Sir Stamford Raffles: The Hero

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This video belongs to a two-part series exploring the adventures and misadventures of Sir Stamford Raffles. For the full transcript of the second video, visit Sir Stamford Raffles: The Monster.


(Intro disclaimer) This video belongs to a two-part series exploring the adventures and misadventures of Sir Stamford Raffles. We advise you to watch this series in its entirety before passing judgement on our Founding Father.

This is Sir Stamford Raffles. Founder of our nation, icon of the Singapore river, and namesake of our prestigious hotel and schools.

Life was tough for young Raffles. His family was debt stricken. At just 14, he dropped out of school to work for the East India Company. But like our modern-day Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the overachieving dropout became Assistant Secretary to the Penang Government at 23. Raffles’ ambitions did not stop there.

One day, Raffles went up to Lord Hastings with a pitch. Raffles wanted funds for a little settlement at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Natural harbor, check. Fresh water supplies, check. Timbre for repairing ships, check.

Hastings was sold, and this settlement - as you guessed it - is Singapura. But was Raffles REALLY the man with the plan?

At the time, William Farquhar managed Malacca for the British. He knew the area had the potential to make the British rich. It was Farquhar who nudged Raffles to look at the islands south of Malacca. So, Raffles went down for a site recce.

After WEEKS of exploring, Raffles chose Singapore. Of course he wasn’t going to build Singapore alone. And thus, Farquhar also came on board.

Together, the duo landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819. Here Farquhar drew the first gun and hoisted the Union Jack on the hill to mark British territory (i was here first!). Raffles then appointed Farquhar as Singapore’s first resident and basically said “kthnxbye!” before leaving for 4 whole years.  

When Raffles left, Farquhar only had a development plan with little to no funding. Thankfully, his one-man show game was strong.

He cleared large areas of jungle and swamp, and built reservoirs, defense systems, roads and bridges for the troops. Miles away, people in Malacca caught wind of his street cred and respected him. So they packed their bags and moved to Singapore to work and trade. Our population, money and manpower grew.

Back in the day, there was no such thing as follow-up emails or blue ticks. Raffles was always late in replying Farquhar’s urgent letters. Left to his own devices, Farquhar developed Singapore on his own. Along the way,  his actions clashed with Raffles’ plans for Singapore.

Raffles was not happy with this. When he returned to Singapore in 1822, he reported Farquhar to Lord Hastings and further undermined Farquhar with a loooong list accusations.

At the peak of this TVB drama-worthy plot, Raffles dismissed Farquhar on 1 May, 1823 and took over the administration.

If Raffles was a tyrant boss who stole credit from his subordinates after FIRING them... why is he regarded as a national hero? Were people blind to his ways?

As it turns out, Raffles earned his own street cred by giving Singapore a major “clean-up”. He banned slavery and the sale of opium. He shut down gambling dens. He prohibited the carrying of weapons. In short, good guy Raffles was basically the SPF of the 19th century. Under the Raffles Town Plan, he also organised the population by ethnicity for functional purposes. The neighbourhoods still stand today, like Chinatown and Little India.

Maybe Singaporeans do owe our modern-day diversity and safety to colonial leaders like Raffles. Sadly, others like William Farquhar have faded into the background.

Who is the real MVP here? Is Raffles’ treatment of Farquhar justified, given his position in power? Or is it time we acknowledge Farquhar as an unofficial co-founder as we’re nearing the nation’s bicentennial?

History depicts two very different sides of Raffles, depending on which narrative you’ve read. Was Raffles a hero or a monster? Let us know what you think.

(Tagline) If you’re still undecided on Raffles and would like to hear more stories of his misadventures, check out our other video on Raffles: The Monster.