Which colonies fared best under British rule?

In a previous column on India, and how it suffered under colonialism, I mentioned:

If you are looking for the upside of British colonialism, you are more likely to find it in the wealthier and better-treated Singapore or Malaysia.

Why might this have been true?  Part of India’s colonial curse was its high population, which meant the British viewed it as a source of soldiers, and a captive market for goods, rather than an area whose value could be internalized through direct economic development.

When it comes the British history in India, I think of “letting the interior fester” as a big part of the core problem.  Most of India was and still is interior.  You might look at the coastal regions, but given that British policy forced India to accept free trade for British goods, without receiving the same privileges in return, the coastal regions became rent-seeking imperial clusters more than possible rivals to Hong Kong or for that matter Manchester.

Singapore, in contrast, was built around its port, and the British encouraged further developments in that direction, even as early as Raffles in the 1820s.  The city didn’t/doesn’t have much of an interior or for that matter much population (about 1,000 when the British took over).  Keeping the people servile didn’t seem worth the trouble, because they could neither fight nor buy in great numbers.  Instead, you can think of British policy as trying, selfishly, to maximize the value of Singaporean land to the British.  But that wasn’t such a nasty process, as the British Navy made Singapore more focal as a trade center, with a later boost from the opening of the Suez Canal.  Note that as late as the mid-1960s, just before independence, about 20 percent of Singaporean gdp was British defense spending.

Singapore as port and entrepot developed “the entire nation,” all the more as the induced spirit of enterprise later spread to manufacturing.  This in turn gave the territory the possibility of a relatively inclusive and egalitarian future.  Unlike with India, the British rulers never imagined a future where Singapore might threaten them economically, or politically, and so they could just let matters rip.  The British felt, more or less correctly (until the Japanese invasion), that improvements in the value of Singapore would be captured by them.

So it was “keeping an option on captive buyers and fighters” (India) vs. “maximizing the value of the land for Empire” (Singapore).  Both were selfish strategies, but the latter did better for the colony in question.  Hong Kong seems to fit comfortably into this framework, though other cases might be considered (Barbados vs. Guyana?  Ghana vs. Uganda?).

Singapore also benefited from having most of its relevant colonization come later, whereas India had a damaging East India Company period in the 17th and 18th centuries, when imperialism often was more brutal and less sophisticated.

Non-Singaporean Malaya/Malaysia would require a post of its own.  In that case, and also with Singapore more narrowly, an evaluation of British rule cannot be separated from major changes in the exports and also corresponding changes in the ethnic composition of the territory.  The Singaporean national anthem is still a song written in Malay, and by law it must be sung as such.


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