Issue 116 | Jan-Mar 2019

200 Years of Singapore and the United Kingdom

Edited by Professor Tommy Koh (Law ’61) & Mr Scott Wightman

The 200th anniversary of the arrival of Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar in Singapore is an opportunity to tell afresh the story of the relationship between Singapore and the United Kingdom, reflect on the major milestones through an long and eventful journey, and imagine future possibilities.

 In this collection are lively and fascinating accounts of personalities and events that shaped Singapore from its establishment as an East India Company trading post to the end of the British empire, and a dispassionate assessment of the legacy left behind by the British in areas as diverse as trade and commerce, language, education, housing and sports.

Available at all major bookstores.

Exclusive to The AlumNUS, Prof Koh has shared with us why he embarked on writing 200 Years as well as his favourite sections from the book.

Brief note from Professor Tommy Koh for The AlumNUS readers

On 29 January 1819, Stamford Raffles and his small entourage arrived in Singapore to establish a trading station for the British East India Company. Two hundred years after this historic event, a new book will be launched at the National Museum, on Fort Canning. I chose this venue for the book launch because Raffles had stayed at a house which he built on Fort Canning.

Reason For Book
I know that Singapore had been inhabited, intermittently, since the 13th or 14th centuries. However, by 1819, there were only a few Orang Laut, fishermen and farmers on the island. It is for this reason that I hold the view that the history of modern Singapore began in 1819.

In holding this view, I am not trying to glorify British colonialism. Not at all. I am not a fan of Niall Ferguson who, in 2002, wrote a book entitled, “The Rise And Demise Of The British World Order and Lessons For Global Power”. In his book, he argued that the British empire was the cradle of modernity.

At the same time, I am not seeking to emulate my good friend, Shashi Tharoor. In 2017, he published a book about the British rule of India, entitled, “Inglorious Empire”. Tharoor accuses Britain for having destroyed India, economically, culturally and psychologically. The British rule of Singapore was not an “era of darkness”.
A Balanced Objective Book
What I want to do is to edit a balanced and objective book, telling the story of the 200-year old relationship between Singapore and the United Kingdom. I wanted the book to contain two views: the Singapore view and the British view. I therefore invited the British High Commissioner to Singapore, Scott Wightman, to be my co-editor. We agreed on the concept and table of content of the book. My job was to identify and persuade Singaporeans and Singapore-based friends, to write for me. Scott’s job was to do the same with the British writers. We are both pleased with the final product of our efforts.
Singapore Before 1819
We are aware of the evidence that Singapore had been inhabited since the 13th or 14th centuries. We have therefore invited John Miksic and Kwa Chong Guan to contribute two essays on the period of Singapore’s history before the arrival of the British.
Honouring William Farquhar
Scott Wightman and I both feel that Raffles has been given too much credit and the first two Residents, William Farquhar and John Crawfurd, too little. Farquhar had, in fact, contributed more to the founding of Singapore than Raffles. We have therefore invited Graham Berry to contribute an essay on Farquhar and Raffles and to set the record straight. We hope that Singapore will, at long last, acknowledge the contributions of Farquhar to the success of Singapore.
Milestones of 200-Year Journey
Two hundred years is a long time. What we have done is to commission essays on all the key milestones of this journey. For example, we have essays on the two treaties of 1847, on the Indian Mutiny of 1915, on World War II and the Japanese Occupation and on the political developments in Singapore after the war. On merger and separation, we decided to have the British view rather than the well-known Singaporean view. There is an important essay on the British withdrawal from its military bases in Singapore.
The British Legacy
The biggest chapter of the book is on the British legacy in Singapore. We have many good essays on the English language, the rule of law, the free port, free trade, open economy, the civil service, health, education, welfare, town planning, low cost housing, anti-corruption, etc.

In many cases, the British had laid the foundation but it was the Government of Singapore which got the job done. This was true in the fight against corruption, low cost housing, the economy, etc.
Four Essays
I would like to call special attention to four important essays in the book. Irene Ng and Alan Hunt have written about the evolution of our relationship from 1965 to 2019. Foo Chi Hsia and Scott Wightman have written about the future of our relations, post-2019 and post-Brexit.
In summary, I would say that the British rule of Singapore was 60 percent good and 40 percent bad. There is a reservoir of goodwill for the British in Singapore. On the 29 of March 2019, the UK will leave the European Union. The UK will be sailing into unknown territory. At this important moment in British history, the British people would be comforted by the thought that Singapore will do what it can to help the UK succeed in this new journey.
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