Citizens at the End of Empire: Navigating “Citizenship” in Postwar Malaya and Singapore, 1946-1963

Dr John Solomon4

4National University of Singapore

The breaking up of the British Empire in Asia was period of significant upheaval for communities whose identities, mobilities and lived experiences were previously constructed within a trans-imperial world. In Singapore, which was one of the last territories in Southeast Asia to decolonise, the emergence of Singapore citizenship as a legal status conferred rights and privileges to individuals in exchange for a commitment of loyalty directed towards shifting concepts of empire, commonwealth, polity and nation. Rather than being simply imposed by states, the meaning, significance and contours of citizenship in Malaya and Singapore were negotiated between communities, individuals and the colonial and post-colonial states. The social history of citizenship in Singapore during decolonisation, that is, how different communities and groups of people responded to citizenship proposals and understood the meaning of citizenship and made decisions regarding citizenship choices, remains an underexplored area of scholarship. This paper argues that while emerging states and the British attempted to create national communities based on a discourse of loyalty and responsibility, ordinary people had a range of complex responses to citizenship based on pragmatic calculations, their “racial” identities, and their views on post-colonial mobility.  These responses reveal how ordinary people and communities experienced the new system of borders, passports and nation-states that emerged across Asia in the wake of decolonisation.


John Solomon received his PhD at the University of New South Wales (2014). He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the National University of Singapore where he enjoys teaching modules on Singapore, popular culture, Asian history and historiography. His research interests include diaspora and migration, the British Empire and decolonisation, and the concept of “race”. He published a book about untouchability and South Asian migration in colonial Singapore – A Subaltern History of the Indian Diaspora in Singapore: Gradual Disappearance of Untouchability: 1872 -1965 (New York: Routledge, 2016). His current research explores notions of citizenship during decolonisation in Malaya.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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