Long Live the Queen banner smacks of colonial hangover

From ‘Long live the Queen archway raises some eyebrows’, 29 Sept 2013, article by Melody Zaccheus, Sunday Times

An archway in Queenstown proclaiming “Long live the Queen” has left some scratching their heads, even as residents gathered last night for a concert to mark the estate’s 60th anniversary.

The arch was put up as part of the celebrations at the estate, which was named after Queen Elizabeth II. Nine of 15 Singaporeans The Sunday Times spoke to described the arch as odd, calling it a “colonial hangover”.

“It’s not appropriate as we are an independent country and no longer under British rule,” said polytechnic course manager Tia Boon Sim, 57, who lived in Queenstown for the first 16 years of her life.

…My Community founder Kwek Li Yong, 24, said the arch – featuring a photo of the Queen and decorated with the Union Jack – is a re-creation of a larger one that was erected in 1953 in North Bridge Road to celebrate the Queen’s coronation. “History teaches us to look back at events. So, we are tracing the estate’s roots back to when the British started it, as Singapore’s first satellite town,” he said.

Named by the British on Sept 27, 1953, Queenstown began as a project by the Singapore Improvement Trust to tackle overcrowding in Chinatown. The trust was later replaced by the Housing Board in 1959. It was in Queenstown that HDB built its first blocks.

God Save this Archway

God Save this Archway

According to the book ‘The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of ‘nation’‘, the ‘Street Naming Advisory Commitee’ was advised in the late sixties to avoid ‘British snob names’ in a bid to sever post-Independence Singapore’s colonial ‘apron strings’.  Areas in Queenstown such as Commonwealth, Queensway and Margaret Drive were advised to change to Malay names. However the Board resisted because Queenstown was ‘well-known throughout the world’ and should be preserved. In the same chapter, it was revealed that Bugis and Tanjong Pagar MRT stations were originally to be named ‘Victoria’ and ‘Maxwell’, after the monarch and a colonial family respectively. Till today, we still have a ‘King Albert Park’, where unlike Queenstown heartland folks, people actually do live like royalty.

Having a ‘colonial hangover’ implies that our past under British royalty was as merry and free-spirited as a drunken orgy, but in today’s context has been extended not just to kowtowing to the Queen and her ilk, but our white overlords in general. I think a more accurate description would be a ‘colonial hang-up’, like the feeling of not wanting to let go of an ex-boyfriend who treated you terribly but you still love to bits. The archway regalia and cheesy title is a bit over-the-top, but this is similar to the way we feted the royal couple when they visited Singapore’s first satellite town last year, short of taking them around in a horse-driven golden carriage and having people dressed as grovelling butlers in tailcoats serving them TWG tea.

The kings and queens today are not those who live in grand palaces and sit on thrones, but those in the realm of K-pop or mavens of technology, and this homage to Queen Elizabeth II by Queenstown residents would strike us as Old World sentimentality that is incompatible with our current aspirations as citizens of a digital age. Celebrating a town’s anniversary like a Royal Jubilee is harmless in my opinion, but it raises the question of whether we, despite being an independent country, have fully shrugged off our colonial past, or have we descendents been somehow possessed by the lingering spirit of the time, that when we see a Caucasian speaking in a posh accent, we are subconsciously compelled by this ghost to either curtsey and shudder with fear, or have the sudden urge to instigate a mutiny on the bounty.

As late as 2007, locals have complained about snooty discriminatory treatment under the euphemism of ‘nursing a colonial hangover’. Bellhops at the Raffles Hotel reportedly allowed a Caucasian family to jump a taxi queue after shouting ‘this one for the ang mohs!’. Sumiko Tan asked if she was guilty of suffering from the same syndrome, complaining of ang mohs ‘lording over Singaporeans’ after a traffic scuffle. To some, a colonial hangover simply means ‘Westernisation’, like having weird English names even if you’re ethnic Chinese. A more specific syndrome related to this submissiveness is the ‘Pinkerton Syndrome’, which refers to Singaporean women preferring white men over locals. A case of ‘bigger’ meaning ‘better’, perhaps. These days, ‘Pinkerton’ and ‘colonial hangover’ seem to be used interchangeably and loosely, only because no one wants to utter words like ‘racism’ or ‘slavery’. (Interestingly, the name of Prince William’s private secretary is Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton)

However, we have our white colonial masters to thank for our architecture and tourist icons , from the grand Fullerton Hotel to Empress Place and Fort Canning, though these were built with the hands, blood, sweat and tears of our very own forefathers. We indulge in a spot of afternoon tea in tiffin rooms, the ‘quintessential colonial pastime’, though the key ingredient behind ‘high tea’ has its origins in another ex-colony, India. One man’s ‘nostalgia’ is another’s ‘colonial hangover’, depending on your gut reaction to the image below, courtesy of Raffles Hotel, the pinnacle of colonial luxury that would make any Old-World plantation owner feel right at home. Without the whips of course.

A fling with Singapore sling

An article in the Hindu Times even referred to our country as a city-state ‘basking in its colonial hangover’. If that’s the case, then we don’t need a cure for it, do we? We have the Singapore Flyer mimic of the one in London, why not build the next casino like Big Ben then? Who knows, Singapore may even be more ‘British’ than London itself in 20 years. We even retained some of the crappy laws which our ex rulers have ditched a long time ago. Some people have tasted scones before even knowing the existence of ang ku kuehs.

You could even accuse me of nursing a ‘colonial hangover’ just because I love Fish and Chips, listen to music from British bands, support Manchester United instead of Home United, or watch Monty Python skits. In its milder form, I would be referred to as a ‘banana’ or ‘jiak kantang’. Yet, I haven’t heard of anyone being accused of ‘Occupation hangover’ if they study Japanese as a third language or are members of Sushi Tei. In 2001, a Today reader complained about our ‘fixation with our British-colonial past’ and imperialism’s ‘dark power’ over the minds of the people, just because Bridget Jones Diary seemed to be more popular than Jurassic Park. Bollocks, really.

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3 Responses

  1. I think the correct adjective should be “cringe”, as in “colonial cringe”. It’s so pathetic but then no more pathetic when we adopt Parliamentary democracy wholesale forgetting that when they chopped off Charles I’s head on the one hand, on the other hand, the same folks were enslaving “natives” across the globe, for the natives’ own good of course. Now when anti-discrimination hiring rules have become so popular in the lands of the free(d), we — in SG at least — are mindlessly emulating, without working thru the consequences or the practicalities. Enuff said!

  2. I like the last bit on “occupation hangover” Surely our education is at fault! Forget about learning English and we won’t yearn for any English programmes, read Shakepeare’s plays, support English football teams, etc. Why not create our own language and we can all be happy creating our own culture!
    Good insight and good article. Cheers! (oops is that also another hangup or hangover?)

  3. Forget something that was drilled into you, drummed into your very bones? Well yea, let’s get on with Tea, shall we?

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