Archive for January, 2013

Singapore and the British Empire

January 22, 2013


Geographically, Singapore is a small country with a high population density located at the southern end of the Malay peninsular. It consists of 63 islands with the main one having most of the population and economic activity. Located on smaller islands are large petroleum refineries which generate much business but also pollution affecting Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The port facilities are on the south side of the main island where many cargo ships lie at anchor. Cruise ships can dock at a wharf close to shopping areas. Singapore is a growing country with about 20 percent of the land area having been reclaimed and further work ongoing.

1819  Singapore becomes a trading post for the East India Company, negotiated by  Stamford Raffles on behalf of the company

1824  Britain claims sovereignty over the island, a protectorate ruled from India

1942 Occupied by Japanese forces until liberated in 1945

1963 Independence declared with the mainland to form Malaysia

1965 Singapore separates from the mainland to form an independent country

Singapore has a population of about 5 million, 3 million born locally and the remainder permanent residents and foreign workers. The three million are able to vote in elections. The majority are of Chinese extraction followed by Malays and Indians, many of whom originally came to Singapore to work on the rubber plantations and work in the port facilities. One political party, the PAP has ruled the country since independence. In 2011, the PAP received the lowest percentage of the popular vote in any election.
The parliamentary and judicial systems are based on UK practice, although the operation of each system is at variance with the UK. The country is governed by a Westminster system of unicameral parliamentary government. There is no trial by jury and there is a mandatory death penalty for murder, drug trafficking and certain firearms offenses.

Defense issues

In contrast to larger countries geographically and population-wise, Singapore is a city state. However it has three armed services and military conscription. Security concerns relate to Malaysia and China in particular as well as for dealing with maritime piracy, especially in the Malacca Straights. Friction between China and Japan in the South China Sea is currently of concern.

Defense expenditure is 3.6 percent of GDP and has exceeded 4 percent, similar in percentage terms to the US; in Canada it is 1.4 percent. Defense is needed against possible but unlikely attack from neighbours, and in particular to protect the port and refining facilities.


Port facilities

Singapore has one of the world’s largest ports for general cargo, containers and tankers. This appears surprising since the land connections from Singapore are limited. Good roads run up through Malaysia and on to Bangkok, but the rail system is narrow gauge and not modernized to carry much freight. There is some talk of high speed rail service being built. Unlike ports like Rotterdam, Los Angeles and London, Singapore does not act as a shipping point for goods from the land, but as a transshipment port.

It developed as a port site with connections to shipping from India to the west, and China and Indonesia to the east and south. It has maintained these connections and provides valuable shipping related services in the region. Those shipping goods to Singapore use either smaller ships which then transfer the goods to containers and large carriers, or break bulk for transfer to smaller ships. Many goods are not landed but move from one ship to another.


Singapore has developed as a financial centre, an education and research hub , a place for medical tourism, and as a tourist centre with two casinos and associated hotel facilities. It is a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Imperial influence

The present economic and political configuration of Singapore is the result of British influence from the time of the East India Company. Doubtless it would have developed in some other way without the previous British connections, but from the parliamentary and judicial systems to driving on the left hand side of the road, to the sports played (cricket, tennis, rugby and football), and to the operation of private schools, these all reflect British connections. Students prepare for the Cambridge A-level examinations.

Signs of the British military exist in terms of the bases and quarters which were used by the British, especially prior to the defeat by the Japanese and during the postwar emergency, when the Chinese communists attempted to take over the country and were repulsed by British lead troops.

English is one of the four official languages of the country. The others are Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Names like Raffles are used for schools, hotels, streets and buildings. There is little sense of official rejection of the British connection to the history of Singapore as might be found in other ex-colonies like Burma and some African countries.  Singapore today remains a member of the Commonwealth.


The Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland

January 12, 2013

The title is alluring and readers may expect a Hello magazine or Tatler coverage for describing the lives of the rich and famous. At the outset I felt that the author might be heading this way. I could not be more wrong.

Chrystia Freeland is a scholar of economics, business and political economy and has turned her attention to explain how and why certain people, mainly males, have become so successful in the current industrial revolution based on financial services and communications.  She is also a first rate journalist and explains certain workings of the global economy with a clarity seldom achieved by academic economists.

For more general reviews the reader can consult those posted on Amazon or published in papers like the Daily Telegraph and Globe and Mail. The following comments address several specific topics.

Laws, regulations and policies to  prevent a repeat of mortgage lending practices and the credit default swap fiasco have yet to be implemented, namely Basel III, or US Congressional legislation. Both are being strongly opposed by the financial institutions responsible for the crisis in the first place. The plutocrats who caused the problems either deliberately or in ignorance are leading this opposition.

Freeland notes how the regulatory gamekeepers in the US are both outwitted and outpaid by the financial poachers they oversee. If and when the new policies are in place, there is little hope that the gamekeepers will do much better. Only when the financial executives suffer serious personal and corporate financial loss is there a possibility that change will occur; of course, corporate loss will be at the expense of shareholders and deposit owners, namely us.

In the past extreme income inequality  lead to revolution, the French for example which provided a lesson to others to amend their political and economic ways. Introduction of welfare state measures in democratic countries provides one example of the responses.

Could there be revolutionary forces today? Most commentators are too polite to raise the issue, but signs exist. The Tea Party Movement, Occupy Wall Street, UK, French and Canadian student protests against fee increases, aboriginal protests in Canada and social unrest expressed on the web are all signs of unrest which could mushroom. Public protests in Spain and Greece are occurring for economic reasons. The Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East are other signs, although for different reasons. Protesters around the world can now both watch and communicate with each other which creates opportunities for revolutionary contagion.

The plutocrats seriously believe that what serves their industry interests serves the country’s interest as well, known as cognitive capture. When you have lived and worked in one industry only, this is what tends to happen. The same is probably true for other occupations, school teachers and university professors included. The latter defend the restrictions resulting from tenure as being in the national interest. Interestingly this will be undermined as courses increasingly go online. In one high school I visited in Singapore, the students are organizing online courses and instruction, to the consternation of their teachers. More widely the online offerings by Coursera are worth watching.

This book raises the question of whether market capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. I read this book and watched a  DVD of The Inside Job shortly afterwards. The combination is not comforting. The hope is that the period since 2007-08 is an aberration in a longer period of postwar relatively stable economic growth. What may turn the dial to lessen growing inequality is global communications which allow the many to challenge the few in a way Russia, China and North Korea are finding difficult to stop. The political plutocrats have as much to be concerned as the financial ones. Online activism is a new force. How it will play out is unclear.

Freeland is an admirer of Mark Carney and his handling of the financial tycoons. Both Carney and Freeland were born in northern Canada. Freeland is of Ukrainian heritage with a degree from Harvard, a Rhodes scholar and Phd from Oxford. Both are citizens of the world worth listening to about conditions today. Carney may have the harder time in managing events as Governor of the Bank of England. Freeland will be there to tell us.

Where is the British Empire Today?

January 12, 2013

My initial research question was what has been the impact of the British Empire (BE)? I soon became mired in the writings of those who emphasized either the good or bad parts, and had little time for opposing views. So I revised the question to ask what aspects of the British Empire remain with us today?

The approach became pseudo-anthropological, namely to search for what exists today which can be traced to the empire? That too became a large topic if the whole world was included, since the BE was the largest empire in terms of population size and probably geographical spread. So the starting point became a focus on the place most familiar to me, Ottawa in particular and Canada in general.

The Queen remains head of state in Canada, represented by an appointed Governor General, previously from the UK, now from Canada. The Queen presides over a parliamentary system consisting of an elected House of Commons and an appointed Senate, a counterpart to the British House of Lords. Many of the acts and customs performed in these two chambers are patterned on British experience, such as the role of the Speaker and Question Period.

Located next to  parliament is the Supreme Court, the apex of the country’s judicial system which follows English practice, even down to dress. The military  is a third major element of a state and here too army regiments have British associations in terms of names, and recently the term Royal has been returned to the Canadian navy and airforce.

Canada has had it’s own maple leaf flag since 1965, instead of the red ensign which incorporates  the Union Jack, as do a number of provincial flags today – BC, Manitoba and Ontario.

Numerous place names have a British association such as the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia, the cities and towns/districts of Victoria, Vancouver, Prince Albert, Regina, New Edinburgh, Perth, Halifax, and so on. The name Victoria, for example, is assigned to streets, parks, bridges, schools etc.

Sports played in Canada include soccer, rugby, cricket, and tennis – Government House in Ottawa has both a tennis court and cricket pitch. English is one of the two official languages in Canada. French is the other one as a result of arrangements made in earlier years when the British and French were vying for control of North America in the early days of empire.

The Anglican and Catholic religions have churches and particular school boards throughout the Province of Ontario, a reflection of how English and French interests competed for the continent in earlier imperial times. A recent Ontario election was fought in part on the future funding of religious school boards.

In commercial terms, the Hudson Bay Company exists today as a department store, a descendant of the original fur trading company established by England. Railroads and communications systems were developed during the 1800’s in association with the expansion of British imperial reach around the world. Canada took part in these new developments with companies such as the CPR and Bell Telephone.

Canada is perhaps too easy and obvious an example of a country subject to imperial influence. The same could probably be said of Australia, New Zealand and parts of South Africa, also the original 13 American colonies  spreading to the rest of the present day USA. In countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and islands like Mauritius, Cyprus and the West Indies other factors would come into play.

African countries north of South Africa, have empire connections in various ways, as  do countries like Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea, and the informal empire of South American countries. Just listing these countries suggests where to look for evidence or clues of imperial association, opium and trading companies like Jardine Matheson in the case of Southeast Asia.

One place to continue this search is the present membership of The Commonwealth, 54 countries all of which except for Rwanda and Madagascar were members of the BE. All would provide the empire anthropologist much material for examination.