Raffles Revisited: A Review & Reassessment of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)

Ernest C. T. Chew, Associate Professor of History, National University of Singapore

Ernest Chew has graciously shared this essay, which first appeared in Raffles Town Club, vol. 6 (Jan-Mar 2002), with readers of the Postcolonial Web. It appears with his permission and that of the Raffles Town Club, which retains the copyright.

3. The Founding of Singapore: A Reassessment of Raffles' Role

If I were to ask the question, "Who was the founder of Singapore?" I am fairly sure that most people would reply, "Raffles, of course." However, to a historian, both the question and the reply are problematic.

(a) What do we mean by 'founder' ? Which 'Singapore' are we talking of? The founder is the person who starts a particular institution or organisation, often by providing the necessary funds and support. When the entity is a country or state, the problem is compounded. If we are referring to ancient Singapore, or Singapura, the Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals, a mythistorical work, would declare that its founder was Sang Nila Utama or Sri Tri Buana, a.k.a. Iskander to the Malays and Parameswara to the Portuguese. If you are referring to modern or contemporary Singapore, most Singaporeans would answer, "Mr Lee Kuan Yew". And for a long time, when you asked who founded colonial Singapore, the straight answer would be "Raffles".

(b) However, in teaching History at NUS, more particularly the history of Singapore, as well as the history of imperial expansion, I have been at pains to teach historiography as well as 'history'. In dealing with the so-called 'founding' of colonial Singapore, my own research as well as teaching has been to reappraise the claims of various persons to have founded the British settlement of Singapore. Some of my findings have been expressed in chapter 3 of the book, A History of Singapore, which I co-edited with Edwin Lee. I pointed out that Raffles indeed was the main contender, with his claim that Singapore was 'a Child of my own' and 'my new Colony'. However, "If he [Raffles] is to be honoured as the founder and architect of the British 'factory' in Singapore, then the early and enterprising builders (who modified his designs) should also be commemorated: the first two British Residents, Farquhar (1819-23) and Crawfurd (1823-6), along with the known Malay, Arab, Bugis, Chinese, Indian, and European notables (mostly traders), and the numberless, unnamed pioneering settlers" (38). I also noted that "it was Farquhar who worked alongside the Malay rulers for four years to secure the survival and growth of the British settlement on Singapore Island. Raffles himself supervised Farquhar's administration fitfully from his backwater post of Bencoolen in West Sumatra. He visited Singapore thrice: for nine days in Jan-Feb 1819, about 4 weeks in May-June that year, and – after more than three years' absence – for eight months from October 1822 to June 1823." Indeed, Farquhar after his dismissal claimed that he was at least a co-founder, and on his tombstone in Perth, Scotland, it is inscribed that he "founded" the settlement of Singapore! Finally, it was John Crawfurd, another Scotsman, who actually made Singapore British, by signing the Anglo-Malay treaty of August 1824, by which Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul-Rahman ceded the Island to the British.

(c) How then are we to view these claims. Was it a case of "Three Men and a Baby"? Undoubtedly, it was Raffles who took the main initiative in the search for a British base at the southern mouth of the Malacca Straits, who secured Governor-General Lord Hastings' authorisation, and who chose Singapore in preference to the Kerimuns, which Farquhar favoured. He signed the initial treaties for the joint Anglo-Malay condominium, and strongly advocated the retention of Singapore over Dutch protests. He laid down the original plans and policies, and had a vision of what Singapore could and would become. However, it was left to two practical Scotsmen to work out the administrative and financial details, and economic incentives which attracted increasing numbers to Singapore. In this case, as in many others, it was a joint enterprise and endeavour of many people, which contributed to the founding and growth of Singapore.

As Dr C.M.Turnbull has nicely expressed it,

Singapore was fortunate in her three early pioneer administrators: Raffles, a man of extraordinary vision, but for whom Singpaore would never have existed; Farquhar, who by his energy, good sense and courage, nursed the infant settlement through its first dangerous years; and Crawfurd, shrewd and sensible, with his feet planted firmly on the ground, who converted into reality Raffles' most practical dreams. [...] Despite this long association, Crawfurd's name, like Farquhar's, has faded almost into obscurity, and of Singapore's pioneers only Raffles' fame and reputation have grown over the years...." (30)


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

Turnbull, C.M. A History of Singapore 1819-1988. 2nd ed. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988.

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Last modified: 12 October 2002