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Raffles' Moral Vision for Singapore

By Kevin Khoo, Assistant Archivist


Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles at Boat Quay, c.1990s,
Source: MICA

Although Sir Stamford Raffles established the trading port of Singapore principally for strategic and commercial reasons, he also held moral aspirations for the colony, envisioning it as a regional centre of enlightened liberal ideas. Singapore, he thought, should not only be a "great commercial emporium", but should also be a centre for learning that contributed to the progress of human civilization and reason.1

Raffles' idealism was related to his understanding of commerce, which had a moral dimension. The point of commerce, Raffles argued, was not profit in itself, but profit for the sake of advancing culture and mind:

"Like all other powerful agents... [Commerce] has proved the cause of many evils when improperly directed or not sufficiently controlled. It creates wants and introduces luxuries; but if there exists no principle for the regulation of these, and if there be nothing to check their influence, sensuality, vice and corruption will be the necessary results. Where the social institutions are favorable to independence and improvement, where the intellectual powers are cultivated and expanded, commerce opens a wider field for their exertion, and wealth and refinement become consistent with all the ennobles and exalts human nature. Education must keep pace with commerce, in order that its benefits may be ensured and its evils avoided; and in our connection with these countries, it should be our care that while with one hand we carry to their shores the capital of our merchants, the other should be stretched forth to offer them the means of intellectual improvement."2

Raffles believed that the British Empire was legitimised and sustained by this moral mission to spread knowledge and reason to the world, and that this mission differentiated it from other colonial powers:

"It is the peculiar characteristic of Great Britain, that wherever her influence has been extended, it has carried civilization and improvement in its train. To whatever quarter of the world her arms and her policy have led her, it has been her object to extend those blessings of freedom and justice for which she herself stands so pre-eminent... The acquisitions of Great Britain in the East have not been made in the spirit of conquest... Other nations may have pursued the same course of conquest and success, but they have not like [Britain] paused in their career and by moderation and justice consolidated what they had gained. This [moderation and justice] is the rock on which [Britain's] India Empire is placed; and it is on a perseverance in the principles which have already guided her that she must depend for maintaining her station."3

Raffles was convinced that history would ultimately measure the glory of the British Empire against how firmly it held to this purpose. "If the time shall come when [Britain's] empire shall have passed away", he wrote, "these monuments of her virtue will endure when her triumphs shall have become an empty name."4

The paramount importance Raffles placed on Britain's civilising mission possibly accounts for many of the forward-looking reforms he implemented in Singapore between 1822 and 1823. Raffles rationalised the arrangement of Singapore town and the functioning of its government administration5, reaffirmed Singapore's status as a free port6, established a code of law that equally applied to all7, abolished slavery8, suppressed the growth of gambling houses9 and established an ambitious educational college for the diffusion of cultural and scientific knowledge.10

Early 19th century Singapore was so progressive that in certain respects, it was even more liberal than contemporary England. For instance, jury members in Singapore could be "of any nation or religion" as long as they were literate. But in early 19th century England, Deists, Jews, Muslims and Christian Quakers were legally excluded from participating in juries.11

Raffles was so determined to carry through his reforms that he willingly broke ranks with his old friend William Farquhar, the first Resident of Singapore, to realise them. He severely censured Farquhar's administration of Singapore, and permanently reversed many of the policies Farquhar had implemented in his absence.12 Farquhar had closed an eye to a growing trade in slaves and vices and had also allowed Singapore town to expand in a haphazard manner because of his pressing need to stimulate growth in trade.13 However, Raffles found it fundamentally incompatible with his ideals and intolerable. The subsequent clash between the two men ended their friendship, but secured for Raffles the ascendancy of his vision for Singapore over Farquhar's more pragmatic view.

1Stamford Raffles' letter to the Duchess of Somerset, Singapore, 30 November 1822, British Library, D742/24, Microfilm No: NAB 081

2Minute by Sir T. S. Raffles on the Establishment of a Malay College at Singapore, 1819, British Library, D742/38, Microfilm No: NAB 083

3Minute by Sir T. S. Raffles on the Establishment of a Malay College at Singapore, 1819, British Library, D742/38, Microfilm No: NAB 083

4Minute by Sir T. S. Raffles on the Establishment of a Malay College at Singapore, 1819, British Library, D742/38, Microfilm No: NAB 083

5See Raffles Original Instructions to William Farquhar on the Plan of Singapore Town, 25 June 1819, Straits Settlements Records, L10, Microfilm No: NL 57; Nielsen Hull (Representing Raffles) to Farquhar, 4 Dec 1822, Straits Settlements Records, L11, Microfilm No: NL 57 and Regulation No.III of 1823 On the Establishment of a Magistracy and Police Force in Singapore, Straits Settlements Records, L17, Microfilm No: NL 58

6See Regulation No.II of 1823 On Free Trade in Singapore, Singapore 29 August 1823, Straits Settlements Records, L17, Microfilm No: NL 58

7Raffles Letter to the Duchess of Somerset, Singapore 30th November 1822, British Library, D742/24, Microfilm No: NAB 081

8Regulation V of 1823 Preventing Slave Trade in Singapore, Straits Settlements Records, L17, Microfilm No: NL 58

9Regulation IV of 1823 Prohibiting Gaming Houses and Cockpits, Straits Settlements Records, L17, Microfilm No: NL 58

10Minute by Sir T. S. Raffles on the Establishment of a Malay College at Singapore, 1819, British Library, D742/38, Microfilm No: NAB 083

11"Brilliant Results of Free Trade and Just Laws in the Settlement of Singapore", The Oriental Herald, Vol. 4, No. 14, February 1825, British Library, D742/35, Microfilm No: NAB 83

12Hull to Farquhar, Singapore, 5 Dec 1822, Straits Settlements Records, L11, Microfilm No: NL 57

13Farquhar to Hull, Singapore, 13 November 1822, Straits Settlements Records, L9, Microfilm No: NL 57