“Lee (Kwan Yew) would surely regret not having survived just a few more months to witness Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations this August. But he can rest in peace knowing that the country he led from 1959 to 1990 is the world’s most successful post-colonial nation. Gulf monarchies are laden with bling but vulnerable to wars, coups, and falling oil prices. Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together. Meanwhile, Singapore has grown from having a per capita GDP of $516 in 1965 to about $55,000 today.” (Foreign Policy, March 22, 2015)
In many ways Singapore is a gem, but rating it in contrast to countries like China, India and the US is an apples and grapes situation. There are just too many differences (Singapore 4.6 mil v. China 1.4 bn population) to make comparisons interesting except in a few ways. Singapore is politically stable, if not wholly democratic, efficiently managed, has experienced continuous economic growth, is safe and willing to try policies such as road pricing, and prepared to drop whatever does not work. Its civil servants and politicians are well paid and severely punished if they engage in corruption. The statement that it is “….the world’s most successful post-colonial nation…,” and that “Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together,” which caught my attention.
Much is written about the impact of the British and other European Empires, and it will always be possible to provide both glowing as well as highly critical assessments. Mine takes countries in today’s world and looks at some of them in the light of their former imperial connections. To what extent can the good and naughty parts be assigned to previous colonizations? How are these countries working today?
- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all rank highly in various political, economic and social country league tables. There is plenty to criticize in each but they rank way above countries which are obvious dictatorships like Russia, China, North Korea and those in the Middle East. Areas of today’s Middle East, such as Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were parts of the Ottoman, British and French Empires, but it was the Ottomans who had the longest sway over these areas until 1918.
- The Indian subcontinent with today’s India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and merging into Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo have all been part of the of the British Empire and now Commonwealth; all have experienced economic and political progress with improved human rights, some obviously more so than others. Each has had to combine different racial and religious groups.
- Africa is a more difficult region to assess. It is a land area with enormous physical differences from the northern Mediterranean coast to the desert region to the south, and then to South Africa. Dutch, British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Spanish, German and briefly Italian colonization took place. Only in a few of these areas such as South Africa and parts of East Africa, did political and economic progress occur. Bechuanaland and Mauritius are often held up as examples of successful development but these have relatively small populations, 1.8 mil and 1.4 mil respectively – the Singapores of Africa.
- Those who travel from East to South Africa today tell of the poverty in urban and rural areas, and mainly subsistence farming which is labour intensive with little mechanization. In many places, especially in rural areas, nothing much seems to have improved in centuries, either where there has or has not been an imperial presence. My overall impression is that, while not much improved with colonization, without it these regions would be living in the tribal type circumstances which prevailed before the colonists arrived. These people would not be living where a contemporary version of the universal human rights is recognized as it is in many parts of the world. Foreign aid has attempted to promote development but it may be that it is a deterrent and countries should devise their own path to development.
- There are other parts of the world which were touched by the British Empire, such as the Caribbean and parts of South America with investment and trade. The empire also traded with China (opium), Japan, and Russia amongst others. And western Europe was drawn into economic relationships as well as wars involving the British Empire. While the outcome reveals a mixed record which does not lend itself to accurate measurement as there is no agrred upon metric, it is probably a better one than would have existed without the British presence.
The History of England by Peter Ackroyd, that is excluding Scotland, Wales and Ireland which later combined with England to become the United Kingdom, concludes that England was itself a colonized country with invasions mainly from folk in Scandinavia and north-west Europe. These were assimilated with those who were native to England to morph eventually into England and later the United Kingdom. Whatever the ingredients were which allowed this small piece of real estate to create such an empire was itself the product of colonizers. Maybe geography had something to do with it. Centuries earlier England was joined to the French mainland, and the 26 mile stretch of water between England and western Europe did not exist. If it had, perhaps the history and geography of western Europe would have been different and Britain’s empire never existed.