This blue marble

– and yet it spins

Opium and the origins of Singaporean wealth

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opiumIt is a sobering reminder to have the text “DEATH for drug traffickers under Singapore law” written on my visitor pass. How ironic it is, then, that much of Singapore’s past is linked to hard drugs: opium trade between China and the British Empire.

As the British empire is credited as the founders of Singapore, and Britain became an empire to a large extent thanks to the cash flowing in from opium, much of Singapore’s colonial wealth and growth momentum could also be attributed to this highly addictive and devastating drug, flowing out from British India towards China, through Singapore’s harbors.

As I amble through the National Museum of Singapore, none of this is mentioned anywhere. Instead what I see are a few old opium pipes and a reproduction of an old awareness article painting the picture of what happens to a man and his family when he gets hooked on opium (spoiler: in the end he makes his wife work for him so he can buy more opium, and finally he dies leaving his wife without a legal guardian). What is mentioned is that Thomas Stamford Raffles, one of the two credited founders of Singapore, was against gambling and addition, and evicted his British co-founder who was into these decadent activities. The Brits seem to politely be hailed as patrons of Singapore.

The National Museum does have one exhibition that highly contrasts against the politeness of Singaporean culture: one covering the Japanese invasion during 1942-45. It leaves no sense of ambiguity and starkly accuses Japan of ethnocide of any “anti-Japanese” Chinese, as well as an attempt at annihilating local culture. The exhibition explains that the Japanese vision was to wipe out all other languages and to instil a uniform national identity. When children were required to learn and to speak Japanese in school, many parents refused to send their children to school. When the older adult generation was required to learn Japanese for work, they chose to stay at home if they could. Those who spoke the language received incentives and benefits, but the above combined with the degree of difficulty in learning Japanese made the attempt of introducing culture via language a failure.

Three years seems like a short while, but my impression from the exhibition is that it was a difficult and dark time. The proper building of modern Singapore began in the 1950s-60s, with a positive outlook after the people had decided they did not want to be part of Malaysia. Indeed, in the 60s there was an attempt at merging little Singapore with its larger neighbor, but people objected and the merger was short-lived. It must have been a brave decision to try to survive on one’s own, geographically sandwiched between Indonesia and the West, and Malaysia to the North and Northeast. But what must have been a very thought-through economical growth strategy worked, as Singapore is now considered a prime economy in all of Southeast Asia.

Opium trade, why would anyone think of such ancient times anyway?

(Singapore; July 2018)

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