The narrative of the founding of Singapore

Lin Ziyuan
26 Oct 2003


In this essay I analyse the role of the founding of Singapore in the nation's historical narrative of its origins, its progress and its vision for the future. The founding of modern Singapore by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles is usually described in a positive light, especially with regard to Raffles' "genius and perception" of the future importance of Singapore. Certain controversial aspects of the founding such as the downplaying of the history of Singapore prior to the British arrival; the Anglo-Dutch rivalry that precipitated the British establishment of a trading settlement, and later colonising Singapore; and the gradual easing out of the indigenous Malay rulers of Singapore, are less known. I explain why they have been "whitewashed", purposely or not, and what the modern interpretation brings to bear on the notion of Singapore and progress.

On the northern side of the Singapore River lies Raffles' landing site, supposedly where Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore, first stepped ashore. There stands a white polymarble statue of the Englishman in a confident pose, arms folded. Its pedestal has four inscriptions in each of Singapore's official languages. The English one reads: "On this historic site Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis." Although the "great seaport" is no longer at the Singapore River, the skyscrapers overlooking the statue remind us of Raffles' legacy.

The founding of modern Singapore is a momentous occasion in Singapore's history. It is remarkable as an unabashedly positive account of what can be seen as mercantilist and imperial encroachment. Earlier history of a trading settlement in Singapore, bias towards British interests, and the ousting of native Malay rulers are often neglected. This interpretation of the founding may be an attempt to incorporate it into a coherent narrative of the past and progressive vision for the future.

Singapore before the British

On the afternoon of 28th January 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Major William Farquhar and an Indian sepoy came ashore. Raffles was spearheading a British expedition seeking a new trading settlement for the East India Company (EIC). Raffles and Farquhar met the Temenggong (major chief) and concluded a preliminary agreement with him two days later, allowing an EIC settlement and fort in return for cash payments and protection. Raffles had previously heard of Singapore's glorious past from the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), and had written to William Marsden not to be surprised if his next letter was "dated from the site of the ancient city of Singapura" (Turnbull 8). Raffles also says "the lines of the old city, and its defences, are still to be traced" (Boulger 311). He later chose to build his residence at Bukit Larangan, or Forbidden Hill (now Fort Canning Hill), site of the palaces of old 14th century Malay kings.

Indeed, Singapore was neither uninhabited nor unknown before the British. A Chinese trader of the 1330s, Wang Dayuan, describes Singapore, then known as Temasek ("Sea Town"), as a small trading post, a port-of-call for ships sailing between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, and a base for pirates. In the 14th and 15th centuries Singapore was host to conflicts between the Siamese, Majapahit (Javanese) and Srivijayan (Sumatran) empires, as well as passing Portuguese and Dutch forces. By 1819, however, Singapore had become the "obscure fishing village", a neglected part of the weak Johore-Riau Sultanate, itself an offshoot of an earlier Malaccan empire. The Temenggong (chief) and 20-30 Malay followers, controlled a small area around the Singapore River. Some 800 orang laut ("sea gypsies") lived in houseboats, stepping ashore only to gather fruits, replenish water supplies, and conduct small trade. There were also 20-30 Chinese who cultivated small gambier plantations further inland.

The history of Singapore's earlier prominence as a trading settlement and battleground of ancient empires is nowadays downplayed compared to the British founding. This is mainly because these records are sparse, sketchy and sometimes inconsistent. History and legend are difficult to separate, such as the tale of how Singapore got its name (Singa-pura, from "lion city"). Raffles himself did not discount Singapore's rich history, though it seems ancient Singapore was never as important or prosperous as he imagined (Turnbull 4).

More significantly, the purpose behind the British founding is extremely relevant to modern Singapore, which continues to be a trading hub and a globalised economy. Economic prosperity is the raison d'être of Singapore, or is at least the paramount goal. Raffles' founding did not so much "[change] the destiny of Singapore" as revive and secure Singapore's identity as a trading settlement, a fundamentally artificial construct, and a product of human ingenuity and enterprise in the face of lack of natural resources and any significant indigenous population. Since Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965, the Singapore government has been faced with the task of creating and maintaining an economically viable state, and the moral of Raffles' undertaking bolsters such national goals.

The "fulcrum" of influence

Raffles and Farquhar found Singapore suitable for a trading post because it had a good harbour, wide river and clean drinking water. It was favourably situated on the trade route from the West to China and the East Indies, and had not been occupied by the Dutch, the EIC's main regional rival. Unfortunately for them, the legal sovereign of Singapore was not the Temenggong but the Sultan of Johore, controlled by the Dutch. Raffles is said to have "outwitted the Dutch"1 by recognising a rival claimant to the throne, Tengku Long, and obtaining his exclusive permission for an EIC trading settlement in Singapore. Raffles concluded a treaty with this Sultan and Temenggong on the 6th of February, promising them cash payments and protection in return. Raffles had arguably violated the November 1818 instructions of Lord Hastings, Governor-General of India, that warned against antagonising the Dutch. Raffles' actions naturally angered the latter, and the dispute was only resolved with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in March 1824. Raffles himself was aware of the looming controversy. In his written instructions to Farquhar as first Resident, he warned of the inevitable Dutch reaction of "jealousy" (Chew and Lee 37).

The founding is notable for its origin: the Anglo-Dutch contest for trading privileges and power. The EIC had taken over the Dutch territories of Java and Malacca during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. When the Dutch retook these possessions in 1816 and 1818 respectively, and renewed their trading monopoly in the Malay Archipelago, the EIC felt the danger of "being left out in the trade of the East" (Champion and Moreira 7). The EIC's need for a trading settlement in the region - to protect its spice trade in the Malay Archipelago and to safeguard its trade routes to China, where the opium export market was growing rapidly - are enthusiastically propounded. The EIC ports of Penang and Bencoolen were ineffective in countering Dutch power, and Raffles campaigned vigorously to Lord Hastings for the establishment of a new settlement in the region. "Our object is not territory, but trade; a great commercial emporium, and a fulcrum, whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require", said Raffles (Boulger 309).

Even though the legality of the EIC's control was doubtful, and while a "paper war" between London and the Hague ensued, trade in Singapore grew rapidly, and in time, the British came to appreciate its strategic and economic importance. In 1824, the two imperial powers agreed to carve up the Malay Archipelago into two spheres of influence: Singapore and Malayan territories northward for the British, the East Indies for the Dutch. These resolved the Dutch objections to the Singapore settlement, by then enjoying phenomenal success. It also paved the way for the British to retake Malacca and consolidate their control in the Malay States. Raffles' political acumen and prescience paid off handsomely for his employers, and eventually, the British empire.

The mercantilist interests of the EIC, and the imperialist ambitions of its officers such as Raffles, are glossed over almost effortlessly. The popular interpretation also seems pro-British and anti-Dutch. A legacy of Singapore's colonial past? Not so: Raffles' actions have been separated from their political context, namely, rivalry between imperial powers, and transformed into a timeless fable of individual ambition and foresight. Raffles was enthusiastic about Singapore's prospects and argued vociferously for keeping it despite opposition from the Dutch and EIC officials in London and in the East, such as Colonel Bannerman, Governor of Penang and his "jealous... rival" (Champion and Moreira 26). Uncoupled from anachronistic politics, Raffles' boundless confidence in Singapore's potential, and his triumph against the odds, have become useful lessons today.

Raffles was also greatly influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith and laissez-faire, and his efforts to counter the Dutch trade monopoly are interpreted in favour of free trade, rather than as merely for the EIC's interests. In fact, since the EIC itself was reluctant to give up its monopoly of the China trade, Raffles was ahead of his own employers even as he worked for their interests. This lesson resonates in modern Singapore's support for free trade through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and bilateral free-trade agreements ("FTAs"). Free trade is another ideological precept extracted to support progressive economic policies2.

The lapse of Malay control

Besides resolving the dispute over the EIC settlement, the Anglo-Dutch treaty marked the coup de grâce of Malay control of Singapore. In the first two agreements between Raffles and the Temenggong on 30 January 1819, and the second with the British-backed Sultan on 6 February, the Sultan and Temenggong agreed only to the EIC's establishment of a trading post. In return, they would receive protection, annual payments and half the duties collected from native ships. Technically, they did not relinquish any territorial claims. Nevertheless, they did not enjoy much political power in the new settlement. Farquhar reserved consultative roles for the Sultan and Temenggong for judicial cases involving Malays, but most major cases were tried by the Resident, and minor ones by appointed Asian headmen. The legal system was basically English, with "consideration to Asian customs and traditions" (Champion and Moreira 17). The Sultan's clan was settled at Kampong Glam, and the Temenggong and some 600 followers near the Singapore River until 1823, when they were persuaded by Raffles to move further inland, clearing the space for trade.

On his final visit to Singapore in 1823, Raffles also reached a new agreement with the Sultan and Temenggong that curtailed their judicial powers and economic privileges. Soon after the Anglo-Dutch treaty, and under pressure from the second Resident John Crawfurd, the Sultan and Temenggong in August 1824 agreed to cede the whole Singapore island and the adjacent seas, straits and islands lying within a radius of ten miles to the EIC and "its heirs and successors" (Chew and Lee 39), in return for payments and increased pensions. This marked the end of their effective influence in Singapore. Crawfurd even wanted to "induce them to leave" (Turnbull 8), and although he was unsuccessful, the Sultan's family gradually "lapsed into obscurity" (Chew and Lee 244), while the Temenggong's rose in standing only with their relocation to Johore.

It seems that as the EIC felt it less necessary to defend the legality of its presence, and as Singapore grew and prospered, the Sultan and Temenggong's say over governmental matters deteriorated, to the point where the British asserted full territorial and political control. The Sultan and Temenggong's status as previous sovereigns of Singapore (indeed, British-supported sovereigns), later eased out of public life, have largely been forgotten. This is because Singapore before the founding had a small native population, and there is little popular resentment to British encroachment over indigenous and regal rights, unlike, say, in Malaya. Most Singaporeans' ancestors emigrated to the bustling EIC settlement, later British colony, and their fortunes were bound to those of the British legacy. In relation to Singapore's raison d'être as a settlement that arose out of economic purposes, this "intellectual honesty"3 compels Singaporeans to disavow any postcolonial angst or resentment.

Why the progressive account

To conclude, the founding of Singapore by Raffles has been incorporated into a positive account of a nation's birth as an economic entity. Singapore's sketchy earlier history is downplayed as the founding illustrates individual ambition and foresight more effectively. Mercantilist and imperialist motivations have been excised in favour of a non-contextual story of perseverance despite the odds, and the promotion of free trade in support of contemporary policies. Lastly, the creeping advance of British interests has been excused because there is little affinity to indigenous interests amongst today's Singaporeans. The founding has thus become the first chapter of a progressive narrative of visionary genius, confidence in Singapore's potential and a bright future.

1 Champion and Moreira 13.

2 In this regard, Holden raises the issue of how Raffles' advocacy of free trade is to the "free market's second coming" (89) following Singapore's separation from Malaysia.

3 As described by S. Rajaratnam, ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, in 1974; quoted in Holden 85.

Works Cited

Boulger, Demetrius Charles. The Life of Sir Stamford Raffles. Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1999.

Champion, Marissa and Joy Moreira. History of Malaya and Southeast Asia. Singapore: EPB Publishers Pte Ltd, 1995.

Chew, Ernest C. T. and Edwin Lee. A History of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore. "Free Trade Agreements (FTAs)." Updated 2002. <http://www.mfa.gov.sg/sections/fp/io_fta.htm>. Cited 26 October 2003.

Holden, Philip. "The Free Market's Second Coming: Monumentalising Raffles." Reading Culture: Textual Practices in Singapore. Ed. Phyllis G. L. Chew and Anneliese Kramer-Dahl. Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1999. 83-98.

Turnbull, C. M. A History of Singapore: 1819-1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989.