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  • British Policy and the Chinese in Singapore, 1939 to 1955: The Public Service Career of Tan Chin Tuan by Lee Su Yin
  • Nicholas Tarling
British Policy and the Chinese in Singapore, 1939 to 1955: The Public Service Career of Tan Chin Tuan Lee Su Yin Singapore: Talisman Publishing, 2011. xxiv + 176 pp. ISBN 978 981 0866 67 9

The 'colonial state', sometimes indeed seen as something of a contradiction in terms, is too little studied. Its scope and its purposes were often more constricted than its impact. Its knowledge of its subjects was often limited, and its contacts with the bulk of them indirect. Half a century ago Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher pointed to the existence of the 'collaborators', men who played an intermediary role between alien governors and those they aspired to rule and regulate. Without a massive bureaucracy or army, colonial governments needed to secure compliance. They were unlikely to succeed without obtaining the support of men with credibility in their own society. Such men might have a variety of motives, even a mixture of them, ranging from self-interest to a wish to serve others. Such collaborations made for stability, even amidst the economic and social changes that accompanied or were brought about by colonial rule. But they were difficult to modify. Colonial states could not easily jettison one set of collaborators for another in order to adapt to major changes.

In Malaya and Singapore such difficulties were already apparent well before the Japanese conquest. Britain's attempts at making political adjustments were limited. It was as if the British feared that making major change would only show up the increasing weakness of their position in Southeast Asia. Their empire was in the event, of course, destroyed by the Japanese. On their return they were faced with new situations, both in the world at large and in Malaya and Singapore. Collaboration, to the extent that it was available, had to be sought on a new basis, one indeed that envisaged an explicit advance to self-government. Britain's capacity to regulate that and to determine its pace turned out to be limited, too.

This book, as indicated in the first part of its title, provokes a consideration of such general issues. As indicated in the second part of its title, it does this in a rather novel way, by discussing the career of a single Singaporean Chinese, Tan Chin Tuan, a prominent banker, whose personal integrity and excellent connexions made him an important link between the government and the Chinese community from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. His many positions—listed in Appendix 1 of the book—culminated in his becoming the Deputy President of the Legislative Council in 1951. But he left politics when the Legislative Council was revamped under the Rendel constitution. He had no taste for electoral politics. All his appointments were literally appointments. He now renewed his distinguished career in banking and engaged in the philanthropy for which leaders of the Singapore Chinese community had long been noted. [End Page 99]

The book is thus in part a biography of Tan Chin Tuan. But it also offers some new perspectives on the dramatic changes that Singapore underwent in these years. The account of the early post-war years—when he served on the BMA Advisory Council and later on the First Legislative Council—offers less that is new than the account of the early 1950s, when he served on the Second Legislative Council. This reader found the clear account of the debates on citizenship particularly enlightening. How was the potential electorate to be constituted? What implications would an extension of it have, not only for the working of democratic institutions, but for the future re-association with Malaya that was contemplated? The author, however, says little of the strategic considerations which other accounts emphasise. Singapore was, of course, Britain's major overseas base in the Far East.

The reviewer was pleased to find the name of his former PhD supervisor among the dramatis personae [though not in the index]. Victor Purcell served in the pre-war Chinese Protectorate and was Principal Adviser on Chinese Affairs to the BMA...


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