Archive for the 'Southeast Asia' Category

Singapore, 1965-

August 8 2015

My Lee Kuan Yew obituary.

Anniversary of expulsion from Malaysia is tomorrow.

Other Singapore posts.

Port Said to Yokohama

June 10 2015

or, East of Suez

“[…] Aden, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Saïgon, Hue, Hanoi, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, their names roll on the tongue savourily […]”

Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour, A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, 1930.

That shore-hugging list may not correspond exactly to anything on a real timetable. The Mediterranean to Japan would have taken perhaps four weeks with these stops.

Penang should come before Singapore. If anywhere is missing, it is Colombo. And the first stop after Aden could have been Karachi.

So the imperial journey might have touched Port Said, Aden, Karachi, Bombay, Colombo, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Hue, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama. Hanoi’s port was actually Haiphong, 65 miles downstream on the Red River delta.

The cities between Siam and China in Maugham’s list correspond to the three divisions of the old Vietnam: Cochinchina’s capital was Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Annam’s was Hue (Huế), Tonking’s was Hanoi.

AE5Y2B White Man Burden is to teach cleanliness described in a Pears Soap advertisement 1890s

Siam and the West, 1511-1932

June 9 2015

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to give an account of Siam. After their conquest of Malacca in 1511, they sent a diplomat, Duarte Fernandes, to Ayutthaya.

A century later, on August 15 1612, an East India Company merchantman, The Globe, arrived bearing a letter from James I.

Ayutthaya may have been the largest city in the world in the seventeenth century, with a population of a million. Trade flourished, especially with the Dutch, French, Chinese and Japanese.

Episode of Constantine Phaulkon. Siam became more closed after the 1688 revolution (last post but one).

The heirs of Rama I became concerned with the threat of European colonialism after British victories in Burma in 1826.

They signed a series of treaties with foreign powers: the Burney Treaty with Britain in 1826, treaties with the US in 1833 and 1856. Others with other powers during the reigns of Mongkut or Rama IV (reigned 1851-68) and his son Chulalongkorn or Rama V (reigned 1868-1910).

They were caught between the British in Burma and the French in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The French had designs on Siam. Britain was Siam’s ally and wanted to preserve it as a buffer state, and so it remained. The Thais gave Britain economic privileges in return.

Their survival was due to a balance of power between Britain and France, but they believe that they also owe it to the diplomatic skills and modernising reforms of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn (1851-1910).

They were nevertheless forced to concede territory, influence or claims (it is often hard to tell them apart), especially to the French. Ie:

Cochinchina, or the extreme south of Vietnam, to France in 1862;

Cambodia to France in 1867; Cambodia had been a pawn in power struggles between Siam and Vietnam since the seventeenth century;

Thai-speaking Shan States in the north to British Burma; various dates (1893 Hansard discussion here);

Laos to France in Franco-Siamese War of 1893; large parts of Laos had come under Siamese control when the unified Lan Xang Laotian kingdom had disintegrated at the beginning of the eighteenth century; there had already been cessions in 1888; more was handed over in 1904 and 1907;

Territory in the south to Britain; but the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 defined the border between Siam and British Malaya by recognising Thai authority over the semi-Malay areas of Patani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun.

Siam became the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation.

From 1892 to 1924, the Siamese government retained lawyers who specialised in international lawGustave Rolin-Jaequemyns served as Adviser-General from 1892 to 1902. Edward Strobel, a Harvard law professor, served as American Adviser-General from 1906 until his death in 1908. He was followed by further Harvard professors: Jens Westengard, Francis Sayre and Eldon James.

A coup planned by young military officers was discovered and thwarted in 1912. Compare the Russian revolution of 1905, Persian revolution of 1905-07, the Young Turks of 1908.

Siam declared war against the Central Powers on July 22 1917, mainly to gain favour from Britain and France. In 1918 it sent 1,284 volunteers to the Western Front. The force included 95 qualified pilots and a medical unit. In addition to the Chinese Labour Corps and 140,000 Vietnamese troops and workers drafted by the French, the Siamese troops were the only Southeast Asians to participate in the European theatre.

Siam was given a seat at Versailles and used the opportunity to argue for amendments of nineteenth-century treaties. The US obliged in 1920, France and Britain in 1925, but I am not aware of any territorial concessions. Siam was a founding member of the League of Nations in 1920.

Modern Thai politics begin in 1932, when the military staged its first successful coup and transformed the government of Siam from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, with a cabinet presided over by a prime minister.

Conrad in Bangkok

June 8 2015

“One morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town.

There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had as yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river. It was amazing to think that in those miles of human habitations there was not probably half a dozen pounds of nails. Some of those houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of an aquatic race, clung to the low shores. Others seemed to grow out of the water; others again floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of the stream. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, King’s Palace, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.”


Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line, a late novel, written 1915, published 1917. Crossing the bar meant crossing the sandbank which often lies at the mouth of a river. Going in the other direction, it could be a metaphor for setting off into the unknown. Conrad’s young narrator is sailing up the Chao Phraya River.

Siam’s 1688 revolution

June 7 2015

… or, King Narai’s falcon

Constantine Phaulkon (1647-88) was a Greek adventurer, born to Orthodox parents in Venetian-ruled northern Cephalonia.

He left Greece to work for the English East India Company and became an Anglican. He arrived in Siam in 1675, became fluent in Thai, and began to work at the court of King Narai of Ayutthaya as a translator and finally as the king’s chief adviser.

Ayutthaya was the dominant power in Thailand from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth. Recent post. Its capital, Ayutthaya, was the “largest city in the world”. It would be interesting to make a list of all the cities that have had that claim made for them through the centuries.

In 1682, Phaulkon became a Catholic and married a Catholic woman of mixed Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent named Maria Guyomar de Pinha. They lived a life of affluence as he rose as de facto minister of finance and of foreign affairs to Narai. There were two sons – with Greek, Portuguese, Bengali and Japanese blood, João and Jorge – the first of whom died before their father.

Following troubles with the over-aggressive English and Dutch, Phaulkon engineered circa 1680 a Franco-Siamese rapprochement. Several embassies were exchanged between France and Siam. This was not the beginning of Franco-Thai relations, but from about 1680 to 1688 the contact was close.

In 1687 Siam fought a war with the East India Company and the French, seeking to press home their advantages, sent an expeditionary force.

Ayutthaya had been open to other traders and tolerant of missionaries. Chinese, Annamese, Indians, Japanese, Persians, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French came and went. Some set up villages outside the walls of the capital. There had been limited contact with the British, starting in 1612, when an East India Company ship arrived, carrying a letter from King James I for the Siamese king.

Louis’ ambassadors compared Ayutthaya in size and wealth with Paris. The Abbé de Choisy, who was part of the embassy of Chevalier de Chaumont in 1685: “The king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese: no-one dares to utter his name.” (Wikipedia)

French engineers constructed fortifications for the Thais and built a new palace for Narai at Lopburi. French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into Siam. Louis XIV’s personal interest was aroused by reports from missionaries suggesting that Narai might be converted to Christianity.

Phaulkon’s closeness to the king earned him the envy of some Thai members of the court. The Abbé de Choisy:

“He was one of those in the world who have the most wit, liberality, magnificence, intrepidity, and was full of great projects, but perhaps he only wanted to have French troops in order to try and make himself king after the death of his master, which he saw as imminent. He was proud, cruel, pitiless, and with inordinate ambition. He supported the Christian religion because it could support him; but I would never have trusted him in things in which his own advancement was not involved.” (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Louis XIV via Wikipedia)

When King Narai became terminally ill, a rumour spread that Phaulkon wanted to use the designated heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet and become ruler himself. French motives also came under suspicion. All this provided an excuse for Pra Phetracha, the foster brother of Narai, to stage a coup d’état.

Without the king’s knowledge, Phaulkon, his followers and Phra Pui were arrested and executed on June 5 1688 in Lopburi.

King Narai learned what had happened, but was too weak to take any action. He died several weeks later, a prisoner in his own palace. Phetracha proclaimed himself the new king of Siam. The French were expelled (Siege of Bangkok). Phetracha began a xenophobic regime which expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom.

Phaulkon (which means falcon) was in effect, or became, a double agent, if that is not too modern a phrase. The revolution interrupted relations between France and Siam until the nineteenth century, although French Jesuits were allowed to resume preaching. After 1826, the Thais had to deal with the new territorial acquisitiveness of the British and then of the French.

In 1893 and 1941, they fought wars with France. But they are another story.

A narrative of Constantine’s life was written in France circa 1691 by a Père de Beze, one of a group of Jesuit fathers who arrived in Siam in September 1687 at the request of Phaulkon. The manuscript found its way into the hands of GE Morrison, “Morrison of Peking”, The Times correspondent there from 1897 to 1912. In 1917 Baron Iwasaki, the former President of Mitsubishi, bought Morrison’s library. It became the kernel of the great Japanese Asian library, the Tōyō Bunko.

An English scholar, EW Hutchinson, saw the manuscript in Tokyo in 1936 and made some use of it in Adventurers in Siam in the Seventeenth Century, London, The Royal Asiatic Society, 1940. He believes that it was addressed to Père de la Chaise, the Confessor to Louis XIV, and was never intended for publication.

The manuscript was published in Tokyo in 1947 as Mémoire sur la vie de Constance Phaulkon, par Père de Bèze, Presses Salesiennes, in an edition prepared by Jean Drans, Acting French Director at the Maison Franco-Japonaise and Father Henri Bernard, S.J., Professor at the École des Hautes Études de Tientsin.

In 1957 Hutchinson decided to translate the whole memoir “slowly” into English.

The result was a scholarly book of which I bought a well-printed local edition in Bangkok in 1992: 1688 – Revolution in Siam, The Memoir of Father de Bèze, s.j., Translated into English with Introduction, Commentary, Appendices and Notes, Hong Kong University Press, 1968. Father de Bèze is considered more reliable than the highly-coloured tales strung together and published by Père Tachard (1686 and 1687), which in turn were used for the Histoire de Monsieur Constance of yet another Jesuit, the Père d’Orléans (1690).

Somerset Maugham, aware of the Père d’Orléans but not of the Père de Bèze, describes Phaulkon in The Gentleman in the Parlour, A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, published in 1930. He had made the journey with Gerald Haxton in 1922-23.

“I was within forty-eight hours by rail of Bangkok, but before going there I wanted to see Lopburi and Ayudha, which at one time were capitals of Siam. In these Eastern countries cities are founded, increase to greatness and are destroyed in a manner that cannot but fill the Western traveller, accustomed for many centuries now to a relative stability, with a certain misgiving. A king, forced by the hazards of war or maybe only to gratify a whim, will change his capital and founding a new city, build a palace and temples and richly ornament them; and in a few generations the seat of government, owing to another hazard or another whim, moving elsewhere, the city is abandoned and desolation usurps the place of so much transitory splendour. Here and there in the jungle, far from any habitation, you will find ruined temples, overgrown with trees, and among the dank verdure broken gods and elaborate bas-reliefs as the only sign that here was once a thriving city, and you will come across poverty-stricken villages that are all that remain of the capital of a rich and powerful kingdom. It is a sombre reminder of the mutability of human things.

“Lopburi is now but a narrow winding street of Chinese houses, built along one bank of the river; but all about are the ruins of a great city, mouldering temples and crumbling pagodas with here and there a fragment of florid carving, and in the temples are broken images of the Blessed One, and in their courtyards bits of heads and arms and legs. The plaster is grey as though it had been discoloured by London fogs and it peels off the bricks so that you think of old men with loathsome diseases. There is no elegance of line in these ruins and the decoration of doors and windows, robbed by time of their gold and tinsel, is mean and tawdry.

“But I had come to Lopburi chiefly to see what remained of the grand house of Constantine Faulkon, who was, I suppose, one of the most amazing of the adventurers who have made the East the scene of their exploits. The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, he ran away to sea in an English ship, and after many hazards arriving in Siam rose to be the chief minister of the King. The world of his day rang with the tale of his unlimited power, splendour and enormous wealth. There is an account of him in a little book by the Père d’Orléans of the Company of Jesus, but it is a work of edification and dilates unduly upon the tribulations of Constantine’s widow when after his death she sought to preserve her virtue from the rude onslaughts of a Siamese prince. In her laudable efforts she was supported by her saintly grandmother, who at the age of eighty-eight, having lost nothing of the ardour and vivacity of her faith, talked to her continually of the famous Martyrs of Japan, from whom she had the honour to be descended. ‘My daughter,’ she said to her, ‘what glory there is in being a martyr! You have here the advantage that martyrdom seems to be an heirloom in your family: if you have so much reason to expect it, what pains should you not take to deserve it!’

“It is satisfactory to learn that, sustained by these counsels and fortified by the incessant admonitions of the Jesuit fathers, the widow resisted all temptations to become the bejewelled inmate of an almost royal seraglio and ended her virtuous days as dish-washer in the house of a gentleman of no social consequence.

“One could have wished that the Père d’Orléans had been a little more circumstantial in his account of his hero’s career. The vicissitudes in the course of which he ascended from his lowly station to such a pinnacle surely deserved to be saved from oblivion. He represents him as a pious catholic and an upright minister devoted to the interests of his king; but his account of the revolution that overthrew both king and dynasty and delivered the Greek into the hands of the outraged patriots of Siam, reads as though a certain arrangement of the facts had seemed necessary so that neither le grand roi nor various persons in high places should incur reproach. A decent veil is thrown over the sufferings of the fallen favourite, but his death at the hands of the executioners is vastly edifying. Reading between the jejune lines you receive notwithstanding the impression of a powerful and brilliant character. Constantine Faulkon was unscrupulous, cruel, greedy, faithless, ambitious; but he was great. His story reads like one of Plutarch’s lives.

“But of the grand house which he built nothing remains but the high brick wall that surrounded it and three or four roofless buildings, crumbling walls and the shapes of doors and windows. They have still the vague dignity of the architecture of Louis XIV. It is an unhandsome ruin that reminds you of nothing but a group of jerry-built villas destroyed by fire.

“I went back to the river. It was narrow and turbid, deep between high banks, and on the other side were thick clumps of bamboo behind which the red sun was setting. The people were having their evening bath; fathers and mothers were bathing their children, and monks, having washed themselves, were rinsing out their yellow robes. It was a pleasant sight and grateful to the sensibility jarred by those sordid ruins and perplexed.”

History Today (not consulted):

Robert Bruce, Louis XIV’s Mission to Siam, March 1971

Robert Bruce, Constantine Phaulkon: The Greek Dictator of Siam, February 1982

Peter Murrell, Louis XIV and the King of Siam, May 2014.

A Siamese execution, 19th-century illustration from Le Petit Journal used on the jacket of my edition of Hutchinson’s translation:

EW Hutchinson, Revolution in Siam

Southeast Asian languages

June 6 2015

The main language systems are


Austroasiatic includes Mon (Burma), Vietnamese and Khmer.

I have done a post on Austronesia. Austronesian languages include Malay, Polynesian languages and Tagalog.

Hmong-Mien languages are spoken in mountainous areas of southern China. Within the last 3-400 years, many Hmong and Mien speakers have migrated to Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Sino-Tibetan includes Chinese (Mandarin and non-Mandarin), Burmese and the Tibetic languages. It has more native speakers than any other language family except the Indo-European. Tibeto-Burman refers to the Sino-Tibetan languages that are not Chinese.

Tai-Kadai includes Lao and Thai (last post).

These are linguistic, not ethnic, classifications.

African languages (old post).

From the Yangtze to the Gulf of Thailand

June 6 2015

The Thai are a subgroup of the Tai people, who include the Ahom in India, Dai in China, Shan in Burma, Lao in Laos and others in Vietnam. The Tai appeared historically in the first century CE in the Yangtze River valley. Chinese pressures forced them south.

The ancestors of the Thai entered the central part of the Southeast Asian mainland from Yunnan circa AD 1000.

The most powerful Tai kingdom in Yunnan had been Nanchao or Nanzhao, 729-902. It was followed by the Dali Kingdom, 937-1253, whose founder claimed Han descent, and which was conquered by the Mongols.

Some Tai presumably migrated because of infiltration of Yunnan by Han Chinese. More later fled from the Mongols. It was the Mongols who brought Yunnan definitively into China.

Nanzhao had been influenced by Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. Its Indian Acharya version as present in the Dali Kingdom. After their migration (earlier?), the Thais became converts to the Theravada or Sinhalese southern Buddhism that had established itself in Burma in 1190.

There have been four main Thai polities in Thailand (capital here means main capital; other cities may have served the function for some of the time):

I  Kingdom of Sukhothai, 1238-1438
Capital Sukhothai, 265 miles north of Bangkok

Phra Ruang dynasty, but from 1368 under the suzerainty of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya

II  Kingdom of Ayutthaya, 1350-1767
Capital Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok

First Uthong dynasty, 1350-70
First Suphannaphum dynasty, 1370-88
Second Uthong dynasty, 1388-1409
Second Suphannaphum dynasty, 1409-1569
Sukhothai dynasty, 1569-1629
Prasat Thong dynasty, 1630-88
Ban Phlu Luang dynasty, 1688-1767

Ayutthaya was brought down by Burmese invaders, who continued to harass Thailand in the coming decades.

III  Kingdom of Thonburi, 1768-82
Capital Thonburi, now part of Bangkok

Thonburi dynasty

IV  Kingdom of Rattanakosin, 1782-present
Capital Bangkok

Chakri dynasty

Rattanakosin comes from Rattanakosin Island in Bangkok, the original site of the capital.

All the Chakri kings have the official name of Rama. Bhumibol is Rama IX. His predecessor Ananda (last post) was Rama VIII.

Thais called the country Mueang Thai. The exonym Siam came from the Portuguese. It has been identified with the Sanskrit śyāma (श्याम), meaning dark or brown. Some Thais are very dark.

Siam was officially adopted under Mongkut or Rama IV (reigned 1851-68). On June 23 1939 the name was changed to Thailand. From 1945 to May 11 1949 it was Siam again. Then it reverted to Thailand.

The distance from the Yangtze basin to the Gulf of Thailand is about 2,500 miles.

Tibetan rivers (old post).


Mystery in Siam, and other unlucky kings

June 5 2015

Peter, Ananda and Faisal.

Yugoslavia: Ex-King Peter, 1945

Mystery in Siam, 1946

The exonym Siam became official under King Mongkut (reigned 1851-68). On June 23 1939 it was changed to Thailand. From 1945 to May 11 1949 it was Siam again. Then it reverted to Thailand.

Iraq Bombshell, 1958

Flying doctors

May 15 2015

Cook, Nullarbor Plain, South Australia, 1961:

Toynbee passed through Cook by train en route from Adelaide to Perth in July 1956.

Through the whole of the morning and half the afternoon, the tufted red expanse went on opening out in front of us and fading away behind our rolling wheels. Nothing changed except when, once in every hour or two, we passed a row of half-a-dozen houses and a water tank. “Cook”, “Hughes”, “Reid”, “Haig”: such monosyllabic place-names are just the right ones for these pin-points of human life on the map of the wilderness. The rhythm of the journey is so regular that it begins to have a hypnotic effect. But something must be going to break the trance, for this evening we are to reach Kalgoorlie, and to-morrow we shall be in Perth.

Cook was created in 1917 with the completion of the Trans-Australian Railway and is named after the sixth Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Cook.

It died in 1997 when the railways were privatised. The new owners did not need a support town there, but diesel refuelling and overnight accommodation for train drivers remain.

The bush hospital (supported from Ceduna and which advertised itself at the station with “If you’re crook come to Cook”) and airstrip were closed, but medical supplies are stored at Cook against a possible train disaster. The Tea and Sugar Train which had supplied the town ceased operation. The former airstrip is known as a place to spot inland dotterel. When Cook was active, water was pumped from an aquifer. Now it is carried in by train.

The Anglican-affiliated Bush Church Aid Society of Australia, 1919- , mentioned in the clip, were not the more famous flying doctors, but the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, 1928- (it began with a different name) also had evangelical origins, in their case Presbyterian. How much of their respective work was directed at indigenous Australians?

The largest religious group in Australia are Catholics.

The Flying Doctor, Australian-British film by Miles Mander, 1936

Flying Doctor Calling, history by Ernestine Hill, 1947

The Flying Doctor, Australian-British television drama series about RFDSA, 39 episodes, 1959; in UK shown on ITV; opening credits; based on radio drama series broadcast, in the UK, on the BBC; how were both of these aired in Australia?

Six novels by Michael Noonan, 1961-69

The Flying Doctors, Australian (Nine Network) television drama series, 1986-93; opening credits (do they ever stop smiling?)

RFDSA promotional film, 2006

Australian eBay

Flying Doctors of Malaysia

The Flying Doctors of East Africa, film by Werner Herzog, 1969

Amref Health Africa

Flying Doctors of America

Los Médicos Voladores

Sai Wan, Hong Kong island, 1961 again; it is hard to believe that this is not some comparatively remote spot in the New Territories:

History of air medical services

The French pioneer of medical aviation was Marie Marvingt; in 1934, she established the first civil air ambulance service in Africa, in Morocco; Marvingt and her proposed air ambulance, by Émile Friant, 1914:

Marie Marvingt, 1914

Flying Doctor Calling

Le toubib volant

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

Christopher Bayly

April 26 2015

Highly original – so he appears: I have only read part of Forgotten Wars – historian of India, and then of the world, from about 1770 into the twentieth century. He seems to have been as revered in India as Raymond Carr was in Spain.




The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880-1920 (1975)

Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870 (1983)

Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830 (1989)

An Indian trilogy:

Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (1996)

Origins of Nationality in South Asia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India (1998)

Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (2011)

The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (2004)

Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945 (2005)

Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia (2007), the last two with Timothy Harper

Cover below shows a portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (male), with a bust of Guillaume Thomas François Raynal in the background.

Note the suggestion of the tapering penis favoured by many classical and classically-influenced artists, which is at the same time, here, I suppose, a piece of racial stereotyping. Girodet was a pupil of David.

Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World

Bayly, Forgotten Wars

Interview by Alan Macfarlane, July 24 2014:

Penang and Singapore in 1929

April 7 2015

As we sighted the north-western tip of Sumatra, steaming eastwards from Colombo towards Penang, we ran into a flotilla of drift-wood moving, to all appearance, as steadily and as purposefully as our ship, but towards some western goal. As I leaned over the rail, looking at the fleecy clouds banked up against the Sumatran mountains and watching these logs sail by, I thought of the famous drift-wood which assured Columbus that he was approaching a new world. That evening we berthed at Penang in the dark, and I found my new world when I went on shore in the daylight next morning [October 4 1929]. My new world was China – a world on the move in every sense of the words.

The traveller heading for China runs into China coming out to meet him long before he finds himself on what is officially Chinese soil. If he is travelling from North America, I suppose he encounters the vanguard of the Chinese hosts at San Francisco or Vancouver. If he is travelling from Russia, I suppose he encounters them as soon as he has rounded the southern end of Lake Baikal. Travelling from Europe or from India in a P. and O. boat, he runs into China at Penang.

This is on the outbound section of a journey to Japan and back (taking in China, whence the title of the book) between July 23 1929 and January 29 1930. Toynbee had never before been east of Anatolia.

As you land at Penang, your eye is caught by the Chinese characters on the notice-boards. The British Colonial Government, scrupulously endeavouring to hold the scales even, posts up its notices in four scripts and languages, corresponding to the four peoples of Malaya: the Chinese script for the Chinese, an Indian script for the Tamils, the Latin alphabet for the British, and the Arabic for the Malays. To the traveller coming from the West, the Latin and Arabic letters give a touch of familiarity to these polyglot inscriptions (though there is already something strange about those Arabic letters with their mysterious modifications – presumably invented by Malays in order to convey sounds unknown in Arabic, Persian or Turkish). But even on these four-fold notices the flamboyant Chinese characters – sure in touch and confident in gesture – put all the rest into the shade. Later, on the trams, you come across bilingual notices in Chinese and English only (the Malay language seems to be the first to drop out in its native land). Finally, you come to streets of little shops in which nothing but Chinese inscriptions are to be seen. So it is, not only in the British Settlements at Penang and Singapore, but in the capital of the Malay State of Johore. I wonder if it is the same all through Malaya.

Certainly, in the two small corners of Malaya which I visited, I received the impression that the Chinese – by their industry and their energy – are legitimately making the country their own. The shops, the factories, the timber businesses, the rubber plantations, the trading establishments – almost all appear to be in Chinese hands. And it is a country worth acquiring; for, apart from the United States, Malaya is the most prosperous and well-appointed part of the world that I have come across on any journey that I have made since the War. This prosperity, I imagine, is the product of three factors: Chinese industry, British administration, and the bounty of Nature. The Chinese workers have to thank the British empire-builders for giving them this opportunity of which they have taken advantage with such signal success; and, as far as I can learn, the Straits Chinese are duly grateful. They are reported to make loyal and law-abiding and public-spirited citizens of this new Malayan community that is rapidly growing in wealth and numbers under the British flag. And well they may; for they have only to continue steadily on this course in order to become the leading partners in the Malayan firm.

Of the four peoples which are at present co-operating in the development of Malaya, there are only two which can conceivably play the leading part: the Chinese and the British. And while the present and the past belong to the British, I fancy that the Chinese hold the future of Malaya in their hands. It is noteworthy that both these peoples are strangers in Malaya. The native Malays seem to be allowing themselves to be effaced; and the immigrant Tamils, though they share with the Malays the advantage of being at home in a tropical climate, seem destined in Malaya to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water. The race for primacy in Malaya will be run between the British and the Chinese; and the prize will fall to whichever of these two peoples succeeds the better in adapting itself to the tropical environment. I have little doubt that in this peaceful contest the Chinese will be the victors.

As our ship cautiously sidled up to the quay at Singapore [October 5], I studied the faces of the British who had come down to the docks to meet their friends and relations on board. They were melancholy countenances; and, if I read them right, their owners were feeling very little elation at seeing their friends again. They were feeling, I fancy, that it was sad for anybody to be coming back to the Tropics from England. They were feeling that it would be much better if, instead of being there to receive their friends on land, they were going on board themselves in order to sail away home – husbands and wives and children – and never come near the Tropics again in their lives. When at last the gangway was ready, they filed on board; but how slow their movements were, how lifeless their greetings! You would have thought that you were looking on at a parting and not at a reunion. It was all in a minor key.

Then I went ashore myself and prowled for half a day about the city and saw the Chinese; and their cheerful, lively countenances seemed to tell me that for them life in Singapore was full of zest and enjoyment. Cynics will observe that even an Englishman might think Singapore quite a nice place to live in if the only alternative known to him were life in Canton or Amoy in times of revolution. And probably it is true that, whereas the Englishman thinks of home as a paradise compared with Malaya, the Chinese thinks of Malaya as a paradise compared with home. It should also be observed that these better conditions which the Chinese enjoys in Malaya are a gift from the British Empire, which there provides him with a security for his person and his property such as he could never hope to receive at home from the present rulers of his native province. In Kwangtung or Fukien or Chekiang, the laborious Chinese gathers honey in order to be squeezed [squeeze meant extortion] by some tupan or tuchün. In Malaya, under the British ægis, he reaps where he has sown. Is there not a “Protector of Chinese” among the high officials of the British administration? When the gangway went down at Singapore, a uniformed Chinese member of the Protector’s staff was one of the first persons to come on board.

All the same, I do not think that the difference which I saw in the countenances of the British and the Chinese at Singapore is to be explained wholly, or even principally, by the difference between the social environments out of which they have respectively come. For the Chinese in Singapore do not look simply glad to be out of China. They look positively happy to be living in Malaya. The children look happy in the streets, the shopkeepers look happy in their shops. The rich Chinese looks happy as he bowls along in his big new car; and the poor Chinese look happy as they rattle along, crowded together, in their second-hand “tin Lizzie.” And the Chinese houses, whether they are millionaires’ palaces or workmen’s dwellings, look like permanent homes in which the owners look forward to living out their lives and bringing up their children. I believe the Chinese will make themselves at home in Malaya, while the British will never be more than pilgrims and sojourners in the land. In fact, the chief monument of the British Empire there may be the creation of a nineteenth Chinese province – and a very creditable monument it would be.

.               .               .               .               .               .

On the fourth morning [October 10] after we sailed from Singapore I woke up with a most unexpected feeling of exhilaration. For a fortnight I had been enduring the sunless, clammy heat of the Tropics; and though I had managed to resist it by taking the offensive (in the form of repeated singles of deck tennis), I knew very well that if I were condemned to live and work in that climate perpetually, I should gradually come to look and feel like my poor compatriots on the quay at Singapore. In this rainy season in the Tropics, there is all the gloom of a wet grey day in England, with the damp heat added. In fact, one feels very much as though one were sweating in a hothouse under an English sky, only with the hothouse fantastically enlarged until its glass canopy has receded to the firmament. But on this blessed morning I felt as if I had been miraculously translated into the place where I always long to be; and, sure enough, when I ran up on deck, I found myself in – the Mediterranean.

The sun was shining above my head (I had not fairly seen his face since he had set in his glory on the evening when I took the train from Ahmedabad to Bombay). From the sun to the horizon, on every side, there was a cloudless blue sky. A fresh, dry, north-easterly breeze was blowing in my face; and on either hand were jagged islands rising from the sea with the lineaments of the Isles of Greece. We were approaching the south coast of China; and for the third time on my journey from London (the first time had been on the southern descent from the Shipka Pass [link to here], and the second time in the vale of the Orontes) I felt that I was in the Classical World. That feeling has remained with me since: when I was watching the sun set over the same islands, on the evening of the same day, from the peak of Hong-Kong; when I wandered, next morning, among the pines and macchia on the hills behind Kowloon; and when I watched the sun set again to-night over the tangled approaches to Bias Bay. Yes, this southern coast of China is fashioned in the Classical style, yet with a certain fantastic touch which is all its own. On that first bright morning, as we steamed through the islets towards Hong-Kong, ribbons of terra-cotta-coloured fish-spawn trailed across the dark blue sea, transfiguring its Mediterranean surface into the likeness of the interior of a Turkish mosque when it is faced with Kiutahiya tiles. White waterfalls spouted from the grey-green flanks of the islands. And the outlines of the stunted pine-trees against the sky reminded one of Chinese drawings on silk still more than of the figures on Attic lecythi.

So this was the world from which the Straits Chinese had come – a world every bit as different from Singapore as England itself. And yet they are making themselves at home in the Tropics; and other millions of Chinese are making themselves at home in Manchuria, which has the climate of Canada. As I pick up a Shanghai newspaper, already several days old, I read that, in Manchuria, a severe frost has set in. A wonderful nation. They have been expanding – North and South and East and West – for three thousand years. How far will they go?

The archive of a Czech zoologist Jiří Baum and his wife has photographs of Penang and Singapore in 1929. Copyright: used here with permission.

Singapore, the third picture showing Japan Street:







A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

Before that, probably, The Nation and Athenaeum

Singapore’s second founder

March 30 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, the legend goes, made a country against the odds. He never lost a sense of the fragility of Singapore. Having been there 25 times, but not for over decade, I think I have become 5% Singaporean. I can feel the improbability of his achievement. When I see the rain trees by the roads, my heart strings are pulled.

Time to examine this! I have written some short Lee posts already, and a longer one placing him in the context of nation-builders. I gave a skeletal history of British Malaya, 1786-1963 here, which was useful enough to have been used in a postgraduate class in Malaysia or India. I mentioned some moments of confrontation in Singapore’s post-war history here. For references to architecture, search under shophouse.

I am not bored by democracy. Nor am I a Parag Khanna. Indians who stood up in conferences and said: “Please, Mr Lee, come and fix India for us” wanted, understandably, to run away from the dirty Indian road to the gated community of a Singapore. Lee, too, wanted to leave the past behind (so did Mao and Pol Pot), but, when you look at his life, you see that Lee’s dedication to Singapore was in the last analysis an act of love.

The classic account of Singapore as a humourless, over-clean place without soul or grit and full of compulsorily happy people is by William Gibson in the September/October 1993 issue of Wired, Disneyland with the Death Penalty. People who had never been to Singapore wrote articles influenced by it and had their opinions formed by it. This was Wired’s first year.

They fixed their attention on the chewing gum ban which came in in 1992 (under Goh Chock Tong, not LKY, who stepped back at the end of 1990), on the caning of Michael Fay for vandalism in 1994, the litter fines, the use of the death penalty for tiny drug offences. The ban on long hair had come earlier: it operated in various ways from the ’60s to the ’90s.

Singapore has a soul. It had a powerful atmosphere. Perhaps it helped to be British: we were tuned to the post-colonial vibe in a way Gibson was not. Gibson arrived knowing what he was going to write. He satirised the Singaporean propaganda of the time.

Singapore isn’t even litter-free: I could see that last time I was there, over ten years ago. The offenders may be immigrants from countries with no environmental standards or they may be local, but an army of immigrant labour will clean up. I support the laws. If you aren’t looking at your street, you certainly aren’t thinking about the ocean or the tropical forest in which Singapore was a clearing.

“The word infrastructure takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it’s all infrastructure.” I know that feeling. One gets it in airports late at night. “What is the point of any of this?”

Wired, technocratic, hyper-regulated Singapore seemed like a vision, when the web barely existed, of all our futures, a new oriental peril now that Japan was no longer going to rule the world and while we were still waiting for China to get into its stride.

Since then, it has become more normal. Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Disneyland with the Death Penalty, Revisited, Wired, April 2012:

“In fact we have gone backwards to our early stage of development and an industrial strategy based on labor-intensive manufacturing and tourism. Even in mainstream activities Singapore now feels very different from the high-tech, high-wage utopia envisaged by the planners.”

It feels, perhaps, more like just another Asian city and not necessarily the most innovative. It did not feel like just another city to Lee.

In the 1990s nightlife began. Singaporean nightlife was described as like a teenage party in one’s parents’ house, but I think it has improved. At the tawdry end, the government even opened two casinos (or rather “integrated resorts”) in 2010. That would have been unimaginable twenty years earlier.

As an antidote to Gibson, I recommend Singapore Noir, a 2014 collection of stories by living writers, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, in the immensely long Noir series published by Akashic Books (Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World). Each of the stories is associated with a different part of the city.

I mentioned the series in a post called Delhi Noir. The strange thing is that India is supposed to be the place with literary talent, and southeast Asia an entirely unliterary place. There wasn’t even one good bookshop in Singapore before Borders opened in 1997. There was hardly any local literature. Yet the five stories I have read in Singapore Noir are better than the Indian stories. What I do not know, because I haven’t checked, is how many of the writers are true Singaporeans and how many live elsewhere. But as far as I know, all the stories were written in English.

Smile Singapore by Colin Cheong, Tattoo by Lawrence Osborne (a Brit), Current Escape by Johann S Lee, Bedok Reservoir by Dave Chua and Murder on Orchard Road by Nury Vittachi are mainly good, but the Lee is too gruesome. They deal with Chinese superstition, prostitution, foreign domestic workers and their bosses, and other matters. It was an inspired decision to end with Vittachi’s farce (it is on, not in, Orchard Road). Wodehouse would have admired it, but it has its own darkness.

There used to be ordinary villages on the island. The last kampong is Kampong Buangkok (I believe it is just about still there). When it is torn down or disneyfied it will be like the closing of a frontier.


Lee was an authentic figure of the British Empire in its dissolution. Almost the last. Mugabe and Kaunda are alive. Mahathir didn’t enter national politics until after Malaya had become independent.

He sang four national anthems: God Save the King, Kimigayo, God Save the King/QueenNegaraku, Majulah Singapura and had to live with the British, Japanese, British again and Malays.

Lee, like others in the Co-prosperity Sphere who had lived under European colonial rule, collaborated with the Japanese, but he and the British chose to forget this. Lee called them cruel people.

“Surely we must be in charge of our own lives. That is the beginning of politics.” Tay. Lee was in tears in 1965, but perhaps part of him felt liberated even at that press conference.

To use Toynbeean language of withdrawal-and-return, his life’s work had not even begun at that moment of parting.

Survival has been the PAP mantra since 1959. When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, it had, the legend goes, nothing to fall back on. It was rawly exposed. What were the alleged threats?

Racial strife. Singapore needed to be unified. The Malays had been unable to live with the Chinese in Malaysia. There were serious race riots in Singapore in 1964. So Lee created a different kind of multiracial society after 1965. It took a few years. There were more riots in 1969.

There was no reason, in his mind, other than his policies, for Singapore not to have become a Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese, after all, are 74% of Sri Lanka. The Chinese are 74% of Singapore. Recent numbers.

Was it even possible for Singapore to survive on its own? It had no hinterland. Singapore island is much larger than Hong Kong island, which really would have been unsustainable once the New Territories had reverted to China. But it is considerably smaller than the whole of Hong Kong.

It had no natural resources, other than a harbour. In 1968 the British announced their intention of closing their military bases in Malaysia and Singapore by 1971 (the bases which had been expensively rebuilt in 1939 and had failed to defend Singapore in 1942). Singapore was further thrown back on itself and had to build a defence force.

Singapore might have become a third-world cesspool of corruption. There was no reason beyond determination for much of it to cease to be a slum.

Then communism. Did Lee exaggerate the threat in order to bolster his own legend? The total failure of the BBC to assess Lee’s career (beyond what I referred to in the earlier post, there was nothing, except a short slot on Newsnight in which Kissinger said something in reply to a couple of superficial questions) means that one cannot say that they underestimated this or that. But in general, the least well-understood part of his story is his fight with the communists. Lee founded the PAP in 1954 in an expedient alliance with pro-communist trade unions. He continued to fear them after 1959 and might easily have been killed by them, as by the Japanese.

His nickname for Fong Chong Pik, the head of the Singapore section of the Communist Party of Malaya, was “the Plen”. The Plen wanted a united front with the PAP against the British. But he also wanted a communist Singapore, and resisted union with Malaysia, where the communists had already been beaten. Lee, conversely, joined the Federation to dilute the threat. By the time he left it, the threat had been lifted.

There were still militant communists in Indochina to the north and, until 1966, in Indonesia to the south. Malaysia expelled Singapore, Indonesia could have swallowed it up. Singapore was a tense place in 1965.

Looking to the BBC for news may be rather old-fashioned, but I thought its failure showed its decline. They will have pointed cameras at the funeral. That may be easy, but it isn’t journalism. It’s a way of filling airtime.

Lee on NBC’s Meet the Press, October 22 1967, steering a rather careful line between his anti-communism and mere approval of US foreign policy:

What about water? Self-sufficiency in water was a Lee obsession. He achieved it.

A newer threat to survival is an ageing population. Lee wanted immigrants, because an ageing population would mean the end of Singapore. So bring people in, but integrate them. House them next to people who have been in Singapore for a long time.

But the greatest threat was oblivion. The youngest generation had never known poverty or struggle. Communicating his sense of the fragility of Singapore was his intention in meeting young Singaporeans for dialogues.

And what would happen if and when the PAP ceased to govern honestly and wisely and lost its mandate? Energy-dissipating politics? Chaotic democracy? I suppose that is the oldest Chinese dilemma of all.

The Lee-PAP style may not be acceptable for much longer. Case of the rather immature Amos Yee.


The PAP’s governing principles have been pragmatism, meritocracy, multiracialism, and so-called Asian values or communitarianism.

Pragmatism. There was an unideological tone in domestic and foreign policy. If a policy contributed to a stable, prosperous, orderly society, it was adopted. Lee did not waste energy on post-colonial rhetoric (Mahathir did). Religion was kept out of public life, at the cost of mild oppression of Muslims in matters of dress. Environmentalism was a practical matter, about planting trees and self-sufficiency in water. Immigration was treated as a practical necessity. Gays were OK because homosexuality was genetic, according to Lee; legal reform will presumably come.

Meritocracy. An enlightened ruling party co-opted talent, in theory, where it found it. Ministers were paid enough to remove the temptation of the private sector and also to remove the temptation to be corrupt. A potential minister was nurtured, observed and tested in lesser roles, and, when appointed, expected to stay in the job. The average duration of a minister’s tenure in the UK is under a year.

Multiracialism. Lee could have used his expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 as an excuse to create a Chinese hegemony. The easiest thing would have been to appeal to Chinese voters alone. After all, the expulsion had been based on the Malay majority’s resentment of the Singaporean Chinese. Instead, he took what Lee Hsien Loong in his eulogy (below) called the nobler course and founded a multiracial society. His message to all ethnic groups was “don’t even start”. This was the policy from which the rest could follow. Singaporeans would pull together and not dissipate energy in racial fighting. Separate ancestral cultures, common identity as Singaporeans. We’ll keep our languages and all talk English.

The British experiment in multiculturalism, on the other hand, is preparing an unhappy future.

Lee believed, in a rather 1930s way, that a successful multiracial society had to be based on a facing up to profound, primeval, differences between races. In most societies, that recognition or perception has the opposite purpose: it underpins racism. Malays were less good at science and maths than the Chinese. Unless you recognise that, you are just going to have a lot of discontented Malays wondering why the Chinese are getting preferred in the areas that require maths and science.

So you would often see a headline on the front page of the Straits Times that would say something like “Chinese grades up again in maths”, sub-headline “Malays catching up”.

Lee aimed at zero tolerance of racial discrimination via a type of racial categorisation. Was this a legacy of the British who, like the Chinese, regarded the Malays as gentle (unless running amok), but economically incompetent? If so, the Malays have taken this on board and are self-oppressors. Malaysia is the only country I can think of where the majority sometimes seems to regard itself as a problem.

Asian values. I am suspicious when I hear this phrase, or the equivalent British values or African values. It ignores Asian cultural diversity and demotes universal values: the worst of both worlds. Add a word in the middle, and Asian “family” values in Britain can also mean Asian nepotism, Asian village bigotry and Asian cruelty.


But there are paradoxes throughout the LKY or PAP system. There is no official racism, but for many practical purposes, Singapore is mono-ethnic. Most businesses are run by Chinese. The Chinese are three quarters of the population. There are many subtle ways in which a Chinese hegemony is supported and many ways in which Malays feel oppressed. Of the eighteen members of the current cabinet, thirteen are Chinese, four are Tamil and one is Malay (the Minister for Communications and Information, who is also Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs). All are male. The ratios in the population are 74%, 9% and 13%.

There is no corruption, but government-linked corporations which are partly or fully owned by a state-owned investment company, Temasek, include Singapore Airlines, SingTel, ST Engineering, MediaCorp and many others. They play a big role in the economy and their boards are filled with members of the Lee family, ex-cabinet ministers, and government officials. As of November 2011, the top six Singapore-listed GLCs accounted for 17% of the total capitalisation of the Singapore Exchange.

Singapore takes education seriously. I don’t know how much it spends on it or what indicators are significant (percentage of GDP does not sound very helpful), but it is central to the PAP’s plan for maintaining Singapore’s “competitiveness”. And yet, many people who know Singapore well, including Hong Kong entrepreneurs, say that Singaporeans have not been taught how to think. A Singaporean, Kishore Mahbubani, an intellectual cheerleader for the PAP, wrote a book called Can Asians Think?

Whatever the shortcomings of the system, Singapore at least tried to develop its own people. It did what most of the Muslim world failed to do. On the other hand, by not drilling their populations into being docile consumers, poorer Muslim societies have left a space in the human psyche for spiritual energies that may, one day, turn creative.


There is very little political or press freedom in Singapore. For an example of the treatment of foreign media, see experiences of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The Internal Security Act 1960 allows imprisonment without trial (“preventive detention”) and has been used against communists, islamists, agitators and dissidents: all who wish or may wish to block project Singapore. Free political speech had no constructive role to play in the building of the nation, only a destructive and inhibiting one. Perhaps it is time for this Act to be amended.

Dr Chee Soon Juan at “Unbeknownst to many, Chia Thye Poh of Singapore was the longest-serving political prisoner of the 20th century. A teacher and a socialist member of parliament, he was detained in 1966 under the Internal Security Act for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities, and imprisoned for 32 years – 14 years longer than Nelson Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island.”

Are restrictions on freedom in Singapore at least well-defined? Are infringements of liberty in free countries more insidious?

If Asian values is an objectionable phrase, would “Asian system” better describe Singaporean politics? But they aren’t “Asian” at all. Many in Hong Kong found Singapore as creepy as William Gibson did. The other three tigers are, or try to be, real democracies.

Mahathir himself, not exactly a tolerator of dissent, would criticise Lee’s restriction of political free speech (reported here, here). Lee in return, and with some reason, criticised Malaysia’s race-based politics.

You have to look to China to find a parallel to Singapore. Japan and the Asian tigers were laboratories for trying out what China would eventually do, but if China is trying to follow a model, it is that of the island nation. Governance before freedom.

Even as Gibson was writing, Singapore was planning clones of itself in China, a country with which it had only opened diplomatic relations in 1990: Lee’s last act as prime minister.

Do you move to democracy eventually or not at all? Is a model of a) bottom-up removal of people in front-line executive roles with b) an upper level whose members are not elected but co-opted sustainable?

Nowhere on earth has linked urban planning with social engineering and long-term economic policy like Singapore. It’s easier in a small country. Lee stopped short of compulsory eugenics, but only just. Singapore is the opposite of the shambolic, poll-following improvisation that is the UK. No wonder Thatcher admired him.


“Singapore was made in the image of Lee.” If so, what was Lee like? A strict Victorian father.

He was on the right side or open-minded on the things that make people go mad: sex, race and religion. He was not a climate-change denier. He was a pragmatist who did not tolerate corruption. His detestation of personality cults was genuine. He wanted his house pulled down after he died and not turned into a shrine. He refused to be called a statesman. He did not care whether the PAP or another entity ran Singapore in the future so long as it was run by his definition wisely. Patriotic occasions were celebrations of Singapore, not of the PAP. It is as well that he died before the fiftieth anniversary of independence or he would have looked even more like a relic.

Most rounded accounts of Lee mention personal kindness. Stern man, tender heart. Self-educator: almost the last thing he did before becoming ill on February 4, we are told, was to take his lesson in Mandarin. Like other parents of a certain age, he’d ring his children for IT advice. He didn’t have literary interests. His wife did.


The PAP wants to encourage thinking and creativity. Perhaps it is past the “we must all be more spontaneous” phase. I’m not worried about culture. Singaporeans will do what they want to do and “culture” will not be the mere luxury commodity that it is in the Gulf. When people talk about culture in these contexts, they do mean culture of a Western dye. Western cultures, high and low, still tend to marginalise non-Western cultures, which become crafts or folklore or are locked into ritual or are imitators. Or is that just how “we” see them?

An English friend who makes films told me that he once had to stay with a family in Kuala Lumpur. He was so appalled by the plastic consumerism and shopping-mall-centred lives that he found there that he thought “I’d better get home as fast as possible and keep what culture we have going”. Is he sure he would not have had a similar over-educated reaction staying with a family in King’s Lynn?

The only world-class Western classical musician ever to come out of southeast Asia is a Singaporean, Melvyn Tan, who was punished for not having done his National Service when he returned for a visit at the age of nearly fifty, although he had left for England at the age of twelve. His fame meant that the punishment was light: only a fine.

The urban transformation which began after 1965 had, at the time, few precedents in history. The People’s Park Complex was a seminal project for east Asia in 1967. The transformation went too far for my taste. We have so little confidence in ourselves in Europe that we preserve everything. But Singapore hasn’t lost its garden city feel. Lee Hsien Loong called LKY Singapore’s “chief gardener” in his eulogy and meant it literally. And one day, even in Singapore, we may begin to see the effect of time on buildings.


A friend sent me a link to a piece by Chris Blattman, who wrote:

“No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.”

Blattman may be a serious economist, but I found that mildly silly. As if freedom appears ready-made at the birth of a state merely in the absence of a dictator: the Condoleezza Rice view of the world. He also can’t spell Lee Kuan Yew. But he goes on:

“Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:

‘The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”

‘Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.


‘Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.

[…] ’”


Noel Barber’s The Singapore Story is a period piece, published in 1978. Nobody would read it now, but it was my introduction to Lee. It’s a Janus book, by an author who remembers Singapore as a colony, a place of old-fashioned sensuous appeal, a magical island in the sun, and who also knows where it is heading. It ends with a portrait of Lee approaching twenty years in the job. I think Barber wrote partly on the basis of meetings with him. He over-emphasises his Englishness. He also published Sinister Twilight: The Fall and Rise Again of Singapore (1968) and The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerrillas, 1948-60 (1971) and two novels about Singapore.

The best book of historical images of Singapore is Gretchen Liu’s Singapore: A Pictorial History, 1819-2000, Singapore, National Heritage Board/Ed. Didier Millet, 1999. There is a documentary urgency, and considerable charm, in the photographs. This is neither arty nor nostalgic. Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400-2004 by Wendy Khadijah Moore, Singapore, Didier Millet, 2007 is a companion.

The last book one would expect to find at all interesting is a huge coffee table production by Melanie Chew called Leaders of Singapore, Singapore, Resource Press, 1996, but I found it riveting. Only two copies on Amazon, both at the scam price of over $800. It has interviews with all the figures of Lee’s generation and just before whom we never hear about, several of whom Lee Hsien Loong mentioned in his moving eulogy.

I have a dozen other books on Singapore, but those three come to mind in this context.

Hsien Loong, NUS University Cultural Centre, March 29:

All this is based on observation of Lee and general reading. I have not read any obituaries. I haven’t been to Singapore for over ten years. My reactions to it might be different now.

Strangely enough, the phrase that is the title of this post didn’t exist on the web.

The rise of Mandarin

March 25 2015

The campaign to encourage Mandarin in Singapore was, of course, directed at the Chinese: it was not intended that it should replace English as a lingua franca. I have corrected a phrase in a recent post that suggested otherwise. Even so, has it placed the Chinese above other ethnic groups in a way that the humbler Hokkien and other vernaculars did not?

According to Singapore census figures quoted at Wikipedia, the battle is being won. During the 1990s the language most frequently spoken at home among the Chinese resident population ceased to be a vernacular and became Mandarin.

Singapore and UAE

March 25 2015

This is not about the UAE, but is Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in 2009 talking about forgetting what it is like to be poor; it merely suggests interesting comparisons:

Lee and English

March 24 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s first language was English. He spoke it with a Singaporean accent. His vowels sounded roundly imperial.

He came from a family of merchants and businessmen, a Hakka family which had emigrated from Guangdong province in the 1860s. In Singapore they adopted English. They were comfortably off, but not rich. Lee was educated at Raffles Institution in English.

Was Hokkien, the dominant language of the local overseas Chinese, regarded as a coolie language?

The Telegraph obituary says that he spoke Malay and Cantonese as a child. Some Chinese, in that case, had stayed in the family.

Lee arrived in Cambridge (he married his wife secretly in England: his tutors would not have approved) before we had surrendered even India and ten years before we had to give away anything else.

He started learning Mandarin at the age of thirty-two and Hokkien at thirty-eight. Did he learn to read and write them or only speak? Did he learn Tamil?

He encouraged Chinese Singaporeans to learn Mandarin and launched a Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979.

He believed in keeping ancestral languages, but also in having English as a lingua franca. Has the use of Mandarin placed the Chinese above other ethnic groups in a way that the humbler Hokkien did not?


Singapore English

British and Malaysian English differences.

Singaporean shirtsleeves

March 24 2015

I visited Singapore first in 1984. Much more of the old town was standing then. It was still colonial. New towers loomed over old shophouses. I remember meeting Tony Tan, the Minister of Finance, who is now president. My colleague and I visited one office and found ourselves face to face with LKY’s stockbroker brother Freddy, in Singaporean shirtsleeves in an old building with real windows over a real street.

Singaporeans are informal and, unlike people in Hong Kong, not great dressers.

I have described meeting Lee Kuan Yew in Davos circa 1998 (not worth linking to). I haven’t checked how often he was there. I am not sure whether one would call him a stalwart.

I saw him in a small auditorium at a WEF meeting in Singapore in the early 2000s, where he talked and answered questions in his usual way: about the rise of China, the fragility of Singapore, the strengths and weaknesses of the West. I remember that he walked down the steps to the stage arm held up in greeting, palm forward. The gesture made an impression on me. This is how to enter a room where you are expected, but not known personally. It establishes authority, but is informal.

A civilised society

March 24 2015

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Straits Times.

Lee Kuan Yew soundbites and historical film arranged by Daniel Tay: here, here, here. Interesting throughout.
“The first time I came out of the Tube station at Trafalgar Square [probably 1946], I was very impressed. There was a bundle of newspapers for sale and a box. Nobody there. And you can take the newspaper and put your coins in or [take your] change. I said: ‘This is really a civilised society’.”

This was the way evening papers were sold in London until the early ’70s or later. I can remember it. I remember an Austrian remarking on it.

1965: Singapore rejected

March 23 2015

The BBC and Lee Kuan Yew

March 23 2015

On the first main bulletin after Lee’s death, the 10 pm Radio 4 news yesterday: item number 3.

Twelve hours later, 10 am R4 headlines: Lee not mentioned AT ALL.

Here’s the punchline. On the “flagship” R4 lunchtime news programme on Monday, and a 45-minute affair supposedly of some prestige, The “World” at One: Lee not mentioned AT ALL again, even in the headlines. We once ruled the world. We should at least understand it.

This was the day, in Asia time, of Lee’s death, a man of historical importance, the first half of whose life was closely bound up with Britain. There was a lot on extremism, UKIP and sexual abuse and, when the editors had run out of that and didn’t have a welfare story, a long closing section about, not hawking this time, but what makes a gardener.

Lee and the Facebook generation

March 23 2015

These discussions are riveting. Lee Kuan Yew met young journalists from the Straits Times at the Istana over the course of a year to answer their questions, in 2009 and 2010.

How to preserve Singapore:

A second, shorter clip is here, but won’t embed. On sexuality, his grandchildren and more.

A third, in which he speaks movingly about his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, who died on October 2 2010, soon after this was filmed:

A book and DVD, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, came out in 2011, published by the Straits Times Press. Amazon blurb:

“Why is Lee so hard on his political opponents? Could the PAP ever lose its grip on power? Are the younger leaders up to the mark? Will growing religiosity change Singapore for the better of worse? How will rising giants China and India affect Singapore’s fortunes? Why is rich Singapore so parsimonious when spending on the poor and disadvantaged? Why the drive to attract immigrants despite Singaporeans’ discomfiture? Lee, fielding these and many other questions in the book and on DVD, is combative, thought-provoking and controversial. Lee has stayed in the public eye for 60 years – as the revolutionary leader who steered Singapore to independence, as the Prime Minister who transformed the Republic into a First World country, and as Minister Mentor, the elder statesman. Based on 32 hours of interviews, this book and DVD pick up where his memoirs of 1999 and 2000 left off. His views are articulated forcefully, with forays into history to buttress his point. To him, Singapore is a miracle that could disappear if not for exceptional leadership and safeguards. Here is Lee at 87, an unrepentant believer in strong government, in genes, and in the view that economics trumps freedoms.

Unvarnished Lee

This book presents the politically incorrect Lee, often impatient and dismissive of those who criticise his worldview. He is not one for regrets. He does not recant. But there are moments when he looks back and thinks he could have done things differently or been more accommodating. Readers will gain insight into Lee’s mind as he ruminates, argues, thinks aloud and rebuts.”

Lee Kuan Yew and the nation-builders

March 19 2015

Lee Kuan Yew is the last great living twentieth-century nation builder, if he is alive.

Who were the others? What defines them? They have to have created a nation where none before existed – and yet one can’t leave out Mandela.

They must have done it through a personal struggle. They must have a certain stature. Their achievement must be solid. One can’t leave out Herzl, although he died forty-four years before the birth of Israel.

At one level, Lee was a reluctant builder. He did not, at least as it appears, wish to leave the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

Norway, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the central Asian “stans”, Mongolia were, before the twentieth century, merged or submerged nations, but when they became independent did not have famous fathers, unless you count Piłsudski. Or de Valera? They already, in a sense, existed, especially Poland.

But, then, so did the Czech nation, and I am counting Masaryk, even though the nation he founded was later divided into two. (One can’t exactly call Haakon VII a nation-builder, even if he was a father-figure.)

Ukraine is a half-formed nation. Why am I implying less formed than the other Ruthenia, Belarus? At any rate, no builder.

Hungary achieved nationhood in the nineteenth century.

The Philippines’ founders did their work before, not after, American colonisation. Aung San died before Burmese independence, and his legacy is unclear. So are Ho Chi Minh’s and Sihanouk’s. Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia had once contained powerful states. Burma is the most ethnically fragmented. Thailand was never colonised, so the question of nation-building does not arise.

The Republic of China was declared in 1912, but Taiwan became its last stronghold long after Sun’s death. Sun was the father of a nation that, as a geographical entity, doesn’t even recognise itself, and as a wider entity is China – not a new nation.

So I am including him uneasily – or do we believe in the permanence of Taiwan? I can’t leave out Sukarno even if I want to.

Not everyone who led a colony into independence qualifies. In fact, not a single leader from the main years of decolonisation is in my list. I can’t bring myself to include Bourguiba, for example. Or, in a short list, Nkrumah or Kenyatta or Nyerere or Kaunda. Is that because black African countries are, or were, not nations, but tribal or ethnic hegemonies and coalitions? But so are others. So is Burma. So was nineteenth-century Hungary.

Mahathir is a smaller figure than Lee. He did not become prime minister until 1981.

In theory Singapore is a coalition of three ethnic groups, like its one-time role-model Switzerland.

Here is my list, in chronological order of the nation’s birth or the builder’s accession to power if later:

Sun Yat-sen 1912

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk 1918

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 1923

Ibn Saud 1932

Sukarno 1945

Mahatma Gandhi 1947

Muhammad Ali Jinnah 1947

Theodor Herzl 1948

Lee Kuan Yew 1965

Nelson Mandela 1994

Lee’s funeral or public memorial will be as big as Mandela’s and deservedly. [Postscript: I was wrong on that.] You don’t need to have loved someone to feel grief.

The Blairs will be there, collecting cards.


1946, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Picture source: Lee Kuan Yew, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going via

Toynbee and Indiana Jones at Versailles

March 12 2015

The image links to the full Indiana Jones episode of which I showed a clip here.

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 02.08.05

Background and context are in the old post. Toynbee’s big scene starts at 5:00. His other main appearances are at 26:00 and 33:00. Later the scene shifts to Princeton.

Mistakes and unconvincing portrayals aside (Lawrence is the worst, Gertrude Bell a close second), it doesn’t do such a bad job of bringing history to life. Vignettes of Arabs, Vietnamese, Germans. Woodrow Wilson is shown as comically out of his depth. Indiana is touching, trying to be nice to the Germans.

Toynbee is rather convincing. He never said that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it, but he had a sharper political mind when he was young than when he was old.


January 28 2015

Europeans up to circa 1950 would have said that the only parts of the Old World south of the equator touched by civilisation before their arrival were Java and Bali. A few Arab settlements on the Swahili coast didn’t count.

Summer capitals, summer palaces

December 10 2014

The Sarawat mountains run down the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. Sarat al-Hejaz, Sarat Asir, Sarat al-Yemen.

Taʿif is in the Hejaz section, 100 km southeast of Mecca. The ruling family and much of the government are said to go there during the summer to escape the heat of Riyad. Taʿif is cool. Coastal Jeddah, on nearly the same latitude, hot and humid. Inland Riyad is hot and dry.

Taʿif is known for grapes, pomegranates, figs, roses, honey. The family of Hani Hanjour, the 9/11 hijacker-pilot who crashed into the Pentagon, ran a lemon and date farm there.

There are more grapes at Hofuf in the Eastern Province.

Taʿif, like Mecca and like Al-Qullays, was a religious centre which attracted pilgrims before the Prophet: it housed the idol of Allat, the lady of Taʿif, who was also one of the trinity of goddesses worshipped in Mecca.

It was near the site of Muhammad’s victory at the battle of Hunayn in 630. The Sharif of Mecca capitulated to Selim I at Taʿif in 1517, a surrender undone by the British four hundred years later.


Ecbatana. The Achaemenids had the old Median capital as their summer capital. Their real capital was Susa, their ceremonial capital Persepolis. (Seleucia-on-Tigris was the first capital of the Seleucid Empire, though it was officially superseded by Antioch. Ctesiphon-on-Tigris, opposite Seleucia, and Susa were the joint capitals of Parthia. Susa was briefly taken by Trajan and was the easternmost point reached by the Romans. Ctesiphon was also the Sasanian capital, and fell to the Arabs.)

Xanadu. The summer capital (1271-94) of Kublai Khan, the Mongol founder of the Yuan dynasty in China, after he moved his permanent capital from Xanadu (Shangdu) to Khanbaliq (Dadu), present Beijing. Destroyed by the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming, in 1369. Old posts: Xanadu and Jehol and Foreigners in Cathay.

Simla. The summer capital (1864-1939), in the Himalayan foothills, of the British in India. Over a thousand miles away from Calcutta. (Much nearer to Delhi.) Old post. Wikipedia says that before 1864 the summer capital was even further away, at Murree, a pleasant, often snowy, spot in the Margalla Hills, near Rawalpindi, and now in Pakistan. But wasn’t it the regional government of the Punjab province that moved there in the summer? A cool retreat much closer to Calcutta would have been Darjeeling. Was that too inaccessible?

In the middle of the 19th century, San Sebastián, near Biarritz, became a summer capital for the Spanish monarchy. Franco spent his summers there.

The hill station of Baguio in the northern mountains of Luzon was the summer capital of the Philippines during the American occupation (1898-1946).

Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley is still the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The winter capital is Jammu.

Sochi, on the Black Sea, is described as the summer capital of Russia. Before 1991, resorts in the Crimea could play that role. Now they can presumably play it again.


Murree beer was made in Murree when the Murree Brewery was founded in 1860. In (I believe) 1910, the plant was moved to Rawalpindi. There is also one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP), which I thought was too strict nowadays to allow this kind of thing. It was Bhutto, in 1977, not Zia, who made Pakistan dry. The Christian, Hindu, and Parsi communities were not large enough to support the Murree enterprise, and production had to be cut back.

But the laws are not very strictly enforced. The last few times I was in Pakistan (2004-06), I had to sign a declaration in hotels that I required the beer (or the local whisky, also made by Murree Brewery) for medicinal purposes. It was then handed over in a black bag. I don’t recall the form requiring me to state that I was a non-Muslim. The medical ruse, I suppose, allowed it to be sold to anyone, irrespective of religion.

Of course, part of the moneyed middle class, especially in Karachi, and of the military class and the “feudal” class, drinks quite a lot and gets its hands on foreign liquor. Musharraf’s two loves, it has been said, are dogs and whisky.

I am convinced that Murree is how beer used to taste. At least the Murree that I remember (there has been some product diversification). It’s the subaltern’s beer, still being made. But one bottle could (it must be said) taste and look disconcertingly different from another.

It isn’t exported, which doesn’t stop them from producing an Export Pils, but in 2013, Murree Brewery opened a franchise, run by a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, which allows its brewing, bottling and marketing in India.


A family and a few courtiers might go to a summer palace. A large part of a civil service might migrate to a summer capital. This is what I understand happened with Simla and Baguio and happens with Srinagar. What about Sochi? Does it really still happen with Taʿif? Why migrate when there is air conditioning?

Roman and Byzantine emperors had summer palaces. The pope has Castel Gandolfo.

Peter the Great built one in St Petersburg, and Elizabeth of Russia another – and the Winter Palace.

There were two summer palaces at Tsarskoye Selo. Catherine I built the Catherine Palace, Catherine the Great the Alexander Palace.

Frederick the Great built Sanssouci in Potsdam. Maria Theresa was given Schönbrunn.


Construction of the complex of gardens and palaces in Beijing known as the Old Summer Palace began in 1707 under the Kangxi Emperor (Qing). He intended it as a gift for his fourth son, the future Yongzheng Emperor, who would expand it in 1725. The Qianlong Emperor (same generation as Elizabeth and Frederick) did further work.

The Old Summer Palace, with its many ancient books and works of art, was destroyed by the British and French in the Second Opium War, causing the Imperial Court to relocate to the Forbidden City.

The vast nearby Summer Palace, also in Beijing, had its origin in a palace built by the Jurchen (Jin dynasty) emperor Wanyan Liang in the 12th century. It remained in use under the Yuan. (What did the Ming do with it?) The Qianlong Emperor built much of what we see now. The Old Summer Palace had been built by his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor (hence, I suppose, “Old”). The Summer Palace was badly damaged by the British and French, but not completely destroyed.

Both of these were outside the walls of the Inner City. Did Summer Palace connote “without the walls”? The Forbidden City was within the walls.

On the history of Peking, its walls, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, see posts here and here.


Essences from damask roses grown in Taʿif can cost thousands of pounds a bottle. I was with a friend in a perfumery in Jeddah in summer 2009. I couldn’t understand the Arabic courtesies and chatter exchanged between him and the owner, his friend, and not since childhood have I felt so trapped in a conversation that I could neither follow, nor contribute to, nor end. The light turned rosy as the evening approached, and a few miles away my friend’s plane waited for us on the tarmac at the airport like a patient camel.

A perfect Taʿif rose (image).

Austronesia: Madagascar to Hawaii

April 24 2014

The widest term for the languages and cultures, not racial identities, of Malaya, Madagascar, Sumatra, Java, Taiwan (before the Chinese), the Philippines, Borneo, Micronesia, Melanesia, New Zealand, Polynesia, Hawaii is Austronesian.

Austronesian languages include Acehnese, Hawaiian, Javanese, Maori, Malagasy, Malay, Polynesian languages, Sundanese, Tagalog.

They are not to be confused with the much older Papuan and Australian languages. (New Guinea is outside the Austronesian space.)

It used to be thought that they had originated in Taiwan, from where large-scale migrations began after 5000 BC. The first Austronesian-speaking settlers were said to have landed in northern Luzon, where they intermingled with an older population.

Recently (2009) their origin has been placed further south, in Sundaland, the peninsula, before the end of the last Ice Age, that had extended the Asian landmass as far as Borneo and Java. Under this scenario, refugees from the rising seas migrated north to Taiwan.

Austronesian-speakers spread eastward to the islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia and westward to Madagascar. Sailing from Melanesia and Micronesia, they had discovered Polynesia by 1000 BC, Easter Island and Madagascar by AD 300, Hawaii by AD 400 and New Zealand by AD 1280. They reached South America and traded with Native Americans.

By the beginning of the first millennium CE, the Austronesian inhabitants of maritime Southeast Asia had begun trading with India and China. Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced and Indianised kingdoms established. By the tenth century Muslim traders had brought Islam, which gradually displaced the older religions. The Austronesian inhabitants of Polynesia were unaffected by these cultural migrations and diffusions and retained their indigenous culture.

Map of the Austronesian migrations, Wikimedia Commons, opens in a new window; a couple of the dates differ slightly from ones I have given:


The chair of Kichwa

February 24 2014

The Roman Catholic Christian missionaries [in the Americas and in the Philippines] disregarded the Spanish secular authorities’ injunction to impose the Castilian language on the Indians as the medium of religious instruction. In their single-minded concern to preach the Gospel, the missionaries refused to be diverted by raison d’état from taking the shortest way to reach the Indians’ hearts. Even in the Philippines, where there was no pre-Castilian lingua franca, they learnt, and preached in, the local languages; and they went much farther in the Viceroyalty of Peru, where a native lingua franca had already been put into currency by the Spanish conquerors’ Inca predecessors. The missionaries in Peru reduced this Quichua lingua franca to writing in the Latin Alphabet; in A.D. 1576 a chair of Quichua was founded at the University of Lima, where it was maintained until A.D. 1770; and in 1680 a knowledge of Quichua was made an obligatory qualification for any candidate for ordination in Peru to the Roman Catholic Christian priesthood.

The Inca, unlike the Aztecs, had not had a writing system.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Survival of the Hinayana

February 21 2014

In A.D. 1956 the Hinayanian [Theravadan] Buddhist philosophy was the dominant way of life in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, and Cambodia; and in that year a Hinayanian Buddhist oecumenical council was in session at Rangoon, sitting placidly within a stone’s throw of the tense borderline between a Communist-dominated and a Western-dominated hemisphere. This serenity was an heroic example of a spirit that was also in evidence in ordinary life in the Hinayanian Buddhist countries. Many Western observers, including Westerners who were still Christians, were impressed by the strength, pervasiveness, and beneficence of the Hīnayāna’s influence on the êthos of the people at large, beyond the small circle of professed philosopher-monks. If philosophers, as well as prophets, are to be known by their fruits, [footnote: Matt, vii. 16 and 20.] the Hinayanian Buddhist philosophers need not fear comparison with their Mahayanian critics. Yet the local survival of the Hīnayāna in South-Eastern Asia was no more than a modest practical success by comparison with the tenacity of Confucianism; and elsewhere the Hīnayāna, like the Hellenic philosophies, had been superseded by other faiths. In its Indian homeland it had been evicted by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism; and, on the threshold of a vast mission-field in China, Korea, and Japan, the adherents of an advancing Buddhism had fallen away from a Hinayanian philosophy to a Mahayanian religion, in which the social demands of Love and Pity had been given patent precedence over the pursuit of self-sufficiency through self-extinction.

Old posts:

The survival of the Brahmans

Survival of the Confucians.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

High Baedeker and other matters

February 20 2014

“Singapore is the meeting place of many races. The Malays, though natives of the soil, dwell uneasily in towns, and are few; and it is the Chinese, supple, alert and industrious, who throng the streets; the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet, as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land, but the Bengalis, sleek and prosperous, are easy in their surroundings, and self-assured; the sly and obsequious Japanese seem busy with pressing and secret affairs; and the English in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motor-cars or at leisure in their rickshaws, wear a nonchalant and careless air.”

W Somerset Maugham, P&O, story in The Casuarina Tree, William Heinemann, 1926.

The first sentence there is in what could be called High Baedeker.

EM Forster (who brings Baedekers into A Room with a View) uses it in the first sentence of A Passage to India, Edward Arnold, 1924:

“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”


Another story, The Letter, in the same Maugham collection, has a similar passage to the one in P&O:

“Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones.”

He is enjoying the mixture of black, yellow, brown and white. That isn’t racist.

“Chinks” is still used sometimes in India. It is one of a dwindling number of verbal survivals from the Raj. “Peg”, as in “a peg of whisky”, is another. An Indian man in Delhi – who is married to a Tibetan (Tibetans are a significant minority there) – referred to “chinkies” when talking to me in 2010 and did not in the least mean to be offensive. I am not sure whether he meant to include Tibetans.

Mussoorie, a mere 170 miles away, has the training centre for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

In 1984, when I first visited Singapore, people would still ask where one was “putting up”, to mean where was one staying.

Singaporeans like the phrase “cock and bull story”. Also “raining cats and dogs”.

Jews? They were and are an important, though small, minority, mainly Iraqi Jews, whose modern diaspora got under way in the nineteenth century. They settled in Bombay and moved east. I knew one very well in Singapore. See Wikipedia articles on David Sassoon of Bombay and Edward Isaac Ezra of Shanghai, especially. There are Sassoons in Singapore. David Marshall, one of Singapore’s modern founding fathers, was an Iraqi, or Baghdadi, Jew.

Armenians? They were a parallel movement. The Raffles Hotel was founded by Armenians, the Sarkies Brothers. The Straits Times was co-founded by an Armenian, Catchick Moses. Was he also Jewish? I suppose both groups were attracted by a growing trade between South Asia and the West and found little room for their energy in a declining Ottoman Empire.


Raffles, despite its recent sugar-coating and fakifying, is a fine building, especially from the side. Its architect was Regent Alfred John Bidwell (1869-1918) of a local firm, Swan and Maclaren. He also designed the Victoria Memorial Hall and deserves to be remembered.

You immediately feel that Raffles has taken something from Malay architecture. But what? Compare the Wikipedia picture of Raffles with the main Wikipedia image of the Rumah Melayu, the traditional Malay house. Here are both.

Rumah Kedah

Raffles Hotel

It is hard to pinpoint the architectural feature which defines a hybrid style, but the windows are similar. The Rumah Melayu tradition is indigenous. In its origin, it owes nothing to colonial influences. But does that house in Kedah owe nothing or is it itself done in a local hybrid style which in turn influenced the design of Raffles?

The Singapore shophouse style was a hybrid of Chinese and Portuguese vernaculars, with Malay decorative elements. The BakerLutyens style in New Delhi is a hybrid of European and Mughal.

Baker’s and Lutyens’s buildings did not come out of a local hybrid vernacular, but were products of individual genius. That is why New Delhi feels unreal to some people. Not to me. Its architects were too talented. If you want unreal stage sets, go to Putrajaya in Malaysia.

The great indigenous vernacular architectures of East Asia are Japanese and Malay. Some primitive Chinese vernacular is also moving.

Old posts:

Loggia, arcade and shophouse (Singapore architecture)

Anglo-India (P&Os)

Baedeker, Britannica and others


Confrontations in Singapore

February 19 2014

Why is the history of Singapore so fascinating? It has a strong atmosphere, though the city nowadays is called sterile. The modern founding fathers seem, in the ’50s and ’60s, magnetic, but nobody is attracted to their successors.

A rough guide to British Malaya (old post). Singapore became self-governing in 1959, joined the new Federation of Malaysia in 1963, seceded from it on August 9 1965.

Five 45-minute episodes of Days of Rage, documentary series on Channel NewsAsia, are online now. Historical order:

  1. Nadra. December 11 1950. An argument over the custody of Maria Hertogh between her Malay-Muslim foster mother and her Dutch-Catholic real parents led to rioting by Muslims. Nadra was her Muslim name.
  2. Hock Lee Bus Riots. May 12 1955. A communist-instigated strike in a bus company.
  3. Race Riots. July 21 1964. The beginning of the end for Singapore in the new Federation of Malaysia. Thirteen months later, the two nations would separate.
  4. Konfrontasi. March 10 1965. MacDonald House on Orchard Road was bombed while Malaysia was in an undeclared war with Indonesia.
  5. Laju Hijack. January 31 1974. Two members of the Japanese Red Army and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine set off bombs in an oil refinery on Pulau Bukom, an offshore island, and seized the ferryboat Laju.

The films are partly acted (chubbier modern actors in place of slimmer originals, as always; the most absurd example of this I ever saw was a film about the Egyptian pyramids in which pampered, pudgy modern bodies hauled stones), but there are talking heads and old footage. For some surviving witnesses, we are told, “this is the first time they have shared their […] stories”.

There were riots in Little India last December. There were Anti-National Service Riots in 1954 and riots by pro-communist Chinese school students in 1956. Further race riots in 1969 were a spillover from Malaysia.

Producer and directors: first episode (broadcast order), Joan Chee; second, third, fifth, Tom St John Gray; fourth, Janice Young. Channel NewsAsia is part of MediaCorp, which is owned by Temasek, which is the government of Singapore. Thanks to Adrian Murdoch for the link. Adrian’s edition of three early lives of Raffles is here.

Singapore pre-1975 (Flickr group).

North Korea and Cambodia

December 12 2013

If China were to invade North Korea and, with no rhetoric about human rights, replace an intolerable regime with a merely unpleasant one, the parallel would be the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978.

The man who, at the end of his career, oversaw that invasion, General Giap – Võ Nguyên Giáp – died in October, aged 102. Telegraph obituary.

Parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing

November 17 2013

A conversation […] took place in the nineteen-twenties between the Zaydi Imam Yahya of Sanʿa and a British envoy whose mission was to persuade the Imam to restore peacefully a portion of the British Aden Protectorate which he had occupied during the general War of 1914-18 and had refused to evacuate thereafter, notwithstanding the defeat of his Ottoman overlords. In a final interview with the Imam, after it had become apparent that the mission would not attain its object, the British envoy, wishing to give the conversation another turn, complimented the Imam upon the soldierly appearance of his new-model army. Seeing that the Imam took the compliment in good part, he went on:

“And I suppose you will be adopting other Western institutions as well?”

“I think not,” said the Imam with a smile.

“Oh, really? That interests me. And may I venture to ask your reasons?”

“Well, I don’t think I should like other Western institutions,” said the Imam.

“Indeed? And what institutions, for example?”

“Well, there are parliaments,” said the Imam. “I like to be the Government myself. I might find a parliament tiresome.”

“Why, as for that,” said the Englishman, “I can assure you that responsible parliamentary representative government is not an indispensable part of the apparatus of Western civilization. Look at Italy. She has given that up, and she is one of the great Western powers.”

“Well, then there is alcohol,” said the Imam, “I don’t want to see that introduced into my country, where at present it is happily almost unknown.”

“Very natural,” said the Englishman; “but, if it comes to that, I can assure you that alcohol is not an indispensable adjunct of Western civilization either. Look at America. She has given up that, and she too is one of the great Western powers.”

“Well, anyhow,” said the Imam, with another smile which seemed to intimate that the conversation was at an end, “I don’t like parliaments and alcohol and that kind of thing.”

The Englishman could not make out whether there was any suggestion of humour in the parting smile with which the last five words were uttered; but, however that might be, those words went to the heart of the matter and showed that the inquiry about possible further Western innovations at Sanʿa had been more pertinent than the Imam might have cared to admit. Those words indicated, in fact, that the Imam, viewing Western civilization from a great way off, saw it, in that distant perspective, as something one and indivisible and recognized certain features of it, which to a Westerner’s eye would appear to have nothing whatever to do with one another, as being organically related parts of that indivisible whole. Thus, on his own tacit admission, the Imam, in adopting the rudiments of the Western military technique, had introduced into the life of his people the thin end of a wedge which in time would inexorably cleave their close-compacted traditional Islamic civilization asunder. He had started a cultural revolution which would leave the Yamanites, in the end, with no alternative but to cover their nakedness with a complete ready-made outfit of Western clothes. If the Imam had met his Hindu contemporary Mr. Gandhi, that is what he would have been told, and such a prophecy would have been supported by what had happened already to other Islamic peoples who had exposed themselves to the insidious process of “Westernization” several generations earlier.

Toynbee’s distant perspectives are as dangerous as the Imam’s. The modern cultural interaction of the West with other societies was a subtler process than he acknowledges. He rarely examines its nuances. He had a rather superficial conception of what constituted modernity.

The Imam is, in Toynbeean terminology, a Zealot rather than a Herodian.

Britain in Yemen (old post).

List of British residents in Aden.

Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948


August 15 2013


Chinatowns in Africa

Chinatowns in Asia

Chinatowns in Australia

Chinatowns in Canada

Chinatowns in Europe

Chinatowns in Latin America

Chinatowns in the Middle East, but are any real?

Chinatowns in Oceania

Chinatowns in the United States

Oldest. Anywhere: Manila. In Japan: Nagasaki. In Americas: Mexico City. In US: San Francisco. In Canada: Victoria. In Australia: Melbourne. In Europe: Liverpool. The oldest are never the largest.

Largest. In US: New York, followed by San Francisco. In Canada: Vancouver, followed by Toronto. In Japan: Yokohama, followed by Kobe, followed by Nagasaki (the three official Chinatowns). In Australia: Sydney, followed by Melbourne. In Britain: London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle.

In the Netherlands: Amsterdam, followed by The Hague, followed by Rotterdam. In Belgium: Antwerp (the only official one). In France: Paris, the main one in the 13th arrondissement.

The only official Chinatown in Korea is in Incheon. There are Chinatowns in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Jakarta’s is in a district called Glodok. The only real Chinatown in India is in Kolkata.

It is odd, in the case of Singapore, to have a Chinatown in a country that is ethnically Chinese. The word at least pays lip service to Singapore’s multiculturalism. There is no Chinatown in Tokyo.

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo do not have well-defined areas. Buenos Aires has a small Chinatown. Moscow and Berlin do not have historic Chinatowns.

Many Chinatowns are in decline or are being replaced by China-themed malls. Flight of upwardly-mobile Chinese in US to the suburbs.

Chinese laundries in North America.


Chinatown cooks

Manhattan, Wikimedia Commons

The coalescence of the Oikoumenê

June 12 2013

By the year A.D. 1952 the initiative and skill of Western Man had been engaged for some four and a half centuries in knitting together the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet by a system of communications that was unprecedented in the two features of being literally world-wide and being operated by a technique which was constantly surpassing itself at a perpetually accelerating pace. The wooden caravels and galleons, rigged for sailing in the eye of the wind, which had sufficed to enable the pioneer mariners of Modern Western Europe to make themselves masters of all the oceans, had given way [in the 1840s] to mechanically propelled iron-built ships of relatively gigantic size [some smaller steamships had wooden hulls]; “dirt-tracks” travelled by six-horse coaches had been replaced by macadamized and concrete-floored roads travelled by automobiles; railways had been invented to compete with roads, and aircraft to compete with all land-borne or water-borne conveyances. Concurrently, means of [instantaneous] communication which did not require the physical transportation of human bodies had been conjured up, and put into operation on a world-wide scale, in the shape of telegraphs, telephones, and wireless transmission – visual as well as auditory – by radio. The movement of sea-borne and airborne traffic had been made detectable at long range by radar. There had been no period in the history of any other civilization in which so large an area had been made so highly conductive for every form of human intercourse.

From this perspective, the creation of an electronic World Wide Web (for non-privileged users) in 1994 was the latest stage of a process that had begun with the discovery of Madeira by the Portuguese in 1419.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The ship

June 11 2013

The key-notes of the fifteenth-century acceleration in the shipwright’s and the navigator’s art were its suddenness and its speed.

“In the fifteenth century … there was a swift and momentous change in the building of ships. It was a great era of architecture. In the space of fifty years the sea-going sailing-ship developed from a single-master into a three-master carrying five or six sails.” [Footnote: Bassett-Lowke, J. W. [that should be W. J.], and Holland, G.: Ships and Men (London 1946, Harrap), p. 46. […]]

The revolution in navigation was the development of the sea astrolabe.

And this technological revolution in the West not only gave its authors access to all quarters of the Globe by making them masters of Oceanic navigation; it also gave them an ascendancy over all non-Western mariners whom they encountered in any seas.

“At the beginning of the fifteenth century the seaborne trade of Europe was carried in ships markedly inferior in design and workmanship to the vessels used in many parts of the East; but at the end of the sixteenth century the West European ships were the best in the World. They were, perhaps, less handy and less weatherly than the junks of the China seas, but in general, in their combination of seaworthiness, endurance, carrying capacity, and fighting power, they proved superior to anything else afloat.” [Footnote: Parry, J. H.: Europe and a Wider World, 1415-1715 (London 1949, Hutchinson), p. 21.]

This new-fangled Western type of vessel is the most characteristic emblem of a Modern Age of Western history (currebat circa A.D. 1475-1875) during which its unchallenged supremacy was proclaimed in its monopoly of the title “ship”, by which it came to be known par excellence. The “ship’s” distinctive virtue, in which it surpassed its successors as conspicuously as its predecessors, was its power to keep the sea for an almost unlimited length of time on end; and this virtue has been divined and lauded by a nineteenth-century Western man of letters who lived to see the “ship” reach its peak of technical perfection, and all but lived on to see it disappear from the seas as suddenly as it had invaded them some four hundred years earlier.

“L’ancien navire de Christophe Colomb et de Ruyter est un des grands chefs-d’œuvre de l’homme. Il est inépuisable en force comme l’infini en souffles, il emmagasine le vent dans sa voile, il est précis dans l’immense diffusion des vagues, il flotte et il règne.” [Footnote: Hugo, Victor: Les Misérables, Part II, Book II, chap. 3.]

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Foreign fields

June 3 2013

Anglican and partly-Anglican cemeteries in non-English-speaking countries:

Bangkok Protestant Cemetery

Bilbao British Cemetery

Bornova Anglican Cemetery, Izmir

British Cemetery, Callao

British Cemetery, Madrid

Cementerio Británico, Buenos Aires

Cheras Christian Cemetery, Kuala Lumpur

Christian Cemetery, Dhaka

English Cemetery, Florence

English Cemetery, Malaga

English Cemetery, Naples

First Cemetery of Athens

Gora Kabristan, Lahore

Feriköy Protestant Cemetery, Istanbul

Mount Zion Cemetery, Jerusalem

Old English Cemetery, Livorno

Old Protestant Cemetery, George Town

Old Protestant Cemetery, Macau

Protestant Cemetery, Rome

Protestant Cemetery, São Paulo

Yarborough Cemetery, Belize City

This, of course not complete, is everything relevant in a Wikipedia list of Anglican cemeteries generally. Apart from Lahore and Dhaka, it has nothing from British India, but it mentions the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia.

The rather user-unfriendly BACSA site says: “People sometimes think that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [my link] cares for all graves in Britain’s former Empire, but in fact the Commission only deals with the graves of soldiers [of all Commonwealth countries] killed in World War One and World War Two. The graves of European civilians, and soldiers who died before World War One, and between the two World Wars, generally have no-one to protect them, or to record their inscriptions, which is where BACSA comes in.

“BACSA – the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia – was set up in 1977 to bring together people with a concern for the many thousands of British and other European cemeteries, isolated graves and monuments in South Asia. There is no one body or agency responsible for looking after these last resting places in the area from the Red Sea to the China Coast – wherever the East India Company and its rivals from France, the Netherlands and Denmark set foot. An estimated two million Europeans and Anglo-Indians – mainly British administrators, soldiers, merchants and their families – are buried in the Indian sub-continent alone. Without our support many of their graves and monuments – witnesses to centuries of European residence in the area – would disappear.

“We record the locations of cemeteries and monuments, and the inscriptions on headstones. We publish cemetery and church records containing names, inscriptions and biographical notes on individual tombs and gravestones. We support local people active in the restoration and conservation of European graveyards.”

It is run by volunteers and has a membership of 1,400 in the UK and elsewhere.

Another site,, “is attempting to preserve the images of graves and monuments before they disappear. It covers the area which used to be British India and includes present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Entries are not limited to British citizens. Monuments cover many nationalities. All information comes ad hoc from volunteers, therefore it is not an exhaustive and accurate survey.

“When I [John, site owner] started looking around cemeteries, I was shocked by the state of neglect of most of them. Monuments of British men, women and children, who had sometimes died in the most tragic ways, were crumbling into the dust. Some of the local people had a genuine interest in these cemeteries and were trying to get something done, but much of the money which is awarded for renovation work does not reach the people doing the work.

“The British Government, I was told, contributes nothing. [It does only in so far as it is a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.] If this is true, then it is indeed a disgrace.

“This site is a photographic record of those cemeteries and churches which I visited, along with transcriptions of the memorials and gravestones. They are not an exhaustive survey, as time did not permit. Since this site started it has continued to grow as contributions are sent in by other people.”

Quotations edited.

Old English Cemetery overview

The overgrown Old English Cemetery at Livorno

Last Chukker

May 24 2013

There was no North-East Frontier Province so-called, but the Burma-Yunnan border was the Raj’s northeast frontier from the fall of Mandalay in 1886 to Burma’s separation from India in 1937. In the north, on the Burma side, were the Kachin Tracts. In the south were the Shan States. Those British names do not do justice to the complex ethnographic map of Burma.

Now India’s northeast frontier is Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by China. If you take Arunachal away, it is Assam. Arunachal borders Tibet and Burma. So would Assam but for Arunachal: the buffer was established by the McMahon line in 1914. Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, to the south of Arunachal, border Burma.

I saw a novella in a real bookshop recently about life in the Kachin country: Last Chukker by JK Stanford (the Wikipedia entry needs an editor), Faber and Faber (no less), mcmli. 1951.

“Few writers have attempted to describe the north-eastern frontier of Burma, where it marches with Yunnan, in all its loveliness and savagery. Fewer still have woven a real knowledge of this land, little known even before the Japanese War, into a tale of smuggling and polo, of mystery and murder, of wild beasts, and even more dangerous men.

“The author of The Twelfth, who knew Burma well for over eighteen years, has crowned the vivid story of Jeremy Gayner (naturalist and ex-policeman and the bankrupt outcast of the European community) with a climax which will thrill even those who have never seen polo played.

Last Chukker is an unforgettable vignette of the Burma which came to an end so abruptly in 1941.”

How can one resist an invitation to a lost world? I bought, read and enjoyed it.

Stanford saw active service in both wars, and between the wars was a civil servant in Burma, including in the Police Department.

M.F.M.M., Obituary, Lt.-Col. J.K. Stanford, O.B.E., M.C., Scottish Birds, Vol 7, No 1, spring 1972:

“He was one of that admirable band of servants of the British Empire who passed the few hours of leisure they had in enriching, or even founding, the ornithology of the remote areas where they were stationed, and it is as an authority on Burmese fauna that J.K.’s name will largely survive.”

Until twenty years ago, one read obituaries of these Empire naturalists in the Telegraph.

He wrote many books, mainly in his retirement in England. The first, The Twelfth (1944, revised 1964), written in the North African desert, was a comic fantasy of English sporting life about a character called George Hysteron-Proteron. Later came Ladies in the Sun: The Memsahibs’ India, 1790-1860 (1962). His bird knowledge is evident in Last Chukker.

The nineteen year-old Orwell joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma in 1922 and stayed until ’27. Perhaps Stanford met him. Perhaps Orwell reported to Stanford. Orwell’s maternal grandmother lived at Moulmein. He was posted in various places, ending in Katha, which became the setting for Burmese Days (1934). That was furthest north he got. He arrived in Burma during a crime wave which had turned it into the most violent corner of the Empire.

Emma Larkin quotes a memoir by Stanford (Reverie of a Qu’hai, and Other Stories, 1951, apparently a memoir) in her book about Orwell in Burma, Secret Histories, John Murray, 2004:

“‘Everyone had realised what an astounding assortment of malefactors – murderers, dacoits, thieves, robbers, house-breakers, forgers, coiners, blackmailers, and so on – each district possessed. They seemed to spring up like dragon’s teeth, till there were scarcely enough columns in the criminal game-book.’”

We meet them in Last Chukker. One wonders how much of that savagery was a result of British interference with Burmese life.

Last Chukker has illustrations (drawings by Maurice Tulloch). I wish more books did, but publishers are too lazy and mean to commission them. “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?”

Beyond the Raj, to the north and east, were desert, ice and green: Sinkiang (Xinjiang, Chinese Turkestan), Tibet and Yunnan. Which, come to think of it, are the colours of the Indian flag, not that that is its official symbolism.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and India border Xinjiang.

India, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma border Tibet.

Burma, Laos and Vietnam border Yunnan.


JK Stanford

Territories of Chinese dynasties

May 20 2013


Click to activate. Maps will open in a new window.

Downloading the active file to your desktop should allow controlled navigation.

Not complete, obviously. Some dates are exact, some arbitrary. They are not for the most part the starting dates of dynasties.

The file has to be used with a lot of caution, but it does show a few simple things. For example, the Zhou origins of the Chinese state around the Yellow River. The extension of power south of the Yangtze after the Qin unification. The absorption of Hainan by the Han. The first Chinese expansion into the Tarim and Dzungarian basins (Xinjiang) under the Tang (the area was not re-absorbed until the Qing or Manchu; not even the Yuan governed it). The first inclusion of Manchuria under the Jin, ancestors of the Manchus. How Yunnan was not fully sinified until after the Mongol invasion, even if the Eastern Jin had absorbed it briefly. The inclusion of Mongolia and Tibet by the Mongols (Yuan) and then again by the Qing. The absorption of Taiwan by the Qing. The Qing concession to Russia of territory beyond the Amur.

It does not show the brief periods of control of the Tarim Basin by the Han.

The Ming conquest of Vietnam lasted twenty years (1407-27). It appears as part of China in the map here, which is dated 1410. Had earlier Chinese dominations been only in the north?

The confusing thing about Chinese dynasties is that Western and Eastern or Northern and Southern refer to successive incarnations of a dynasty, not simultaneous states of a divided dynasty.

Wikimedia Commons.

Is China expansionist?

La law

January 10 2013

Crime in Singapore is strictly forbidden.


November 30 2012

In A.D. 1952 it would, no doubt, have been folly for a Western World that had been thrown on the defensive by a Russo-Chinese entente under the banner of Communism to count upon any possibility of a future breach between the two titanic non-Western Powers that were now cooperating with one another in an anti-Western campaign.

But a breach occurred in 1961. The two powers had been diverging ideologically since 1956.

There was perhaps more legitimate ground for encouragement in the fact that a Western Community which had come into headlong collision with the Chinese in Korea and which was desperately embroiled with the Vietnamese in Indo-China had managed to come to terms with the Indonesians after having crossed swords with them on the morrow of the “liberation” of the East Indian archipelago from the Japanese, and had voluntarily abdicated its dominion over the Filipinos, Ceylonese, Burmans, Indians, and Pakistanis by amicable agreements that had not been sullied by any stain of bloodshed.

The voluntary liquidation of American rule in the Philippines was perhaps not so remarkable – though an English observer could hardly claim to be an impartial judge in this case – as the voluntary liquidation of a British Rāj in India that was not only a hundred years older than the American régime in a former dominion of the Spanish Crown but had also come to count for far more in the life of the ruling Western country. When, on the 18th July, 1947, [footnote: This was the date on which the Royal Assent was given, at Westminster, to an India Independence Act enacted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The formal assumption of authority by the Governments of the Indian Union and Pakistan followed on the 15th August, 1947.] Great Britain had completed the fulfilment of a pledge, first made on the 20th August, 1917, [footnote: In the House of Commons at Westminster by the Secretary of State for India, Mr. Edwin Montagu.] to grant full self-government to India by stages at the fastest practicable pace, the Western country that had carried out this transfer of political power on this scale without having been constrained by any immediate force majeure [he is flattering us] had performed an act that was perhaps unprecedented and was certainly auspicious for the future, not merely of the Western Civilization, but of the Human Race.

The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms (Wikipedia). Successor of the Morley-Minto Reforms.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Imperialists, westernisers, intelligentsias

November 15 2012

Before the Industrial Revolution, Man had devastated patches of the biosphere. For instance, he had caused mountain-sides to be denuded of soil by felling the trees that previously had saved the soil from being washed away. Man had cut down forests faster than they could be replaced, and he had mined metals that were not replaceable at all. But, before he had harnessed the physical energy of inanimate nature in machines on the grand scale, Man had not had it in his power to damage and despoil the biosphere irremediably. Till then, the air and the ocean had been virtually infinite, and the supply of timber and metals had far exceeded Man’s capacity to use them up. When he had exhausted one mine and had felled one forest, there had always been other virgin mines and virgin forests still waiting to be exploited. By making the Industrial Revolution, Man exposed the biosphere, including Man himself, to a threat that had no precedent.

The Western peoples had begun to dominate the rest of mankind before the Industrial Revolution. In the sixteenth century the Spaniards had subjugated the Meso-American and Andean peoples and had annihilated their civilizations. In the course of the years 1757-64 the British East India Company had become the virtual sovereign of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. In 1799-1818 the British subjugated all the rest of the Indian subcontinent to the south-east of the River Sutlej. They had a free hand because they held the command of the sea and because in 1809 they made a treaty with Ranjit Singh, a Sikh empire-builder, in which the two parties accepted the line of the Sutlej as the boundary between their respective fields of conquest. In 1845-9 the British went on to conquer and annex the Sikh empire in the Punjab. Meanwhile, in 1768-74, Russia had defeated the Ottoman Empire decisively; in 1798 the French had temporarily occupied Egypt, and in 1830 they had started to conquer Algeria; in 1840 three Western powers and Russia had evicted the insubordinate Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, from Syria and Palestine. In 1839-42 the British had defeated China dramatically. In 1853 an American naval squadron compelled the Tokugawa Government of Japan to receive a visit from it. The Japanese recognized that they were powerless to prevent this unwelcome visit by force of arms.

These military successes of Western powers and of one Westernized Eastern Orthodox power, Russia, were won at the cost of occasional reverses. In the seventeenth century, the Portuguese were evicted forcibly from both Japan and Abyssinia. A British army that invaded Afghanistan in 1839-42 was annihilated. Yet by 1871 the Western powers and Russia were dominant throughout the World.

Even before the Industrial Revolution in Britain the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great, had recognized that the only means by which a non-Western state could save itself from falling under Western domination was the creation of a new-model army on the pattern of the Western armies that were being created in Peter’s time, and Peter also saw that this Western-style army must be supported by a Western-style technology, economy, and administration. The signal military triumphs of the Western powers and of a Westernized Russia over non-Westernized states between 1757 and 1853 moved the rulers of some of the threatened states to do what Peter the Great had done.

Eminent examples of Westernizing statesmen in the first century after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain are Ranjit Singh (ruled 1799-1839), the founder of the Sikh successor-state, in the Punjab, of the Abdali Afghan Empire; Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Padishah’s viceroy in Egypt from 1805 to 1848; the Ottoman Padishah Mahmud II (ruled 1808-39); King Mongkut of Thailand (ruled 1851-68); and the band of Japanese statesmen that, in the Emperor’s name, liquidated the Tokugawa regime and took the government of Japan into its own hands in 1868. These Westernizing statesmen have had a greater effect on the history of the Oikoumenê than any of their Western contemporaries. They have kept the West’s dominance within limits, and they have done this by propagating, in non-Western countries, the modern West’s way of life.

While the achievements of all the Westernizers mentioned above are remarkable, the Japanese makers of the Meiji Revolution were outstandingly successful. They themselves were members of the hitherto privileged, though impoverished, traditional military class, the samurai; the Tokugawa Shogunate succumbed after offering only a minimal resistance; a majority of the samurai acquiesced peacefully in the forfeiture of their privileges; a minority of them that rebelled in 1877 was easily defeated by a new Western-style Japanese conscript army composed of peasants who, before 1868, had been prohibited from bearing arms.

Muhammad Ali and Mahmud II did not have so smooth a start. Like Peter the Great, they found that they could not begin to build up a Western-style army till they had liquidated a traditional soldiery. Peter had massacred the Muscovite Streltsy (“Archers”) in 1698-9; Muhammad Ali massacred the Egyptian Mamluks in 1811, and Mahmud II massacred the Ottoman janizaries in 1826. The new Western-style armies all gave a good account of themselves in action. Muhammad Ali began building his new army in 1819 and a navy in 1821; in 1825 his well-drilled Egyptian peasant conscript troops almost succeeded in re-subjugating for his suzerain Mahmud II the valiant but undisciplined Greek insurgents. The Greeks were saved only by the intervention of France, Britain, and Russia, who destroyed the Egyptian and Turkish fleets in 1827 and compelled Muhammad Ali’s son Ibrahim to evacuate Greece in 1828. In 1833 Ibrahim conquered Syria and was only prevented from marching on Istanbul by Russia’s intervention on Mahmud II’s behalf. Muhammad Ali’s army was more than a match for Mahmud’s because he had been able to make an earlier start in building it up. Mahmud could not start before 1826, the year in which he destroyed the janizaries; yet, in the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-9, his new-model peasant conscript army put up a much stiffer resistance than the old Ottoman army in the Russo-Turkish wars of 1768-74, 1787-92, and 1806-12.

Ranjit Singh, like his contemporary Muhammad Ali, engaged former Napoleonic officers as instructors. The British succeeded in defeating the Western-trained Sikh army in 1845-6 and again in 1848-9, but these two wars cost the British a greater effort and heavier casualties than their previous conquest of the whole of India outside the Punjab.

Rulers who set out to Westernize non-Western countries could not do this solely with the aid of a few Western advisers and instructors. They had to discover or create, among their own subjects, a class of Western-educated natives who could deal with Westerners on more or less equal terms and could serve as intermediaries between the West and the still un-Westernized mass of their own fellow-countrymen. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Ottoman Government had found this newly needed class, ready to hand, among Greek Ottoman subjects who were acquainted with the West through having been educated there or having had commercial relations with Westerners. Peter the Great in Russia, Muhammad Ali in Egypt, and the British in India had to create the intermediary class that they, too, needed. In Russia this class came to be called the intelligentsia, a hybrid word composed of a French root and a Russian termination. During the years 1763-1871, an intelligentsia was called into existence in every country that either fell under Western rule or saved itself from suffering this fate by Westernizing itself sufficiently to succeed in maintaining its political independence. Like the industrial entrepreneurs and the wage-earning industrial workers who made their appearance in Britain in the course of this century, the non-Western intelligentsia was a new class, and by the 1970s it had made at least as great a mark on mankind’s history.

The intelligentsia was enlisted or created by governments to serve these governments’ purposes, but the intelligentsia soon realized that it held a key position in its own society, and in every case it eventually took an independent line. In 1821 the ex-Ottoman Greek Prince Alexander Ypsilantis’s invasion of the Ottoman Empire taught the Ottoman Government that its Greek intelligentsia was a broken reed. In 1825 a conspiracy of Western-educated Russian military officers against Tsar Nicholas I was defeated and was suppressed, but it was a portent of things to come, and this not only in Russia but in a number of other Westernizing countries.

To live between two worlds, which is an intelligentsia’s function, is a spiritual ordeal, and in Russia in the nineteenth century this ordeal evoked a literature that was not surpassed anywhere in the World in that age. The novels of Turgenev (1818-83), Dostoyevsky (1821-81), and Tolstoy (1828-1910) became the common treasure of all mankind.

See the eighth volume of the Study and the Reith lectures.

Vasily Timm, The Decembrist revolt, painted 1853, St Petersburg, Hermitage

The scampering boy in the foreground appears in so many works of this period and somewhat earlier. In British prints he sometimes rolls a hoop and is followed by a scampering dog.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Colonial Film

November 14 2012

“Welcome to Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire. This website holds detailed information on over 6000 films showing images of life in the British colonies. Over 150 films are available for viewing online. You can search or browse for films by country, date, topic, or keyword. Over 350 of the most important films in the catalogue are presented with extensive critical notes written by our academic research team.

The Colonial Film project united universities (Birkbeck and University College London) and archives (British Film Institute, Imperial War Museum and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum) to create a new catalogue of films relating to the British Empire. The ambition of this website is to allow both colonizers and colonized to understand better the truths of Empire.”

King Norodom Sihanouk

October 15 2012




I once met his son.