When a young man came to Singapore from Calcutta many years ago, he didn’t know he was following in the footsteps of Sir Stamford Raffles. The one difference: He came by air. Raffles came by sea — on the ship Indiana, with his deputy, Major William Farquhar, on board another vessel, the Ganges.
Raffles, who was Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen in Sumatra, had to sail to Calcutta and meet the Governor-General, the Marquess of Hastings, before he could set up a British settlement in Singapore.
Singapore’s location and natural harbour made it an ideal halfway point for ships bearing Indian opium to China and Chinese tea to India. But Raffles needed the sanction of higher authorities. All the East India Company settlements in Southeast Asia at the time – Penang, Malacca, Bencoolen – came under the Governor-General in Calcutta, the capital of Bengal. Raffles could have never turned Singapore into a British colony without men and money, and approval, from Bengal.
Raffles came with sepoys of the 2nd Battalion 20th (Marine) Regiment of the Bengal Native Infantry. Singapore was built to his plan – by Indian convicts. Sent from Bengal, Madras and Bombay from 1825 till 1860, they laid roads and erected buildings. North and South Bridge roads, Serangoon Road, Keppel Road, Raffles Place, Collyer Quay, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Cavenagh Bridge were all built by Indian convicts.
All that’s water under the bridge, of course, of moment no more. History is selective recall, the past too vast and amorphous to be encapsulated by any historian.
Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore
During Singapore’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations in 2015, a video was repeatedly shown of the late Lee Kuan Yew breaking down in tears, announcing the separation of Singapore and Malaysia, in 1965. “For me, it is a moment of anguish because all my life…. you see, the whole of my adult life…. I have believed in Merger and the unity of these two territories. You know, it’s a people, connected by geography, economics, and ties of kinship,” he said.
The video didn’t show the rest of that press conference where he also noted workers were better paid in Singapore than in Malaysia. “I mean, we pay our unskilled workers $4.55 a day. And, people are washing bottles in Petaling Jaya for $1.50 a day. So you can see that the purchasing power is three times,” he said. He also observed Singapore was “a highly urbanised and politically sophisticated city and two million people in it maybe set a pace which they (in Malaysia) thought was too fierce, but too rapid” for Malaysia.
The future looked uncertain, even bleak, when Singapore became independent, we are told, but what about the rest of the world? The 1960s were troubled times, marked by the India-China border conflict, the India-Pakistan war, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Vietnam War, the Indonesian Communist Party purge, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Arab-Israeli war also called the Six-Day War, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Northern Ireland conflict, the Algerian war and the strikes in France which forced General Charles de Gaulle to resign as president in April 1969.
Even at the time of independence, Singapore was the world’s fifth busiest port, the Straits Times reported quoting remarks made by Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in December 1965. Singapore is the world’s second busiest port today in terms of total shipping tonnage, surpassed only by Shanghai. But this is success built on success. It was under British rule that waves upon waves of immigrants came to Singapore.
Singapore when Raffles came
True, Singapore predates Raffles. There are references to Temasek and Singapura in records from olden days long before his coming. But it was largely wilderness when Raffles and Farquhar arrived in Singapore on January 29, 1819, a day after reaching St John’s Island. Munshi Abdullah, the Malay scholar who accompanied Raffles, described the shores of Singapore as “the sleeping-huts of the pirates”. “All along the shore there were hundreds of human skulls rolling about on the sand,” he wrote. There were some Chinese who had spice plantations on the island, and there were orang laut – sea gypsies – on the Singapore, Kallang and Seletar rivers. The total population was about a thousand.
Raffles signed a treaty with Temenggong Abdur Rahman, the local chieftain, permitting the East India Company to set up a factory in Singapore the day after he arrived on the island. Six days later, on February 6, he signed another treaty with the Temenggong and Sultan Hussein Mahummud Shah, recognising the latter as the Sultan of Johore, and confirming the East India Company’s right to set up a trading post on the island.
Raffles’ two subsequent visits to Singapore
The day after the second treaty, on February 7, Raffles left Singapore, only nine days after landing on the island.
He left Farquhar in charge of building a British settlement.
Raffles, who remained Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, revisited Singapore only twice.
He came on his second visit at the end of May 1819 and set off for Bencoolen again four weeks later. He brought immigrants from Penang, including Naraina Pillai, who started as a government clerk, went into business, and built the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, in 1827.
Raffles arrived on his third visit on October 10, 1822, and left Singapore for the last time on June 9, 1823. In all, he spent less than a year in Singapore and is yet regarded as its founder.
Why Raffles, not William Farquhar, ”founder” of Singapore
Raffles’ deputy, William Farquhar, the first Resident of Singapore (from February 1819 till May 1823), felt he had better claim to the title, for it was he who had to administer and build the settlement. But it was Raffles who chose Singapore, laid out its town plan, made it a British settlement over opposition from his colleagues and paid dearly for it.
Not everyone in the East India Company wanted a settlement in Singapore, fearing it would annoy the Dutch, the masters of Java, and lead to another war.
In fact, Raffles had been involved in the conquest of Java in 1811 during the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon conquered Holland and England found itself in hostilities with both France and Holland. Java had to be returned to the Dutch by the English at the end of the war, which is why East India Company directors in London did not want another costly military engagement.
Raffles billed by East India Company
In fact, after Raffles returned to England in 1824, he was presented with a bill of more than £22,000 by the East India Company for immediate payment. He died in debt on July 5, 1826, one day before his 45th birthday. Raffles suffered not only financially. Three of his four children died in Bencoolen, his first wife, Olivia, in Java in 1814. His debt was discharged by his second wife, Sophia, whom he married in 1817 and who also wrote his biography.
While Raffles suffered, Singapore prospered. Singapore was decreed a free port by Raffles, with no customs duties, which made it attractive to merchants. In no time, it surpassed neighbouring British settlements in trade. By 1825, the trade figures were Melaka $2.5 million, Penang $8.5 million, and Singapore about $22 million. But no customs duties meant less government revenue. “What revenue there was came largely from excise, collected through revenue ‘farms’, the opium one being the most remunerative. Otherwise India bore the costs,” wrote Nicholas Tarling in Colonial Singapore.
Singapore and the Presidency of Bengal
To cut the cost of administration, Singapore was administered from Calcutta as part of the Presidency of Bengal from 1830 to 1851. Singapore, Malacca and Penang had become one administrative unit – the Straits Settlements – with Penang as the capital in 1826. But, to economise, the East India Company made the Straits Settlements part of the Presidency of Bengal in 1830 when decisions about them began to be taken in Calcutta.
In 1832, Singapore replaced Penang as the capital of the Straits Settlements.
In 1851, the Straits Settlements ceased to be part of the Presidency of Bengal in 1851 but remained under the control of the governor-general of India.
Finally, on April 1, 1867, the Straits Settlements were transferred to the Colonial Office in London and became a crown colony under direct British control. By then, the East India Company’s possessions in India had been taken over by the British crown following the Indian revolution of 1857.
Though separated from India, Singapore continued to attract merchants and workers from the subcontinent.
When Singapore became a self-governing colony in 1957, there were about 124,000 Indians constituting nearly 9 per cent of a total population of 1.45 million. The Indian community dwindled to 6.4 per cent of the population (about 154,600 out of 2.41 million) in 1980 after the closure of British military bases in Singapore resulted in the voluntary repatriation of many Indian workers.
But the community has grown since then as Indian professionals began to arrive in large numbers in the 1990s. More than 358,000 or 9 per cent of Singapore’s resident population of 3.96 million are now Indians, according to Statistics Singapore’s 2018 yearbook. It puts Singapore’s total population, including foreign workers, at 5.61 million.
The no-longer young man from Calcutta who followed in the footsteps of Raffles understands what brings them. After all, he has been in Singapore longer than Raffles and is still in love with the place.