Between the 1960s and 1990s, Japan became the leading donor of overseas aid in decolonizing and newly independent nations of Southeast Asia. Initially, memories of Japan’s occupation of the region during World War Two, and especially its treatment of Southeast Asia’s (mostly) minority Chinese and Eurasian populations, played a major yet complex role in this munificence. Nowhere was this more so than in the Republic of Singapore, which in 1967 signed a bilateral accord whereby Japan supplied it with $50 million worth of ‘economic assistance’ (half in the form of a grant and half as a loan). While Singapore’s local Chinese-speaking population were encouraged to understand such aid as the overdue payment of a wartime ‘blood debt’, Singaporean and Japanese officials negotiated at length over its exact relationship to Japanese war crimes.
This paper explores, in detail, the complex grassroots mobilizations, political contests and bilateral negotiations that produced the Japan-Singapore accord of 1967 and assesses the long-term impact of the aid it promised on ethnic integration in ‘multicultural’ Singapore. The paper addresses the way in which wartime wounds were pragmatically deployed by the Singapore government, and then demobilized, to serve it nation-building needs. It posits that the activities of both governments resulted in the minoritization of Singapore’s majority Chinese population and its wartime experiences and grievances. The paper also argues for a greater focus on Japan’s involvement, through its diplomatic aid programmes, in the politics of postwar humanitarianism in Southeast Asia.