The progressive narration of the founding of Singapore

Lin Ziyuan
9 Nov 2003

Changes from first draft

Except the introductory paragraph on Raffles' landing site, I have revised the entire essay with "less history, more analysis" in mind. I jettisoned a lot of the historical account and made clearer how some aspects of today’s interpretation of the founding that are given less significance (pre-history, mercantilist and imperialist interests and the ousting of Malay rulers) relate to Singapore's understanding of its progressive "destiny". It is not so much criticism of the way the event is portrayed; rather, it is about which "progressive" parts have been extracted and amplified, and which "anachronistic" parts have been downplayed or portrayed from another perspective. I have also inserted quotes from SM Lee’s memoirs where he talks about the significance of Raffles' statue for post-independence Singapore.


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 river, the skyscrapers overlooking the statue remind us of Raffles' legacy.

The founding of modern Singapore is a momentous occasion in its history. Today it is commemorated with monuments like the Raffles landing site, which was laid by the Singapore government in 1969, the 150th anniversary of the founding (Chew para. 2). The contemporary historical account of how modern Singapore came to be founded is unabashedly positive and progressive, stressing the unlikelihood of how the "obscure fishing village" rose, with Raffles' insight and vision, to become a "modern metropolis", a city of great prosperity and importance. Other aspects of the founding that are not so compatible with this main narrative of linear development have been downplayed. Looking at what has been emphasised or discarded in today's account of modern Singapore's founding can give us a better picture of the circumstances of the event and its echoes in today's Singapore.

Singapore before the British

"Little is known about the early history of Singapore" (Champion and Moreira 3). Historians today have few substantial, reliable and consistent information on Singapore before the arrival of the British. History and legend are also sometimes difficult to separate. A Chinese trader, Wang Dayuan, provides an invaluable eyewitness account of Singapore in the 1330s. Temasek ("Sea Town"), as it was then known, was 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. The 17th-century Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) give glorious tales of how Singapore got its name (Singa-pura, "lion city") and how it was host to conflicts between the Siamese, Majapahit (Javanese) and Srivijayan (Sumatran) empires. Passing Portugese and Dutch traders and conquerors also mention Singapore sporadically. Singapore as a trading settlement had fickle fortunes – by 1819, its former glories had faded. It had become a neglected part of the weak Johore-Riau sultanate, itself an offshoot of an earlier Malaccan empire. This was the "obscure fishing village" that greeted the British expedition.

"You must not be surprised if my next letter to you is dated from the site of the ancient city of Singapura," wrote Raffles to his friend William Marsden in December 1818 (Boulger 303), shortly after his expedition set sail. Raffles was fascinated with ancient Singapore, though it was probably not as important or prosperous as the Malay Annals had portrayed it to be (Turnbull 4). On arriving, Raffles later wrote to Marsden that "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 and burial grounds of old 14th century Malay kings. There were sound strategic reasons for this choice, but Raffles must have also appreciated the literally underlying history.

While he cared about tales of the past, Raffles came to Singapore to create something new. On landing, he and his deputy, Major William Farquhar, representatives of the British East India Company (EIC), met the Temenggong (major chief), who led some 800 inhabitants of the fishing village. Two days later, they concluded a preliminary agreement to establish an EIC settlement and fort. This could arguably be called an attempted revival of Singapore's identity as a trading settlement, but the British founding resonates in today's Singapore like none other in its past. This British settlement, unlike any before, was clearly a product of human, no less one man's, ingenuity and enterprise. It was a fundamentally artificial construct from improbable settings – an unknown island lacking in natural resources and barely inhabited. Singapore's latent advantages as a trading settlement, such as geographical position, had led it to assume that function before, but it took a keen student of history and trade to recognise this and take advantage of it.

I remember [Dutch economic adviser Dr. Albert Winsemius's] first report to me in 1961 when he laid two preconditions for Singapore's success: first, to eliminate the communists who made any economic progress impossible; second, not to remove the statue of Stamford Raffles. To tell me in 1961, when the communist united front was at the height of its power... that I should eliminate the communists left me speechless as I laughed at the absurdity of his simple solution. To keep Raffles' statue was easy... (Lee 66)

This moral of Raffles' successful undertaking bolsters today's national aim of creating and sustaining an economically viable state. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 and today Senior Minister, here implicitly endorses Raffles' statue as a humble symbol and a "simple… precondition for Singapore's success"1. Singapore today continues to be a trading hub and an open, globalised economy. Economic prosperity is its raison d'être, or at least its paramount goal: never again will it devolve to become a mere "obscure fishing village." In this way, Singapore preseveres on the path its modern founder-creator has laid for it.

Mercantilist and imperialist interests

This modern founder-creator also had interests that may be seen as less than noble. In the same December 1818 letter, Raffles mentions that he "much fear[s] the Dutch have hardly left us [the British] an inch of ground to stand upon" (Boulger 303). Although Raffles found to his satisfaction that Singapore had not been occupied by the Dutch, he also realised that the preliminary agreement was insufficient as the Temenggong was not the legal sovereign of Singapore. This was the Sultan of Johore, who was friendly to the Dutch. Raffles is then said to have "outwitted the Dutch" (Champion and Moreira 13) by recognising a rival claimant to the throne, Tengku Long, and obtaining his exclusive permission for an EIC trading settlement in Singapore. This legitimised his previous agreement with the Temenggong and gave the EIC the support it needed when the Dutch, and some EIC officials, protested.

The British founding is thus notable for its origin in the Anglo-Dutch contest for trading privileges and power in the Malay Archipelago. Raffles was one of the major EIC officials who administered the Dutch territories of Java and Malacca during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; he was Lieutenant-Governor of Java until the Dutch return in 1816. When the Dutch renewed their control of the archipelago and reimposed their trading monopoly, Raffles was alarmed. With their relatively unsuccessful ports of Penang and Bencoolen, Raffles felt that the EIC was in danger of "being left out in the trade of the East" (Champion and Moreira 7). He personally persuaded the EIC's Governor-General of India, Lord Hastings, of the need for a new British settlement to protect its spice trade in the archipelago and to safeguard its trade routes to China, a growing export market for opium. "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). With his actions in securing an EIC base in Singapore, he risked antagonising the Dutch, but thought it was worth it.

As an employee of the EIC, Raffles was bound to its mercantilist interests. However, his founding of the settlement in Singapore proved to further Britain's imperialist interests too. The EIC was initially divided over whether to keep Singapore, but soon came to appreciate its economic and strategic importance. As a result of the founding, a "paper war" raged between London and the Hague, only to be resolved in 1824. The imperial powers agreed to carve up the Malay Archipelago into two spheres of influence: Singapore and Malayan territories for the British, the East Indies for the Dutch. The Dutch retracted their objections to the Singapore settlement, by then enjoying phenomenal growth as a port. The treaty also paved the way for the British to retake Malacca and consolidate their control in the Malay States. Raffles' initiative, political acumen and prescience paid off handsomely for his employers and eventually the British empire.

Today, however, the actions of Raffles have been separated from their political context – 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 Dutch opposition and his colleagues' scepticism. This boundless confidence in Singapore's potential, and its eventual success, have now become lessons for national optimism and ability to triumph against the odds. The mercantilist and imperialist interests behind the founding, the very impetus for Raffles' "genius and perception" in changing Singapore's destiny, are downplayed today. Singapore today is a modern metropolis that seeks to continue its founder-creator's vision of a bright future, and the narrow interests that precipitated the founding are seen as anachronistic and incompatible with the larger story.

Also, Raffles' advocacy of free trade is viewed favourably today for their economic merit, rather than their original purpose: to counter the Dutch trade monopoly and further the EIC's interests. Raffles was inspired by the ideas of Adam Smith and laissez-faire, and as the EIC itself was reluctant to give up its monopoly of the China trade, he was ahead of his own employers even as he worked for their interests. Modern Singapore continues to support free trade, whether achieved through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or bilateral free-trade agreements ("FTAs"). This precept for economic progress is inherited from the founding and remains on the agenda of today's Singapore2.

Ousting the indigenous rulers

The Anglo-Dutch treaty also marked the coup de grâce of Malay control of Singapore. In their first two agreements with the EIC in 1819, the Sultan and Temenggong technically did not relinquish any territorial claims. However, though they were given a share of port duties and judicial powers, these were curtailed by Raffles in a new treaty in 1823. Soon after the Anglo-Dutch treaty was signed and Dutch objections withdrawn, the Malay rulers were pressured by the second Resident, John Crawfurd, to sign a final treaty with the EIC in August 1824. In this they ceded the whole island of Singapore 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), namely, the British empire. They were given cash and increased pensions in return. 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), eased out under questionable circumstances, have largely been forgotten. There is little popular resentment to British encroachment over indigenous and royal interests, unlike, say, in Malaya. This is because Singapore before the founding had a small native population loyal to the royalty. Most Singaporeans' ancestors were immigrants who came to the bustling EIC settlement, later British colony, to seek better lives. Senior Minister Lee explains it thus:

Investors wanted to see what a new socialist government in Singapore was going to do to the statue of Raffles. Letting it remain would be a symbol of public acceptance of the British heritage and could have a positive effect. I had not looked at it that way, but was quite happy to leave this monument because he was the founder of modern Singapore. If Raffles had not come here in 1819 to establish a trading post, my great-grandfather would not have migrated to Singapore... The British created an emporium that offered him, and many thousands like him, the opportunity to make a better living than in their homeland. (Lee 67)

"Intellectual honesty"3 compels Singaporeans to disavow any postcolonial angst or resentment and confront their origins in relation to Singapore's raison d'être. One might say such "honesty" is extended to the ousting of the old Malay rulers by viewing the event as a natural rather than objectionable development.


Singapore is perhaps rare among cities or nations in having a founding event that is well-served in documentation and clear in implications. There are sound historiographical justifications for downplaying the comparatively sparser "pre-history", or history before the British arrival. However, we may also see the importance of the British founding as the event where today's Singapore "finds" its purpose: trade and economic progress. This is also the reason why modern accounts uncritically examine the mercantilist and imperialist interests behind the British founding, and why their gradual takeover of political power from the indigenous rulers is seldom, if ever, protested today. These events have been decontextualised in favour of aspects of the past that further contemporary agendas like the promotion of free trade and entrepreneurship. Interpreted in this way, the founding begins a narrative of visionary genius, confidence in Singapore's potential, and a bright future.

1 The question of whether Raffles' status as founder of Singapore has been exaggerated is examined in Turnbull 30 and Chew para. 14-18. Here, perhaps even more problematically, Winsemius and (implicitly) Lee use Raffles' statue as a double metonym for the implications of the founding.

2 Holden compares Raffles' advocacy of free trade to the "free market's second coming": Singapore government "unshackling the natural energy of the market" after independence to lead Singapore towards "steady and rapid [economic] progress" (87).

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. “Raffles Revisited: A Review & Reassessment of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826).” Updated 12 October 2002. <>. Cited 9 November 2003.

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

Lee, Kuan Yew. From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000. Singapore: Times Media Private Limited, 2000.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore. "Free Trade Agreements (FTAs)." Updated 2002. <>. 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.