The Raffles cult: How colonial narratives live on in Singapore’s psyche

Almost six decades since the end of British colonial rule, the 'founder of modern Singapore' Sir Stamford Raffles continues to stubbornly occupy a place in the city-state's national psyche through statues and civic commemoration

Faris Joraimi
January 4, 2021
The Raffles cult: How colonial narratives live on in Singapore’s psyche
Fireworks explode against the backdrop of the financial district behind a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles during the National Day Parade at the Padang in Singapore, 09 August 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/Wallace Woon

“A world of statues: the statue of the general who led the

conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge. A world

cocksure of itself, crushing with its stoniness the backbones of

those scarred by the whip. That is the colonial world.”

— Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

The Singapore Bicentennial, a year-long series of events overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office intended to “commemorate” Singapore’s history, was held in 2019: two centuries after Raffles was granted a lease by grandees of the Johor-Riau Sultanate to establish a British trading post on the island.

On 2 January 2019, the city was abuzz with talk over a curious phenomenon on the site where he was believed to have landed. Artist Teng Kai Wei – and, by extension, the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO) – performed an optical illusion: a statue of Raffles was made to disappear. Paint was applied to the white polymarble statue, and Raffles camouflaged himself – rather aptly – with a bankhouse towering behind him. An art installation named The Arrivals performed yet another trick of the eye. Four new statues appeared alongside Raffles. 

All this fuss around the Raffles Landing Site to open a Bicentennial that tried so hard to not talk about Raffles; the rub, of course, being that they were really talking around him instead.

These shenanigans on the banks of the Singapore River have a lineage. They are firmly established in a deeply colonial tradition of civic commemorations intimately tied to Raffles statuary and the place he has come to stubbornly occupy in the national psyche. 

The statue of Raffles blends into the background building to commemorate the Singapore Bicentennial marking the 200th anniversary of the British arrival, photographed on January 3, 2019. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Rituals of the Raffles cult

Singapore’s Rafflesophilia in the form it takes today can be traced back firmly to the events of 1887, when the city threw a lavish party marking the Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. A colourful report by The Straits Times presented a postcard-perfect portrait of colonial society par excellence. 

In attendance were “representatives of the many nationalities which constitute the population of Singapore” and members of the European administrative and commercial elite. Malay aristocracy showed up as well; Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor “arrived in handsome equipage.” Not to be missed were towkays like Seah Liang Seah, who delivered an address to Her Majesty on behalf of the Chinese community. It was, in short, a pageant. 

A central occasion marking these festivities was the unveiling of the Raffles statue at the Padang. Governor Frederick Weld’s dedicatory speech makes interesting reading, if only for the uncanny realisation that little – in terms of popular sentiment on Raffles – has changed in the last 120 years. He was, even then, the “illustrious administrator and statesman” who built this “great centre of commerce, a focus from which British influence, carrying with it the light of civilisation, radiates far around.”

The hagiographic speech bid listeners see the city as a living expression of Raffles’ genius: “Look around, and a greater monument than any the highest art or the most lavish outlay could raise to him is visible in this. … See that crowd of splendid shipping in the harbour in front of his statue. Cast a glance at the city which surrounds it, on the evidences of civilisation.”

One can only imagine the reaction of the Malay potentates present, upon hearing of Weld’s praise for Raffles’ civilising influence in the Native States, and a draft – in Raffles’ handwriting – of a plan to install British Residents there. This was, as Weld spoke, a campaign already underway. One needs little more than these very words out of Governor Weld’s mouth to realise that the erection of the Raffles statue was inextricably linked to the celebration of extractive colonial commerce and imperial expansion (even if Weld expressed “gratitude” to the Malay potentates for making the “concession” of Singapore). It was intended as a symbol of the West’s civilising mission to the East, a project Raffles the man firmly believed in.

In 1919 came the centenary of the Raffles landing, and Singapore did not resist the urge to celebrate. More speeches were made paying homage to the great founder, and an opportunity was not missed to feature the statue yet again. By then the Esplanade had become part of the Padang due to land reclamation works, and when football matches took place, people perched on the Raffles statue for a better view. The centenary was the perfect opportunity to rescue Raffles from this supposed ‘indignity’ and place him in a more commanding location.

So, the statue was moved from the Esplanade to its current site in front of the Victoria Theatre. This time it was Governor Arthur Young’s turn to deliver the panegyric, a different priest presiding over similar ritual proceedings. He honoured the “memory of Stamford Raffles, who, 100 years ago, with wonderful foresight, founded this Settlement, then a mangrove swamp.”

In the critical years post-independence, UN-appointed economic counsellor Albert Winsemius advised Lee not to remove the Raffles statue, to signal the country’s continued openness to foreign investment

If the myth of Raffles must be sustained, the myth of the empty, untamed wilderness of Singapore too had to be invented and perpetuated. This is the colonial lens espoused by authoritative histories by the likes of C M Turnbull, still highly esteemed today. Every White coloniser needs his virgin soil. No frontier, no pioneer. Never mind that hundreds of people were living, trading and bartering on the island in 1819. Or, for that matter, that it was part of a vast maritime network of ports, riverine systems and islands that constituted the Johor-Riau Sultanate. 

1969 saw the next great Raffles festivity. Just four years into ejection from Malaysia and its fledgling existence as a sovereign Republic, Singapore celebrated the 150th anniversary of its ‘founding’ as a city. Every National Day to date has had a slogan. The officially worded theme that year was “150th Anniversary of the Founding of Modern Singapore.” Raffles figured again as the locus of commemoration. 

At a banquet held by the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) in honour of Raffles’ ‘founding,’ R G Bennett, then-chairman of the SICC, compared the late then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to Raffles. Lee was flattered, but left the final verdict to history. Coincidentally or otherwise, when Lee Hsien Loong delivered the eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2015, he echoed the exact Latin phrase Weld invoked to unveil the Raffles statue: si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Japanese tourists imitate the pose of the statue of Raffles near the Singapore River, 04 December 2002. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

In the critical years post-independence, UN-appointed economic counsellor Albert Winsemius advised Lee not to remove the Raffles statue, to signal the country’s continued openness to foreign investment. The statue once more emblematised the island’s links to the hegemonic Western world. 

This time, however, in lieu of its colonial British overlords, Raffles was a soothing gesture to multinational corporations and capital from America and Europe. It acquired another connotation against the backdrop of the Cold War, signalling “public acceptance of the legacy of the British,” but also affirmed Singapore’s place firmly amongst the open markets of the free world, and – by extension – the country’s adherence to all the terms this order set for developing economies.

1972 saw a re-enactment of 1887. A second statue of Raffles was unveiled, a polymarble copy cast from a mould of the bronze original, but taller. This time the ceremony was officiated by then-Acting President Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng. His speech rehearsed the same ideas about Raffles. This white polymarble statue on the North Boat Quay bank of the Singapore River later became the site of the 2019 Bicentennial installations. Notably, however, Dr Yeoh reminded everyone present to “not forget the endeavours and dedication of the early immigrants, who were the true pioneers and to whom Singaporeans owe so much.” Certain progress from Weld’s paean to Raffles, to whom alone everyone else owed their blessings.

In light of all these events, gestural interventions to the statues in 2019 deviate from the set choreography quite significantly. There were no rousing speeches by the statue. One could be forgiven for mistaking that the Raffles cult was finally broken. 

Make no mistake, however: that the statue was erected by an independent Singaporean government still speaks volumes of how far the State was from disavowing its colonial legacy. Furthermore, it was commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board, with the alleged ‘Raffles Landing Site’ now turned into a photogenic landmark for both local and foreign visitors. 

Like afternoon tea at the grand old Raffles Hotel, this was colonialism commodified.

Faris Joraimi is pursuing his BA(Hons) in History at the Yale-NUS College. His research interests lie in the narrative traditions, cultural politics and intellectual history of the Malay world. This is an edited extract from Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History edited by Alfian Sa’at, Faris Joraimi, and Sai Siew Min. You can purchase a copy of the book here.

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