Singapore, Chinese Migration and the Making of the British Empire, 1819-67

Dr Stan Neal’s new book, the latest in our Worlds of the East India Company series, examines how Singapore was seen as a colonial model in the British Empire and traces how notions of racial hierarchy and economic utility were applied in different colonial contexts.   

In 2018 the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested that the UK should use low-tax Singapore as a model for its new position in the world after Brexit. This idea of Singapore as a potential model has a much longer history. In the nineteenth century, many British colonial observers attributed the rapid growth of colonial Singapore to a unique combination of British liberal governance and Chinese economic activity. My book explores various attempts to replicate colonial Singapore by introducing Chinese migrants to different British colonies.  

This project grew out of my previous work, which focused on the role of the British opium trading firm Jardine Matheson in facilitating emigration from China. As I amassed a list of case studies from this research, I realised that a common theme was how many colonial officials wanted to attract Chinese migrants in order to replicate the miraculous success of colonial Singapore.

Thomas Stamford Raffles, a British statesman best known for his founding of Singapore and the British Malaya. Image dated January 1824. Source: Wikimedia Commons

From the colonial standpoint, there were two main functions of the Chinese community in Singapore. One element was the Chinese labouring workforce who made up the majority of the population and supplied labour for tin mines, gambier and pepper plantations. They were both famed for their hard work, as they worked to pay off debts incurred by the credit-ticket migration system, and stereotyped as unruly opium addicts. The second element was the Chinese merchant elite. As well as supplying capital for the colonial economy, this group of influential merchants were seen by the colonial authorities as an important group for controlling the Chinese population more broadly.

Of course, the reduction of the Chinese population into two groups by colonial observers was overly simplistic. Importantly, the Chinese community at large was celebrated as the reason for Singapore’s economic success in contrast to the ‘lazy natives’ of the Malay Peninsula. Colonial racial hierarchies were crucial to how Chinese migrants were presented and stereotyped.

Because of the imperial scope of this project, the book examines the Chinese migrants in a range of different contexts: Assam, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, New South Wales, Hong Kong and the West Indies. As a result, I owe a huge debt to digital archives and technology that has allowed me to access sources across such a large geographical spread.

Despite the global spread of this project, the most important context for the writing of the book was local: Brexit. Thematically the parallels between my work on the British Empire in the nineteenth century and Brexit are clear. Issues of race, migration and trade arise again and again.

Crucially, however, the historical efforts to replicate colonial Singapore all met insurmountable challenges. For example, the mass migration of Chinese workers that led to growth in Singapore was opposed by white settlers in Britain’s Australian colonies. As with Brexit, the inherent connection between global trade and mass migration was fundamentally misunderstood. Early colonial Singapore’s prosperity was in many ways based on a unique combination of factors and not easy to replicate without exposing the racial and economic tensions of colonization. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt should find a different model for Britain after Brexit?


This guest post was written by Stan Neal, the John Springhall Post-Doctoral Lecturer in Modern British/Imperial History at Ulster University. He gained his PhD from Northumbria University in 2016.  

Singapore, Chinese Migration and the Making of the British Empire, 1819-67
by Stan Neal
Hardback / 9781783274239 / £48.75 or $86.25

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