Raffles in Southeast Asia: An exposé of Singapore’s founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles

What do we really know about Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and his role in 19th-century Southeast Asia? What else was he doing in the region, beyond establishing a British East India Company outpost on the island of Singapore? The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) seeks to answer these pressing questions with Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman.

Director of the ACM, Kennie Ting, explains, “There are two main intents for this exhibition. The first is to objectively address the figure of Raffles, presenting him as a complex and multifaceted personality, rather than the mythical, one-dimensional ‘founder figure’ most Singaporeans know him as…The second, equally important, is to showcase the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Java and the Malay World.” In a time when colonisation is often reduced to an oppressed versus oppressor narrative, I applaud ACM’s dedication to neither glorifying nor vilifying Raffles, instead presenting documents that would enable us to see him as human.

Revisting Raffles: Portrait of Raffles
Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles

The famous painting of Raffles stands at the front of the exhibit. It is the picture that we are all familiar with, the one often seen in our textbooks. A lot of us may carry the misconception that the painting depicted him as the founder of Singapore, but in reality, it was a painting of him as the governor of Java. From the beginning of the exhibit, my assumptions have already been challenged.

Revisting Raffles: Trade Textile
Trade Textile by an Indian painter

The colourful trade textile near the entrance of the exhibit also captures attention easily. The textile is an artefact used to represent one of the main reasons why Raffles decided on targeting Southeast Asia – trade. Though the textile shown above has clear East Asian designs, it was actually painted by an Indian artist. The fusion of cultures is also reflected in the European style lion. This only goes to show how beyond physical items, trade also imported culture and craftsmanship. Raffles was a shrewd business opportunist and knew that by colonising Southeast Asia, he would gain access to both Indian and Southern Chinese textiles fairly easily.

Revisiting Raffles: Hindu-Buddhism

The collection of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures is a significant part of the exhibit and showcases Raffles’ interest in the two religions. However, he tended to mix up the two religions and the sculptures that represented them.

Revisiting Raffles: Hindu-Buddhism 2

I was also informed through the guided tour that he did not see Islam as part of civilisation. The controversial aspect of Raffles is thus revealed as he lacked genuine insights into local culture and did not respect all religions. However, when placed in the context of time, it could perhaps be understood as a common mindset due to the lack of exposure to diversity.

Revisiting Raffles: Malayan tapir
There are five species of tapir in the world and only the Malayan tapir is native to Asia.

Raffles is also revealed to be a human being with moments of petty competitiveness. In his sighting of the Malayan tapir, a native animal to Asia, he wanted to publish about it in Europe before first commandant William Farquhar did. His efforts were in vain as Farquhar managed to publish it before him.

Unbeknown to many, The famous Rafflesia flower was not discovered by Raffles, but by a Malay servant. However, being the one with access to European publishers, he was credited as the official discoverer of the flower. He then named the flower Rafflesia arnoldi to commemorate his friendship with Dr Joseph Arnold, a naval surgeon and naturalist.

Revisiting Raffles: (1)

When the exhibit progresses to the artistic and cultural heritage of the Malay world, visitors are reminded that while Raffles was the coloniser, the Malay rulers had agency, and communities were not completely subjugated. Instead, the power dynamics were always changing and non-linear. This information complicates the usual oppressor-victim relationship and shows the murkier areas where either side is not a total victim or oppressor. It also challenges our current paradigm of thinking.

Revisiting Raffles: Grace Tan
Natural Progression by Grace Tan

Lastly, Natural Progression by artist Grace Tan is the contemporary artwork that concludes the exhibiton. The botanical forms are individually hand-crafted from industrial materials: polypropylene and nylon tag pins. The arrangement of these organic looking yet artificial forms, bathed in stark fluorescent light, evokes a sterile atmosphere.

Revisiting Raffles: Natural Progression

While the organic looking products allude to Raffles’ genuine interest in natural history beyond politics, their laboratory-like appearance prompt us to think about the world we live in today. Just as Raffles’ collections of the past recorded the history of his time, Natural Progression shows the specimens that document human actions today.

Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman

Revisiting Raffles: Title

Date: 1 February 2019 – 28 April 2019
Venue: Asian Civilisations Museum

Ticket prices start from S$12. For more information, visit https://www.acm.org.sg/whats-on/exhibitions/raffles-in-southeast-asia

Photos by Soloman Soh of the DANAMIC team

Huang Yimin

Aiming to live passionately and not settle for a mundane life. Firm believer in the Oscar Wilde quote "You can never be overdressed or overeducated". I wish to publish a novel someday in the unknown future.

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