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Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

A few days ago there was a big tizz-wozz on Twitter about Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism was not so bad because piped water.

You can read more about that at Zille’s career in ruins:

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

The timing could not have been better for those who were facing embarrassing questions from the judges of the Constitutional Court for the mess-up of SANSSA and CPS and the possibility that 17 million pensioners and other recipients of social grants might not get paid. That was a big joke, according to the president. Seventeen million people could go hungry, ha ha ha. They could be evicted for not paying rent, Heh Heh Heh.

But a silly tweet about colonialism, and suddenly the pressure is off.

And it was a silly tweet.

Did Thailand (then known as Siam) have no piped water until they were colonised by the Japanese in 1941? And did the Japanese have no piped water because they weren’t colonised? Did Ethiopia have no piped water before they were colonised by the Italians in 1936? Seeing the judiciary, transport infrastructure and water reticulation as products of colonialism is really daft.

But, like the misdirection of a stage magician, that silly tweet distracted the attention of the nation from something much more serious.

And, to give Helen Zille her due, she sometimes says and writes things a lot more useful than that silly tweet, and I think this is much more worth reading From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore | Daily Maverick:

I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”

I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.

She writes about how Singapore has changed in the last 35 years, a single generation, and what South Africa can learn from Singapore.

But I visited Singapore a generation ago, back in 1985, when South Africa was still wracked by P.W. Botha’s States of Emergency and Magnus Malan’s Total Strategy to meet the Total Onslaught.

Singapore was probably more authoritarian then than it is now, and though there weren’t Kasspirs and Hippos visibly prowling the streets there was, underneath the surface calm, that knowledge that somewhere behind the scenes Big Brother was watching.

But one other thing impressed me.

Singapore was a small country, and had no natural resources. The only resource it had was its people, and to make the most of that it invested heavily, very heavily, in education.

Back then, in 1985, the South African education system was broken, and had been badly broken for a generation, since Bantu Education and Christian National Education were brought in in the 1950s. The education wasn’t too good before the 1950s either, but at least then the government wasn’t deliberately trying to cripple it, as the National Party regime set out to do after 1948. And we can see the difference even today, when we meet the much-looked-down upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, legal and illegal, who are generally much better educated than their South African counterparts. Whatever else Mugabe and Smith before him (authoritarians both, like Singapore) managed to destroy, they did not set out to destroy the education system as the Nats did in South Africa.

Then came 1994, and all the talk of “transformation”.

But was the education system transformed? Hardly at all.

So yes, listen to Helen Zille when she talks about Singapore.

Singapore managed to transform their education system. We haven’t transformed ours.



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4 thoughts on “Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

  1. Rangjan on said:

    It’s hard to have sympathy for Zille’s arguments when she makes it about herself. For example “I had learnt that in partially free Singapore, one can express an opinion on these matters, but not in free South Africa” she conflates censorship/repression with criticism. If she spent any time in Singapore she would know that there are certain subjects YOU DO NOT MENTION (either due to political taboo, or draconian state repression – with the former linked to the latter) whereas her “difficulty” in South Africa is about the need to be sensitive to the oppression suffered by black people (particularly as a white woman). Zille is sophisticated, she knows this. Her “difficulty” is that she likes to use insensitive soundbites that appeal to her (white) base, so there is a political opportunism and laziness. One would think that a politician of her ilk, and the DA as a party, would want to carve out a niche as a competent, clean pro-capitalist party. All that is stopping them are Zille’s lazy stereotypes and racist insensitivities.

    • I think that there is more that is wrong with the DA than Helen Zille, but when she says that South Africa could learn something from education in Singapore I agree with her. Not everything — I don’t think Singapore’s education system is perfect, but it’s a lot better and more transformed than ours.

      • Rangjan on said:

        Right, but if you don’t acknowledge that Singapore is a city of 5.3 million people (2 million in 1970), that has benefitted from huge inward investment and migration, and didn’t have the enormous legacy issues of South Africa (hundreds of thousands of worse than useless teachers out in the field just to mention one). She’s got to talk about how the lessons in Singapore can be applied to a totally different context, or she is just using the topic as a backdrop for her own story (she uses the article to ridiculously claim she is being ‘censored’, as I state above). And if you look at the DA in the Western Cape with their emphasis on historically white former model C schools, and neglect of township schools, how does she propose the DA should act differently? Even she must have noticed that Singapore has a very different education system.

  2. Three things that were badly broken under the NP regime that needed immediate remedial action by the new government in 1994 were health services, the police, and education. The failure of transformation in the police became clear at Marikana.

    In education, there should have been a massive effort to train and retrain teachers. Instead lots of teacher training colleges were closed. One of the first things that should have been done was to shut down the Unisa Faculty of Education with its ideology of Fundamental Pedagogics. Not forcibly (because academic freedom), but rather saying that Unisa education degrees would not be recognised for purposes of promotion or employment in any government education department until they had cleaned up their act.

    Yes, Singapore is very different, but we might have done worse than send some teachers there (and to other places) for training, and maybe imported some people from there to teach in our teacher training colleges. Instead, all the ANC’s best education people, like John Samuel, were sidelined.

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