Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles stands by the banks of the Singapore River and outside Victoria Memorial Hall, cast in bronze and poly marble. Arms folded, he cuts a regal figure — a fitting depiction for the man we celebrate as a national hero. With the Singapore Bicentennial in full swing to commemorate his arrival 200 years ago, much discourse now surrounds him and his role in founding modern Singapore. Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves: How much do we truly know about Raffles? As it turns out, not much at all.
Traditionally celebrated as the one who established Singapore as a British trading port, Raffles was a British official with the East India Company in Southeast Asia. A plaque below his statue praises him for his “genius and perception” and for “chang[ing] the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis”.
A complex picture of Raffles
But times have changed. And so has respect for him and his legacy. Offering up different — and controversial — perspectives on the man are publications such as Nadiah H Wright’s William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow. Published in 2017, her book highlights how Raffles wrongfully stole the credits from William Farquhar’s, his second-in-command, whose list of achievements include turning around Malacca’s depreciating economic state. Echoing this is a new publication published by The Straits Times Press. 200 Years Of Singapore and the United Kingdom is a compilation of essays by scholars, historians and specialists who allude to Farquhar as the reason why Singapore thrived as a port.
Likewise, a new exhibition at Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) paints a more accurate and nuanced picture of him. Co-curated with the British Museum, Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Stateman features 240 masterpieces from partner institutions and private collectors.
Present at the launch, Kennie Ting, Director of ACM, acknowledges that the exhibit aims to provide “different perspectives on Raffles…and provoke a different way of thinking about [the Singaporean] identity”. The ultimate goal is for visitors to “decide for themselves who and what Raffles represents.”
Raffles the coloniser
Navigate the exhibit and its captions to peel back the layers of the previously one-dimensional stories of Raffles. While viewed as an expert on Southeast Asia, he was not free of prejudices that were typical of the European coloniser. According to the exhibition, his collection lacked Islamic materials as he viewed the religion negatively and deemed it as bringing about the decline of civilisation; Islamic sacred sites were ignored, as they were made of wood and seen as primitive.
Believing that the Javanese were incapable of building in stone, ancient temples like the Candi Sukuh were thought of as proof that Java was once colonised. Their ruins were seen as evidence of the island’s state of decline — Raffles saw this as justification for the British colony to restore it to its glory. He ignored important sites — like the Yogyakarta palace complex he sanctioned an attack on — and that was one of the signs of a committed imperialist. The East India Company, the British company he worked for, incentivised overseas troops by letting them loot.
The exhibit also disrupts any previous notions of Raffles as the discoverer. He’s often credited for uncovering new plant species, particularly the Rafflesia flower. But not many people know that many of these were brought to him by the indigenous people — this echoes the colonialist’s narrative of “Columbusing”, where a dominant culture takes from a minority and claims credit.
Learning about 19th century Java and the Malay world
This new showcase also aims to educate exhibit-goers on the “cultural and artistic richness of 19th-century Java and the Malay world”. While his personal collection is skewed to favour the British colonial mindset and rule, other objects, that includes court documents and letters, provide insight to the political dynamics with local sultans.
For a more in-depth experience, the museum has programmes in store including exclusive after-hours with curators, talks, and a weekend festival.
Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and the Statesman will run from 1 February to 28 April 2o19.