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Real reason Raffles founded Singapore: To protect British interests in its lucrative opium trade with China

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the Singapore Bicentennial celebration at the Asian Civilisation Museum on Mon (28 Jan). Straits Times reported it as 1819 marked the start of a modern and multicultural Singapore (‘1819 marked start of modern, multicultural Singapore: Lee Hsien Loong‘, 28 Jan).

Although a thriving seaport existed in Singapore as early as the 14th Century, it was the year 1819 that marked the beginning of a modern, outward-looking and multicultural Singapore, PM Lee said at the event. Sir Stamford Raffles arrived and founded Singapore on 28 January 1819.

The move drew immigrants here, made trade Singapore’s lifeblood and over nearly 150 years, helped to nurture political values, inter-communal relations and worldviews that “diverged from the society on the other side of the Causeway”, PM Lee added.

“Without 1819, we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today. Without 1819, we would not have had 1965, and we would certainly not have celebrated the success of SG50. 1819 made these possible,” he said.

“This is why the Singapore Bicentennial is worth commemorating. We are not just remembering Stamford Raffles or William Farquhar, though we should. We are tracing and reflecting upon our longer history, one that stretches back way before 1965.”

Real reason why British wanted Singapore

However, if one looks back at history, one will find that Raffles founded Singapore not out of altruistic reasons to deliberately create a multicultural, equal-opportunity place for everyone. Raffles was of course, working in the interest of the British East India Company, which was created for the exploitation of trade with East and SE Asia and India. Starting as a monopolistic trading body, the company became involved in politics and eventually acted as an agent of British imperialism.

According to the Federal Research Division of the US Library of Congress as part of its country studies, by the 1600s, the Dutch had captured Malacca and became the preeminent European power in the Malay Archipelago. From their capital at Batavia (Jakarta), the Dutch sought to monopolize the spice trade in SE Asia. In those days, spices were like gold and much sought after by the Europeans. A lot of these spices grew in SE Asia.

The British were the latecomers to SE Asia spice trades and were competing with the Dutch in this area. Also, by this time in early 1800s, the British trade between China and India was flourishing. The British East India Company traded British wool and Indian cotton for Chinese tea, porcelain and silk.

Later, Indian produced opium was added to the trade with China. The opium trade was extremely lucrative as it ensured a cheap supply of tea from China and healthy profits from the sale of Indian opium simultaneously. At one point, the British East India Company was importing up to half a million pounds (a gigantic sum of money in those days) worth of tea per ship before it was re-exported to the rest of Europe. This trade was also essential in financing the Company’s increasingly expensive operations in India.

The Dutch wanted to keep the East Indies (area of Malaysia and Indonesia) to themselves and started to impose restrictive trade policies against the British. The Dutch prohibited the British from operating in Dutch-controlled ports or subjected them with high tariff. In particular, the British was concerned with the Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through its port in Malacca and Riau. Most of the British India-China trades went through this passageway. Hence, Raffles was convinced to find another port along the straits to thwart the Dutch. In 1818, he convinced Lord Hastings, the Governor-General of India to establish a new port on the southern end of the Strait of Malacca. The “Dutch-free” island of Singapore was chosen due to its strategic location at the entrance of the straits.

In his letter to Lord Hastings on 8 Jan 1819, Raffles clearly feared that the Dutch “will extend their influences over the whole of the ancient territories of Johor” and stated his belief that the island of Singapore would be a better place for a port settlement as it is more conveniently located “for the protection of our China Trade and for commanding the Straits than Rhio (Riau)“.

Raffles interfered in local politics to further British interests

When Johor Sultan Mahmud Shah died in 1812, he did not pick an heir. His elder son Tengku Hussein was in Pahang getting married. Raja Jaafar, the Yam Tuan Muda, however, insisted that Hussein’s younger brother, Abdul Rahman, should ascend the throne instead. This proposal was supported by the Dutch who were anxious to exert their power over Johor through their presence in Riau. However, Hussein himself disputed this and felt he should be the Sultan.

Raffles learnt of the succession dispute in 1818. Since Abdul Rahman was supported by the Dutch, Raffles decided to use this opportunity to support Hussein as the rightful heir to the throne of Johor so that the British could sign a treaty with Hussein, representing the Johor Sultanate.

On Jan 28, 1819, Raffles anchored near the mouth of the Singapore River. The following day he met the Temenggong, who was the Johor Sultanate’s designated ruler of Singapore, so as to understand the political situation in Johor Sultanate. Temenggong himself was loyal to Hussein. Tengku Hussein, who was then living in Riau in exile, later arrived in Singapore after he had been summoned by two Anak Rajas engaged by Raffles. Raffles capitalised on the succession dispute by backing Hussein’s claim to the throne, recognising him as the true monarch of Johor and thereby signing a formal treaty with him.

In the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance concluded between Raffles and Hussein dated 6 Feb 1819, less than 2 weeks after Raffles’ arrival, Hussein was to receive 5,000 Spanish dollars annually while the Temenggong 3,000. In return, the British would establish a trading post on the island of Singapore.

To compete with the Dutch, Raffles also decided to make Singapore a free port and no trade duties were levied on any passing merchant ships. Word of Singapore’s free trade policy spread and within six weeks more than 100 Indonesian inter-island crafts were anchored in the harbor, as well as one Siamese and two European ships. Port activity and trade volume increased, as the port in Singapore began to capture trades in the East Indies due to its free status. The increase in economic activities also attracted many people to seek opportunities at the new port. Within 6 months of founding, the settlement had grown to nearly 5,000.

The Dutch finally recognised Singapore as a British possession in the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. By this time, the British had also signed an updated treaty with Hussein and Temenggong, who agreed to “cede in full sovereignty and property to the Honourable the English East India Company, their heirs and successors forever, the Island of Singapore”. In return, Hussein and Temenggong received even more monies and pension sums from the British. By the 1830s, Singapore had overtaken Dutch Batavia as the busiest port in SE Asia.

Colonial society both racist and hierarchical

According to a recent write-up by Prof Tommy Koh (‘Singapore and the United Kingdom: 1819 to 2019‘, 29 Jan), the colonial society under the British was both racist and hierarchical.

“The whites were first-class citizens. The Eurasians were second-class citizens. The rest of us were third-class citizens,” Prof Koh recalled his time growing up in colonial Singapore.

“The British colonial administration in Singapore did not observe the democratic norms and freedoms that the British citizens enjoyed at home. Anyone (in Singapore) deemed to be critical of or disloyal to the British could be banished to the land of his birth,” he added.

But Prof Koh opined that the British rule of Singapore was 60 per cent good and 40 per cent bad. Compared with other colonial rulers in SE Asia, the British were the “least bad”, he said.

Singapore became a “success story” due to the collective efforts of hard work and sacrifice of generations of Singaporeans over the past 200 years, Prof Koh concluded.

Editor’s note – One has to therefore note that many of the laws that are still in Singapore are oppressive and non-democratic.