The Birth of Singapore (Oct. 2018)

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This beautiful building is the National Gallery of Singapore (1 St Andrews Road) which gracefully links the old Supreme Court Building with the neighbouring old City Court building (see photos below).

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On 28th Sept. 2018, Lawrence and I joined the ‘Insights Tour: Law of the Land’ where we were guided around a new exhibition called, “Law of the Land: Highlights of Singapore’s Constitutional Documents”. This exhibition covers the history of Singapore’s constitutional development from a British settlement in 1819 to its emergence as a sovereign republic in 1965. I have to say that if we had gone to this exhibition by ourselves, I think it would have been quite hard to get the full impact of what was on display. But by going on this (free) tour, everything was explained by one of the guys who had actually curated this exhibition, so he knew the precise significance of all the documents on display. We went back the next morning to look around by ourselves and got chatting to one of the staff in the exhibition space, and he was extremely knowledgable too and keen to talk about the exhibits. So, do check out their website and see if there are any talks you might be interested in; it’s well worth a visit.

Photographing documents in glass cabinets and in a dark room is a little challenging, but the photos here are really just prompters for me to give you some highlights of what I learnt.

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This document is a copy made in 1841 of the ‘1819 Treaty of Friendship and Alliance’, signed on 6th February 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles and Singapore’s Malay rulers, Sultan Hussein of Johor and Temenggong Abdul Rahman, and granting trading rights to Britain.

Some would say that this document marks the birth of Singapore, but others will remind you that Singapore had been a well known maritime base for centuries beforehand, so when was it really born and how valid is this treaty? This is important because if one country uses their version of the law to present a treaty to another country whose laws may be quite different, then whos version is correct/valid?

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This is a contempory copy of Raffles’ Regulations of 1823, where he attempted to introduce a legal code to guide Singapore’s development, even though he had no legal authority to do so. Some of the six regulations clearly shows his intention that Singapore should be a free port, that there should be no gambling, and no slave trade.

I find it interesting to think about what I would do if given control of another country, with none of todays internet facilities to get information or help from anyone. Perhaps this is why James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak, modeled his Rules & Regulations on those of his hero, Sir Stamford Raffles?

The document (below left) has ornate drawings around the border, and each drawing has a symbolic message which could have been understood at the time even by illiterate people. The photo below right shows the docent explaining the documents to us.

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The two documents on the left highlight a Nation’s character as seen through the eyes of war. The smaller document on the left is a Proclamation made by the Commander of The Nippon Army in Feb. 1942. It clearly states that “Any person, who carrys out or conspires the opposition or disturbance against the Nippon Army, shall, of course, be condemned to death with all involved in.”

The document on the right is the 'Proclamation to establish a militiary administration’ made when the British returned to Singapore after the Japanese surrender. Here it states that laws must be respected and orders obeyed, but there is no threat of death penalties.

Then there are numerous documents where one can see the development of a civil society in Singapore, the increasing role of the Rule of Law, the role of Government, and finally the formation of Malaysia and the formal association of Singapore with Malaya in 1963. You just have to look at the two documents below to understand why Singapore’s membership of Malaysia was short lived. The Proclamation on the left the Malay version, written on velum and with a religious introduction. The Proclamation on the right is the one from the State of Singapore, written on paper and with a secular style.

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Next there are documents of intrigue where the decision was made for Singapore to leave Malaysia and become the Republic of Singapore in 1965. All these discussions had to be made in complete secrecy to avoid destabilising the country.

As we made our way out of the exhibition, we took a moment to enjoy the interior of the Supreme Court building.

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While on this tour, we were recommended to attend a lecture by Prof. Peter Borschberg at the Singapore National Library on 18th Oct. called “Did the British ‘buy’ Singapore? The mystery of Article 12 of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1924”. I already knew of this lecture and that it was full, but we were told to turn up anyway, which we did, along with at least 100 others. It was an excellent presentation of a complicated issue.

The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 basically delared that the Dutch would have no further claim to Singapore and that the British could have it! They divided up the region such that peninsular Malaysia and Singapore (north of a pencil-drawn line down the Malacca Straits on a map) would come under British jurisdiction, whereas Sumatra and Java would belong to the Dutch. This line drawing was so vague and apparently arbitrary that one cannot be clear whether Borneo came under British or Dutch control. It is interesting to see how world politics comes down to lines on maps with little or no account of the peoples influenced by these decisions.

So, did Britain buy Singapore? According to Prof. Borschberg, the word ‘buy could be interpreted to mean reimbursement. The British wanted compensation/reimbursement from the Dutch for the 5 years that the British ruled Java and for war reparations. Initially the British demanded something like £6 million from the Dutch, but the Dutch brought this bill down to merely £100,000. So the price/cost of Singapore is buried in the reduction of the war debt.

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© Helen Gray 2019