28 June 2013

Things Past East of Suez

Ann Widdecombe was born in Bath (SW England) in October 1947, became an MP in 1987 and was John Major’s Minister of State for Prisons from 1995 to 1997. She left Parliament in 2010 and subsequently appeared in BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing and in pantomime. She has recently published Strictly Ann – The Autobigraphy.

Browsing a copy in a local bookshop, I saw that she has included a photograph of her class at the Royal Naval School in Singapore in 1955. Below is a similar, but slightly earlier, photograph showing her (I am reliably informed) in the front and on the far right, appropriately enough. This blogger is one of those children, now in their middle sixties and therefore all members of a demographic cohort  described here before, the UK’s “post-war bulge”.

The photograph comes from a booklet (extracts below) to mark a visit to that school during the then Duchess of Kent’s Tour of Malaya in October 1952. She also visited the Admiralty Asian School. Blissfully unaware at the time, I now feel distinctly uncomfortable when faced with late-era colonialism and racially-segregated education. By then, the perpetuation of British rule had been undermined by the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 and Singapore went on to achieve independence from the UK in 1963. The Royal Navy withdrew from its base in Singapore in 1971.

There is an obvious irony in the Singapore educational system’s now being held up as an exemplar by the UK education minister, Michael Gove, or at least that was the case last year when the Financial Times (£) reported that:
Michael Gove has tired of Sweden and New York City. After claiming to be inspired by those places’ school systems, the education secretary has now embraced Singapore as a model. His curriculum reforms seek to mimic elements of the small Asian country’s high-performing education system.
Singapore’s post-colonial economic success is beyond doubt. The ninth edition of Dan Smith’s State of the World Atlas shows: Singapore’s GNI per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) as being US$ 55380 vs 36590 in the UK; life expectancy in 2009 of its citizens as 82 years vs 80 in the UK; in 2008, 28% of Singapore’s adults were overweight vs 62% in the UK, and so forth. Its problems are probably inherent in a small city state – dependency on its neighbours for water and vulnerability to their pollution.

Denis Healey, when Defence Minister and faced with an urgent need to make savings, took the decision to liquidate “Britain's military role outside Europe, an anachronism which was essentially a legacy from our nineteenth-century empire”. This policy of withdrawal led to the closure of the bases in Singapore and other locations “East of Suez”, a description much used at the time but little heard of from governments since, even in the last 10 years of UK military deployment in Afghanistan. Surprisingly it turned up in a speech by David Cameron on 10 June, Plan for Britain's success, marking the start of the UK’s presidency of G8:
… I have revived our friendships in the Commonwealth and reinvigorated relations with our old partners in the Gulf, where we’re active commercially, diplomatically, and with renewed military co operation to the east of Suez.
No doubt the drafters of this speech and the PM knew the phrase came from Kipling’s poem, Mandalay:
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst …  
Where the old Flotilla lay,
(at Mandalay not Singapore of course), and they are aware of the last line:
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

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