Building a great maritime nation: Raffles and the birth of modern Singapore

Raffles is a name that is hard to miss when visiting Singapore. Of course, the city’s most famous luxury hotel – sadly closed for major renovation during my recent trip – boats that designation. But there are many other examples in Singapore: Raffles Place, the financial centre filled with multinational companies, and Raffles City, a huge mall complex with offices and two hotels, are just two examples.

They remember Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who is considered the founder of this great city. Raffles’ Landing Site on the river front in the old colonial quarter is said to be the spot where in 1819, the man who worked his way up from clerk to Lieutenant-Governor of Java, established an East India Company trading post. The poly-marble Raffles statue on display at this spot today is a replica of an original bronze work unveiled in 1887.

Statue at Raffles’ Landing Site

The move by Raffles wasn’t sanctioned by the British government in London, and it unsettled the Dutch because the island was deemed to be in their sphere of influence. The situation wasn’t formerly resolved until 1824 when it was agreed that the British would get the peninsula (modern day Malaysia and Singapore), while the Dutch took possession of the archipelago (now Indonesia).

Singapore developed in just five years from a jungle-covered island to a settlement of 10,000 people, which became known for its deep sheltered harbour, free trade and open immigration policy. Through back-breaking work by labourers from China and British India, swamps were levelled and the first public buildings soon emerged.

Raffles himself did not however get to see the full extent of the development that Singapore underwent over the course of the 19th century. He had suffered from poor health for many years and in 1845 he passed away back in Britain – at the age of just 45.

When Raffles was still alive and in the years since his death, some have sought to downplay his role in the foundation of Singapore. Indeed, the National Museum of Singapore Museum gives space to the contribution of William Farquhar, the Resident and Commandant appointed to oversee the establishment of the settlement, and it is said that he was instrumental in attracting craftsmen, traders and labourers. He fell out with Raffles and spent the rest of his life fighting for recognition as the ‘Founder of Singapore’.

Free trade port

Establishing trade routes to China was a big priority for western nations in the 19th century. It boasted ceramics and silk (the west also later became interested in its tea), but some saw it as a potential market for British goods as well. Raffles referred to China as a place where textiles could be sold. “I see no reason why China may not be in great measure clothed from England,” he said.

The British already had a port at Pinang (in modern day Malaysia), but Raffles believed there were benefits in establishing one further east and settled on Singapore – a location on the direct route from India to China.

Some have suggested that little existed on the island of Singapore before Raffles landed. One of independent Singapore’s founders, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, said “nothing much appears to have happened in Singapore – if anything happened at all – before Raffles landed in this unpromising island.”

But Raffles was someone who made an effort to learn about Malay culture and he recognised there was a rich history to the area stretching back back 700 years. He talked of re-building a Malayan city, which flourished as a trading centre at the mouth of a river in the 14th century and was once at the centre of a great maritime empire.

In what is today called Fort Canning Park, archeology has revealed evidence for a palace, defences and a market. The excellent National Museum of Singapore has on on display in its newly-renovated galleries ceramics, stoneware, glass beads, coinage and other artefacts from the period.

But after little more than a hundred years Singapura was abandoned and its last ruler fled to Melaka (now a city in Malaysia) to establish a new kingdom there.

While trade was clearly at the forefront of Raffle’s mind in founding Singapore, he wanted “my colony” to be much more than that. “If commerce brings wealth to our shores, it is the spirit of literature & philanthropy that teaches us how to employ it for the noblest purposes,” he said. “It is this that has made Britain go forth among the nations, strong in her native might, to dispense blessings all around her.”

Planning a maritime city

Billed as southeast Asia’s first planned commercial city, Raffles had clear ideas for the layout of Singapore. Under the 1822 plan, drawn up by engineer Lieutenant Philip Jackson, the north bank of the river was designated as the civic centre with government and public buildings, while south bank was given over to warehousing and other maritime activities.

“Raffles had planned the city ruthlessly, moving and segregating people by race as well as occupation, razing existing structures, and allocating spaces,” wrote John Curtis Perry in his recently-published book, Singapore: Unlikely power. “Raffles and those who followed him wanted straight roads, masonry buildings with tiled roofs, a city of regularity and cleanliness, of beauty and order.”

Emerging from Raffles Place Metro station, the modern towering buildings of the financial district are unmissable. But after taking a short walk along the river, passing the Fullerton Hotel – which once housed the General Post Office – and crossing the Cavenagh Bridge, the contrast is stark. This colonial quarter, an area of well-kept lawns and wonderful Neo-Classical buildings, harks back to the 19th century.

Near to Raffles’ Landing Site is the Old Parliament House, constructed in 1827 and is Singapore’s oldest surviving government building. Carry on walking and you’ll reach Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, which was built in 1862 as the Town Hall and is now home to the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (built in 1862 as the Town Hall)

The National Gallery of Singapore, was formerly City Hall and the Supreme Court, and runs along one side of the Padang. This patch of grass was, from the 19th century, used for a for a range of sports, including rugby and cricket – two activities which are still played here to this day. You can see the Singapore Cricket Club pavilion at one end. At the top end of the Pedang is the Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral, dating from 1862.

National Gallery of Singapore (formerly City Hall and the Supreme Court)

Along the river, along a stretch today known as the Quays and lined with bars and restaurants, Singapore’s commercial district emerged in the 19th century. British traders opened agency houses to handle trade and warehouses were built for storing goods. Foreign banks and other financial services businesses required by the maritime industry opened branches here.

Boat Quay – one of the three parts of the Quays – remained important until the 1960s, but as new container ports opened further from the centre by the mid 1980s many of the historic shophouses were abandoned and left in ruins. Thankfully the buildings were preserved and have found a new lease of life in the leisure sector.

Singapore River

Living space

Under the 1822 town plan, commissioned by Raffles, Singapore was divided up into four areas, with separate living quarters for the Europeans, Indians, Malayans and the Chinese.

On my visit to Singapore I spent some time exploring Chinatown, which in colonial times became known for its temples (Thian Hock Keng Temple, built in 1839, is the city’s oldest), colourful markets and distinctive shophouses, with businesses on the ground floor and living quarters upstairs. While the European quarter was considered by some to be dull and sleepy, here it was lively at all hours of the day and night.

With the Chinese dynasty coming under pressure, many were tempted to escape China and Singapore became the largest Chinese city outside its home country (today three quarters of the population in the city are Chinese). The British provided capital, technological know-how and knowledge of finance, while it was emigrants from China that brought the commercial acumen and energy that made the colony a success. The Chinese tended to speak local languages better and often acted as middlemen.

The Chinatown Heritage Centre, with museum displays set in two shophouses in the heart of Chinatown, provides a fascinating introduction to the history of the area. There is discussion about food, street markets, festivals, and entertainment, including a chance to have a look in a child’s mobile cinema.

But there was also darker side to Chinatown. “To be Shanghaied” was a term used when people were kidnapped in China and brought to work as a contract labourer in slave like conditions in Singapore. Some found themselves employed in the mines of Malaya, while others were brought to the city itself, where they pulled rickshaws, unloaded goods at the docks or worked as prostitutes. Many lived in terrible conditions and also developed an opium dependency.

On the first floor of the Chinese Heritage Centre, a series of cramped cubicles – just eight foot by eight foot and partitioned by wooden boards – have been re-created. Built on the upper floors of shophouses, this single room was what many families considered home, particularly during the housing shortage of the 1950s. One depicted here was where an incredible eight people were housed.

One former resident of a cubicle remembers 20 or 30 people sharing a “toilet-cum-bathroom, which was so dark that even in the day you couldn’t see your fingers properly.” Queues also developed at the small shared kitchen area, where multiple families attempted to get to their cooking stove and prepare meals.

“Most of the houses were made of wood and during the festive seasons everyone was burning candles,” remembered another person who grew up living in a cubicle in Chinatown. “As kids, we were all very scared of that season – not only were we happy about the season, we were also scared because we were worried some rat would knock one candle down and burn the whole place down. This happened several times in Chinatown.”

The first thing you see after emerging from the Chinatown Metro station is tacky souvenir shops, but carrying on to Ann Siang Road and Ann Siang Hill, an area with upmarket hotels and eateries, is very rewarding. Here the colourful shophouses have been beautifully restored to their original appearance.

And nearby there is a former Jinrickshaw Station, built in 1903 and recently renovated. From the 1880s until the 1930s, rickshaws provided the main mode of transport in Singapore. By 1919, there were some 9,000 of these vehicles (one of which is on display at the National Museum of Singapore) in the city and many of the rickshaw pullers were Chinese. It was back-breaking work, with the coolies working 10 to 12 hours a day for about 30 to 40 cents.

Colony’s rapid growth

Singapore became a Crown colony – along with Melaka and Penang – in 1867 and over the subsequent the decades the city grew rapidly. “As the [19th] century progressed, the waters alongside Singapore town churned with ships,” wrote author John Curtis Perry. “The port swelled greatly in cargo volume as the town did in population. No one had expected the settlement to expand so immediately and explosively.”

As steamships became more common and following the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 – which shortened distance between Europe and Singapore – Singapore’s trade increased considerably (volumes grew eightfold between 1873 and 1913). It was linked by telegraph in 1870, speeding up the transfer of news and enabling financial transactions to be conducted.

By the beginning of the 20th century Singapore had become a seaport of global significance and boasted a population of 225,000. The export of Malayan rubber and tin were instrumental in helping power the growth of the port. And Singapore was not just a place for ships to stop en route to China, but a regional maritime hub.

Singapore was also deemed a pleasant place to live. Some of the first Britons to settle there moved from India in search of cleaner air. One British naval officer wrote in the 1830s how the Singaporean climate contrasted with “wonderfully stagnated India, very much mildewed and very much astern of the world.” After the First World War more females came to Singapore and immigrant life was transformed as many people started families.

Singapore attracted tourists, including the writer Isabella Bird who visited Singapore in 1879 and summed it up as “overpowering greenery, a kaleidoscopic arrangement of colours, Chinese predominance and abounding hospitality.” American Express and Thomas Cook produced travel guides in the 1920s and 1920s showing affluent tourists what they could expect from a visit to the city.

Trouble for Britain’s colony

Europeans living in the 1920s and 1930s enjoyed improved standards of living, brought about by the advent of electricity, refrigeration and the motorcar. And there was always lots going on to keep them entertained, with hotels like Raffles holding lavish dances.

But as Britain lost its premier position on the world stage, other countries seized ground in Singapore. By the early 20th century the city’s trade with the US jumped ahead of sales to the country’s colonial master. Rubber was in high demand for the automobile industry, but over time oil joined the list of staples (today Singapore remains one of the world’s largest petro plants).

After its victory over Russia in the war between 1904 and 1905, Japan was increasingly seen as a threat. Japanese spies were said to have operated freely in Singapore. Britain responded by starting work building a large navy base in 1921 – “the greatest citadel of the world” – and when it was completed in 1933 some commented that it seemed like a city in its own right.

In December 1941 the Japanese Imperial Army landed on the east coast of the Malayan peninsula and within two months they had conquered Singapore. Britain surrendered the city on 15th February 1942 in what prime minster Winston Churchill described as the “worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” Some 200,000 and one million residents were turned over to the Japanese.

The National Museum of Singapore has on display a salvaged anchor from the British troopship the Empress of Asia, which was sunk by the Japanese air force as it approached Singapore in February 1942. And there is also one of the light tanks used so effectively by the invading force (the British didn’t have a single tank).

But for a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Allied command, it’s worth taking a trip up to an underground bunker, known as the Battle Box, in Fort Canning Park, where Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival convened a conference where the the decision to surrender Singapore was made. Through an hour long guided tour you can visit many of the 30 rooms, containing maps, communications equipment and other artefacts.

During three years of occupation, Japanese rule was extremely brutal. The ‘sook ching’ massacres alone resulted in the deaths of between 40,000 and 70,000 ethnic Chinese in Singapore. Many more people died in camps and prisons, including the Changi jail on the edge of the city, where there were considerable food shortages and terrible living conditions.

The Second World War was the turning point in British colonial rule for not only Singapore, but also the wider world. After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the countdown to independence – which I’ll discuss in my next blog on Singapore – had begun.

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