White Statue of Raffles with Singapore city backdrop
Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Empress Place, Singapore. Photograph: Raffles by Gyver Chang/CC BY-ND 2.0

Sowers of Modernity


Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles is a historical figure who stands among the likes of Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus—a man in possession of ships who turns up in places, generally tropical in climate, and sows seeds. These seeds are of a peculiar variety: seeds of modernity, painstakingly bred in Europe, containing the ideas, beliefs and philosophies that will germinate and blossom into the world as we know it today. Raffles is still perched atop his pedestal in Empress Place, so dapper, dressed in boots and coattails, not a drop of sweat, his name still ringing with prestige in the hallways, whatever hallways those may be—Raffles Hotel, Raffles Institution, Raffles Boulevard.

I have never been too sure what to make of this Raffles founder character—me, bootless, perspiring, not-British. 2019 marks the Singapore Bicentennial—the big celebration for when Raffles’ seed-laden ship sailed up to Singapore’s shores and the sowing began. I realise it is also the big celebration for when colonisation started.

How should the colonial period be remembered?

It seems a little odd, doesn’t it, when one thinks about it: celebrating being colonised? Is that how things are supposed to work? The signing of the Pangkor Treaty in Malaysia, so similar to Raffles’ achievement, is generally seen as an embarrassing capitulation. The Dutch VOC get no such festivities in Indonesia, neither Magellan in the Philippines. Isn’t colonisation supposed to come at great costs, human and ecological: forced labour, slavery, the destruction of indigenous worldviews and patterns of life, animals driven to extinction, irreparable habitat loss?

“But colonisation brought something else. A power. An ability to organise land, people and natural resources in the most efficient manner for the extraction of economic wealth.”

But colonisation brought something else. A power. An ability to organise land, people and natural resources in the most efficient manner for the extraction of economic wealth. From what I gather, Raffles was something of a genius in this respect. It was he who first envisioned a thrumming hub for international trade; he who drew up the straight line streets and right-angle intersections, flanked by those clever, shaded five-foot walkways; he who pencilled in the pockets of salubrious green spaces; he who decreed where the different groups on the island would live and how their lives would be regulated.  He was the first to understand the importance of having a farsighted economic growth plan, and the even greater importance of getting everyone to stick to it. In many ways, he brought the perfect seeds for growing into present-day Singapore, tigers and orang laut notwithstanding.

Map of Raffles Town Plan
Raffles’ plan of Singapore town, designed by Lieutenant Philip Jackson (1822). Image: Wikimedia Commons/CC PD-Mark

So what now?

I do wonder how much longer these colonial horticultural practices can continue to bear fruit. How far can Raffles’ methods be taken? What effect does setting economic growth and efficiency as the organising principle of society have on individual people? Does thinking about societal well-being in this way mean that we are, in effect, setting economic gain as the central purpose of people’s lives, as the main cause of human happiness? It is hard to see how it could be otherwise. And can all people really flourish in some version of Raffles’ international emporium of the east? They didn’t then, except maybe for a fortunate few—the Tan Tock Sengs and the Narayana Pillays, so why would they now?

I suppose, I wonder if the progress of a people can be charted in some other way. As crucial as economic life may be, should it not be just one aspect of a much larger and perhaps even more important set of human/moral planning norms and concerns?

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