What is the Commonwealth & why countries are flying its flags at half-mast for Queen Elizabeth

What is the relevance of the Commonwealth?

Tan Min-Wei | September 19, 2022, 11:01 AM

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Singapore will be flying its state flags at half-mast during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

It is a mark of respect reserved for very high-profile periods of mourning, such as during state funerals of leaders of the country, such as Yusof Ishak and Lee Kuan Yew.

Queen Elizabeth was Singapore's head of state during its self-governing period, before it joined the Malaysian Federation.

What is the Commonwealth?

She also played a role in Singapore’s international relations as the head of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 56 independent and equal sovereign states.

Members of the Commonwealth commit to an effective network for cooperation and promotion of development and free and democratic governments by promoting peace and prosperity.

Initially, the British Commonwealth was a collection of British Territories that had gained self-rule, but still acknowledged the British Monarch as their head of state.

These included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Irish Free State, later known as the Republic of Ireland.

With many British colonies and territories gaining independence, many chose to cut ties with the British monarchy.

They chose to become republics or states without kings, as India and Ireland did.

While the Republic of Ireland chose to leave the Commonwealth, India has maintained its membership. Others, like Malaya, later Malaysia, would decide to restore their own monarchs as their heads of state.

But while the Commonwealth sought to position itself as a discursive forum, interested in maintaining cooperation and human rights, it constantly had to contend with the colonial legacy of the empire it came from.

Even former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would crack jokes at disparity present in the grouping, noting at a speech that was eventually broadcast before the Queen that:

"Then there is the British Commonwealth where the wealth is not common."

What about Singapore?

Singapore, for its part, joined the Commonwealth in October 1965 after becoming independent from Malaysia.

In 2018, after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in London, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recounted the close relationship between Singapore and the Commonwealth.

Saying that the organisation had been a welcoming community, he also noted the benefits that Singapore had enjoyed as a fledgling nation in the Commonwealth and that Singapore felt duty-bound to ensure that those benefits were reciprocated.

To PM Lee, the Commonwealth is a community of nations, akin to Asean, an alternate forum to coordinate action on topics such as trade or climate change. And as a small nation-state, the nations in the Commonwealth had many commonalities with each other.

Many were newly independent, finding their way in a fast-changing world, needing to economically develop as well as navigate a fraught geopolitical situation. PM Lee mentions the "Vietnam War hotting up", a symptom of a dangerous Cold War.

Ultimately, while Singapore’s flying of the flag at half-mast has not been stated as being directly linked to the nation’s membership in the Commonwealth, the respect for Queen Elizabeth likely comes partly from her role as head of the Commonwealth, as well as the effort she made to maintain an organisation that many countries used to project their own goals.

Her Commonwealth

Arguably, Queen Elizabeth's most significant contribution on a global stage is embodied in the Commonwealth, an organisation that she inherited from her father, but largely made in her own image.

Taking on the role of Head of the Commonwealth allowed her to head up the grouping without having to be head of state for the member countries.

Her presence lent an air of glamour to Commonwealth’s proceedings, and as described in this article by Sky News, she took a very active role in promoting the organisation. She made over 200 visits to Commonwealth states and was often present at Heads of Government Meetings.

Her devotion to the organisation is perhaps best shown in an anecdote recounted in the Foreign Policy magazine, which details her conflict with the late former British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher.

Queen Elizabeth did not agree with Thatcher's opposition to imposing sanctions on the racist apartheid government in South Africa, which would have made Britain the "only holdout" among the nations in the Commonwealth.

Queen Elizabeth feared that Thatcher's stance would jeopardise "'her Commonwealth", and allegedly contemplated breaking established protocol by not attending the weekly meeting between prime minister and monarch.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Commonwealth’s success is not just that it has survived the end of the British empire with relatively few dropouts -- the only countries to have left since the empire ended are the Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe. But that it is now beginning to add states to its ranks that had no relationship with the British Empire, such as Rwanda, which was a Belgian colony. Zimbabwe has even applied to rejoin.

But as she became queen in a time of flux, her death also raised questions about the future of both the Commonwealth and the Monarchy.

So closely tied to her was the Commonwealth that there is no shortage of think pieces questioning whether the organisation can survive her, or if her successor, King Charles III, is politically savvy and charismatic enough to adequately take her place.

A setting sun

Already towards the end of her reign, many of the Commonwealth Realms, where she remains head of state, have begun to openly contemplate leaving the monarchy and become republics.

In 2021, Barbados ceased recognising Queen Elizabeth as its monarch and replaced her with its first president. This was followed by Jamaica and the Bahamas saying they would do the same.

Even in Australia and New Zealand, talk of republicanism seems to have become a question of when, not if.

But her lasting contribution to the Commonwealth is that it no longer needs her to justify its existence, even if it ends up being her own effort and charisma that held it together. Its policy agenda should be able to find a way to justify its existence.

Even the countries leaving the monarchy are careful to say that they intend to remain part of the Commonwealth.

That question remains for the future to answer. Singapore, like many other Commonwealth states, has chosen to honour her. Despite much colonial baggage, countries like India, Australia, and Nigeria, to name but a few, have said they will or are already flying their flags at half-mast.

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Top image via thecommonwealth.org and The Royal Family/Facebook