Monday, September 28, 2009

Book preview: Farquhar and Raffles fall out

In the run-up to the launch of our book Singapore: A Biography in mid-October 2009, we'll be releasing a short book preview on this website every Monday. Today's preview is from the 'Settlement' section, which covers the years 1819 to 1824.

In 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded a British port in Singapore. But ‘like a man who sets a house on fire and then runs away’ (as one contemporary observed, but read our book for more details), Raffles returned to his post in Bencoolen, Sumatra, leaving the settlement to its first Resident Major William Farquhar. Farquhar was Raffles's trusted aide, but things didn't quite work out smoothly. Our story picks up in 1823, on Raffles's last visit to Singapore.

Farquhar and Raffles fall out
Within a year of Raffles’s return, relations had soured between both men to the extent that not even Farquhar’s near-fatal stabbing at the hands of Sayid Yassin could salvage them. In January 1823, Raffles wrote a letter to his East India Company (EIC) superiors in which he felt compelled to tell them that he considered Farquhar ‘totally unequal to the charge of so important and peculiar a charge as that of Singapore has now become’. He then struck out at Farquhar’s undesirably close involvement with the locals. In a thinly-veiled reference to Farquhar’s Melakan wife Nonio Clement, Raffles argued that the Resident’s ‘Malay connexion’ afforded ‘an opening for such an undue combination of peculiar interests as not only to impede the progress of order and regularity but may lay the foundation of future inconvenience which may hereafter be difficult to overcome’.

The growing distaste that Raffles felt towards Farquhar even extended to the Resident’s appearance. In March 1823, Raffles commented to Farquhar on his ‘departure from the usual etiquette in dispensing with the Military Dress of his rank’. The next month, he told Farquhar that he had written to Calcutta on the matter and was awaiting the Company’s judgment. Farquhar’s response was to claim that he was only required to wear his uniform when he acted in his capacity as military Commandant. Presumably, he felt that when acting as Resident he should be allowed to forego clothes that made him uncomfortable in the local humidity. However, the matter of the Resident’s dress was perhaps symptomatic in Raffles's mind of a general lack of discipline. By the end of the month, Raffles had Farquhar informed (by proxy!) that he was to be relieved from his official duties.

The way Raffles treated Farquhar certainly invites condemnation. But to be fair to Raffles, he returned to Singapore in 1822 practically a broken man, worn down by his grief and seemingly subject to the onset of brain disease. To find his ‘almost only child’, as he called Singapore during his final visit, in a less than ideal state, bustling with activity, yet unkempt and vice-ridden – apparently through the decisions of a colleague who seemed to have let himself go a little too ‘native’ – was an added pressure on an overwrought mind. And, in one respect, Raffles was justified in his condemnation of Farquhar. The Scot had chosen to turn a blind eye to slave-trading and thus to a practice outlawed across the British Empire. One slave-trader had been so delighted to carry out his business undisturbed in Farquhar’s Singapore that he sent both Raffles and Farquhar the gift of a couple of slaves as a mark of gratitude.

The acrimony between both men continued after they returned to Britain – and in Farquhar’s case even went on after Raffles’s death. Though the EIC formally decided in Raffles’s favour over Raffles’s assertion that he was the sole founder of the settlement at Singapore, Farquhar continued to fight for equal recognition, publicly criticising Sophia Raffles’s Memoir for the way it accorded Raffles ‘exclusive merit’ for Singapore’s establishment. Indeed, Farquhar might be said to have literally carried his case to the grave. When he died in Scotland in 1839, his tombstone read:
During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Melaka and afterwards at Singapore which latter settlement he founded…
Unfortunately for Farquhar, it took at least another century for historians to sit up and take notice. Sophia Raffles’s heroic narrative, combined with the prevailing ‘great man’ theory of history (in which, with his untidy appearance and Eurasian mistress, Farquhar must have appeared a raggedy misfit) ensured that Raffles continued to receive the sole credit as modern Singapore’s founder. Today, the island city-state bears no street or place or edifice which remembers Farquhar, whereas those dedicated to Raffles are numerous. Ironically, the one street that did bear Farquhar’s name used to lie in the Malay suburb of Kampong Glam, but it was demolished by the inheritors of Raffles’s urban legacy – Singapore’s modern town-planners.

Yet modern scholars have begun to re-appraise Farquhar’s contributions. If Raffles was the founding father of the Singapore settlement then, as historian Ernest Chew puts it, ‘it was really Farquhar who had to play the role of mother and nurse to the infant during its first four years’. Or as another scholar Karl Hack argues, it was Farquhar’s knowledge of the Malay rulers and their dynastic disputes that provided Raffles with his vital ‘entry-point’. Though Raffles was brilliant he was also ‘utterly impractical’ and it would have been ‘a disaster’ if he had set about the establishment of the modern entrepôt by himself. Indeed, the trust that local people had in the Raja Melaka was what brought many of them to Singapore in the first place, and ensured the settlement’s survival.

We perhaps gain a glimpse into the judgment of the time when we compare what we know about both men’s departures from the island. Munshi Abdullah tells us that Raffles departed Singapore on 9 June 1823 with tears in his eyes, sent on his way by ‘hundreds’. Mr Farquhar eventually left six months later and in Abdullah’s account was bade adieu with much greater fanfare. Thousands came to say farewell, bearing different kinds of gifts, including ‘some who did not have a dry eye for the whole of those two days’. As Farquhar’s ship pulled out of harbour ‘people of all races put out in their boats’, gaily decorated with ‘flags flying’ and with ‘bands playing’, trying to follow him as he set sail for the horizon.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

10 quick questions: Mark asks, Yu-Mei answers

1. Why did you take on a job as a researcher with the National Museum of Singapore project?

Because it was the most interesting job offer I had at the time. One of my friends calls me an 'accidental historian' as a result. It's a catchy label and the 'accidental' part is true, but I wouldn't call myself a historian. More a writer who appreciates history, a good story and a confluence of the two.

2. Why the sudden interest everywhere in Singapore history? Is it media-led or a genuine popular interest?

A lot of the current interest seems to be in the post-war period and Singapore's initial years of independence. A whole generation is getting nostalgic, I think – specifically, the generation that was told in the 1960s and 1970s that certain things had to go in the name of progress and development. Now that generation is reaching retirement age, maybe starting to think about their choices, their experiences and their legacy. There is a profound sense of loss in some quarters, or a feeling of urgency to claim or "reclaim" the recent past before all the actors pass away. Plus the fact that our physical landscape keeps changing – the recent accelerated developments in the Marina Bay area and Orchard Road, to say nothing of the constant "upgrading" of HDB estates – is a relentless reminder of how quickly and thoroughly things can be erased or replaced.

So some of the interest is in nostalgia, and some of it is in history. And this interest in digging up or rehabilitating the past has its spillover effects. I think more people now are curious about the past, where Singapore "came" from, and some want to question or hear alternatives to the official narrative. And on the official side, government money is flowing into museums and the "heritage" sector.

3. Of all the personalities featured in Singapore: A Biography who would you invite for dinner and why?
4. What would you talk about?

Oooh, tough one. Right off the bat I'd say Munshi Abdullah, who was Raffles's scribe. He was impressively multilingual – in Malay, Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and English – and very curious about what the colonials were bringing into his world. I imagine he'd be a sparkling raconteur and I'd love to buttonhole him and find out if he really thought the British were all that.

If I could have a second guest, I'd sneak in Constance Goh, the charismatic and tireless family planning pioneer from the post-war period. If she had the chutzpah in the 1950s to convince an English supplier to halve the price of contraceptives for her family planning clinics, I'm sure she'd waltz in to dinner with even more incredible stories. Also, I'd be very curious to hear her response to Singapore's population policies of today.

5. Singapore appears (to a non-Singaporean like me) to be a highly status-conscious place. What is your response to people who say 'Hey, you are not a PhD! How can you write my nation's history?'

I think there are different types of books that can be written about a nation's history. Singapore: A Biography tells one kind of story – reviving eyewitness accounts, piecing together interesting and complementary experiences, revealing some of the different faces of Singapore over the centuries. You could say I write for a reader such as myself: a non-specialist who's nonetheless curious about history and interested to unravel some of the complexities behind it.

6. Who would win in a historical smack-down between Yamashita and Lee Kuan Yew (and why)?

Yamashita would press Lee Kuan Yew into a corner, kiromoni sakuren-style, at which point Lee might seem outmatched, outgunned – but wait, the British referee calls a time-out, or rather, summarily dismisses from the ring those armies standing to the left of Yamashita. Now Yamashita is the one outnumbered, and Lee charges back with his party, pummelling Yamashita with a renewed, unfaltering one-two rhythm (the radio commentator seems to be on his side, too). Yamashita falls hard and loud. The round – and match – go to Lee.

7. One of our reviewers said we seemed to have a lot of fun writing this book. What was your favourite part?

I'm big on social history, so I liked writing about aspects of Singapore life that let me step away from the political and the economic, to take a peek at people's inner lives. Moments like recreating from James Warren's books the daily 19th-century routine of rickshaw coolies or karayuki-san (a euphemism for Japanese prostitutes), or looking at contending notions of education for girls in the early 20th century. I suppose you could say my favourite part is putting the people back into the history.

8. Imagine you had to pitch this book to a Hollywood executive.

It's a historical epic, retold Paris, Je T'aime-style, but with much more action-packed sequences. Imagine nine vignettes, with nine different directors, each dramatising the story of a particularly vivid eyewitness to Singapore's history. There's the magic realism of the 14th-century Sejarah Melayu world, the rough-and-tumble derring-do of the 19th-century port-city, the fierce frontline action of World War II and the sly political manoeuvrings of the post-war era. Our protagonists will run the gamut from swashbuckling colonials and intrepid pirates, to baby-faced soldiers and ingenious women from all levels of society. Nine surprising stories, and they all happen to take place on one small island called Singapore.

9. What are you going to do next?

I'm going to continue doing some travel writing, which is great for gaining some perspective on what's going on in Singapore, but from outside Singapore. I also have a couple of non-fiction and fiction ideas at the back of my head, which I'll need a bit of time to disentangle and prioritise.

10. Please explain your surname (family name).

My surname Balasingamchow (or, in its original formulation, Balasingam-Chow) combines names from my father's Sri Lankan heritage and my mother's Cantonese one. My parents, it appears, were prescient about what would be useful in the Internet age: a readily Google-able name.

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