Revisiting Raffles (8-9th March 2019)

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Singapore is currently commemorating the 200 year anniversary of the signing 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. Raffles is heralded as the Founder of Singapore, but this title is slowly being changed to the Founder of Modern Singapore as Singapore re-evaluates itself. 

From February to April this year, the Asian Civilisations Museum is hosting an exhibition entitled ‘Raffles in Southeast Asia’ which features artifacts from Raffles’ collection acquired during his role as Lieutenant-Governor of Java. Lawrence and I arrived in time to join a guided tour of this exhibition where the docent reminded us that what is excluded from a collection tells as much as what is included. More about that later. 

On display in the last of the 3 exhibition rooms was real treasure! Here were items of the Royal Regalia of the Johor-Riau-Lingga Sultanate. I thought that these had been lost in time, but it seems they reside in the National Museum of Indonesia and the curators of the current exhibition were thrilled to be able to display these items so close to the place where Raffles signed the treaty which split the Johor-Riau-Lingga empire. Although I only had my iPhone to take photos, I hope you will see sense the splendour of these items.


A Cogan, or ritual fan.                                                                    A Kris.

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A Kris.                                                  

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A tobacco box.                                                                              A spittoon.

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So, what is the relevance of the Royal Regalia? Well, if you wanted to be considered as the legitimate ruler you had to be in possession of these items. At the time that Raffles was searching for a location for his British base in the region, there was a succession dispute going on. The old Sultan Mahmud Shah III had died in 1812 and left two potential heirs to the throne. His younger son Abdul Rahman Muazzam Shah was favoured by the Dutch and the older son Hussein Shah (Tengku Long) was favoured by the British. But neither son were favoured by Engku Puteri Raja Hamidah, the late king’s royal queen and sole custonian of the regalia. Abdul Rahman just wanted a quiet religious life while, and according to the British, Hussein Shah was small-headed, pot-bellied, and skinny-legged, and not the warrior sort! But, he was the elder son and therefore should be the rightful successor.

Now Hussein Shah was up in Pahang getting married when his father died. So the Bugis faction in court quickly arranged for the coronation of Abdul Rahman before Hussein Shah could return. Sultan Abdul Rahman offered to abdicate when his brother returned to Lingga but court politics prevented this. Hereafter the story gets very complicated, but suffice to say that Raffles arranged to get Hussein Shah to Singapore to sign the treaty by promising that he would be considered as the Sultan of Johor and would receive a sizeable pension from the British. This manoeuvre by the British upset the Dutch who thought they had control of Singapore. In 1824, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed and the Dutch officially withdrew their opposition to the British presence in Singapore. Henceforth, the British had influence over the Johor empire (and ultimately Malaya) while the Dutch controlled the new Sultanate of Riau (and ultimately Indonesia).

And, as for the Royal Regalia, it was confiscated from the court by the Dutch in 1911 when they sacked the Riau-Lingga palace. It now lives in the National Museum of Indonesia.

The items excluded from this collection and a discussion as to what type of collector Raffles was were some of the subjects debated by a symposium organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum, called Revisiting Raffles. As for the missing items, well Raffles collected many items but rarely managing a complete set of anything, perhaps unaware of the nature of a set. He collected many theatrical masks and other performance objects, but included very few of the joker characters, perhaps underestimating their significance in story telling. But most significantly, his massive two-volume book called The History of Java’, on display here, has little about the Muslim populations and their artifacts, despite their influence in Java in the early 19th century. Furthermore, the illustrations of the ancient Hindu-Buddhist ‘candi’ or temples (as we saw in our Indonesian trip last year) have been altered to suit the ‘Ruin appreciation’ or ‘Pictureseque’ styles of the day. So, much of the collection and its description in his writings have been tailored to suit European expectations and are not what an anthropoligist would consider valid today. But perhaps the most hotly debated topics pertaining to Raffles collection were those around colonialism, who should own looted historical artifacts, and would anything change in response to our discussions? Apparently there is an alternative Singaporean interpretation of the annogram NATO, meaning No Action Talk Only. Members of the audience made it clear that they wanted more than talking.

Nowadays the name of Raffles is held as a positive brand name in Singapore, presumably because he was considered the Founder of Singapore, a man of the Enlightenment, a reformer, an educationalist, and an abolisher of slavery (well sort of). But lesser known to many, even in this audience, was his role in the invasion of Java in 1811 and his activities there until 1816 when it was returned to the Dutch. Over the next few years, Raffles and his gang slaughtered thousands of Dutch and French and Javanese soldiers. The British soldiers destroyed the Royal Palace in Yogyakarta and stole the rich heritage of the palace (looting was considered part of their pay). One of the most interesting questions raised in the symposium was ‘What would Singapore be today if Raffles had been killed during these military operations?’, as very nearly happened. This was a disgraceful period of British colonialism and if you would like to know more, I would recommend you read ‘Raffles and the British Invasion of Java’ by Tim Hannigan.

When Singapore became a Nation State, Raffles was chosen as the poster boy, despite his activites in Java. So, why did Lee Kwan Yew chose Raffles? One suggestion is that there would be too much trouble if he had chosen a Chinese, a Malay, or an Indian. So, he chose Raffles and now SIngaporians are wondering whether such a man should be commemorated in another 50 year’s time? So in the meantime, they decided to commemorate four other significant players in the founding of Singapore. While the white stone statue of Raffles in Boat Quay, shown at the top of the page, has been around for some time (since 1972 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of Singapore), today there are four new statues along the riverfront. Three of these gentlemen could have been contenders for the role of poster boy for the new Singapore:

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Munshi Abdullah (aka Abdullah Abdul Kadir)

He was born in Melaka and is considered to be the father of modern Malay literature. He taught Malay to Indian soldiers and then to British and American missionaries. He became a functionary in the Straits Settlements and a scribe and copyist for Raffles. But he is most well known as the author of the Hikayat Abdullah which contains a realistic and reliable account of early Malay history, contrasting with the slightly fantastical Malay Annals.

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Naraina Pillai

Of Tamil origin, Naraina Pillai was a businessman in Penang who was persuaded by Raffles to join him and work in his new settlement of Singapore. He started there as the chief clerk in the Treasury, then became a businessman of varying fortunes. He is recognised though for his social contributions, especially to the Hindu community for which he erected the Sri Mariamman Temple in 1827.

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Tan Tock Seng

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Kapitan China Tan Tock Seng was born in Melaka and moved to Singapore to sell fruit and veg and ultimately become a successful businessman, owning vast tracks of land. He was an influential leader of the Chinese community and gave funds for the construction of a hospital and for the Taoist Chian Hock Keng Temple in Telok Ayer in 1842.








The fourth new statue recognises the fact that Raffles did not ‘discover’ Singapore, but that Singapore had been founded by Sang Nila Utama in 1299. Sang Nila Utama was a Srivajayan prince from Palembang (current day Sumatra), also known as Sri Sri Buana. He had to flee from Sumatra and settled in Temasek which he renamed as Singapura. One of his descendants is believed to be buried in Fort Canning Park in the Keramat Iskandar Shah. When his descendants left Singapura in 1396, they fled to Muar, then to Pagoh, and finally settled in Melaka where they founded the great Melakan Sultanate which lasted until the Portuguese sacked Melaka in 1511. And as a little twist to the story, remember that the Johor Sultanate started where the Melakan Sultanate ended and it was the Johor Sultanate which signed away Singapore tot he British.



But surely if Sang Nila Utama landed in Temasek in 1299, then presumably the importance of this island must have been known before the 13th century? Indeed it was, Temasek was known since at least the 800s, i.e., at least 1,000 years before Raffles discovered it! There are maps of trading routes for the East-West route taking goods from China to India and Arabia powered by the Northeast monsoon, and the West-East route powered by the Southeast monsoon. And to enter the Raffles exhibition, you first have to walk through the Tang Shipwreck Gallery. On display here are some of the cargo carried by an Arab ship sailing from Canton in southern China which was shipwrecked off the coast of Sumatra some 1,100 years ago, presumably on its way to Arabia. Chances are it would have sailed past Temasek.

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So, in Revisiting Raffles, one not only has to rethink the value of this man, but one also has to re-evaluate the history of Singapore. It did not all start with Raffles but you cannot take the man out of the story that is Singapore.


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