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The lion and the Lion City

Chris Lydgate reviews a new biography of Stamford Raffles, the contradictory colonialist who founded Singapore, and an account of a trip through the modern-day city state and its neighbour, Malaysia

Chris Lydgate 12 February 2013 3012 words

Working-class boy from Walworth: Sir Stamford Raffles FRS in 1817. Detail from a portrait by James Lonsdale

Raffles and the Golden Opportunity 1781–1826
By Victoria Glendinning | Profile Books | $39.95

The name of Raffles is everywhere in Singapore – shopping centres, schools, streets, companies and, of course, the legendary Raffles Hotel, purveyor of the Singapore sling and allied tropical delights. No guidebook fails to mention him; no whirlwind tour is complete without a pilgrimage to his statue, located near the mouth of the Singapore River, not far from where he landed in 1819 to found the original settlement. Gazing down at sweltering passersby with imperial hauteur, aloof in his monumental marble, Raffles has become a quasi-mythological figure, a convenient symbol both for those who would celebrate the British Empire and for those who would damn it.

As Victoria Glendinning points out in her perceptive and engaging new biography, Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, this is all rather a shame. Raffles was more complicated – and more interesting – than the cardboard caricatures invoked by devotees and detractors alike. He was a man beset by contradictions, torn between his ideals and his loyalty to the Empire. He made great friends and bitter enemies. He endured personal tragedy yet maintained an air of mischief. Most of all, nothing in his life was ever carved in stone. He lived in an age when anything seemed possible, when illness and death lurked in foetid water, and when the fortunes of men and nations might turn on the shot of a cannon or the length of a red carpet.

The name of Raffles has acquired an aristocratic ring, but Thomas Stamford Raffles (Tom to his friends) was a working-class boy from the village of Walworth just south of London, son of a sea captain who would later fall victim to some sort of scandal (no one seems to have figured out exactly what). Money was tight in the Raffles family – his mother once scolded him for the extravagant sin of reading by candlelight. Despite scant formal schooling, Tom was clearly a bright lad, and his uncle managed to get him a job in the city with the East India Company as an “extra clerk,” the lowest possible rung on the bureaucratic ladder, at a salary of fifty pounds a year.

So, at the age of fourteen, Raffles went to work in the inner recesses of the labyrinthine India House, the nerve centre of the sprawling, multi-tentacled Company. Originally a trading venture by London merchants determined to break the Dutch stranglehold on Indian spices, the Company became a commercial behemoth dealing not only in spices but also in tea, opium, silk, porcelain and ivory. It built its own ships, manned by crews flying its flag and wearing its uniform. It had its own army and its own settlements. By the time Raffles arrived in 1795, the Company was already 200 years old and the largest single employer in the country; some 30,000 people in Britain depended on it for their livelihood. In truth, the nerves had acquired more than a touch of sclerosis; India House was a sunless maze of departments, offices, cubicles and passages where thousands of anonymous clerks struggled to keep afloat on the tidal wave of correspondence that the Company generated. Amid the gloom and must and the rustling of quills, Raffles copied and recopied letters, abstracts, narratives and dispatches for its far-flung operations – and there he learned the subtleties of bureaucratic infighting.

The Company maintained two small settlements on the Malay peninsula, Malacca and Penang. Their primary value lay in their proximity to the sea route to China, which ran through the Strait of Malacca. Anxious to guard the route from the French and the Dutch (not to mention numerous local bandits), the Company decided to upgrade Penang. This involved establishing a dockyard, building up the fortifications, and expanding its complement of quill-pushers, which meant there was now a need for a bright young clerk. In 1805 Raffles married a beautiful widow, Olivia Mariamne Fancourt, and took her with him on the adventure of a lifetime – the six-month sea voyage to Malaya.

In Penang, Raffles fell in love a second time – with the East. He quickly mastered the Malay language and gained a thoroughgoing appreciation for local history, culture and customs. Meanwhile, he was becoming indispensable to the Company in Malaya, where the situation was growing complicated. Initially, the Company planned to pay for the upgrading of Penang by downgrading Malacca, which it had seized from the Dutch in 1795. The Company’s ruling body, the Court of Directors, decreed that Malacca should be abandoned, its ancient Portuguese fortifications demolished, and its population transferred to Penang. Predictably, this decision did not sit well with Malacca’s inhabitants, who lodged immediate protests. The governor of Penang, Philip Dundas, found himself in the middle of this mess, and sent a message back to India House asking the directors to reconsider.

In an era when a dispatch required six months to travel from sender to recipient, official orders from London often had a surreal flavour. “All stories were back-stories, all responses retrospective,” Glendinning writes. “Out East, one lived in the present, waiting for the past to catch up. The resulting psychological dislocation contributed to the often irrational behaviours of the servants of early Empire.”

After much roundabout correspondence, the directors finally changed their minds, although not until after giant chunks of the Portuguese fort were blown up. By this time, Governor Dundas was dead (a casualty of foetid water) and Raffles was secretary of Penang. Unfortunately, the colony’s growth seemed to stall. The naval yard failed to materialise and the ships were never built. Raffles, his antennae attuned to the wavelengths of politics, was among the first to sense that Penang had lost momentum. With his ambitious streak, he cast about for a new opportunity and saw it beckoning from the south.

Java, with its massive population, ancient civilisation, and fertile fields of rice, coffee, pepper, cotton, tobacco and indigo, was a tempting prize. For centuries it had been occupied by the Dutch, who had been conquered by the French, who were at war with the British. By invading Java, Raffles argued, the Company could safeguard its trade route to China and pry a jewel from Napoleon’s clutches at the same time. In 1811, a massive British fleet sailed from Malacca carrying 12,000 troops, and anchored in the bay of Batavia (Jakarta). Within weeks the Dutch position collapsed, and Raffles, barely thirty years old, found himself lieutenant-governor of Java. As he wrote to a friend:

I am here alone, without any advice, in a new country with a large native population of six or seven millions of people, a great proportion of foreign European and a standing army of not less than seven thousand men… I can hardly say what change has taken place in me since we parted. I feel I am somewhat older, and, in many points of a worldly nature, I am apt to view men and things in a somewhat different light, but it is my belief that I am intrinsically the same.

It was in Java that Raffles’s ideals collided head-on with the stark realities of empire. He wanted to liberate the island from Dutch oppression, abolish slavery, restructure the economy, promote free trade and usher in a golden age of prosperity. Back in London, however, Java was seen as little more than a poker chip in the great rivalry with France. The Company did not want liberation, it wanted profit, and Raffles’s schemes sounded like meddling extravagances. Nonetheless, he took advantage of the ponderous delays and rushed ahead without waiting for official approval.

For all his knowledge of the East and his skill at bureaucratic intrigue, Raffles was a novice at governing. He outlawed the slave trade and doggedly dismantled the system of regents, local middlemen who ruled their villages as virtual dictators, deciding who would grow which crops and at what price they would be paid. Raffles wanted farmers to choose the crops they grew and to settle prices on the open market, but for various reasons his reforms did not work very well. The island economy was chronically short of cash and exports slumped. Meanwhile, Raffles appointed his friends to government posts, bought some land at a rather attractive price, and quarrelled with rival colonial officials. The harrumphing in London grew louder. In 1815 came the stunning news that Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo. The war with France was over. Britain had signed a treaty with Holland and was giving Java back to the Dutch. Raffles, in other words, was out of a job.

By all rights, his story should have ended there. His wife Olivia had died in Batavia (foetid water again), his own health was ravaged by the tropical climate, and his reputation was distinctly tarnished. As he arrived in Falmouth, “thin and sallow, with a jaundiced eye and shapeless leg,” toting thirty tons of Javanese booty (including 450 puppets and two stone Buddha heads from Borobudur), one can imagine him retreating into a country estate and whiling away the days cataloguing his collection. But Raffles was not one to give up. He had, as Glendinning writes, “unquenchable drive and optimism.” In London he made some important friends, including chemist Humphrey Davy and naturalist Joseph Banks. He managed to clear away the cloud of official disapproval of his conduct as lieutenant-governor. He remarried, wrote a book, History of Java, which further enhanced his fame, and was even knighted by the Prince Regent (later George IV). Raffles was becoming respectable – despite himself.

Within a couple of years, the Company dispatched the rebranded Raffles to its settlement of Bencoolen, an isolated port on a desolate stretch of Sumatra. He was not impressed.

This is, without exception, the most wretched place I ever beheld. I cannot convey to you an adequate idea of the state of ruin and dilapidation which surrounds me… The roads are impassable; the highways in the town overrun with rank grass; the Government-house a den of ravenous dogs and polecats… In truth, I never could have conceived any thing half so bad. We will try and make it better; and if I am well supported from home, the West coast may yet be turned to account.

Raffles refused to moulder. He freed slaves, banned cockfighting, engaged in skilful diplomatic manoeuvring with the local sultans, and spent months tramping around the interior, exploring the ancient kingdom of Menangkabau, which had once ruled all Sumatra from an island fortress known as Singapura. The story of Singapura resonated with Raffles on many levels. Intellectually, he was fascinated by Malay history and its pre-Islamic culture. But there was an ambitious angle, too. Raffles dreamed of a united Sumatra, resurgent under British rule, reclaiming its destiny as a great civilisation. Somehow the legend lent his dream credibility.

Meanwhile, London was coming around to the idea that Raffles might have been right about the trade route after all. It was too late to think of retaking Java, but there was a growing sense of urgency about establishing a viable port roughly halfway between India and China. Raffles and the former Company boss of Malacca, Major William Farquhar, were ordered to survey the Strait of Malacca for a suitable location. In 1819, Raffles and Farquhar sailed from Penang to the Carimon Islands and finally arrived at the island of Singapore, whose favourable harbour caught their attention.

If Raffles was dreaming of the ancient splendour of Singapura, he had a rude awakening. Glendinning describes the scene like this:

There were about one hundred and fifty people living on the island of Singapore; a few Chinese settlements in the forest and, on the shore, the Malay sea-gypsies who subsisted on fishing and piracy and whose activities were evident from the human skulls bobbing around in the shallow waters. A larger dwelling, back from the river which debouched into the bay, was that of the local governor, Temenggong Abdul Rahman of Johore. The ground beyond the sandy beach was partially cleared. All the rest was smothered in jungle.

Nonetheless, Raffles approached the inhabitants with exquisite tact. He knew that failure to secure a claim to the island would be fatal to his reputation. After sniffing out the local political situation, he struck a deal with the Temenggong and his nominal overlord, the Sultan of Johore. The British would get permission to build a settlement; in return, the Sultan and the Temenggong would get 5000 Spanish dollars per year and protection from their rivals. On 6 February 1819, Raffles rolled out fully 100 feet of red carpet, and signed a treaty to the boom of cannon salute and the giving of gifts – opium, guns and wool. With the Union Jack hoisted, Raffles sailed back to Penang the very next day, leaving Farquhar in charge. Although he had accomplished the deal with consummate diplomatic skill, he was in a hurry to return to Penang and his pregnant wife.

Singapore’s growth was nothing short of breathtaking. In three years, the population swelled to 10,000. Raffles laid down a grid of streets, dividing the island into zones for the Chinese, the Malays, the Europeans, and so on. “Here all is life and activity,” Raffles exulted. “It would be difficult to name a place on the face of the globe, with brighter prospects or more present satisfaction.” The port was teeming with ships, trade was thriving, swamps were filled in. Markets, police stations, a marine yard – the city was born in a hurry and grew up that way.

Yet it is difficult to know how much credit Raffles should receive for this runaway success. While he set down fundamental principles, such as banning slavery and making Singapore a free port, open to ships of all nations, he spent remarkably little time there, barely a year altogether. Most of the day-to-day work was delegated to others, particularly Major Farquhar, with whom Raffles eventually had a disastrous falling-out; Glendinning includes delicious quotes from their increasingly testy letters, penned in florid Georgian prose. In 1823, Raffles, now suffering from chronic headaches, sacked the major in a rather humiliating fashion.

If Raffles and the Golden Opportunity has any shortcoming, it is that Glendinning, a prizewinning author who has written biographies of Elizabeth Bowen, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, Anthony Trollope and Leonard Woolf, gives short shrift to the factors behind Singapore’s long-running success and pays scant attention to its future geopolitical significance (see review below). On the other hand, she reaps copious insights from letters sent to and from various members of Raffles’s family, many of which had not been available to earlier biographers. This rich harvest allows her to construct a nuanced portrait of a complex personality.

Raffles brimmed with confidence before the invasion of Java, for example, but struggled with doubt once he was in charge of it. He deplored slavery but summarily executed a Malay who had stabbed a colonial official, and had the corpse drummed around town on a buffalo cart. He venerated Malay civilisation but would never have entertained the idea of Malay equality. A lesser biographer might have been tempted to downplay these contradictions; Glendinning treats them not as documentary inconsistencies relegated to footnotes but rather as fundamental tensions inherent both in Raffles’s psychology and indeed in the psychology of empire itself.

Raffles never saw Singapore again. Three years after firing Farquhar he died of what was described as a “bilious attack,” but which seems to have been a massive bloodclot in the brain. He would surely be amazed to look out over the banks of the Singapore River to the skyscrapers rising above Boat Quay and the massive container ships crowding the harbour beyond. But one can’t help thinking that seeing his own statue would prompt a chuckle of disbelief. •

Baby or bathwater?

Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore
By Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh | Hong Kong University Press | US$25

Ten years ago, two Singaporean twenty-somethings set off to spend a month bicycling around the Malay peninsula on a budget of RM10 (US$3) a day. They pedalled through forests, high into mountains, and along lonely stretches of coastline. For many travellers, an excursion like this would produce little more than colourful photos, mosquito bites and sturdy calves. But Vadaketh is hardly your average traveller. An editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit, he is a powerful writer with an eye for compelling detail. The book is filled with memorable encounters, beginning with the little old lady selling roadside trinkets, who had spent most of her life as a communist insurgent in the jungle.

More important, however, Floating on a Malayan Breeze explores the peculiar relationship between Singapore and Malaysia. After a traumatic separation in 1965 (imagine Manhattan being amputated from New York City or Miami winkled out of Florida), the two nations pursued starkly different paths. Malaysia followed a policy favouring the ethnic Malays (also known as the bumiputeras, or sons of the soil) and enshrined Islam as the state religion, while Singapore adopted a colourblind policy towards its ethnic groups and promoted a governing ideology of “society above self.”

Almost fifty years later, the two nations’ paths have continued to diverge. Singapore is richer, cleaner and blander. But, as Vadaketh discovered, many Malaysians think they have the better end of the deal. “It was a shock to discover that we were not Malaysia’s prized baby, but just the bathwater,” he writes. In truth, both countries suffer from inequality, but of different kinds. In Malaysia, Malays (who were traditionally disadvantaged under British rule) enjoy certain preferences, which seems manifestly unfair. In Singapore, however, the gap between rich and poor – as measured by the Gini coefficient – is higher than that of China or the United States.

Despite flat tyres and aching muscles, Vadaketh pursues these themes in crowded coffeeshops and lonely beachside shacks, with fishermen, doll makers, cab drivers, police officers, politicians and businesspeople. The lively travelogue is interspersed with insightful accounts of the contentious political squabbles that make the Singapore–Malaysia relationship so colourful, from water rights to journalistic freedom to who boasts the cleanest toilets. Overall it provides a vivid demonstration that while the two nations have trod – or pedalled – different paths, their destinies are inextricably linked. •

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