by Colin Pangolin
I refer to the 3 Jun 2017 Straits Times letter “Seeds for multiculturalism planted long before Raffles arrived in Singapore” by Anthony Oei.
Mr Oei’s claim that Singapore’s multiculturalism took root in the 14th century is based not on facts but on misinformation, speculation and false understanding.
Just as Mr Oei going to London for a six month business trip doesn’t make him a London immigrant, so similarly, having Asian merchants come to Singapore in the 14th century to do business doesn’t make them our earliest immigrants. The thousands of international tourists residing in Singapore today are not Singapore immigrants. They do not contribute to Singapore’s multiculturalism. Singapore’s multiculturalism has to be premised on those who live in Singapore on a permanent basis.
Mr Oei offers no evidence of 14th century merchants settling down in Singapore. Instead, he offers the wishful thinking that perhaps some 14th century merchants settled down after marrying local women. The standard of the Straits Times forum has gone down so low that even wishful thinking is now being showcased as evidence.
False assumption of 14th century trading port continuing till 1819
Mr Oei betrays his terrible lack of understanding of Singapore history when he reasons that Singapore’s 14th century existence as a Malay trading port implies that Singapore was more than a fishing village when Raffles arrived in 1819. What Mr Oei fails to account for was the fact that the ancient city of Singapore founded by Sang Nila Utama didn’t survive till 1819. Instead, it was sacked and burnt down by the Portuguese in 1613.
In 1613 Singapore’s main settlement was burnt down by Portuguese raiders and the island slipped into obscurity, with the ports of Melaka and Johor dominating the lucrative shipping routes that linked Europe and India with China and the East Indies.
[The Statesman’s Yearbook, Part of the series The Statesman's Yearbook pp 1105-1111 Singapore, Barry Turner]
So between 1613 and 1819, Singapore ceased to exist as a trading port and became a small fishing village.
False understanding and application of Raffles’ separate enclaves
Mr Oei further embellishes his tale by claiming that Raffles’ division of the land around the Singapore River into separate enclaves for various ethnic groups is proof that Singapore was more than a fishing village before Raffles’ arrival. But contrary to Mr Oei’s assertion, there was no such separation of land into various enclaves in Raffles’ original town plan of 1819.
[Map 2 Raffles' Town Plan 1819 (SSR, L10, pp.71-75; Raffles to Farquhar 25/6/1819; C Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore 1819-1867, Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1965)] [The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002, Stephen Dobbs, page xiii]
It was only three, four years later in Raffles’ revised town plan of 1822-1823 that distinct land parcels for separate ethnic groups appeared. By that time, Singapore had already received three, four years of loads of coolies from China and sepoys from India.
It is therefore utter rubbish for Mr Oei to claim that Raffles merely built upon what was already there when Singapore had nothing but forest, swamps, marshes and a few huts when Raffles arrived in 1819.
Mr Oei misses the point
Mr Oei misses the point when he quotes from the book “Raffles and the British Invasion of Java” to paint Raffles in a bad light. That book is centred almost entirely around Raffles’ missteps in Batavia between 1811 and 1816. But Batavia between 1811 and 1816 has absolutely nothing to do with the crux of the issue being discussed here, namely that of Raffles’ founding of Singapore in 1819.
The book says absolutely next to nothing about this important achievement of Raffles which is what really matters for Singaporeans. While it is quite obvious that the book’s author Tim Hannigan has an axe to grind with Raffles, even so, Hannigan admits that Raffles was not only the founder of a very successful Singapore but was also ahead of his times.
This is Raffles the hero, Raffles the pioneer, and around him stood all that Singapore had become ... Raffles might have been ahead of his time in the 1800s ... he had had the dot of land at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula ceded in entirety to the British Crown, and Singapore was prospering ... perhaps Raffles really had had the right ideas after all.
[Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, Tim Hannigan, pages 355-356]
Mr Oei mustn’t forget that it was the Leftists who fought tooth and nail against colonisation but in the end, they were all subjected to the cruelty of detention without trial by Lee Kuan Yew. If there was ever an enemy of the heroes of our freedom fighters, it was Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Oei is sorely mistaken in characterising Raffles as someone who came to colonise us. It is a fact that Mr Oei’s ancestors came after Raffles, not before. So Mr Oei’s ancestors weren’t even around in 1819 for Raffles to colonise. Instead, Mr Oei’s ancestors only came after Raffles had established the new port of Singapore to escape the poverty of their ancestral hometowns. There is therefore no volte-face in commemorating the true founding father of modern Singapore – Sir Stamford Raffles and that we are all sons and daughters of Raffles.
Mr Oei’s essay is chockfull of mistakes. He argues on the basis of wishful thinking, not facts. He ignores the sacking of ancient Singapore in 1613 and instead assumes that ancient Singapore survived till Raffles’ arrival in 1819. He conveniently points to Raffles’ land allocation by race but fails to consider that that allocation was in 1823, not 1819. He completely misses the point by using evidence from a book that is almost entirely about Batavia between 1811 and 1816 and nothing about Singapore in 1819.