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Book reviews, Commentaries, History, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Uncategorized

A Convincing Case for Farquhar

The immediate success of Singapore led to a grim court battle to decide who her actual founder was. That clash continues in this new and superbly researched book.

Book review: William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out of Raffles’ Shadow by Nadia H. Wright. Entrepot Publishing, 2017.


The present always becomes the past. And the past in turn is something that slowly settles, obscuring as often as it educates; and in time it becomes hardened truth, just like a sun-cured cement pavement.

Like a recalcitrant and naughty child, then, a good historian tries to put his – in this case, her – imprint on the pavement before it is fully hardened, reminding us that any at and neat pavement is in fact a lie. The battle between William Farquhar and Stamford Raffles for the honour of being the founder of Singapore is indeed a subject that brilliantly brings this truth to the fore.

In significant ways, Singapore’s founding 43 years after Francis Light landed in Penang was dominos arranged for a historical contest – the two islands were being acquired as part of Britain’s expansion towards China, designed by the fortunes of war between European powers – all of whom were heading in the same direction. One island at the far end of the Bay of Bengal and the head of the Straits of Malacca, the other at the end of the Straits of Malacca and the opening into the South China Sea.

And yet the difference between the two was great, mainly because the Britain that acquired Penang and the Britain that acquired Singapore were different animals. The Napoleonic Wars were what distinguished them from each other. The ambitions and self-image of pre-Napoleon Britain and those of post-Napoleon Britain were different in that the former could not have imagined the dreams of empire that the latter could not resist.

While the strategic reason for founding Penang was to secure a safe haven for British shipping in the face of powerful enemies and bad weather, Singapore was founded to secure a route to China at a time when Britain’s European foes were in decline.

That was why Penang, half a century after its founding, became a has-been and a secondary port as far as the empire-building project was concerned and would settle for being a cultural centre instead of an administrative hub. For Singapore, the growth in strength and in ambition that quickly followed its founding was great – and the significance of this was not lost on anyone.

Thus, taking credit for the founding of Singapore became a claim to strategic ingenuity more than to administrative acumen.

Nadia Wright’s book in many parts reads like a court case, a CSI episode where evidence is presented to the reading jury for the plaintiff (Farquhar) and against the accused (Raffles). One should remember when reading these parts that the accused is certainly no one who has been silent and helpless. On the contrary, Raffles’ case has been the one presented to the world over the last two centuries, while it is the Farquhar side of the court room that was silent, or silenced.

A wrong is being righted here, and against 200 years of received Photoshopped history.

No doubt, when Singapore’s foundations were first being laid, Farquhar was the man responsible. Raffles was hardly there. But then, Raffles was Farquhar’s superior despite the latter’s greater experience as administrator and as a colonial officer stationed in the Indian Archipelago. Thus it is a sobering fact that Farquhar has been so strongly erased from Singapore’s history. Tellingly, the “Singapore or Farquhar Straits” between Johor and Singapore clearly marked on what was probably the first map of Singapore drawn following a survey ordered by Farquhar in 1820, would not carry his name in a map made from 1825, two years after his dismissal from office and his departure for London.

As Wright notes on page 131, “As can happen in bureaucracies, the initiatives and work accomplished by a subordinate are attributed to a higher authority, and in Singapore, Raffles was given the credit for Farquhar’s achievements and ideas. While this helped mythologise Raffles, conversely it lessened the chances of Farquhar receiving the credit due him.”

The timing for the publication of this book is auspicious. In two years’ time, Singapore will be celebrating the 200th year of its founding; and by whom or by what will be asked more doggedly than ever.

Penang in 1828.

What also makes the story of William Farquhar interesting is how it shows that Singapore’s growth was an immediate loss to British Malacca. Farquhar’s good connections and reputation as governor of Malacca for 20 years before settling in Singapore quickly attracted businessmen and others from there to this new island of opportunity. Thus, the population of Singapore was already at 2,000 in May 1819. By 1823, it was at 5,000 – half of whom were from Malacca. This was more than just a transfer of businesses and skills; it was also a transfer of culture. The Malaccan cultural hybrid we know as Baba-ism became to an extent the culture of the early settlers of Chinese origins in Singapore.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the Penang story, where the settled population in 1792 had reached 8,000 – not counting the mobile population of around 2,000 that it had at any one time. To be sure, the influx to Penang in this early period was probably culturally more diverse than in the Singaporean case: the migrants coming from southern Thailand, Selangor, Malacca, Sumatra, Kedah and the Celebes.

Portrait of William Farquhar (c. 1830).

The book also pushes me to think of the relationship between economics and politics, between the businessman and the administrator, where the building of a new polity is concerned. In the case of Singapore, economics seemed to have had priority over politics, and land use by businessmen came before land use by the administration. The latter sets up shop and immediately provides great freedoms for the commercial sector before it can then establish itself as a prosperous and thriving colony.

The story of William Farquhar and Stamford Raffles is set in a time when global power, global economics, global knowledge – global culture even – came to the region in a big way. This revisiting of the early nineteenth century makes obvious one important condition that South-East Asia has had to live with: the region was a checker board for global players; a playground for external powers and thus immediately subjected to the personal and petty battles these global players fought.

Now, all history has to deal with the question of whether History is made by Individuals or by the Masses or by Events? As even Karl Marx said: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

The book leads me to ponder several questions: Was not Singapore founded by the British Empire of the “post-Napoleonic Wars version”, through its agent, the East India Company (and not by this or that person?) Would not Riau have sufficed in functioning as the key port in Britain’s expansion towards China? And had the Dutch succeeded in keeping the British out, would they not have lost the consequential war to the rising power, Britain, whose forces were growing too quickly to be constrained?” These may be contra-factual questions, but one still wonders: how much of History is made by the Individual, and how much by the Forces of the Times.

It also leads to questions about Singapore: is Singapore’s success due to its inherent qualities and advantages in the global context, or is it due to its founding at the beginning of a period when the British were unstoppable. The difficulties Farquhar encountered during the first few years would suggest that Singapore was far from an easy place to colonise or develop. What was concretely accomplished in its first years was due to the administrative abilities of Farquhar, and his knowledge of local politics. Lack of supplies and staffing, uncertainties over funding and even over the future of British possession of the island, jealousies in the chain of command, and the distance of communication between Singapore and Calcutta via Bencoolen were serious hindrances that had to be handled.

British confidence and naval prowess were on the rise, and Stamford Raffles, for all his faults, or as was evident in his faults, was a child of his times. Perhaps the eldest child of his times where aggressive British intrusion into East Asia was concerned – brash and impractical, but pushing into new territories his elders would not happily venture into. To Raffles, Singapore was a move that would secure for Britain – and himself of course – a sizeable colony closer to the Sunda Straits, perhaps to replace or at least challenge the Dutch colony of Java, which he once ruled and had so lost.

Old East India Company office in Penang.

Tellingly, as Wright states on page 165, Raffles saw Singapore as a British port while Farquhar considered it “a Malay port which still belonged to the Malay leaders”.

Furthermore, Singapore has never been an easy place to defend militarily. This was painfully evident in the Japanese invasion in 1942, and in how much of its GDP the Republic of Singapore today has to spend on defence.

Farquhar’s failed attempts to gain proper redress when he returned to London, three days before Raffles himself, gives us reason to pause. Indeed, even when a power structure realises that it has erred badly in its treatment of an underling, seldom will it act to remedy matters to the extent of a public admission of its failings.

Nadia Wright’s work continues the historical battle between the Farquhar and Raffles camps, but it is probably not the last word on the matter. After all, History is a living thing. There is no last word; there is only just one long, ongoing quarrel.

William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out of Raffles’ Shadow is available for purchase at Gerakbudaya Bookshop at 78, Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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