Raffles Stole Singapore

The Spectator
How Raffles stole the jewel of Singapore
Alex Colville
27 January 2018

The true founder of Singapore, the humane and diplomatic William Farquhar, has for centuries been unjustly eclipsed by his bullying, reckless superior

BOOK REVIEW:
William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow
Nadia H. Wright
Entrepot Publishing (Malaysia), pp.258, £27.91
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Accounts of the founding of the British Empire once echoed the pages of Boy’s Own, featuring visionaries, armed with a flag, a faith and a funny hat, arriving in exotic lands untouched by civilisation. Overcoming great odds, they would kick-start the regions’ histories, show the locals the proper way to live and extend the imperial pink on the map a few inches before sailing off into the history books. Cook in Australia, Rhodes in Africa, Clive in India: in the popular imagination, the Empire was built by remarkable men, all by themselves.

Singapore was no exception — and the myth endures to this day. Stamford Raffles continues to dominate its pedestals, revered as the inspired founder who built an international trading enclave from the island swamp at the foot of the Malay peninsula where he disembarked in 1819.

Into this dusty tale Nadia Wright throws a much-needed stick of revisionist dynamite. Raffles is here portrayed as a reckless, inept opportunist, a bully and a hypocrite, who stole the crown from the man actually responsible for building the entrepot. Spare a thought for Raffles’s second-in-command, a tall, gentle Scotsman named William Farquhar.

Most versions place Farquhar at the margins of the story, presenting him as the bumbling, incompetent caretaker of Raffles’s brainchild for the first three years of the territory’s history, wandering around in military uniform with his stick and his dogs. But without him, Wright argues, Singapore would never have survived.

Although some new research has allowed Farquhar a greater role, Wright goes into unprecedented detail in this respect, having sifted through piles of East India Company documents to unearth the truth. Farquhar, it is immediately obvious, was far from incompetent. In his previous post as commandant of Malacca, he had only been expected to oversee this Dutch possession while the Netherlands were occupied by Napoleon. Yet he managed to turn around the Malay state and its capital entirely, creating substantial profits after years of losses.

The great range of merchants who traded there — Arab, Indian, Chinese, Malay and European — affectionately knew him as the ‘Rajah of Malacca’; and news that Farquhar was to run the show in Singapore in the early 1820s gave more than 5,000 of these merchants the confidence to leave their homes in Malacca and risk settling in the fledgling trading post. So concerned were the Dutch, they even blockaded the harbour to prevent a mass exodus.

Farquhar’s secret in both settlements was to cooperate closely with the local population, using his expert knowledge of Malay culture and politics developed over 25 years in the East. He promoted trading relations by networking with the different communities of south-east Asia and often acted as a cultural go-between, explaining to the British why certain actions in Malacca would upset the Malays and suggesting diplomatic alternatives. He did everything possible to make Singapore appeal to local traders, even permitting gambling and opium dens, provided a licence was paid — which ended up funding the Singapore police.

That Farquhar’s role has been neglected for so long is extraordinary. But the more remarkable part of the story is that Singapore exists at all. From the start, Raffles did not inspire confidence. Singapore was considered just one in a long line of failed settlements that he had attempted to found in the South China Sea. His superiors in the East India Company despaired of anything he touched, and refused to back the project. He had caused diplomatic headaches in the past by trying to settle in Dutch territory, and his spell as lieutenant- governor of Java between 1811 and 1816 had haemorrhaged money. To one frustrated colleague he was ‘a man who sets a house on fire, and then runs away’.

When Raffles departed Singapore a few months after his arrival in 1819, he left Farquhar understaffed, underfunded and under-stocked, having issued hopelessly impractical orders to be carried out in his absence. Farquhar was directed to obtain supplies from Raffles’s command post six weeks’ journey away, rather than from another British port only eight days’ distance, whose governor Raffles disliked. That Farquhar managed to build up Singapore from scratch in these conditions is all the more impressive.

But keen to safeguard his legacy, Raffles returned almost four years later and removed Farquhar from his post on exaggerated, misleading and hypocritical charges, about which he kept him in the dark to prevent him organising a defence. These charges, and a later glowing memoir by Raffles’s widow, resulted in the two men swapping roles in the history books. Still dotted across the island are streets, squares, statues, schools, museums, libraries, the famous hotel and even a lighthouse all stamped with the name of Raffles. But there is not a single memorial to William Farquhar.

It is a pity that Wright focuses so narrowly on Farquhar’s desk job, as the glimpses we have of his personal life are intriguing. He soon dispensed with his uniform in favour of looser garments, and his household included a pet leopard, a tame tapir (which would arrive at the dinner table hoping for cake) and even a Malay mistress. Being a keen naturalist, he also commissioned Chinese artists to paint a magnificent series of watercolours, illustrating the fauna and flora of Malacca and Singapore, now preserved as the Willliam Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings.

Clearly, he was a man devoted to the East and fascinated by its ancient, flourishing civilisations. Instead of remaining aloof, he chose to interact with the local population almost to the point of assimilation. This book, not to mention the existence of Singapore itself, is a reminder of how profitable this attitude could be. Going native didn’t always lead to the Heart of Darkness.

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Raffles Stole Singapore

Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017: Adela Foo

Doyenne.Sg
The Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017: Adela Foo
Lee Ying Ying

Organiser of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017, Adela Foo, sheds some light on war-torn Palestine and what drew her towards the region.

More than two years after the war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict left its citizens displaced and unable to resume their daily lives. Citizens of both war-torn states have experienced immense grief and loss, and Israelis living in border towns have lived their days fleeing from rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. It is a fact that the average Singaporean cannot possibly imagine life on either side.

This is why Adela Foo intends to open our eyes on life in Palestine.

Adela Foo is the organiser of the Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017, which aims to dispel common stereotypes surrounding Palestinians living in Palestinian territories in the Middle East. The media often depicts Palestine as an unsafe and unstable state, but the truth is far more nuanced than that.

You might wonder why Adela is so drawn towards Palestine and the Middle East, but spend a little time with this Arabic and Classics major at Bard College, a private New York liberal arts college, and you’ll understand why. Admitting that she’s the only one in her class majoring in both Arabic and Classics, the zealous girl lets on: “because really, who wants to learn Arabic and then Ancient Greek on top of that?”

Adela turns serious: “However, I have always been in love with Classics and knew that I wanted to major in it, especially after taking Daniel Mendelsohn’s class on the ‘Odyssey’. As for Arabic, I was particularly interested in learning more about the region after studying about the Arab-Israeli conflict in junior college.”

Arabic is an extremely intricate language and difficult to master. Yet, Adela dismissed thoughts of giving up learning Arabic after “running away” to Egypt last summer, and her parents had since set aside their disgruntlement about her majors. “To clarify, I didn’t actually run away, but simply did not tell my parents that I would be attending the Arabic Summer Intensive Program at Al-quds Bard (AUB). After my father found out, I actually think he was slightly impressed by my commitment to pursuing my studies,” says Adela.

“After running away to Egypt, I realised what a rich and incredible history this region has from times of antiquity to our present day and age. How could I ever give up studying either subject?”

Even though Adela grew up post-911 and witnessed how the image of the Arab world became associated with hostility, she never believed that people could be born as terrorists: “Perhaps that seems idealistic and naive, but it’s just something that I never really bought.” Let’s hear more from the dedicated 21-year-old.

Doyenne: Tell us about the complexity and diversity of Palestinian culture.

Adela: This is what Palestine is to me: babies with the bluest eyes, girls with curly, red hair and liquid brown eyes; when we’re roaring across the highway, there’s a 50% chance that you’ll see the craziest kinds of rock formations and there will always be a flock of goats or donkeys under the flyover.

The worst thing that someone can do is to invite you into their homes for tea, cooking an entire meal for you, and then giving you a bed to sleep in for the night without even knowing your last name.

D: Do you think that the media often portrays Palestine in a bad light?

A: Well, that really depends on what media you subscribe to, doesn’t it? I think in general, the media tends to cover stories in Palestine that are either about rising tensions between both parties in the conflict, or the inability of either side to come to an agreement about resolving the conflict. Either way, I think people’s takeaway from the media’s portrayal about Palestine is that the entire country is unsafe, unstable, and inherently dangerous.

When I was living in the village of Beit Sahour in the West Bank in Palestine, I felt very safe. The atmosphere of the neighborhood was calm and the only ruckus was when children were playing football in the streets and neighbours placed their chairs at the gates of their homes to chat.

However, I am also very aware of the fact that this is one aspect of Palestine that I had the privilege of experiencing. What I experienced in Beit Sahour cannot be taken to echo all of Palestine.

D: Are your classmates also passionate and outspoken about this topic?

A: My classmates are even more passionate and outspoken about this particular topic. Because of the Palestinian diaspora and the fact that my college has an exchange program with a Palestinian university, there are always Bard students who are Palestinian. Perhaps this human factor allows the community at Bard to see the conflict in a more humane light, that these are people too whom we should care about.

Additionally, there are student-run clubs such as Students for Justice in Palestine, which constantly invites speakers to come and speak out against the conflict. Another interesting club is the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative, which is committed to sending a group of Bard students to Mas’ha, a small village in the West Bank to teach high school students through our “Language and Thinking” program. It is an introduction to the liberal arts and sciences with a strong focus on writing.

D: You’ve gained quite a bit of traction online in a short span of time. How do you feel?

A: I feel incredibly grateful for the amount of support shown by Singaporeans towards supporting the first ever Singapore Palestinian Film Festival! My greatest hope is that even after this festival ends, Singapore’s society will become more permeable with regards to being more informed about the Palestinian conflict and hopefully, taking a stand with it.

D: Doesn’t tackling a complex issue scare you?

A: Not particularly. I constantly remind myself of the bravery of a lovely feisty old grandmother whom I lived with last summer in Palestine. If she could live through it all, what do I have to fear?

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Date: 19 – 22 Jan, 2017

Venue: The Projector

Films that will be screened: Speed Sisters, Sling-Shot Hip-Hop, The Wanted 18, The Time That Remains, Broken Cameras.

Singapore Palestinian Film Festival 2017: Adela Foo