THEY HAVE FALLEN
The first half of the 21st century may very well be known in future as the age of fallen heroes. Perhaps the most well-known case with a global reach is the Rhodes Must Fall post-apartheid protest movement that began on 9 March 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. The movement was originally directed against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the British mining magnate and coloniser of Africa, and symbol of colonial oppression and racism. The statue was located at the upper campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT), Africa’s highest ranked university. On that day, a UCT student, Chumani Maxwele, flung faeces at the statue.
By the first quarter of 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall movement dominated discussions at the UCT. Finally, on 9 April 2015, after a prolonged protest by students and a UCT Council vote the previous night, the statue was pulled down from its plinth at the university. This movement, however, was not merely about a decades-old statue. It has to be seen in the context of the continuing critique of the legacies of apartheid and the related question of the decolonisation of education.
More recently, protesters in Oxford called for the removal of their Rhodes statue at Oxford University. Chanting, “Take it down!”, they then held a moment of silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, in memory of George Floyd – the same length of time a white police officer was seen to kneel on his neck. The protest coincided with George Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Texas.
The funeral came two weeks after Floyd was killed while in the custody of the Minneapolis police. His death had resulted in furthering the cause of the Black Lives Matter protests against anti-black and anti-brown racism throughout the United States and the world.
Some days before the Oxford protests, Bristol saw the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Colston was a 17th century English merchant and slave trader. He was at one time a deputy governor of the Royal African Company and oversaw the transportation into slavery of some 84,000 Africans. Also recently in the United Kingdom, a statue of Sir Winston Churchill erected in Parliament Square, Westminster, had been sprayed with graffiti during a Black Lives Matter protest. Days before that, people gathered around the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, on 4 June 2020, during protests over the death of George Floyd. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced the statue will be removed.
Even before the murder of George Floyd there had been calls for the removal of the statue of Thomas McKie Meriwether, a white man honoured in North Augusta, South Carolina, for being killed in an 1876 riot. Seven black men were also killed in that riot but were not similarly honoured. A statue of King Leopold II of Belgium was taken down in Antwerp on 9 June 2020 after it was vandalised by protesters because of his brutal rule over the Congo, which he held as his personal property from 1885 to 1908. During that time, he subjected its people to forced labour which led to a genocide involving millions of deaths. Like the other fallen statues, that of Leopold was a symbol of racism targeted by Black Lives Matter protesters following the death of George Floyd in the United States.
Anti-colonial sentiments that emerged in the late colonial period and then expressed since political independence by activists, scholars and statesmen throughout the 20th century are now continuing with renewed efforts and a “new” decolonial politics aimed at overthrowing the colonisers who are still being featured as dominant and proud on their pedestals.
No doubt this has a lot to do with the growing discontent of marginalised and oppressed peoples along racist lines, which began in the colonial period. The most recent expression of this is the Black Lives Matter series of protests around the world, provoked by the murder of George Floyd. The growing anti-racism has also taken the form of the politics of toppling, literally or figuratively.
THE CASE OF RAFFLES
In most countries, the idea of nominating an imperialist as the founder of a newly independent state would have been considered “outrageous and most definitely reactionary”. But, for a long time the dominant view in Singapore was that it was inadvisable to search for a “golden past” in the pre-colonial era as history prior to 1819 was one of “ancestral ghosts” and should be forgotten. K. G. Tregonning (1923–2015), formerly Raffles Professor of History at the University of Singapore, had this to say: “Modern Singapore began in 1819. Nothing that occurred on the island prior to this has particular relevance to an understanding of the contemporary scene; it is of antiquarian interest only.”
Thus, history began after 1819 and Raffles, as the prime mover, was elevated to a “Great Man” of history, not only by colonial historians, but also officially by the post-colonial state. It was stressed that history after 1819 was something that all Singaporeans could identify with because of the collective memories that Singaporeans of all races had and shared. The mistake would be to regress into the past. The then Foreign Minister, S. Rajaratnam, said that “[t]he more we were inspired by our past, the greater our awareness of our differences and separateness and the greater the chances of a multiracial society collapsing through racial fears and violence.”
The coloniality of such a perspective is all the more glaring when we take into consideration the growing critical literature on colonialism in the form of post-colonial theory and decolonial thought. Nevertheless, scholarship on Singapore’s history has progressed. No longer is Singapore history said to have begun in 1819. It is now known that it began 500 years before in 1299 as the seaport of Temasek. The authors of Singapore: A 700-Year History state that their book differs from other works on the history of Singapore by providing a long-sighted view of the past, dating the start of Singapore’s history with the arrival of Seri Tri Buana from Palembang, about 500 years before Raffles arrived here.
What has not changed, however, is Raffles’ position as a “Great Man” of history. In post-colonial Singapore, Raffles is to this day a canonised figure. Boulger laments that Raffles was “unlucky in that his achievements were far from recognised in his own lifetime”. This was to be overcompensated for in post-colonial Singapore where his name lives on here in a variety of forms. First and foremost are the two statues. The first is a 19th century bronze statue that now stands in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall. The second was cast in the 1970s, and can be found on the south bank of the Singapore River. Several landmark buildings, businesses, highly ranked educational institutions, prestigious clubs, and transport facilities have been named after Raffles. The world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia, a genus of parasitic flowering plants, is also named after him.
Raffles had been presented by the independent Singapore state as a hero of sorts, one of the rare instances in the history of a colonial administrator serving as a national icon, in a world where most post-colonial nations adopted an extremely critical approach towards colonialism and the colonial figures who ruled over them.
Colonial administrators and imperialists like those whose statues have fallen and Raffles should make us think about the meaning of colonialism. Colonialism was not only about political-economic domination and control. Colonialism did not only take the political economic destiny of whole peoples out of their own hands but was also responsible for both the physical and cultural destruction of peoples’ lives.
Of course, it must be recognised, as noted by Rajaratnam, that the rule of Raffles as an imperialist in Singapore was not “marked by terror and savagery”. But, colonialism was always violent; often in a physical way, but always in a non-physical sense. The difference between different historical cases of colonialism was the impact on the coloniser. In some cases, colonisation led to revolution. But in all cases, colonisation was founded not only on political economic imperialism but also on the culture of the colonised. One of the devastating effects of colonialism is racism.
The British image of the native was founded on colonial racism. Various deficiencies and incapacities associated with the natives were explained in racist terms. British colonial officers such as Raffles and John Crawfurd regarded the Malays as being rude and uncivilised in character, of feeble intellect, and at a low stage of intellectual development, indolent, submissive, and prone to piracy. Furthermore, the backwardness of the natives and their various negative traits were blamed on their religion, Islam. Alatas emphasised that it was not just the petty officials, small traders, adventurers and politicians, but the best representatives of European civilisation that were responsible for colonial racism.
For Alatas, the lasting and devastating legacy of colonialism in the Malay world is the internalisation of the British image of the native by the natives themselves. The concomitant development of an inferiority complex among them is a serious consequence of colonial rule and a defining feature of post-colonial society and politics. In the post-colonial period, this auto-racism is the condition of coloniality without colonialism.
Alatas’ Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer?  is an example of what Edward Said referred to as “revisionist” scholarship; that is, works that “set themselves the revisionist, critical task of dealing frontally with the metropolitan culture, using the techniques, discourses, and weapons of scholarship and criticism once reserved exclusively for the European.”
In Thomas Stamford Raffles, Alatas presents a critique of the philosophy of Raffles at a time in Singapore scholarship when there was hardly any critical assessment of the man. Alatas’ task was to present a critical and balanced, not Eurocentric or Anglocentric account of the thought and deeds of Raffles.
There was a need for this because of the ethnic bias of British historians and biographers in their treatment of Raffles. In their bid to present Raffles as a progressive statesman and humanitarian reformer, there is a virtual absence of a critical treatment of Raffles’ ethnically prejudiced views of the different Asian communities, his involvement in the Massacre of Palembang, the corruption transport facilities have been named after stage of intellectual development, indolent, case known as the Banjarmasin Affair, and other questionable acts, all of which should be put in the proper context of British imperialism and the ideology of colonial capitalism.
With respect to the Massacre of Palembang, Alatas leans towards the view that Raffles was complicit in the events that led up to the murders of 24 Europeans and 63 Javanese at the Dutch fort in Palembang, comprising soldiers and civilians. On the Banjarmasin Affair or Banjarmasin Enormity, Alatas suggested that Raffles engaged in a suspicious acquisition of a territory along the Borneo coast by his friend, Alexander Hare, which involved corruption and forced labour.
During the brief period of British rule over Java, Raffles was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Java (1811–1816). It was during this tenure that he was directly involved in the terrible events of 21 June 1812, the rape of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java, that ended in the killing of hundreds, and its looting and sacking. Said to have been the first time an indigenous court was taken in this manner by a European army, the Yogyakarta kraton was stormed, damaged and looted by the British, with much of the contents of its archive stolen by Raffles.
Raffles had also supported the opium trade and was concerned about how licensing would affect the East India Company’s revenues. Viewing Singapore’s function as an outlet for the distribution of opium throughout the region, he made every effort such that the Company’s opium trade be “protected and offered every facility”. Raffles took for himself a five percent commission on each opium licence. The British opium trade out of Singapore that Raffles sanctioned constituted Singapore’s largest single source of revenue from 1824 until 1910.
Raffles’ supporters and admirers, as noted by Alatas, have generally remained silent about his questionable views and activities. A proper study of Raffles is at one and the same time a study of the crimes of the powerful as well as the criminality of the colonial state.
Kwa notes perceptively that the idea of 1819 as the beginning of Singapore’s history presents three categories of historiographical problems. One is attributing to Raffles the foreknowledge to recognise the strategic importance of Singapore, resulting in his elevation to a “Great Man” of history and the subsequent focus on generations of “great men”. History is explained through the impact of great men. The second category of problems is that it possibly aggravated Singapore’s post-1965 identity crisis by depriving it of its origins as a 14th century Malay state. The third category of problems is that it distorts our perspective on the role of the Malay sultans and their courts in Singapore, suggesting that they were not active subjects in their own history. To this we may add a fourth category of problems, that is, our attitude towards colonialism.
The critical anti-colonial spirit is not completely absent in Singapore, as can be seen from Singaporean poet, Suratman Markasan’s poem, “Balada Seorang Lelaki di Depan Patung Raffles” (The Ballad of a Man Before the Statue of Raffles), a few lines of which are reproduced below:
Raffles smiles rigidly
the man who has lost his mind grumbles
“I’ve said it a thousand times
you deceived my grandparents totally
you seized their properties until it’s gone, greedily
you gave it away to your friends, enemies
do you hear, Raffles? Do you hear?
I should have brought you to face justice
at the UN office in New York
but unfortunately the judge has no clout
To note that Raffles was a product of his time and was informed by the dominant ideology of his age, that is, imperialism, is to state the obvious. In our assessment of him today, though, that recognition cannot be an excuse to allow the embarrassing facts of the colonial adventure to disappear. ⬛
1 A. VERBAAN. UCT STUDENT IN POO PROTEST. CAPE TIMES. 2015. ACCESSED 2019, AUGUST 10: HTTP://WWW.IOL.CO.ZA/CAPETIMES/UCT-STUDENT-IN-POO-PROTEST-1829512.
2 R. CHANTILUKE, B. KWOBA AND A. NKOPO, EDS. RHODES MUST FALL: THE STRUGGLE TO DECOLONISE THE RACIST HEART OF EMPIRE. LONDON: ZED BOOKS, 2018.
3 M. RACE AND N. BRIANT. CECIL RHODES: PROTESTERS DEMAND OXFORD STATUE REMOVAL. BBC NEWS. ACCESSED, 2020, JUNE 10: HTTPS://WWW.BBC.COM/NEWS/UK-ENGLAND-OXFORDSHIRE-52975687.
4 E. LEVENSON, G. LEMOS AND A. VERA. THE REV. AL SHARPTON REMEMBERS GEORGE FLOYD AS AN ‘ORDINARY BROTHER’ WHO CHANGED THE WORLD. CNN. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 20: HTTPS://EDITION.CNN.COM/2020/06/09/US/GEORGE-FLOYD-FUNERAL-TUESDAY/INDEX.HTML.
5 D. OLUSOGA. THE TOPPLING OF EDWARD COLSTON’S STATUE IS NOT AN ATTACK ON HISTORY. IT IS HISTORY. THE GUARDIAN. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 10: HTTPS://WWW.THEGUARDIAN.COM/COMMENTISFREE/2020/JUN/08/EDWARD-COLSTON-STATUE-HISTORY-SLAVE-TRADER-BRISTOL-PROTEST.
6 “WHY WAS CHURCHILLS’ STATUE DEFACED” BBC NEWS. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 10: HTTPS://WWW.BBC.COM/NEWS/AV/UK-ENGLAND-LONDON-52972531/BLACK-LIVES-MATTER-PROTEST-WHY-WAS-CHURCHILL-S-STATUE-DEFACED.
7 L. VOZZZELLA AND G. S. SCHNEIDER. RICHMOND JUDGE HALTS REMOVAL OF ROBERT E. LEE STATUE FOR 10 DAYS. WASHINGTON POST. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 10: HTTPS://WWW.WASHINGTONPOST.COM/LOCAL/VIRGINIA-POLITICS/RICHMOND-JUDGE-HALTS-REMOVAL-OF-ROBERT-E-LEE-STATUE-FOR-10-DAYS/2020/06/08/A3224DF2-A9F0-11EA-9063-E69BD6520940_STORY.HTML.
8 S. LEBLANC. NORTH AUGUSTA MAYOR ADDRESSES CONTROVERSIAL HAMBURG MASSACRE MONUMENT. SAVANNAHNOW. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 10: HTTPS://WWW.SAVANNAHNOW.COM/NEWS/20181112/NORTH-AUGUSTA-MAYOR-ADDRESSES-CONTROVERSIAL-HAMBURG-MASSACRE-MONUMENT.
9 M. PRONCZUK AND M. ZAVERI. STATUE OF LEOPOLD II, BELGIAN KING WHO BRUTALIZED CONGO, IS REMOVED. ANTWERP, NEW YORK TIMES. ACCESSED 2020, JUNE 10: HTTPS://WWW.NYTIMES.COM/2020/06/09/WORLD/EUROPE/KING-LEOPOLD-STATUE-ANTWERP.HTML.
10 “RAJA TELLS WHY WE STILL HONOUR RAFFLES’ NAME”. THE STRAITS TIMES. 1983, MAY 25.
11 S. RAJARATNAM, “UNTITLED SPEECH”, IN CHAN HENG CHEE & OBAID UL HAQ, EDS., THE PROPHETIC AND THE POLITICAL: SELECTED SPEECHES AND WRITINGS OF S. RAJARATNAM, SINGAPORE, GRAHAM BRASH, 1987, P. 140; S. RAJARATNAM. “S’PORE’S FUTURE DEPENDS ON SHARED MEMORIES, COLLECTIVE AMNESIA”. THE STRAITS TIMES. 1990, JUNE 20.
12 K. G. TREGONNING. “THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND”, IN OOI JIN-BEE & CHIANG HAI DING, EDS., MODERN SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE: SINGAPORE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1969), P. 14.
13 C. G. KWA. “INTRODUCTION”, IN KWA CHONG GUAN & PETER BORSCHBERG, EDS., STUDYING SINGAPORE BEFORE 1800, SINGAPORE: NUS PRESS, 2018, PP. 1–26, PP. 3–4, 201.
14 S. RAJARATNAM. “NATIONAL VALUES OF SINGAPORE”, SEMINAR FOR PRE-UNIVERSITY STUDENTS. 1974, JUNE 17–22. MINISTRY OF EDUCATION, SINGAPORE.
15 THE SINGAPORE BICENTENNIAL WEBSITE: HTTPS://WWW.BICENTENNIAL.SG/ABOUT/
16 C. G. KWA, T. Y., TAN, AND D. HENG. SINGAPORE: A 700-YEAR HISTORY – FROM EARLY EMPORIUM TO WORLD CITY. SINGAPORE: NATIONAL ARCHIVES, 2009. SEE ALSO THE IMPORTANT WORK OF KWA CHONG GUAN & PETER BORSCHBERG, EDS., STUDYING SINGAPORE BEFORE 1800.
17 D. C., BOULGER. LIFE OF SIR STAMFORD RAFFLES. LONDON: CHARLES KNIGHT, 1973, P. XI.
18 “RAJA TELLS WHY WE STILL HONOUR RAFFLES’ NAME”. THE STRAITS TIMES. 1983, MAY 25.
19 ALATAS. THE MYTH OF THE LAZY NATIVE. PP. 38–41.
20 F., FRANTZ. BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASKS, TRANS. CHARLES LAM MARKMAN. NEW YORK: GROVE PRESS, 1967, PP. 90–1.
21 ALATAS. THE MYTH OF THE LAZY NATIVE. P. 132.
22 S. H. ALATAS. THOMAS STAMFORD RAFFLES: SCHEMER OR REFORMER?, WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY SYED FARID ALATAS, SINGAPORE: NUS PRESS, 2020. FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1971 (SYDNEY: ANGUS & ROBERTSON), ALATAS ARGUES FOR A MORE CRITICAL APPRAISAL OF RAFFLES.
23 S. EDWARD. CULTURE AND IMPERIALISM. NEW YORK: VINTAGE, 1993, P. 293.
24 ALATAS. THOMAS STAMFORD RAFFLES. P. 33FF.
25 IBID, P. 76FF.
26 C. PETER. THE POWER OF PROPHECY: PRINCE DIPANAGARA AND THE END OF AN OLD ORDER IN JAVA, 1785–1855. LEIDEN: BRILL, 2007, CHAPTER 7.
27 THE BARBARIC NATURE OF THE ATTACK ON YOGYAKARTA WAS CONVENIENTLY LEFT OUT BY RAFFLES HIMSELF IN HIS THE HISTORY OF JAVA, 2 VOLS., LONDON: PRINTED FOR BLACK, PARBURY, AND ALLEN, BOOKSELLERS TO THE
HON. EAST-INDIA COMPANY AND JOHN MURRAY, 1817.
28 M. C. RICKLEFS. A HISTORY OF MODERN INDONESIA SINCE C. 1200, 4TH ED. HOUNDMILLS: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2008, PP. 137–8.
29 RAFFLES TO MACKENZIE. 1819, DECEMBER 20. ENCLOSED IN RAFFLES TO DART, 1819, DECEMBER 28. VOL. 50, SUMATRA FACTORY RECORDS, EAST INDIA COMPANY, NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE; INDIA OFFICE LIBRARY AND RECORDS. LONDON: RECORDAK MICROFILM SERVICE. 1960. MONASH UNIVERSITY. CITED IN NADIA WRIGHT, “FARQUHAR AND RAFFLES: THE UNTOLD STORY”, BIBLIOASIA 14, 4(2019). ACCESSED 2019, OCTOBER 5: HTTP://WWW.NLB.GOV.SG/BIBLIOASIA/2019/01/21/FARQUHAR-RAFFLES-THE-UNTOLD-STORY/#EASY-FOOTNOTE-BOTTOM-24-12942.
30 JENNINGS TO FARQUHAR. 1820, AUGUST 15. L. 4, SSR; ACCOUNTANT GENERAL’S OFFICE. 1826, MARCH 8. VOL. 71, JAVA FACTORY RECORDS, EAST INDIA COMPANY, LONDON, RECORDAK MICROFILM SERVICES, 1956. MICROFILM, MONASH UNIVERSITY. CITED IN NADIA WRIGHT, “FARQUHAR AND RAFFLES: THE UNTOLD STORY”, BIBLIOASIA 14, 4(2019). ACCESSED 2019, OCTOBER 5: HTTP://WWW.NLB.GOV.SG/BIBLIOASIA/2019/01/21/FARQUHAR-RAFFLES-THE-UNTOLD-STORY/#EASY-FOOTNOTE-BOTTOM-24-12942.
31 C. TROCKI. SINGAPORE: WEALTH, POWER AND THE CULTURE OF CONTROL. LONDON: ROUTLEDGE, 2006, P. 20. CITED IN NADIA WRIGHT, “FARQUHAR AND RAFFLES: THE UNTOLD STORY”, BIBLIOASIA 14, 4(2019). ACCESSED 2019, OCTOBER 5: HTTP://WWW.NLB.GOV.SG/BIBLIOASIA/2019/01/21/FARQUHAR-RAFFLES-THE-UNTOLD-STORY/#EASY-FOOTNOTE-BOTTOM-24-12942.
32 SEE MOOSAVI’S IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTION TO THIS IDEA IN HIS “DECOLONISING CRIMINOLOGY: SYED HUSSEIN ALATAS ON CRIMES OF THE POWERFUL.” CRITICAL CRIMINOLOGY, 2018. RETRIEVED FROM: HTTPS://DOI.ORG/10.1007/S10612-018-9396-9.
33 C. G. KWA. “FROM TEMASEK TO SINGAPORE: LOCATING A GLOBAL CITY-STATE IN THE CYCLES OF MELAKA STRAITS HISTORY”, IN IN KWA CHONG GUAN & PETER BORSCHBERG, EDS., STUDYING SINGAPORE BEFORE 1800, SINGAPORE: NUS PRESS, 2018, PP. 179–205, PP. 201–3.
34 S. MARKASAN. “BALADA SEORANG LELAKI DI DEPAN PATUNG RAFFLES – THE BALLAD OF A MAN BEFORE THE STATUE OF RAFFLES,” IN SURATMAN MARKASAN: PUISI-PUISI PILIHAN – SELECTED POEMS OF SURATMAN MARKASAN, SINGAPORE: NLB, 2014, PP. 18–29.
RAFFLES TERSENYUM KAKU
LELAKI HILANG KEPALA MENGGERUTU
“TELAH KUKATAKAN SERIBU KALI
KAU MENIPU DATUK-NENEKKU HIDUP MATI
KAU RAMPAS HARTANYA PUPUS-RAKUS
KAU BAGIKAN KEPADA KAWAN-LAWAN
KAU DENGAR RAFFLES? KAU DENGAR?
SEHARUSNYA KAU KUBAWA KE MUKA PENGADILAN
DI PBB KOTA NEW YORK
TAPI SAYANG HAKIM TAK PUNYA GIGI
FOR ANOTHER CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE SEE ALSO THE WORK OF THE SINGAPOREAN WRITER, ISA KAMARI, AND HIS NOVEL, DUKA TUAN BERTAKHTA (SADLY YOU RULE), KUALA LUMPUR: AL-AMEEN SERVE HOLDINGS, 2011.
Professor Syed Farid Alatas is Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.