Is the man who made Singapore William Farquhar?

MARCH 18 — To Singapore history buffs, he's long been known as Stamford Raffles' right hand man. The administrator who first negotiated the treaties that allowed for the founding of Singapore as a British trading post in 1819. William Farquhar also served as its First Resident (effectively Singapore's first governor) from 1819-1823.

During his tenure, he tolerated opium and gambling dens and managed to get himself stabbed in a dispute with a Malay servant.

With that track record, he was regarded as Raffles' bumbling lieutenant. But a rather fascinating new book — William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles' Shadow — quite convincingly challenges this portrayal, arguing that it was Farquhar’s administrative and diplomatic skill that laid the ground for Singapore's future success.

Raffles apparently was the typical bombastic, self-promoting lout who took credit.

Now while the history is fascinating, I'm not qualified to wade into the Raffles vs Farquhar debate. But if I had to choose, I’m going to side with Farquhar; just imagine if we renamed everything to Farquhar Institute, Farquhar Place, etc.

But this childishness aside, my thoughts here are about the role these men — from a distant past — played in the creation of our nation.

Basically, there's no level on which Singaporeans can deny that our country is a deeply colonial creation. No mythic golden age or ancient civilisation we can fall back on.

William Farquhar will surely be impressed by how far Singapore has come since its early days as a trading post. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org
William Farquhar will surely be impressed by how far Singapore has come since its early days as a trading post. — Picture from commons.wikimedia.org

If it wasn’t for the dreams and machinations of these Englishmen — their vision in seeking a strategically located trading post to counter the Dutch in the East Indies — Singapore (as we know it) wouldn't exist.

A trade oriented, strategically valuable, militarily capable city exists on the Straits of Malacca because individuals like Raffles — his assistants and superiors — wanted it to exist.

But while we mustn’t deny or underplay this vital part of our history, we also need to examine it.

Colonialism, despite the current fashion for colonial bars, hotels and cocktails, was no dinner party for most of those involved — namely the colonised.

Forcing the domination of a distant people was a brutal exploitative and racist enterprise. It was built on the basis of unfair trade, skewed laws and restricted opportunities.

Key trade routes and industries were monopolised, and freedoms were violated at every point. The best land was given to the Europeans.

India was made to buy cloth from British factories, China was made to consume opium on a nationally destructive scale to fuel colonial profits. Singapore was an accessory to these malpractices/crimes.

An enormous amount of our early wealth was generated by the profits from various nefarious colonial enterprises.

And this isn’t ancient history. Singapore benefitted enormously as a store of wealth extracted from other resource rich colonies for years.

Our role in the rather dastardly colonial machine is something we don't examine and understand enough.

Singapore was created as a cog in the wheel of a machine that looked to suck profits from Asia and redistribute them to Europe or European shareholders.

To this day we remain an entrepot a key spoke in the system of global trade.

As much as we talk about Singapore's own founding fathers, modern Singapore is actually fulfilling the plan of a much older generation of founders.

Raffles and Farquhar wanted a multiracial hub of free trade, a strategic centre and store of profits from other endeavours across the region. Singapore is still delivering on this vision.

I suppose this is why unlike most other former colonies we still have no end of Raffles-named institutions. Most other former colonies have tried hard to erase the visible legacy of the old masters.

Of course, knee jerk name changing achieves little but there's something uncomfortable about our very comfortable approach to our colonial history.

More than any other Asian nation, we seem to have acquiesced to our colonial past. We maintain the institutions, the laws, the administrative system, the racial classifications given to us by the old empire.

Restrictions on the press and freedom of assembly were introduced by the colonial administration.

Notions of “Indolent Malays,” “unscrupulous Chinese” and “deceitful Indians” each with their own place in the hierarchy — with the governing elites on top; all of these are colonial legacies.

Elitism, legalism and racism were hallmarks of colonialism and while Singapore has certainly prospered in the years since independence, we must ask if we have fully escaped the paradigm defined by Raffles and Farquhar.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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