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An art installation, The Most Mild-Mannered Man, comprising of a bust of Sir Stamford Raffles placed across from an empty pedestal bearing the name of Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, who signed the treaty allowing the British to set up a trading post in Singapore. Photo: Clara Chow

Raffles who? 200 years since the British colonialist, Singapore would rather he disappear

  • In an effort to ‘decolonise’ its past, the Lion City is putting a twist on its bicentennial ‘commemoration’ of the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles
  • It’s spending a year celebrating neither date, nor man. It’s almost like the British colonialist disappeared. Oh wait, he just did

For half a century since 1969, a white polymarble statue of Sir Stamford Raffles stood by the Singapore River, purportedly at the exact spot where the British colonial official first landed when he reached the Lion City.

This month, it “disappeared”. In a city state where vandalism can be punished by caning, a state-sanctioned artwork was commissioned to create an optical illusion that the statue was no longer there. The aim was to make Singaporeans think harder about Raffles. “Is our story just about one date or one man?,” asked a government spokesman.

In a year when Singapore launches a bicentennial commemoration of Raffles’ landing, the government has curiously decided to celebrate neither date nor man.
Raffles Singapore: a famous hotel named after you know who. Photo: Handout
Instead of playing up 200 years and the supposed founder of modern Singapore, the official narrative says the country’s history spans 700 years and Raffles was just one of several personalities from 1819.

The incongruence, say analysts, carries political undertones. After 50 years of a simplistic national history where an Englishman “discovered” a sleepy Malay fishing village, the Singapore government is reworking the past to better suit present norms and future objectives.

The aim is to pay greater tribute to the Malay community in Singapore, better recognise the country’s place in Southeast Asia and forestall any criticisms that the country is celebrating colonialism.


It did not start off that way. When talk of the bicentennial started making the rounds in 2017, the chatter was that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) was looking to recreate the winning formula of the last major anniversary.

In 2015, Singapore celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence. The feel-good effect of the year-long jamboree, alloyed with the death of the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, gave the PAP a handsome victory in a general election that was called in the same year.

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The republic is expected to go to the polls later this year or early next year, so the prediction is that the ruling party – which has been in charge since 1959 – will use the bicentennial as a curtain-raiser for the general election.

“The authorities had originally planned simply to look 200 years into the past, as in the meaning of the word bicentennial, which assumes a start point of 1819,” says Tan Tai Yong, president of Yale-NUS College and a member of the advisory panel for the bicentennial.

Thomas Stamford Raffles. Oil on canvas, 1817, by George Francis Joseph.
But the growing sophistication of research by Singapore historians put paid to that approach. There has been increasing evidence that Singapore was in fact a port city which had seen two waves of settlement by the time the British showed up, notes Tan.

The first settlement was the 14th-century Temasek, which survived on Yuan China trade with the South Seas, and after its decline remained the homeland for the sea nomad warriors of the sultans of Malacca. The second cycle of settlement was with the scions of the Malacca sultans after they lost to the Portuguese in 1511.

“With the evidence we have on pre-colonial Singapore, to say our history started in 1819 in this day and age would be unacceptable,” says Tan. “In fact, it would be plainly factually wrong.”

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Instead, the new official narrative says that Singapore goes all the way back to 1299 when Palembang prince Sang Nila Utama arrived on the island. Meanwhile, 1819 is described as one of the crucial turning points in Singapore’s history.

By looking at the developments in Singapore’s history, before and after 1819, the arrival of the British can also be better contextualised, says historian Peter Borschberg of the National University of Singapore. “The question is: what is the significance of 1819 in this bigger perspective?” he says.

Modern Singapore: pedestrians near Raffles place. Photo: AFP

During the bicentennial, not much. The greater emphasis on pre-1819, when Singapore was part of a thriving Malay world, pays proper tribute to the Malay roots of the city – a welcomed nod to the community.

It also challenges negative stereotypes of Malays, says Nazry Bahrawi, a senior lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, who specialises in the study of Muslim texts.

“The charge that Malays are ‘lazy natives’ is traceable to British colonisation. The notion that Singapore was a sleepy Malay village before Raffles only serves to strengthen that stereotype,” he says.

This reframing, or some say de-framing, of history, is a sign of how society has changed, says Tan.

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In the 1970s and 80s, Singapore was facing pressures on multiple fronts. It had separated from Malaysia and relations were tense. Konfrontasi – Indonesia’s response to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia – had just ended and the threat of the cold war and the spread of communism were high.

“The Singapore Government felt that if we were to identify a point of origin as China, India or the Malay Archipelago, because we came from these regions, it would prove to be a very divisive kind of history because people would identify themselves by their origin,” he says, adding that Raffles and 1819 were seen as a neutral starting point.

But the fear that a more contentious or divisive history would undermine nation building is much reduced today, he adds.

In that process, Singapore had detached itself somewhat from the region. The country is not good at recognising how much it is a part of Southeast Asia, notes historian Chua Ai Lin. “Singapore often likes to think of itself as different from the region, as more developed. That sense of being part of the region is something the 14th century is a reminder of.”

“Southeast Asia is a region that will have tremendous impact on our well-being and it is best we engage it, understand it and be part of it while keeping our aspirations to be a global city,” says Tan.

A riverside spot in Raffles Place, Singapore. Photo: Kyodo


There has been public debate on whether the Singapore bicentennial is a nod to colonialism.

But the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO), the official body driving the occasion, has stressed that it is a commemoration and not a celebration, as initially framed. The year 1819 is also being recognised as a turning point in a 700-year history, which has “set Singapore on a new trajectory towards the modern nation we are today”.

The year-long commemoration will be officially launched by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Monday – the same date Raffles arrived on the island – in conjunction with light festivals at Marina Bay and the civic district, and the start of an augmented reality trail of the Singapore River.

Other activities will follow throughout the year – roadshows in the heartlands, history trails, and a showcase at the Fort Canning Arts Centre detailing Singapore’s early settlers and communities.

An SBO spokesman added it would work with community groups to uncover the lesser-known stories of those who came to Singapore, before and after 1819.

“Different people and communities joined Singapore’s journey at different times, and we want to find their place in our longer history, as well as those who have left their mark on Singapore.”

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This has been welcomed by observers. “While it is a reality that there was a colonial past and we recognise it, there is no reason to celebrate its onset. You celebrate independence, not colonialism,” says Tan, who had advised the SBO against the use of the word “celebrate” in the early planning stages.

Associate Professor Goh Geok Yian, an expert on the archaeology and early history of Southeast Asia from Nanyang Technological University, sees the bicentennial as an opportunity to consider, reflect on, and understand the various aspects of what has occurred, been done, and experienced. “It is not an endorsement and blind acceptance, it is a call to think about that period and why it happened,” she says.

De-emphasising 1819 has also given Singaporeans an opportunity to decolonise their past, says Nazry. “It is about time too. Before this, Singapore was possibly the only former British colony in the world to celebrate its colonial legacy.”