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Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes

Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore's Plural Society

Anoma Pieris
Copyright Date: 2009
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  • Book Info
    Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes
    Book Description:

    During the nineteenth century, the colonial Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang, and Melaka were established as free ports of British trade in Southeast Asia and proved attractive to large numbers of regional migrants. Following the abolishment of slavery in 1833, the Straits government transported convicts from the East India Company’s Indian presidencies to the settlements as a source of inexpensive labor. The prison became the primary experimental site for the colonial plural society and convicts were graduated by race and the labor needed for urban construction. Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes investigates how a political system aimed at managing ethnic communities in the larger material context of the colonial urban project was first imagined and tested through the physical segregation of the colonial prison. It relates the story of a city, Singapore, and a contemporary city-state whose plural society has its origins in these historical divisions. A description of the evolution of the ideal plan for a plural city across the three settlements is followed by a detailed look at Singapore’s colonial prison. Chapters trace the prison’s development and its dissolution across the urban landscape through the penal labor system. The author demonstrates the way in which racial politics were inscribed spatially in the division of penal facilities and how the map of the city was reconfigured through convict labor. Later chapters describe penal resistance first through intimate stories of penal life and then through a discussion of organized resistance in festival riots. Eventually, the plural city ideal collapsed into the hegemonic urban form of the citadel, where a quite different military vision of the city became evident. Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes is a fascinating and thoroughly original study in urban history and the making of multiethnic society in Singapore. It will compel readers to rethink the ways in which colonial urban history, postcolonial urbanism, and governance have been theorized by scholars and represented by governments.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6283-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-29)

    Two parallel themes, of the colonial city as a model of pluralism and of the colonial prison as its primary testing ground, intersect in the writing of this book. The interlinking of two otherwise self-contained approaches to history is its original contribution. Conceptually, this book proposes that notions of social, cultural, or political division were introduced into the colonial dual city and that a “dialogic” urban environment emerged.¹ Some of the complexities of a heterogeneous social and political context are examined without reducing this topic to the familiar binaries found in colonial literature. This book examines how a plural political...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Divided Landscapes
    (pp. 30-61)

    From the 1950s onward, in fact until it was claimed for the new Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2002, Bras Basah Park was an urban void at the heart of the densely developed civic district in Singapore. Its appearance as a planned public space flanked by the public library and two museums was deceptive. The site marked the extent of a much larger colonial institution, since demolished, that was situated at the rear of the European town during the colonial period. Two Chinese names for Bras Basah Road, which is adjacent to the park, Lau Khaku Keng Kau (mouth of...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Colonial Prison
    (pp. 62-94)

    Penal transportation replicated the premodern practices of exile and slavery by casting deviance outside the spaces of enlightenment. That such policies continued well into the nineteenth century is to be wondered about. In the example of penal transportation to the Straits Settlements, the defamiliarization and individuation caused by physical and cultural isolation was compounded by the pollution associated with transportation for caste Indians.¹ For those who fell outside the caste system, such as Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, and Eurasians, transportation severed critical social solidarities.² The convict’s physical body was objectified, moved, placed in fetters, subjected to corporal punishment, and exploited through...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Hidden Hands
    (pp. 95-129)

    Labor as travail originally defined the limits placed on individual freedoms. The labor of a serf for a lord or the labor of women in childbirth suggests the burden of “labor.” Industry, on the other hand, had a productive connotation. Raymond Williams argues that during the Industrial Revolution in England, the word “industry” changed in use from that of a human attribute to a description of an institution.¹ Adam Smith articulated this change as a field of open competition that was self-regulating and guided by a related morality, the hidden hand of capital.² The pairing of morality and industry would...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Perils of Association
    (pp. 130-155)

    Far from enumerating the successes of the modern state, penal histories of colonial societies highlight the limits of a system where expansionist prerogatives, poor financial resources, and corruption overwrote the objectives of reform. In fact, as argued by Dikötter and Brown, they expose the Eurocentric limits of theories that study the evolution of systems of punishment as illustrative of processes of rationalization, namely in the work of Foucault and Weber.¹ These authors also point out that prisoners were not passive subjects of a “great disciplining project”; evasion, resistance, recidivism, alternative cultures, and anticolonial politics were in fact strengthened by incarceration....

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Battle for the City
    (pp. 156-187)

    In the Indian penal system, religious and cultural arenas that were protected by law invariably became critical sites of social unrest. In short, as outlined in the previous chapter, spontaneous and unpredictable manifestations of cultural stereotypes with the propensity to transform into organized forms of resistance emerged as the greatest threat to colonial administrations. In the Straits prison system, however, cultural solidarities emphasized but did not supersede class divisions. Meanwhile in the settlement, as argued by Mak Lau Fong, Carl Trocki, and many others, native—mainly immigrant Chinese—resistance took the form of competition over colonial economic interests.¹ In fact,...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Citadel
    (pp. 188-216)

    Once the Straits Settlements were declared a crown colony in 1867, with Singapore at its head, Penang and Melaka diminished in significance. Singapore grew in autonomy and stature, no longer one of many stations on the colonial circuit for a host of petty officials. It also ceased to be one of the coveted sites along a chain of colonial penal stations. Following the riots of 1867 a surfeit of acts regulating secret societies was imposed on the immigrant populations. They included the Dangerous Societies Suppression Act no. XIX of 1869, followed by the Dangerous Societies Suppression Ordinance of 1882 and...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 217-236)

    Although contemporary Singapore has often been represented as a punitive city because of its pervasive apparatus of surveillance, the policing of political opposition, and continued use of corporal punishment and the death penalty, the postcolonial micromanagement of society by the government is not the concern of this book.¹ It would be difficult to link a nineteenth-century penal system to its twentieth-century counterpart considering the subsequent impact of nationalism, communism, and the Japanese occupation on Singapore’s twentieth-century political history. However, the ominous vacuum presented by the Bras Basah Park for many decades suggests a different kind of question regarding the resilience...

    (pp. 237-248)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 249-318)
    (pp. 319-320)
    (pp. 321-342)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 343-354)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 355-356)