Book review: “Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer?”

Singapore intends to commemorate (and by extension celebrate) the bicentennial anniversary of colonial rule. As of 2019, it would have been 200 years since the British landed on our shores and strongarmed the local rulers to sign an unjust treaty. The prime minister has stated that it is not a time to celebrate, but a time to reflect on our history. It is no question that colonialism has brought nothing but harm around the world and there are present-day efforts to decolonize our actions, policies, and even thoughts. And how do you reflect when the state constantly places prestige, extravagance and credibility to even just the name “Raffles”?

The Raffles brand in Singapore has gained a type of following and is associated with prestige, extravagance while the person behind this name is often introduced as a national hero, who contributed and “built” Singapore from a fishing village to a port. Ironic, since he only spent less than 6 months in Singapore and left much of the work to Lord Farquhar, his subordinate. In this book, a pioneering work of its time, Alatas problematizes the untainted image of Raffles and brings to light the true character of Raffles, the colonial master, which were conveniently lost in our short history. The selective amnesia by past Raffles historians and biographers are placed under scrutiny in this book while Raffles’ “infallible and invincible” image is questioned.

Considering that Singapore intends to “commemorate” the bicentennial year of colonization of our state and in this process also glamorize and glorify “all that Raffles has done”. It is a good time to revisit history and remind ourselves of not only his incompetence as a boss but his crimes prior to 1819. These are all stories that I did not learn while growing up; the history I learnt of Raffles was myopic and painted Raffles as this man who brought Singapore into an age of enlightenment and progress. Most notable of his scandals was the Banjarmasin affair, documented and recounted by Alatas in this book. During his governorship of Java, Indonesia, he appointed his friend Alexander Hare the son of a watchmaker as the governor of Banjarmasin (present day Borneo). Hare was a pervert and misogynist whose only goal was to establish a harem of Malay women to have sex with. Using his power, Raffles kidnapped 462 women to Borneo at Hare’s request, some were criminals and were transported under the guise of providing labour to the local economy. But the real purpose for these women was to act as sex slaves for Hare.

Other crimes committed by Raffles was also his tyranny and gross disrespect towards criminals. He hung the mutilated body of Syed Yasin, a man convicted of not paying his debt to another trader and also stabbing Farquhar in his chest. Syed was killed by Farquhar’s son, but this was not enough of a retribution for Raffles who thought it was wise to parade his mutilated and dehydrated body around Singapore and put on display in Telok Ayer for 15 days. The disrespect for someone’s corpse was perceived to be offensive to the Muslim community’s conscience and this created tension and instability in the country for 15 days.

This book however does not focus solely on the crimes committed by Raffles pre-1819. Alatas also examines the political philosophy that drives Raffles. Through a detailed study of his personal correspondences to other British colonials, we get a glimpse into how he views Southeast Asia, its people, and how he intends to bring “progress” to the region. Below are some choice excerpts of his political philosophy and why I use the term ‘despot’ with him:

The acquisition of power is necessary to unite them and to organize society, and it would perhaps be difficult to instance a nation which has risen from barbarism without having been subjected to despotic authority in some shape or other. The most rapid advances have probably been made, when great power has fallen into enlightened and able hands; in such circumstances nations become wealthy and powerful, refinement and knowledge are diffused, and the seeds of internal freedom are sown in due time, to rise and set limits to that power whenever it may engender abuse. Freedom thus founded on knowledge and a consideration of reciprocal rights, is the only species that deserves the name, and it would be folly to conceive the careless independence of the save as deserving of equal respect. In order to render and uncivilized people capable of enjoying true liberty, they must first feel the weight of authority, and must become acquainted with the mutual relations of society.

On the Malays this is what he wrote:

The Malay, living in a country where nature grants (almost without labour) all his wants, is so indolent, that when he has rice, nothing will induce him to work.

Despite being fond of the Malay language, Raffles was quick to come up with ethnic prejudices that portray Malays as lazy, to justify the British’s need to “save” the natives by bringing progress and justice, something they thought that the Dutch had failed to provide to the region.

After reading this book, it calls into question how we have come to this point where we are celebrating not only an asshole boss, a criminal, a Machiavellian imperialist, 19th century chauvinist, and a human trafficker? I guess when you repeat falsehoods ad nauseum it is very easy to eventually forget the truth. Albeit history and objectivity may never exist, it is however vital that the crimes and despotic character of our past colonial master should be laid bare if they were to be glorified and glamorized as a national hero.

Indeed Raffles is not a dictator nor did he run a gulag in the region. I must admit that his love for learning was a respectable and admirable virtue. However, there is danger in exaggerating a fallible man’s character and placing him on a pedestal. Another problem that I have is the single narrative of a national hero. This completely negates the collective efforts of everyone who helped in building this nation, from the samsui women who toiled and carried cement, to the nannies who took care of the British’s children, or the Malay drivers who ferried people to and fro from their work places and home. Hence, it is about time we decolonize our narrative – even if that means revisiting shameful pasts and uncovering the truths about the man we once all revered.

Source: Alatas, H. (1971). Thomas Stamford Raffles, 1781-1826, schemer or reformer?. Angus and Robertson.

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