar Camp in the 1930s—the first Royal Air Force station east of India and the first civilian airport in Singapore—housed in a colonial-style one-storey bungalow.
In 2017, the SLA—which manages the “vast majority” of the 500 remaining black-and-white houses in the country—published a book detailing the conservation projects undertaken to maintain these state-owned and -protected sites. Titled Black & White: Our Homemade Heritage, the publication repeatedly describes the significance of these houses to Singaporean history and national identity. A foreword by Lim Sim Seng, the chairperson of the SLA, describes the mansions as “gorgeous architectural homes … reminiscent of the colonial era, evoking a sense of nostalgia and magnificence that makes up part of Singapore’s proud national heritage”. These “crown jewels” are “[t]imeless” and “stately”, standing “steadfast” amid rapid changes to Singapore’s landscape. Likewise, the URA’s publication, A Future with a Past, claims that Singapore’s heritage “would not be complete without the conservation of our old and beautiful bungalows”: “living examples of buildings representing the culture and lifestyles of various periods in Singapore’s history”.
The colonial black-and-white bungalow is a quintessentially colonial structure that has captured the public imagination, and which has been well-protected by the government.
Black-and-white houses, more than any other type of residential building, are ascribed a unique and lasting value in terms of representing Singapore’s history. They hold tremendous cachet in the political and economic imagination of the state and its land-managing authorities, representing, with their “stark singularity”, the dominance and exceptionalism of an authoritarian colonial state. Black & White admits that the main reason for the survival of so many of these houses can be ascribed to “the fact that they were largely built and managed by the colonial administration—which meant that the departing British handed them en bloc to the fledgling government of newly-independent Singapore”.
The singularity that these houses hold in the state’s conservation practices is clear in the five-part Conservation Master Plan of 1986, which continues to be put into practice today. Phase 1A focuses on “Historic Districts and significant areas”, and phase 1B focuses on “Good Class Bungalows and their fringes”. These areas, which represent the “cream of Singapore’s built heritage”, are conserved with care for “a high level of authenticity”.
A vital part of the narrative around these houses is their segregation from the crowded urban environment. Much is made of their location: they are prized because they exist in “serene and wooded environment[s], away from the hustle and bustle of the city”. As is noted in Black & White, the privileged separation of these houses from the “tightly packed high-rises” of Singapore creates a “stark contrast” that takes place upon “verdant, sprawling swaths of green”, offering an “enticingly different mode of life in our space-limited environment”.
A vital part of the narrative around these houses is their segregation from the crowded urban environment
These descriptions give much weight to the transportive quality of these houses, ascribing romantic and nostalgic value to the history of racial segregation and inequality imposed by the British colonisers. The colonial system created a “fundamental spatial discrepancy” that constructed its own exceptionalism by housing itself in green, spacious and luxurious domiciles while intentionally relegating the tropical, non-white population in “multiple chaotic native quarters” with “overcrowded and squalid conditions”. Black-and-white houses have value because of their sense of space, luxury and excellence in relation to the “dense housing” experienced in most other parts of the island.
The conversion of many of these houses “in selected clusters for use as F&B establishments” in the modern era thus stands as an attempt to allow Singaporeans to “re-create a colonial lifestyle” that can be consumed and owned, momentarily, without causing a financial burden that the majority of locals cannot afford. Over 80% of Singapore’s population lives in public housing apartments. Black-and-white houses thus capture the imagination of Singaporeans as “suburban dream home[s],” and much of this value can be located in the ideologies of tropicality that stigmatise the negligent, disorderly indigenous landscape in favour of colonial spatiality and structure.
The URA’s literature on black-and-white houses focuses not only on the space that comes with the properties, but also on the heavily cultivated nature of the houses’ green surroundings: the “overall ambience” of spaciousness is augmented by a “‘botanic garden’ effect created by green hedges and flowering plants”. The focus on the creation of this effect is telling, for it confirms the “cultural and racial difference of the enclaves”. The black-and-white colouring—a declaration of the houses’ genealogy from the British Tudor period—set against the trimmed, manicured landscape that carefully controls tropical growth is a stylistic performance of power which asserts the stability, primacy and timelessness of colonialism.
The power of this distinctive colour pattern can be seen when post-colonial era Housing Development Board (HDB) buildings are also painted with the colonial-era pattern in an attempt to evoke the specific idea of colonial nostalgia in the public mind. The black-and-white-washing of Tanglin Halt in 2017 caused much consternation amongst heritage-engaged Singaporeans and residents at the time. The buildings were built after the colonial period and in a far different and more modern architectural style. Yet the low rise buildings around the market and hawker centre were painted black and white with fake frames, diagonals and stripes—like a facade of, or a quotation of, the mock-Tudor colouring of colonial-era buildings.
The black-and-white colouring—a declaration of the houses’ genealogy from the British Tudor period—set against the trimmed, manicured landscape that carefully controls tropical growth is a stylistic performance of power which asserts the stability, primacy and timelessness of colonialism
Residents and observers speculated over the stylistic choice, coming up with several theories: it was to make a working-class public housing estate look more middle-class; that the decision for the makeover was dictated by existing assumptions about how heritage buildings should look; that the application of a colonial aesthetic to a post-independence HDB centre signalled a wave of gentrification. In any case, the jarring combination of colonial-era pastiche with independence-era architecture demonstrate that the black-and-white look is deeply class-specific—one which never fails to conjure associations with a wealthy colonial history in the Singaporean psyche.
State narratives which present European heritage buildings as principal sites of national heritage and tradition also present the current government as the natural heirs of colonial rule. In the 1970s, Seow Eu Jin, the then-chairperson of the Preservation of Monuments Board’s (PMB) Research, Documentation & Publicity Committee wrote that the “preservation of historical and artistic buildings serves to give lithic memory to the life of a nation and forms the base for its progressive developments.” While some of the buildings that the PMB (which has been renamed the PSM) gazettes for preservation are indeed not British colonial architectures—Chinese and Hindu temples, Muslim mosques— there remains an underlying deference to the logics and hierarchies embedded within colonial urban planning. State strategies of preservation do not simply retain colonial structures as static symbols of the past. Through cooperation with the private sector, the government also engages the wider public to invest in the maintenance of these spaces as patrons and clientele.
Raffles Hotel, a luxury hotel in the centre of Singapore’s civic district, is protected as a state monument, but was redeveloped as a commercial endeavour by Raffles Holdings, a company listed on the Singapore stock exchange. In these partnerships between public and private sectors, the government seeks to sell the colonial era as desirable
The PSM’s conservation policy notes the primacy of “sound economic sense” when adapting “old forms” to “new functions” for the purpose of preserving “artistic and other assets”: the new uses for these colonial buildings need to be both economically and politically utilitarian.
Raffles Hotel, a luxury hotel in the centre of Singapore’s civic district, is protected as a state monument, but was redeveloped as a commercial endeavour by Raffles Holdings, a company listed on the Singapore stock exchange. In these partnerships between public and private sectors, the government seeks to sell the colonial era as desirable. The Raffles Hotel Sale Kit, created in 1989 by the Raffles Holdings Public Relations Department as part of the redevelopment project, shows how the restoration of the hotel was meant to “recall the atmosphere of a bygone era”, and to “pay tribute to” and “take pride” in the site’s colonial history. The restoration was supported by and “figured prominently in” publications by the NHB and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). The NHB’s Raffles Hotel Preservation Guidelines reproduce this charged language: the hotel is historically significant because it was the location of “the select rendezvous of the elite”, attracting “royalty, statesmen and politicians, military leaders, celebrities of stage, screen and concert halls, and writers like Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham who mentioned the hotel in their books”.
Thus the government and the private sector partner to produce rhetoric and cultural cachet around commercialised heritage sites, to justify their maintenance and to ensure their success with the public. This creates a strong mythos about colonial buildings, which remain at the forefront of national consciousness as iconic symbols of luxury, and as ineffable connections to a nostalgic European heritage. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that the colonial era was not at all a golden age for local and Native people living in the region, most of whom were exploited as underpaid, overworked labour by their white masters. The horrific consequences of colonialism at the time included: the mass execution of 47 South Asian soldiers who rebelled against maltreatment under British rule; the mass trafficking and sexual enslavement of over 400 Javanese women by Raffles himself; the routine humiliation experienced by poor Chinese coolies who encountered clubs with signs declaring “No dogs or Chinese.” But by ignoring “the less pleasurable realities of colonial life” for non-Europeans, and the disastrous lasting effects of colonial rule on Singaporeans today—including, it bears repeating, the continued disenfranchisement of Malay people on their indigenous land, and the long-standing S377A penal code criminalising gay sex—the state works with businesses to sell colonial heritage sites to the Singaporean public as places of upward mobility and class aspiration.
The horrific consequences of colonialism at the time included: the mass execution of 47 South Asian soldiers who rebelled against maltreatment under British rule; the mass trafficking and sexual enslavement of over 400 Javanese women by Raffles himself; the routine humiliation experienced by poor Chinese coolies who encountered clubs with signs declaring “No dogs or Chinese.”
This project has met with much success, and this rhetoric is now easily reproduced by completely private actors and individuals. For example, it has trickled down into everyday advertising copy on lifestyle websites that are not officially affiliated with the state.
An article titled “What it’s like staying in Singapore’s oldest hotel?: Circa 1887” was published in June 2017 on Buro 24/7 Singapore, an online media platform focused on coverage of “fashion, beauty, watches, lifestyle and contemporary culture”. This short article is both a profile of and an advertisement for Raffles Hotel. The Chinese Singaporean author, Amelia Chia, gives a brief overview of the hotel’s unique place in Singapore’s tourist culture, and writes about her experience spending a weekend there. She closes with noting that the hotel is about to close for renovations, and persuades the reader to book a staycation soon, promoting a “Getaway from the Everyday” package for $499++, which is only “available to Singapore residents”, signalling this article is written for a local audience.
Taking cues from the NHB as well as the Raffles Hotel Sale Kit, Chia uses the strategies of glamour and nostalgia to talk about the British colonial aesthetic. She cites the hotel’s “spacious walkways, period furnishings and airy, elegant suites that boast a rich rich colonial past” and “colourful history”, without going into what this history entailed. Furthermore, her tone paints the colonial past as a positive event, describing her experience of the Palm Court Suite as a “cool time warp”, and encouraging readers to stay at the Hotel before renovation so that they might experience its “pre-restoration glory”.
Taking cues from the NHB as well as the Raffles Hotel Sale Kit, Chia uses the strategies of glamour and nostalgia to talk about the British colonial aesthetic… In Chia’s description, a stratified colonial space becomes a benevolently multicultural one
This particular representational strategy of colonialism as a luxurious and desirable lifestyle—as opposed to a historical and material reality—offers a “fantasy colonialism productive of a benign, friendly atmosphere”, which melds touristic service with “vague ideas about romance, fashion and luxury”. In Chia’s description, a stratified colonial space becomes a benevolently multicultural one: she refers to herself as “living like a rich maharaja” in her suite, and alludes to “liveried Sikh doormen” and the “assistant front office manager Nazir” as part of the hotel’s ecosystem.
Articles like the Buro 24/7 Singapore piece reveal how colonial sites have become increasingly sought-after by Singapore’s general populace, many of whom are not part of the political and economic “1%”, but who have also absorbed and now reproduce the state propaganda surrounding these spaces. And Buro 24/7 Singapore is not alone in making such references: the National Gallery Singapore, housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court, came under fire for calling their first fundraiser gala “The Empire Ball”. A property developer also saw fit to name a condominium “Park Colonial”, marketing it as a combination of the “Heritage of the Past, Grandeur of The Future”. Marketing techniques in Singapore regularly imbue colonialism with a quality of sentimentality and gentility, and the colonial era is invoked with little introspection of what it actually meant to be colonised. Through these now-commodified sites, Singaporeans can prove to themselves that they’ve risen up, and are now able to access luxuries once reserved for the European racial elite. The government’s framing of these spaces and histories have encouraged the Singaporean public imagination to glamourise British colonialism as part of a contemporary multicultural heritage.
Marketing techniques in Singapore regularly imbue colonialism with a quality of sentimentality and gentility, and the colonial era is invoked with little introspection of what it actually meant to be colonised
Many black-and-white houses have either been redeveloped as dining establishments, or are slated for such redevelopment. For example, Seletar Camp has undergone redevelopment as “restaurants or cafes within the quaint settings”, allowing Singaporeans to “re-create a colonial lifestyle” that can be consumed momentarily.
Restaurants are particularly effective instruments of emotional evocation because they utilise food. In colonial-themed restaurants, the “commodified historical narrative” that is housed within these spaces becomes strongly evoked in a “more concrete and immediate way than the consumption of an image or an atmosphere in a themed environment can”. The “bodily process” of eating food encourages—perhaps even coerces—patrons to “consume the evoked past”, and to implicitly accept the racial hierarchies that are represented in the space.
Through these increasingly popular dining spaces, racial hierarchies are turned into a commodity; they become “an object of consumption” that allows guests and visitors to “play out a colonial and orientalist fantasy”. The use of Orientalist tropes, like the “maharaja” and the reference to “high tea” and “the Tiffin Room” in Raffles Hotel, allows Singaporean patrons to inhabit “the subject position of colonial travellers”. The histories of British colonial mastery can become momentarily owned by its patrons: you only need to spend money to experience colonial-era hospitality, which is really about exerting power over those in a servile position. Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar is a particularly egregious example of this, encouraging customers to discard peanut shells on the floor to be swept up by invariably browner, poorer service staff. But who has such money? Given the existing socioeconomic differences along racial lines, a S$500 (US$366) stay is more likely to be afforded by the Chinese elite class. Similarly, a S$50 (US$37) meal at a colonial-themed restaurant places limitations on the racial demographics of the patrons in these spaces, and skews it towards an affluent group, which statistics show—according to both income and population numbers—is more likely to be wealthy English-educated Chinese people. These predominantly upscale sites of leisure and dining are accessible only to the strata of Singaporean society who best reproduce the values of British colonial racial prejudice: the Chinese Anglophone elite.
Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar is a particularly egregious example of this [colonial-era hospitality], encouraging customers to discard peanut shells on the floor to be swept up by invariably browner, poorer service staff.
If buildings such as these stand as potent symbols of British colonialism as heritage-for-purchase, and if mostly English-speaking Chinese people have the socioeconomic means to access them, then each building as a “monumental physical corpus for communal or cultural memories” helps to create and reinforce a national history that implicitly paints Anglophone Chinese people as the logical inheritors of British colonial rule over Singapore. Like national museums, the National Day Parade, or political speeches, colonial-themed restaurants also act as government-sanctioned cultural productions which disseminate state narratives about colonialism and independence. However, while speeches and parades are explicitly political in nature, and therefore tend to invite more scepticism, restaurants are often thought of as apolitical. The approved marketing narrative of the colonial restaurant, which aligns near-perfectly with Singapore’s mainstream national narrative, feeds colonial ideologies to Singaporeans in seductive and insidious ways. As patrons of the businesses and therefore of colonial history, “once colonised” Chinese Singaporeans are allowed to “occupy the position … of the colonisers”. Singaporeans learn that their ability to enjoy luxury, progress, and other alleged fruits of colonialism is contingent on their proximity to the Anglophone Chinese Singaporean identity.
The approved marketing narrative of the colonial restaurant, which aligns near-perfectly with Singapore’s mainstream national narrative, feeds colonial ideologies to Singaporeans in seductive and insidious ways.
Riders Café: The colonial bungalow and leisure
Riders Café is a restaurant located in Bukit Timah, an affluent residential neighbourhood with multiple elite primary and secondary schools. A popular brunch spot, it advertises “a lovely old world charm” and a location “in one of the most unique venues in this urban city”. It opened in 2007, sharing a space with the Bukit Timah Saddle Club in a two-storey black-and-white house.
The Bukit Timah Saddle Club is a colonial-era organisation set up in 1951 for the training of equestrian sports, such as “show jumping or dressage”. It continues to be tied to British culture, and was approved in 2012 by the British Horse Society as a “riding centre, livery centre, training centre and facility centre”. Riders Café—opened by Chinese Singaporean owner Janice Yeo—leans into the colonial past. Though the building itself is not as grand or imposing as other black-and-white houses, the café still has trappings of colonial class and spatial exclusivity. To access it, patrons must own a car or pay for a long taxi ride, as the Bukit Timah Saddle Club is located in a secluded area to allow for horse rearing and training. Public transport does not service the area, and it’s too far to comfortably walk to in Singapore’s hot weather. These restrictive geographies, worlds away from tropical urban congestion, immediately lend Riders Café an air of exclusivity from the general populace.
The black-and-white house is surrounded by a huge expanse of green space, and ornamented with well-manicured hedges. While most of Singapore’s housing is built upwards as a strategy to maximise room due to space limitations, the building that contains Riders Café expands longitudinally, taking up a broad horizontal footprint with very little vertical rise. This contrast reveals the ideology of racial segregation built into Raffles’ city planning of Singapore, as “both result and justification of the exploitation inherent to colonialism”.
In land-scarce Singapore, the association of spaciousness and fresh air with British colonialism becomes powerfully symbolic of European exceptionalism and privilege
Present-day restaurants contain the same seed of spatial and racial hierarchies instituted by British colonialism, and turn them into commodities which Singaporeans pay to enjoy. Upon entering the restaurant, one can stretch out beneath vaulted, high ceilings, sit on the veranda and enjoy the fresh air, and look out over the pasture to take in the sight of horses grazing. These are extreme anomalies in the everyday Singaporean experience, once again due to space restrictions. In land-scarce Singapore, the association of spaciousness and fresh air with British colonialism becomes powerfully symbolic of European exceptionalism and privilege.
With initiatives like the Speak Good English campaign, the state has for decades attempted to teach Singaporeans that they must properly perform Anglophile culture in order to gain access to upward socioeconomic mobility. Riders Café, in its own way, reproduces these very values of the state, marketing Europeanism as an aspirational fantasy. As Singaporeans continue to patronise these spaces, they (perhaps unknowingly) manifest the state’s understanding of independence “as a gradual expansion of liberal suffrage with greater Anglicisation”.
The [Singaporean] state has for decades attempted to teach Singaporeans that they must properly perform Anglophile culture in order to gain access to upward socioeconomic mobility
The White Rabbit: The colonial mission and occupation
The colonial mission is another site where Asian liberation and progress becomes conflated with Anglicisation, this time specifically in terms of Christianisation. The primacy of Christianity is an important draw for those Singaporean patrons who are attracted to colonial spaces because of their possibilities for racial redemption.
The White Rabbit is a modern European restaurant in Dempsey Hill, a cluster of pre-war British barracks converted into an upscale retail and dining neighbourhood, with restaurants and art galleries housed in “colonial bungalows”. The White Rabbit itself operates in a restored church once known as Ebenezer Chapel. Not much is known about the history of Ebenezer Chapel, other than the touristic commercial narratives now codified as public history: it was possibly built in the 1940s for British troops, or perhaps even in the 1930s as a chapel school for the soldiers’ children.
The primacy of Christianity is an important draw for those Singaporean patrons who are attracted to colonial spaces because of their possibilities for racial redemption.
The White Rabbit opened in the refurbished space in 2008, and the (perhaps invented) historical significance of the former chapel features heavily in its marketing and promotion materials, such as its website, which states: “The White Rabbit is a restaurant housed in the beautifully restored 1930s Ebenezer chapel. It has become one of Singapore’s leading classic institutions since opening in 2008.” The restaurant’s website claims that its menu pays “carefully crafted tribute to the timeless recipes and traditions of yesteryear”, while its ambience draws upon its “rich history”.
The design choices of the space immediately make clear whose “rich history” this is. The restaurant contains striking architectural features like tall glass windows with cross motifs. The Christian identity of this space renders it unavoidably colonial at every turn, with abstracted stained windows and tall, church-like vaulted ceilings. Like Riders Café, The White Rabbit manipulates space, vegetation and architecture in order to create an aesthetic experience of a colonial structure surrounded by exceptional, unending green space. The White Rabbit’s website calls attention to the restaurant’s “verdant surroundings”, and the restaurant’s outside patio, called The Rabbit Hole, has a literal hole carved out of the wall, that gives the patron a view of the luxuriant grassy field outside.
But unlike Riders Café, the White Rabbit is unique in its potently symbolic combination of the religious with the military. The SLA notes in Black & White that the buildings in Dempsey Hill (including Ebenezer Chapel) were originally a “major military facility” called the Tanglin Barracks during the colonial period. After Singapore gained independence and the British withdrew, the Chinese-led government inherited the compound and located the Ministry of Defence’s Central Manpower Base (CMPB) in the former British barracks. In 1989, CMPB vacated the premises, and the SLA began to lease the barracks out to the private sector until “the area was gradually transformed into a unique retail enclave”. These “layers of memory and past uses” have produced “palimpsests of space”, where traces of earlier histories remain visible to the public. A patron to The White Rabbit is reminded not only of its Christian heritage, but also of its past usage within a military complex.
The White Rabbit is unique in its potently symbolic combination of the religious with the military
The popularity of the White Rabbit and its overtly Christian and military aesthetics suggest that there is a large market for cultural institutions which celebrate the Christian mission, and its associations with beauty, peace and progress. Rather than celebrating how far Singapore has come from a past fraught with colonisation and Christianisation through armed force, restaurants like the White Rabbit point to the fact that Singapore’s cultural and political values remain deeply entrenched in the colonial institutions of the church and the military.
The convergence of luxury with symbols of Christianity and national security in The White Rabbit is part and parcel of a larger societal attitude that privileges Christianity while marginalising Malayness and Islam in Singapore. Malayness and Islam, inextricably linked as an ethno-religious identity, is understood as “undisciplined, arbitrary, singularly oppressive”, and incompatible with the purportedly non-violent and pluralist ideals of the secular, multicultural Singapore state.
Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s May 2019 comments about the government’s decision to cancel black metal band Watain’s concert because of allegedly “anti-Christian” lyrical content might be taken as a recent example of how Malay men are understood as an internal threat that must be moderated in order to achieve harmony in Singapore. Referring to a picture where a small group of fans posed with Watain, pointing their middle fingers in response to the concert’s cancellation, Shanmugam reiterated at least four times that the photograph featured “primarily Malay young men”.
The convergence of luxury with symbols of Christianity and national security in The White Rabbit is part and parcel of a larger societal attitude that privileges Christianity while marginalising Malayness and Islam in Singapore
Shanmugam’s focus on this particular ethnic identity—by no means the only ethnicity pictured in the group, but the only ethnicity publicly admonished for participating in the photograph—perhaps reveals the state’s anxieties about Islam and Malayness as unruly and needing to be managed watchfully: a fear rooted in a “deep intellectual genealogy of Western liberal claims that Islam is ‘culturally’ un- or antidemocratic”, and that “the major cultural achievement of Christianity … has been [its] commitment to democratic governance”.
Meanwhile, the Malay-Muslim is arguably pathologised as an inherently pre-modern figure who cannot reap the benefits of Singaporean modern liberal democracy due to race and religion. Malay people are portrayed in Singapore as “impediments to progress, a burden to be shouldered, or as a threat to national unity”. This stems from a dualistic recognition of them as simultaneously indigenous to the region and native to Singapore, creating a “fiction of Malay geographical separateness”. Understood to identify more generally with the Malaysian Peninsula writ large, Malay Singaporeans are seen as liabilities who have tenuous loyalties to an ever-suspicious Chinese-dominated government that views them as more ethnically and religiously bound to Singapore’s surrounding nations. This mentality is apparent in the limitations put upon Malay people’s “participation in the Singapore Armed Forces or key public sector posts”, where they are kept from the highest positions of power for fear that they might be agents for Malaysia or Indonesia—Singapore’s neighbours and assumed competitors.
Understood to identify more generally with the Malaysian Peninsula writ large, Malay Singaporeans are seen as liabilities who have tenuous loyalties to an ever-suspicious Chinese-dominated government
Singapore’s national identity is formed in part around a nucleus of anxiety about “the inherent vulnerabilities associated with being a predominantly Chinese society in a predominantly Malay and Muslim region”. Portrayed as “irrational, envious and hostile towards Singapore”, Singapore’s regional neighbours supposedly present a danger.
This is implicitly but carefully considered in the nation’s conservation goals as well. The URA’s 1971 Concept Plan, for example, recommended that “buildings of historic, civic, and architectural significance need to be defended against mutilation, and against the destruction of their immediate environment through the intrusion of incompatible neighbours”. Although this particular sentence refers to the concern that heritage buildings may be encroached upon by competing architectural styles, it could be read as a microcosmic expression of the government’s larger anxieties around keeping Singapore’s “unique” colonial heritage completely intact, at the expense of social progress, regional solidarity, and indigenous sovereignty. The conservation of colonial buildings therefore not only erases Malay claims to indigeneity and their particular stake on Singaporean land—it also expresses Singapore’s narrative of the “struggle for survival” that the country must constantly fight in order to remain modern and competitive in the face of antagonistic Muslim and Malay neighbours. The mistrust and contempt that Singapore holds for these external entities is readily transferred onto its internal Malay citizens, who are compounded as a foreign body with markedly different priorities that unhappily exists within the bounds of the nation-state.
The conservation of colonial buildings not only erases Malay claims to indigeneity and their particular stake on Singaporean land—it also expresses Singapore’s narrative of the “struggle for survival” that the country must constantly fight in order to remain modern and competitive in the face of antagonistic Muslim and Malay neighbours
With this in view, the White Rabbit’s commercialisation of Ebenezer Chapel as an upscale dining experience seems no longer innocent or apolitical. By preserving and celebrating Christian colonialism and secular militarism, the White Rabbit (whether consciously or not) participates in a broader settler colonial narrative which denotes Malay people as “the original enemy combatant who cannot be grieved”; whose displacement and disenfranchisement has been necessary for the progress of the modern multicultural state. Meanwhile, both in and outside of the White Rabbit’s dining room, the Anglophone Chinese subject comes to the fore as the ideal secular citizen who is utterly loyal to Singapore, and who can fully reap the benefits of Singapore’s multicultural modernity because—unlike Malay people—they are not seen to harbour extremist religious views.
The keen preservation of British colonial architecture as heritage sites signals the Singapore government’s gratitude to its white predecessors
The government’s conservation policy, which reflects its public biases in terms of its favoured historical narratives, and its partnerships with private development, have directly encouraged businesses like Riders Café and The White Rabbit to market themselves according to colonial belief systems, values, and aesthetics. Together, these conserved colonial-themed restaurants express a dual ideal of Anglicisation and Sinicisation, culminating in the creation of a postcolonial patron: the Anglophone Chinese Singaporean, the exemplary citizen able to receive the full benefits of British colonial heritage and ethnic Chinese settler colonial rule.
Yet there is in fact nothing postcolonial about this idealised figure. The keen preservation of British colonial architecture as heritage sites signals the Singapore government’s gratitude to its white predecessors. At the same time, this focus on preserving colonial buildings and the Raffles Town Plan fails to locate any kind of meaningful indigenous history that existed before colonial contact. Singapore’s conservation ethics clearly prioritise and preserve the racialised layout of Raffles’ Town Plan in their creation of a multicultural narrative where every race allegedly has equal footing in Singapore’s past, present and future. The state turns physical reminders of colonial racial categorisation and segregation into a story of postcolonial racial integration. This narrative, as laid out in Singapore’s heritage districts, perpetuates the settler colonial trope of the terra nullius (“nobody’s land”), presenting Singapore as uninhabited land that needed to be divided up and managed by the British, so that it could be passed on to the current government for more development.
The state turns physical reminders of colonial racial categorisation and segregation into a story of postcolonial racial integration… if Singapore has any racial harmony at all, colonialism had no part to play in it
But if Singapore has any racial harmony at all, colonialism had no part to play in it. Colonialism was, and is, dependent on the reification of invented racial hierarchies in order to tear a population apart for the benefit of colonisers and elites. As long as the Singaporean public venerates the aesthetics of a colonial era tightly yoked to the disenfranchisement and erasure of Malay people, Singapore will never be truly postcolonial.
By exonerating the British colonial era of its virulent racism, Singapore’s preservation policies encourage us to think of colonialism as a key part in the country’s thrust towards modernity and affluence. And if Singaporeans revere colonialism, then they celebrate an ideology based on dangerous rhetoric about the Malay community’s racial and cultural shortcomings, which is still mobilised today to explain contemporary Malay socioeconomic and political disenfranchisement.
Singapore cannot effectively fight the legacies of British colonialism, or confront the present state of Chinese settler colonialism, without interrogating, critiquing, and ultimately divesting from the cultural tools—even the most pleasurable ones—which help to normalise the disenfranchisement of Malay people on their own land
Perhaps colonial-themed restaurants seem innocuous and apolitical, or perhaps they hold a seductive power, always offering chic service, delicious food, comfortable surroundings, and an ineffable feeling of luxury. But Singapore cannot effectively fight the legacies of British colonialism, or confront the present state of Chinese settler colonialism, without interrogating, critiquing, and ultimately divesting from the cultural tools—even the most pleasurable ones—which help to normalise the disenfranchisement of Malay people on their own land. So what can Singapore do, moving forward? Where do we go after the Singapore Bicentennial, and how do we let go of our colonial past? Perhaps Singapore could tear down the architecture of the colonial era, to prevent the local population from venerating these symbols of racial inequality and subjugation. But this is a symbolic move, and although it would be a massive administrative and physical undertaking, it is actually too easy, ideologically speaking. (And anyway, which exploited labourers would have to do the dangerous, backbreaking, and underpaid work of tearing down every colonial building in Singapore?)
Ultimately, the work of decolonisation lies in social consciousness, civic participation, and political action.
The truth is, colonialism still rules Singapore’s present, and it is now Chinese people who share the shameful title of coloniser with our white forebears. Colonial buildings are only physical manifestations of a social, political, and economic architecture that undergirds modern life in Singapore. Even if black-and-white mansions were to suddenly disappear off the face of the island, the structures of racial inequality, white supremacy, and Chinese privilege would still remain entrenched in Singaporean society. Nothing would change. So while tearing colonial buildings and statues down might initially signal a serious commitment to decolonisation, it would be an empty gesture if Chinese Singaporeans do not also work to demolish the legacies left by colonialism in our political and social structures. Ultimately, the work of decolonisation lies in social consciousness, civic participation, and political action. Then, perhaps, we could render these colonial houses truly insignificant—just abandoned structures, empty of meaning, holding power over no one at all.
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Ibid. “Down the Rabbit Hole – A gin and tonic wonderland”, pure food beauty, published February 17, 2017, accessed May 1, 2019. https://purefoodbeauty.com/white-rabbit.html. “The White Rabbit.” “Photo: “The Rabbit Hole”, TripAdvisor Singapore, accessed May 9, 2019, https://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g294265-d1092082-i242576036-The_White_Rabbit-Singapore.html. Singapore Land Authority, 42. Ibid., 43. Ibid. Hudd, 129. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 10. “‘I can’t see how we could have agreed to it’: Shanmugam on Watain performing in Singapore,” Channel News Asia, accessed 25 May 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/shanmugam-watain-singapore-concert-cancelled-11327984 Joseph A. Massad, Islam in Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 14. Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Singapore in the Malay World: Building and breaching regional bridges (New York: Routledge, 2009), 13. Bin Tajudeen, Imran. “State Constructs of Ethnicity in the Reinvention of Malay-Indonesian Heritage in Singapore,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 18:2 (Spring): 7–27, 25. Chua Beng Huat, “Taking Group Rights Seriously: Multiracialism in Singapore,” Asia Research Centre Working Paper, No. 124 (Perth, Murdoch University, October 2005), 11. Available from https://www.murdoch.edu.au/Research-capabilities/Asia-Research-Centre/_document/working- papers/wp124.pdf. Raman Daud, “Commentary: A Malay Perspective,” in Our Place in Time: Exploring Heritage and Memory in Singapore, ed. Kwok Kian-Woon, Kwa Chong Guan, Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1999), 36. Rahim, 15. Ibid. Hudd, 86. Rahim, 15–16. Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001), xviii.
Gregory Ng Yong He
Gregory Ng Yong He is a writer and researcher from Singapore. He has a B.A. in Ethnicity, Race & Migration from Yale University, and is currently enrolled in the Performance Studies M.A. programme at New York University. He writes about food, sex, race, (settler) colonialism, and the built environment.