Along the banks of the Singapore River stands a gleaming white statue of an Englishmen in 19th century dress, surveying his surroundings with folded arms and a self-satisfied air. Sir Stamford Raffles, a British colonial official, is said to have landed two centuries ago at the very spot where his pedestal now rests.

The wealthy city-state has organized a series of events marking the bicentennial of his 1819 arrival on the island, where he established a trading post for Britain’s East India Company. That act, according to the plaque on his statue, “changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.”

What critics see as a simplified national history – one which casts Raffles as the “founder” of modern Singapore – is now being reevaluated through a slew of state-sanctioned events, exhibits, festivals and talks. But to some, the bicentennial feels less like a commemoration of Singapore’s colonial past and more like a celebration of it.

Singapore, in sharp contrast to neighboring and regional countries who endured Western colonialism, is distinct for its salutary appraisal of the period. Unlike former British colonies like India and neighboring Malaysia, it chose to retain anglicized names left behind by the British. Raffles’ statue was erected in 1972, seven years after the island nation achieved full independence.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, noted in his autobiography that the statue served as a symbol of the public’s acceptance of the island’s “British heritage,” one that would be welcomed by American and European governments and businesses, whose investments, markets, know-how he sought to develop the economy.

In various public statements, the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO), the official body tasked with organizing bicentennial events, and its advisory panel have assured Singaporeans that the commemoration would avoid glorifying colonialism, offering instead a nuanced perspective on history that encompasses the pre-colonial period as well.

A bust at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore of Sir Stamford Raffles, by certain historical reckonings the city-state's founder. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A bust at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore of Sir Stamford Raffles, by certain historical reckonings the city-state’s founder. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Though the bicentennial marks 200 years since Raffles’ landing and the onset of British colonialism, the SBO – while marking 1819 as a “crucial turning point” – has given emphasis to a broader 700-year history that shines light on other historical personalities.

Some of those figures have been given statues of their own, steps away from where Raffles stands, which will remain in place for the duration of the year. They include entrepreneur and community leader Naraina Pillai, philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, and linguist Munshi Abdullah, all of whom arrived in Singapore in 1819.

A statue of Sang Nila Utama, a Palembang prince steeped in myth who is said to have founded a kingdom on the island in the late 13th century, was also erected as a representation of Singapore’s pre-colonial past.

Much of the public debate, however, has still centered around new attempts to reconsider Raffles’ legacy.

An exhibition titled “Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman” held at the Asian Civilizations Museum – a key event of the bicentennial – became the subject of stinging online criticism for failing to deliver the kind of reassessment of Raffles that its own marketing materials had hinted at.

While the exhibition noted the diverse ways in which Raffles is seen “as a scholarly expert on the region, a progressive reformer, a committed imperialist, and even a plagiarizer”, many believe the exhibition curators’ scrutiny of Raffles’ scholarship and knowledge took precedent over the plunder and colonial-era atrocities he oversaw.

Royal regalia of the Johor-Riau-Lingga sultanate which ruled Singapore before British colonialism. Photo: Nile Bowie

Co-curated with the British Museum, the exhibition displays a range of artifacts, including Javanese masks, wayang puppets, drawings, theatrical objects and musical instruments, acquired by Raffles while he served as lieutenant-governor of the Dutch East Indies and Bencoolen, swathes of territory carved out of present-day Indonesia.

Raffles led the British invasion of Dutch-held Java in 1811, which resulted in the deaths of thousands and marked the start of a five-year period of British rule. He assumed the post of lieutenant-governor at age 30 and in 1812 sanctioned an attack on Yogyakarta’s palace, a center for culture and governance, that saw its royal treasury and library plundered.

“Despite mountains of evidence provided by historians who have done serious scholarship on Raffles’ atrocities, this exhibition can still equivocate on whether or not Raffles is worth condemning,” said Faris Joraimi, a student at Yale-NUS College who researches classical Malay literature and wrote a widely shared critique of the showcase on Facebook.

“The exhibition was framed as a balance sheet where Raffles is still given the chance to be exonerated despite his poor intellectual, ethical and administrative track record,” Faris told Asia Times, adding that the display “ultimately remains neutral and ‘objective’ in the face of colonial crimes against Southeast Asians.”

Many of those looted artefacts from Java were on display at the exhibition, alongside a copy of Raffles’ two-volume magnum opus, The History of Java, published in 1817 after his return to London. The books sought to demonstrate the advanced nature of Javanese culture and society to support the belief that Britain could help them advance as a civilization.

“The ideological impetus behind this scholarship is to control,” British author Tim Hannigan told Asia Times referring to Raffles’ books. “The scholarship is tied to the sacking of a court or the overturning of a sultanate, which is tied to the establishment of new markets and new sources of raw materials. That’s the sort of intellectual project Raffles absolutely personifies.”

Javanese wayang masks from the Raffles’ collection that are still used in dance performances during rituals and ceremonies today in Indonesia. Photo by Nile Bowie.

Hannigan, who wrote the 2012 book Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, describes him as one of the intellectual forbearers of Orientalism, a term that refers to cultural critic Edward Said’s theory that Western scholarship’s portrayal of Eastern cultures as exotic and inferior ultimately served to further the political aims of Western imperialism.

“The main problem with the exhibition is that it adopted a limited and simplistic meaning of critiquing Raffles without taking into account or engaging with the larger issue and history of European imperialism in Southeast Asia,” said Sai Siew-Min, a historian formerly at the National University of Singapore’s history department.

“It mainly criticizes Raffles for his scholarship but does not connect his scholarship to European dominance in knowledge production which was tied to European colonialism. The exhibition does not offer a coherent account of European colonization of the Malay world, within which Raffles, his scholarship and his deeds, can be positioned,” she said.

“[The curators] believed that undermining the intellectual integrity of European colonialism would be powerful enough as an act of decolonization,” said poet Ng Yi-Sheng, who noted that examinations of colonial atrocities “were hidden away in catalogues or at the back of the exhibition.”

Among the items on display are the Babad bĕdhah ing Ngyogyakarta (Chronicles of the Fall of Yogyakarta), a Javanese source detailing the British occupation written from the personal account of Pangéran Arya Panular, a prince from the Yogyakarta palace which was sacked and looted on Raffles’ orders.

“The exhibition should have placed information about Raffles’ acts of violence at the very beginning of the exhibition, prominently,” said Ng. “It should also have highlighted native reactions to these acts. The Babad bĕdhah ing Ngyogyakarta was tucked away at the end of the exhibition when it should have been a centerpiece.

A statue of Hindu deity Mahakala that Raffles catalogued and depicted in his 1817 book The History of Java. Photo: Nile Bowie

“The issue of colonial academic integrity should have formed only part of the display: the focus should have been on mourning injustices, with an effort to redress damage and restore the truth,” he told Asia Times.

Hannigan, however, believes the fault that many see in the exhibition may be one of presentation rather than substance. “The fixing of cultural identities, fixing of what the history is, that’s an Orientalist construction, an Orientalist idea and Raffles is really where it starts. That idea still lingers. That’s violence on the intellect, on perception and self-perception.

“In a way, that’s more powerful and certainly long-lasting than a particular battle,” he said. “Intellectual violence is the biggest thing and that’s what the exhibition is trying to nail. If you come at it from that angle, the exhibition is actually very critical because it undermines Raffles in what could be the most powerful way of all.”

The British returned Java, which Raffles had initially eyed as a site for a free trading port, to the Dutch in 1816 at the end the of Napoleonic Wars. Raffles’ search for a British base brought him to Singapore, where he exploited a succession dispute between the Malay rulers of the then Johor-Riau-Lingga sultanate and secured rights to establish a trading post.

The legacy of Raffles has since loomed large over Singapore, with official histories venerating his entrepôt vision for the island. “Raffles made Singapore a free port,” said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a January speech at the launch of the bicentennial, adding that 1819 “marked the beginning of a modern, outward-looking and multicultural Singapore.”

Critical academics see it differently. “We can see 1819 and the start of British colonialism as a distinct phase in Singapore’s history,” said Faris of NUS, “but to use terms like ‘modern’ to define it already frames the discussion as one of a European-led economic modernity versus a period of languor and inactivity under native Malay rule.

Portrait of Raffles at the entrance of the “Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman” exhibition in Singapore, April 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie.

“In a broader sense, it also feeds into notions that modernity and economic progress in Southeast Asia was possible only due to European arrivals and colonial intervention, which is patently false,” he said. “When we only remember Singapore’s ‘founding’ in 1819, it actively validates the notion of Singapore as terra nullius before it was ‘revived’ by Raffles.”

Reflecting on the bicentennial, historian Sai remarked that “it looks like a celebration [rather than a commemoration] because despite claims of wanting to examine the negative aspects of colonialism, we are trying ways and means to avoid confronting its legacies head on, and are satisfied with criticisms that go around the issue.”

While Singapore’s commemoration of 1819 inevitably raises questions about Raffles, others have appreciated how the bicentennial has attempted to move beyond a narrow preoccupation of the man’s failings and contributions by highlighting others who have played a role in Singapore’s centuries-old history as a settlement.

Ng points to the legendary Sang Nila Utama as an example. Though the exact date of the prince’s arrival is uncertain, he is said to have founded a settlement on the island in 1299, naming it Singapura (“Lion City” in Sanskrit). As the tale goes, he witnessed a vision of a lion while hunting for food after his initial landing, which inspired the new kingdom’s name.

“We heard the story of Sang Nila Utama’s founding of early Singapore in schools, but it was never really taken completely seriously in history,” said Ng. “It was seen as a beautiful but not very relevant legend. Ultimately, this bicentennial is giving us the opportunity to shine a bit of light on the 13th century kingdom, too. I’m not ungrateful for that.”