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Unofficial contentions: The postcoloniality of Straits Chinese political discourse in the Straits Settlements Legislative Council

  • Daniel P.S. Goh

Abstract

This paper reads the debates of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council to trace the political contentions over policies affecting the Chinese community in Malaya. These contentions brought the Straits Chinese unofficials to engage the racial ambivalence of British rule in Malaya, in which the Straits Chinese was located as both a liberal subject and an object of colonial difference. Contrary to conventional historiography which portrays Straits Chinese political identity as one of conservative loyalty to the Empire, I show that the Straits Chinese developed multiple and hybrid political identities that were postcolonial in character, which would later influence the politics of decolonisation and nation-building after the war.

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1 Poh-Seng, Png, ‘The Straits Chinese in Singapore: A case of local identity and socio-cultural accommodation’, Journal of Southeast Asian History (henceforth, JSEAH), 10, 1 (1969): 95114; Souchou, Yao, ‘Ethnic boundaries and structural differentiation: An anthropological analysis of the Straits Chinese in nineteenth century Singapore’, Sojourn: Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 2, 2 (1987): 209–30; Clammer, John, Straits Chinese society: Studies in the sociology of the Baba communities of Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1980); Beng, Tan Chee, The Baba of Melaka: Culture and identity of a Chinese Peranakan community in Malaysia (Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk, 1988); Rudolph, Jürgen, Reconstructing identities: A social history of the Babas in Singapore (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998).

2 Turnbull, C.M., A history of Singapore, 1819–1988, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 103, 105.

3 Hwang, Yen Ching, Community and politics: The Chinese in colonial Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1995), p. 218; also Kwei-Chiang, Chui, ‘Political attitudes and organisations, c. 1900–1941’, in A history of Singapore, ed. Chew, Ernest C.T. and Lee, Edwin (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 76–8, 88–9.

4 Christie, Clive J., A modern history of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, nationalism and separatism (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996), p. 36.

5 Clammer, Straits Chinese society, p. 139; Tan, The Baba of Melaka, p. 230; Rudolph, Reconstructing identities, p. 413.

6 Trocki, Carl A., Singapore: Wealth, power and the culture of control (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 141.

7 Lim was one of the most prominent leaders of the Confucian revival movement, but he was one of the few Straits Chinese leaders among immigrant Chinese leaders in the movement; Yen, Community and politics, p. 245.

8 Wah, Yeo Kim, Political development in Singapore, 1945–55 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1973), p. 131.

9 Ibid., p. 98.

10 Ibid., pp. 108–9, 113, 114. The Progressive Party, Labour Party and Labour Front did not survive as viable parties into the late 1950s with PAP's ascendency as a left-wing party with mass support. They were succeeded by other parties, such as Lim Yew Hock's Singapore People's Alliance and the Liberal Socialist Party, and their political platforms were taken up in various and modified ways by these successor parties. However, they too increasingly declined in importance and effectiveness as the English-educated PAP elites’ grip on power tightened in the 1960s. See Wah, Yeo Kim and Shee, Poon Kim, ‘Singapore’, Political parties of Asia and the Pacific, ed. Fukui, Haruhiro (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 971–97.

11 Yeo, Political development in Singapore, pp. 131, 138.

12 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, rev. edn (London: Verso, 1991).

13 Kin, Lee Guan, The thought of Lim Boon Keng – Convergence and contradiction between Chinese and Western culture (Singapore: Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 1990); Siang, Yeo Siew, Tan Cheng Lock: The Straits legislator and Chinese leader (Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, 1990).

14 Chatterjee, Partha, The nation and its fragments: Colonial and postcolonial histories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 19, 20; see also Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

15 Said, Edward W., Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978).

16 Frost, Mark Ravinder, ‘Transcultural diaspora: The Straits Chinese in Singapore, 1819–1918’, Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series, no. 10 (Singapore: Asia Research Institute, 2003).

17 Souchou, Yao, ‘Social virtues as cultural text: Colonial desire and the Chinese in 19th-century Singapore’, Reading culture: Textual practices in Singapore, ed. Chew, Phyllis and Kramer-Dahl, Anneliese (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1999), pp. 99122; Holden, Philip, Modern subjects / colonial texts: Hugh Clifford and the discipline of English Literature in the Straits Settlements and Malaya, 1895–1907 (Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 2000), pp. 135–8, Wee, C.J. Wan-ling, Culture, empire, and the question of being modern (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003).

18 Cheek-Milby's study of Hong Kong's Legislative Council has similarly focused on the performance of the multiple roles of legislators in shaping Hong Kong's voice and identity. Cheek-Milby, Kathleen, A legislature comes of age: Hong Kong's search for influence and identity (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1995).

19 Cowan, C.D., Nineteenth-century Malaya: The origins of British political control (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

20 Freedman, Maurice, ‘Immigrants and associations: Chinese in nineteenth-century Singapore’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 3, 1 (1960): 548; see Frost, Mark Ravinder, ‘Emporium in Imperio: Nanyang networks and the Straits Chinese in Singapore, 1819–1914’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (henceforth, JSEAS), 36, 1 (2005): 2966; Trocki, Carl A., Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800–1910 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

21 Hirschman, Charles, ‘The meaning and measurement of ethnicity in Malaysia: An analysis of census classifications’, Journal of Asian Studies, 46 (1987): 555–82; ‘The making of race in colonial Malaya: Political economy and racial ideology’, Sociological Forum, 1, 2 (1986): 330–61.

22 Swettenham, Frank A., British Malaya: An account of the origin and progress of British influence in Malaya, rev. edn (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1948 [1906]).

23 The Penang Riots report, pp. 78–83, Legislative Council Proceedings and Papers (LCPP) 1868, Records of the Colonial Office (CO) 275/8 (record number and volume number), Public Records Office, National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom

24 See DeBernardi, Jean, ‘Malaysian Chinese religious culture: Past and present’, in Ethnic Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia, ed. Suryadinata, Leo (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 2002), pp. 301–23; Rites of belonging: Memory, modernity, and identity in a Malaysian Chinese community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

25 Turnbull, A history of Singapore, p. 79.

26 Legislative Council proceedings, 17 May 1869, pp. 20, 21, LCPP 1869, CO 275/10.

27 Proceedings, 28 Aug. 1869, pp. 41, 48, LCPP 1869.

28 Turnbull, A history of Singapore, p. 79.

29 Proceedings, 20 June 1872, pp. 17, 20, 21, LCPP 1872, CO 275/15.

30 Other than Whampoa, the colonial government sought the assistance of Tan Seng Poh, an Anglicised opium farm merchant, and Chua Moh Choon, leader of the Ghee Hok Kongsi or secret society and naturalised British subject, during the 1872 and 1876 riots in Singapore and for the 1873 Chinese policemen and 1876 Chinese labour commissions. Proceedings, 19 Sept. 1872, p. 97, LCPP 1872; Chinese police force commission report, Council paper no. 27, 16 June 1873, LCPP 1873, CO 275/16; Chinese labour condition committee report, Council paper no. 22, 3 Nov. 1876; 1876 riots report by Protector William Pickering, Council paper no. 31, 29 Dec. 1876, LCPP 1876, CO 275/19.

31 Protector of Chinese annual report 1877, Council paper no. 6, 15 Mar. 1878, LCPP 1878, CO 275/22; Protector of Chinese annual report 1885, Council paper no. 7, 6 Apr. 1886, LCPP 1886, CO 275/31.

32 Petition from Chinese merchants and citizens, Council paper no. 13, 23 May 1871, LCPP 1871, CO 275/13; 1872 riots commission report, LCPP 1873;

33 Proceedings, 9 Sept. 1873, pp. 147, 149, and 10 Sept. 1873, p. 164, LCPP 1873.

34 Proceedings, 6 July 1883, pp. 44, 49, LCPP 1883, CO 275/28.

35 Proceedings, 16 Apr. 1885, p. 44, LCPP 1885, CO 275/30; 16 Feb. 1888, p. 24, and 23 Feb. 1888, pp. 29–35, LCPP 1888, CO 275/34.

36 Proceedings, 2 May 1887, p. 11, and 5 May 1887, p. 16, LCPP 1887, CO 275/34.

37 Proceedings, 7 Feb. 1889, p. 19, LCPP 1889, CO 275/39.

38 Proceedings, 12 July 1886, LCPP 1886; 20 Oct. 1894, LCPP 1894, CO 275/48; 19 July 1894, LCPP 1894; 23 Nov. 1886, LCPP 1886, 4 and 18 Oct. 1888, LCPP 1888, and Council paper no. 44, 23 Nov. 1886, LCPP 1886; Proceedings, 15 Aug. 1887, LCPP 1887.

39 Proceedings, 15 Aug. 1887, p. 101, LCPP 1887; 4. Oct. 1888, p. 52.

40 Ibid., p. 54.

41 Proceedings, 24. Oct 1890, p. 90, LCPP 1890, CO 275/39.

42 Song, One hundred years’ history, pp. 227–8.

43 Pickering, William, Pioneering in Formosa: Recollections of adventures among Mandarins, wreckers, and head-hunting savages (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1898), pp. 212–13; quoted in Vaughan, J.D., The manners and customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971 [1879]), pp. 98–9.

44 Protector of Chinese annual report 1879, Council paper no. 7, 20 May 1880, p. 22, LCPP 1880, CO 275/24.

45 Bhabha, Homi, The location of culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 89.

46 Proceedings, 23 Dec. 1891, p. 114; Proceedings, 29 Oct 1891, p. 93, LCPP 1891, CO 275/41.

47 Proceedings, 28 Oct. 1904, p. 144, LCPP 1904, CO 275/69.

48 Proceedings, 27 Oct. 1905, p. 164, LCPP 1905, CO 275/71; 5 Mar. 1909, p. 13, LCPP 1909, CO 275/80.

49 Proceedings, 27 Jan. 1911, p. 5, LCPP 1911, CO 275/86.

50 Proceedings, 27 June, 1913, p. 137, LCPP 1913, CO 275/90; 27 Feb. 1914, p. 31, LCPP 1914, CO 275/93; 7 Nov. 1906, p. 214, LCPP 1906, CO 275/73.

51 Proceedings, 30 Apr. 1896, p. 61, LCPP 1896, CO 275/51; 13 May 1897, p. 42, LCPP 1897, CO 275/54; 8 May 1900, p. 98, LCPP 1900, CO 275/60.

52 Proceedings, 29 Oct. 1901, p. 119 and 123, LCPP 1901, CO 275/63.

53 Proceedings, 5 Nov. 1896, pp. 305 and 307, and 306; 24 Sept. 1896, pp. 257 and 304, LCPP 1896.

54 Proceedings, 21 Jan. 1902, pp. 7 and 8, LCPP 1902, CO 275/65; 19 Oct. 1900, p. 247, LCPP 1900.

55 Straits Chinese British Association, Duty to the British Empire: Being an elementary guide for Straits Chinese during the Great War (Singapore: Straits Albion Press, 1915).

56 Proceedings, 22 Oct. 1917, pp. 122 and 125, LCPP 1917, CO 275/97.

57 Fatt, Yong Ching, ‘A preliminary study of Chinese leadership in Singapore, 1900–1941’, JSEAH, 9, 2 (1968): 262–3; Phyllis Chew, ‘Tan Jiak Kim (1859–1917): Straits Chinese Leader’ (Honours Thesis, Department of History, University of Singapore, 1975), pp. 63–6.

58 Kin, Lee Guan, ‘Introduction: A Chinese journey: Lim Boon Keng and His thoughts’, in Ching, Wen (Lim Boon Keng), The Chinese crisis from within (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2006 [1901]), p. vii.

59 Select committee report on constitutional changes, Council paper no. 5, 21 Feb. 1921, LCPP 1921, CO 275/104; Governor's annual address, Council paper no. 75, 23 Oct. 1921, LCPP 1922, CO 275/106.

60 Acting Colonial Secretary Haynes, A.S., ‘British Malaya’, lecture delivered 27 July 1934, in Honourable intentions: Talks on the British Empire in South-East Asia delivered at the Royal Colonial Institute, 1874–1928, ed. Kratoska, Paul H. (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 446.

61 Guillemard to Churchill, 6 July 1921, CO273, file 510/Confidential; Guillemard to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 21 June 1926, CO 273, file 531/Secret; Malayan Bulletin of Political Intelligence, no. 8, Oct. 1922, CO273, file 518/Secret.

62 Note on conference at the Colonial Office, 16 Mar. 1931, CO 717, file 76/7. Sri Lankan nationalists had vigorously campaigned in the early 1920s for greater local representation in government and democratisation leading towards eventual self-rule. In 1924, when Clementi was Colonial Secretary of the British Ceylonese colonial government, the nationalists achieved the concession of majority representation in the legislature and a limited franchise to elect the representatives. A subsequent British commission in 1927 conceded universal adult franchise and executive control to the Sri Lankans.

63 Proceedings, 14 Apr. 1924, p. 35, LCPP 1924, CO 275/111.

64 Proceedings, 21 Nov. 1921, p. 233, LCPP 1921.

65 Proceedings, 5 July 1920, pp. 95-7, LCPP 1920, CO 275/102; 21 Nov. 1921, pp. 233, 234, LCPP 1921.

66 Proceedings, 3 Nov. 1924, p. 112, LCPP 1924, CO 275/111; 6 Sept 1926, p. 110, LCPP 1926, CO 275/116.

67 Proceedings, 25 June 1923, pp. 104-7, LCPP 1923, CO 275/109.

68 Proceedings, 29 Oct. 1923, p. 185, LCPP 1923, CO 275/109; 14 Apr. 1924, p. 33, LCPP 1924.

69 Proceedings, 5 Oct. 1925, p. 155, LCPP 1925, CO 275/113; 16 Mar. 1925, p. 42, LCPP 1925; 31 Oct. 1927, p. 158, LCPP 1927, CO 275/118.

70 Proceedings, 1 Nov. 1926, p. 160, LCPP 1926, CO 275/116.

71 Proceedings, 13 Oct. 1930, p. 153, LCPP 1930, CO 275/125; also, 12 Oct. 1931, p. 156, LCPP 1931, CO 275/128.

72 Proceedings, 9 Dec. 1929, p. 176, LCPP 1929, CO 275/122; 24 Mar. 1930, p. 24, LCPP 1930.

73 Proceedings, 7 July 1930, p. 55, LCPP 1930; 28 Sept. 1931, p. 131, LCPP 1931, CO 275/128; 26 Jan. 1932, p. 17, LCPP 1932, CO 275/130.

74 Proceedings, 19 Oct. 1932, p. 148, LCPP 1932.

75 Proceedings, 26 Jan. 1931, pp. 14-16, LCPP 1931; 5 Dec. 1932, p. 181, LCPP 1932.

76 Proceedings, 25 Oct. 1933, p. 190, LCPP 1933.

77 Proceedings, 12 Feb. 1934, p. 18, LCPP 1934, CO 275/135.

78 Christie, A modern history of Southeast Asia, pp. 44–7.

79 Tregonning, K.G., ‘Tan Cheng Lock: A Malayan nationalist’, JSEAS, 10, 1 (1979): 60.

80 Ailin, Chua, ‘Imperial subjects, Straits citizens: Anglophone Asians and the struggle for political rights in inter-war Singapore’, in Barr, Michael D. and Trocki, Carl A., Paths not taken: Political pluralism in post-war Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), p. 32.

81 Suk-Wai, Cheong, ‘Lim Boon Keng: Bicultural broker’, The Straits Times, 26 June 2004, Singapore.

82 Lysa, Hong and Jianli, Huang, The scripting of a national history: Singapore and its pasts (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), p. 230.

Daniel P.S. Goh is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: . This is a revised version of a paper presented at the conference on ‘Lim Boon Keng and the Straits Chinese: A historical reappraisal’, organised by the Department of History, National University of Singapore and the National Library Board, Singapore, 27 Jan. 2007. My thanks to Sai Siew Min, Francis Lim, Kwok Kian Woon, Chua Ai Lin and the anonymous reviewers of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies for their critical comments.

Unofficial contentions: The postcoloniality of Straits Chinese political discourse in the Straits Settlements Legislative Council

  • Daniel P.S. Goh

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