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John Curtis Perry
This book is an interesting study in the history of Singapore, one of the world’s wealthiest and best educated countries. John Curtis Perry is an American historian, who is a Professor of History at Tufts University. His story starts with a quote from ‘Julius Caesar’ – ‘there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’. The latter half of the book demonstrates how Singapore’s leaders in the post-Independence period have grasped that tide, for the better fortune of all Singaporeans.

The History of the Island is told, from early Malay fishermen in the twelfth century, through periods of growth and then depopulation to the present day’s problems of young people leaving to work overseas and declining numbers of Singaporeans wanting to do blue collar work (as they have all been educated!).

I found it interesting, having been at school with the children of those working in the oil industry in Singapore and Malaya in the 1970s, but I did find the author’s US-Centric and somewhat Anti-British-Colonial viewpoint a bit tedious. I tire of people saying the British Empire was ‘a bad thing’ when it’s obvious that many countries that were part of the empire kept so much of British Law, British customs and British business practices.

The book was informative and I learned a lot about the shipping industry and its changes from sail to steam, from steam to diesel, and then to container transport. The way Singapore as a new nation was able to set itself targets and fund industries to exploit this impressed me greatly. Comparing that to the introduction of change and modernisation in British Industries of the 1970s was interesting. To me the difference seemed to be that the Singaporean workers trusted their Government to do the right thing by them, whereas the British Government didn’t appear to have the vision or the money to fund much-needed infrastructure changes and British Trade Unions had already been fighting their bosses for over 100 years for basic rights, education, etc., and there was no trust left when the time came to modernise to operate in a completely different business environment. Each country is reaping the rewards of their different approaches today.

I’d recommend this book for people who like ‘people history’, as he has insights into the merging of Chinese, Malay, Indian and British cultures, in a nation where immigration has never been capped and anyone from any nation can become a citizen provided they work hard, keep to the nation’s rules and obey its laws. It also looks into the amount of personal freedoms citizens have given up, to ensure the success of the whole nation – again an interesting contrast to the UK.

Three mushroom heads. A good read for those interested in trade, shipping and 20th Century History.

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