Redoing and Undoing the Colonial Pageant: Dialogues with the Raffles Statues by Faris Joraimi

Redoing and Undoing the Colonial Pageant: Dialogues with the Raffles Statues

“A world of statues: the statue of the general who led the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge. A world cocksure of itself, crushing with its stoniness the backbones of those scarred by the whip. That is the colonial world.”

— Frantz Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961)

The Singapore Bicentennial, a year-long series of events overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office intended to “commemorate” Singapore’s history, was held in 2019: two centuries after Raffles was granted a lease by grandees of the Johor-Riau Sultanate to establish a British trading post on the island. On 2nd January 2019, the city was abuzz with talk over a curious phenomenon on the site where he was believed to have landed. Artist Teng Kai Wei, commissioned by the Singapore Bicentennial Office (SBO), made the statue of Raffles disappear. With paint applied to the white polymarble statue, Raffles camouflaged himself with a bankhouse towering behind him. An art installation named The Arrivals performed yet another trick of the eye. Four new statues appeared alongside Raffles. All this fuss around the Raffles Landing Site to open a Bicentennial that tried so hard to not talk about Raffles; the rub, of course, being that they were really talking around him instead.

These shenanigans on the banks of the Singapore River have a lineage going back to the august colonial tradition of civic commemorations tied to Raffles statuary, which has entrenched his stubborn place in our psyche as the nation’s progenitor. The Arrivals participates in a typical performance of Empire as pomp and pageantry. As gleaming and pedestalled as he, the four new figures—depicting Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama, Chinese philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, Tamil Indian trader Naraina Pillai and Malay scholar Munshi Abdullah—occupy a fantasised position of supplementarity, as Raffles’ aides or lieutenants. While they are not exactly his carbon-copies, Raffles remains the mould by which these other idols were fashioned.

Excepting Sang Nila Utama, it was once again the Asian elites of British Singapore given access to this charmed circle. Tan and Pillai were both influential merchants who profited from British rule, while Abdullah was under the direct employ of Raffles. There once again was the array of peoples and nationalities collected by imperial conquest, represented by one among them with ties to the colonial authorities. But the coloniality of such a hierarchical relationship itself remains unchallenged. The proximity that Tan, Pillai and Abdullah enjoyed to sources of power and prestige in colonial society is no coincidence. Their presence in The Arrivals finely articulates the colonial chain of being, built on the interlinked distinctions of race and social class.[1]


The Arrivals is symbolic of the ‘revised’ historiography the Bicentennial eagerly introduced: a history of Singapore beyond and before Raffles, a Singapore built by a broad “cast of contributors,” and much older too. With ‘seven hundred years’ rescripting a new national history, Sang Nila Utama links contemporary Singapore to a primordial past as told in dynastic Malay legend. But the new narrative was in many ways, not quite so new after all. Remaining ambivalent on the subject of colonialism, the Bicentennial’s celebratory gestures were timid about highlighting how Singapore’s development and progress were the result of migrant labour exploitation under a regime of colonial capitalism. When I wrote to the Bicentennial Office in early 2019 asking whether they would eventually address these darker aspects of colonial rule, the Office reiterated the same trite cop-outs about sparking “an ongoing conversation” about Singapore’s history, and considering “different perspectives regarding the colonial period.”[2]

The book Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore, launched in the Bicentennial year, gave formal academic endorsement to this new historical timeline and framework. It generated a longue durée schema, with Singapore placed at the centre of various cycles alternating between rise and fall. Among its chief concerns was figuring out how to write a history of Singapore that links together its discontinuous pasts into a coherent timeline. Framing this history as a series of alternating cycles was one way of reconciling moments of activity on the island with the “empty” periods when “nothing seems to have happened.”[3] In this sense, the statues in The Arrivals casts Singapore’s history simultaneously as a pageant through time: Sang Nila Utama as “the first arrival” represents early settlement and economic activity on the island, followed by successive arrivals leading up to Raffles, his modern counterpart. The British period reaches its apotheosis in the present: the PAP-ruled powerhouse of Singapore today.

But while Seven Hundred Years asserts that Singapore’s history reflects how “the city and land behind the port have been linked and united with the maritime world in front of it,” it did not unpack how colonialism occasioned a fundamental break with this maritime Malay world, different from earlier cycles of “episodic settlement.”[4] While earlier waves of settlement in Singapore were ultimately part of the Malay World’s own patterns of movement and interaction, colonial rule was not. The British and Dutch presence in the nineteenth century rearranged the region’s balance of power, no longer binding them to terms of engagement or norms of trade and diplomacy set by indigenous polities. As the British seizure of Singapore in 1824 changed the island’s relationship with this maritime world, colonial rule cannot be understood the same way as previous “upcycles” of activity. A counterpoint to this historiography is offered by the social imaginaire of Singapore’s Malays, who have for decades considered Sang Nila Utama not as the initiator in a long pageant culminating in today’s Singapore, but as a kind of Anti- Raffles. He animates an alternative history altogether: one of lost grandeur and dispossession.


In Malay art and literature, Sang Nila Utama disrupts the colonial narrative in many ways. Having established a port-kingdom in Singapore centuries before Raffles, he signifies primordial Malay sovereignty over the island. As a figure from the 17th-century court chronicle Sulalatus Salatin (Genealogy of Kings), he represents the profound and ancient ties that Singapore has always had with a greater Malay cultural context which the Europeans broke into. Up until recently, Singapore’s authoritative histories relegated Sang Nila Utama to obscurity, while no chance was missed to remember Raffles’ virtue and tenacity. Sang Nila Utama’s arrival is a prologue in mythical time, preceding the nation’s true birth in historical time marked by Raffles’ arrival. Such anguish over Sang Nila Utama’s marginal presence in the national narrative is captured in the poem Bicara Diri Sang Nila Utama (Sang Nila Utama’s Monologue), by Pak Samsudin Said. Lamenting the decline and fall of Nila Utama’s royal line over time, it imagines an idealised Malay past fading away into colonial modernity:

The inheritance of his ancestors
No longer the shining splendour
Ruling this Malay Nusantara
Growing lethargic and losing lustre
Swallowed by this atmosphere of progress
Over echoes of ‘the New Malay’
Scarred black-and-blue,
His face is now dust
Plastered onto the stone-relief of Time
Just an object of ancient tales
The progeny of his race
Still carelessly asleep

The 1988 shutdown of Sang Nila Utama Secondary School, the first Malay-medium school in Singapore remains an unresolved wound amongst many Malays. Established in 1961 by the PAP government itself when Singapore was preparing for unification with Malaya, it represented one of the last vestiges from a broken Malayan Dream. One can barely imagine the psychological impact of its closure on those who still grieved the death of a broader political vision it represented. Raffles’ name, meanwhile, to borrow from author Tim Hannigan, infects Singapore “like a rash.”[5] His name graces an elite public school, a prestigious social club, a luxury hotel, and a major boulevard in central Singapore.

Beyond Sang Nila Utama, however, Malay creative commentary in Singapore condemning the evils of colonialism is copious. It spans ballads written in the 1830s depicting the plight of labourers abused by the East India Company, and the prolific nationalist diatribes of the post-war era. Independent Singapore’s adoption of Raffles as a founding symbol did not go unquestioned, with Pak Suratman Markasan’s poem Balada Seorang Lelaki di Depan Patung Raffles (Ballad of a Man Before the Raffles Statue) cataloguing British atrocities committed against Malays.

Replacing Raffles with Sang Nila Utama in the role of Singapore’s founder figure, however, introduces its own set of issues. He was, after all, a figure from dynastic lore, and would not have been known to most ordinary Malays if not for colonial education. The Malay peasant was well-versed in an entire universe of folk stories and myths, and eloquent in the rich rhyme of pantun. But palace literature was circulated within a small elite community. It was not until the late 19th century that missionaries first published copies of the Sulalatus Salatin en masse and taught them to schoolchildren in Singapore.[6] This was an effort to make Malays develop “a modern literature of their own” in line with Western ideas about what ‘modern’ literary culture meant.[7] Between the early 1900s and the 1930s, thousands of Malays educated in the colonial vernacular schools consumed this canon. Forming the radical intelligentsia that led the Malay nationalist movement, they conceived of a Malay national past using themes and imagery associated with this body of lore. The valour of Hang Tuah, the splendour of Melaka, and Sang Nila Utama entered the popular consciousness of a Malay public.

The idea that Sang Nila Utama sufficiently represents a pre-colonial Malay history of Singapore is in itself a function of colonial historiography. Appropriated by Malay nationalists, his dynasty came to represent an ethno-racialised view of the Malay World in olden times, bolstering the narrative of a Malay ‘nation’ (bangsa) with a lost great age.

Pre-Colonial Pasts; Decolonial Futures

In Alfian Sa’at’s play MERDEKA / 獨立 / சுதநததிரம, one character muses, “Part One was when we got rid of our colonial masters. Part Two is when we begin the real work: decolonising our minds, our systems, our statues.” The schema of “episodic settlement” proposed by Seven Hundred Years barely reflects the magnitude of colonial rule in reconfiguring our societies, cultures and identities. Recuperating a Malay past based on racial nativism, on the other hand, falls back on the historiographic frames that colonial scholarship bequeathed us. An alternative could therefore be one that engages with the ecology of the creole Malay World, of which Singapore was part and how colonialism radically transformed it. Centring this history also contests the view that British rule was a natural pre-requisite for the modernity, prosperity and cosmopolitanism Singapore enjoys today.

Dr. Imran Tajudeen, in a lecture delivered on 25 July 2019, noted how colonial Singapore enjoyed the distinguished pedigree of Malay port-polities that came before it.[8] Like Melaka or the Johor capitals, it served as a collecting and distributing centre for feeder ports, and hosted diverse trading communities under the patronage of a Malay court (until 1824). Out of this ecology of culturally diverse Malay port-polities arose an embedded cosmopolitanism which scholar Sumit Mandal identified in the region’s polyglot trading cities like Palembang, Aceh and Melaka[9]. The emergence of ‘peranakan’[10] communities of Arab, European, Indian and Chinese ancestry who spoke Malay and dressed like Malays attests to this permeability, as long-established émigré communities who became co-participants in the Malay world’s rooted but eclectic cultural spectrum.

This was a contrast to the established racialised hierarchies established by the British and Dutch colonial regimes, where one’s ‘race’ intersected with economic function. Under colonial capitalism, racial antagonisms and essentialised racial identities emerged. This undermined the cosmopolitanism that was already burgeoning in the regional Malay port-polities. It fundamentally transformed the cultural ecosystem of a Malay world open enough to assimilate peoples from China, India, Arabia and beyond into an indigenous social order. This ecology is a more useful anchor to make sense of Singapore’s “discontinuous” pasts. As it adopts a regional perspective, this history is actually revealed to be less discontinuous than one that posits Singapore as a discrete entity.

Life After Statues

While intended to promote a history beyond Raffles, The Arrivals ironically relied on a colonial mode of commemoration that frequently celebrated ruthless builders of Empire. The Raffles statues keep company with those of Cecil Rhodes and Columbus, all similarly venerated by the cult of Great Men. By retaining them as memorial fixtures in our civic spaces, we legitimise their brutality. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, at his speech launching the Bicentennial, declared that it was Raffles’ arrival that made us a diverse and open society.[11] But Raffles, and his adoption as a founder-figure really stands in stark contrast to the ethos of the cosmopolitanism of the old Malay World. S. Rajaratnam’s assertion that Raffles provided a ‘neutral’ symbol for a multiracial Singapore reinforces the paradigm of quarrelsome racial groups dependent on a forceful entity to mediate between them, be it a colonial government or authoritarian regime. Complicating this is the old Malay World’s fluid intercultural exchanges and plural identities.

What do we do with the two statues? Online commentators, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that saw multiple slavers and conquerors’ statues toppled in North America, entertained the notion of putting the Raffles statues in a museum. Perhaps a ceremonial removal can be a powerful moment for the nation to reflect on what it means to no longer be beholden to colonial narratives. It can be a solemn act of renunciation that marks a new era of self-confidence. But why stop there? One character from Alfian’s play proposed reinstating Singapore’s indigenous name, Singapura. Such a gesture, however, does not imply decolonisation as a means to a purer, more authentic ‘native’ past. It denies, however, the monopoly of the English language and English symbols over creating a neutral space for building a shared national experience. And in fact, that there was nothing ‘neutral’ in adopting them for such a purpose either.

This belief was widely held by the generation fighting for merdeka. The adoption of Malay as our National Language was seen as an important part of creating a truly independent Malaya. Hundreds of Chinese-educated students, trade union members, and activists applied themselves to its study, with some even becoming ardent scholars of Malay literature. It was recognition that Malayness had provided a shared basis for inter-cultural interaction in this region for centuries, and could continue to play that role. They saw little contradiction between rootedness in the Malay World and a multicultural Malayan society.

Statues, like all totemic idols, only have as much power as we give them. The quest to unshackle our minds and systems cannot stop at removing symbols. Understanding our place in the Malay World offers a repository for how to imagine—and work towards—a decolonial future.

Faris Jorami has recently obtained his BA(Hons) in History at Yale-NUS College. His research interests lie in the narrative traditions, cultural politics and intellectual history of the Malay world. He has written for a number of platforms, including s/pores, Mynah Magazine, New Naratif, Karyawan, Passage, Budi Kritik and 天下雜誌 (Commonwealth Magazine, Taiwan).

[1] David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British saw their empire (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 4.

[2] E-mail communication: 10 January 2019.

[3] Kwa Chong Guan et al., Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore, (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2001), p.282.

[4] Kwa et al., Seven Hundred Years, p.281.

[5] Tim Hannigan, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java (Burrough Court: Monsoon Books, 2012), EPUB, p.63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roff, Malay Nationalism, p.133.

[8] Youtube 13 August 2019, ‘18th-century Singapore: Lecture by Assistant Professor Imran Bin Tajudeen’,, accessed on 15 March 2020.

[9] Sumit Mandal, Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World (Cambridge University Press, 2017), p.47.

[10] Malay: locally-born, but of foreign extraction.

[11] ‘Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of the Singapore Bicentennial on 28 January 2019’ (Prime Minister’s Office), accessed on 8 July 2020.