Saturday, 26 December 2015

Greetings from Singapore (with some thoughts on Ferguson’s Empire)

I’m enjoying my time in Singapore where I’m a visiting fellow at NUS in December. It’s always nice to stay at a place for a bit longer than a conference visit (which I did in Singapore two years ago) and learn about a country’s history, culture, laws (including the more unusual ones, cf also above) etc.
  I also used the occasion to read Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003). This book has been controversial but it reads very well and it does address in quite some detail the dark sides of the British empire. However, overall, the conclusion is more positive – phrased as the hypothetical that ‘it must be said that the experiment of running the world without the Empire cannot be adjudged and unqualified success’; in particular that ‘there is good evidence that the imposition of British-style institutions has tended to enhance a country’s economic prospects’ (with examples of British law, administration and government) (pp 369-371). 
  It reminds me a bit of my ‘overfitting legal transplants’; sometimes foreign ideas can be quite helpful – and indeed Singapore may be an example where the transplanted English law is regarded as something valuable.
  The question is, however, whether the positive aspects associated with the British colonial empire could not also have been achieved without the negative ones. Focussing on the rule of law, it can be seen that many countries ranked in ‘top 20’ (see eg here) have not been part of the British empire: eg, the Nordic countries but also South Korea and Japan. So, as always, making a general assessment about complex historical events is problematic since any causal linkages are not that clear.