The ties that once bound now bind nations together

Former colonial regimes are increasing inclined to put aside past wrongs and move forward, argues Sholto Byrnes

People wave the flags during the National Day Parade at Padang on August 9, 2015 in Singapore. Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images
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On Singapore's 50th National Day last weekend, the city-state's prime minister and his Malaysian counterpart wrote opinion articles in each other's country's leading newspapers celebrating the anniversary. Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong pointed to "the depth of the friendship" between the two countries in Malaysia's Star, while Malaysian prime minister Najib Tun Razak declared in Singapore's Straits Times that "relations have never been better".

That it was all so cordial represents something of a triumph over historical circumstances. There is no escaping the fact that Singapore only became independent because it was kicked out of Malaysia in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew, its founding prime minister, shed tears on television when announcing the separation, and it was a great blow to the many who saw Singapore’s future as firmly in Malaysia. Lee wrote in his memoirs: “We faced tremendous odds with an improbable chance of survival.”

Nevertheless, despite periods of bickering and testiness, Mr Najib is right: the relationship between the two countries is at a new zenith. He and Mr Lee have taken the decision to put aside past disputes and celebrate their long shared history rather than have it divide them.

Such examples of amity between recent adversaries are remarkably common. Consider how well many former colonies get on well with their ex-colonisers – a friendliness that flies in the face of brutal conquests, the mass relegation of people to second-class citizens and the theft of natural resources.

Ireland was subjugated by first the English and then the British for 700 years. Its people were deprived of their language, their land was taken and the Catholic majority were subjected to grossly discriminatory laws.

The British authorities perpetrated periodic massacres and let up to a million die during the Great Famine in the 19th century, insisting that Ireland’s ports continue to export food throughout what the distinguished historian Roy Foster has correctly referred to as a “holocaust”. Yet Irish-UK relations are now so warm that wags joke: “What’s a few centuries of oppression between friends?”

That Britain should be on good terms with former colonies that it effectively settled – in the process turning indigenous communities into impoverished, voiceless minorities – such as Australia and Canada, is not so surprising. For the UK and other ex-colonial powers including France to have such strong ties with countries in Asia and Africa that they looted for decades might be less expected.

In the early years of independence, this amiability could be partly ascribed to widespread Anglo- or Francophilia among local elites, and a belief even among hardened freedom fighters of the superiority of European values. It was in Paris that Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh converted to communism, and the list of developing world leaders who imbibed leftist philosophy at the London School of Economics is far too long to go into here. As the Singapore academic Kishore Mahbubani has put it: “Many states were politically decolonised before they became fully mentally decolonised.”

Today, however, while the influence of education abroad continues, the developing world has rediscovered and taken new pride in its own histories, cultures and norms, often questioning whether “universal values” are in fact just western ones. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, for instance, states that “all the rights and freedoms” it stipulates “are subject to the Islamic sharia” – a clear and necessary distinction that indicates confidence in a non-western framework for governance and liberties.

The current warmth may partly be because most contemporary western leaders approach their former possessions with far greater respect than in the past. Even so recent an episode as David Miliband’s trip to India in 2009, when the then UK foreign secretary insulted his hosts by lecturing them in public and addressed a much older and very senior minister by his first name, is unthinkable now.

The balance of power has shifted. Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, India and China are in the G20, and European officials bite their tongues rather than wag their fingers, as they once did, when they visit as supplicants for trade contracts.

China hasn’t forgotten its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the imperial powers. I recently heard a Chinese official suggest that this shared history should be a cause for bonding among countries in South-east Asia, all of which were colonised apart from Thailand. Yet the proposal failed to elicit sympathy from the audience. In many parts of the world, there seems to have been a great willingness to forgive the past – or, as London’s mayor Boris Johnson puts it, for “the blessed sponge of amnesia” to have “wiped the slate of memory”.

The ties that bound, literally, appear to have become ties that bind, metaphorically. I hope we don’t have “the blessed sponge” to thank for this. The past is too important to be forgotten. The dangers of never knowing it in the first place are too obvious.

But if this is the manifestation of an increasing inclination to put aside past wrongs and move forward in cooperation, it strikes a rare and welcome note of optimism in a world where some new act of barbarity seems to take place every day. Singapore and Malaysia have provided a good example.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia