All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1959

Raffles Of Singapore

Mr. Winder, formerly a Solicitor of the Supreme Court in New Zealand, is now farm­ing in England. He has written widely on law, agriculture, and economics, his most recent book being A Short History of Money.

Singapore, an island 27 miles long by 14 miles broad, on which is situated one of the great cities of the world, has this year become a self-governing state, although it remains nominally within the Brit­ish Empire and allows the British to retain certain defense bases on its territory.

With the abdication of the Brit­ish, more than a century of free enterprise on the island has come to an end.

The history of Singapore’s cen­tury and more of free enterprise is surely one of the greatest prac­tical vindications of libertarian beliefs. The city was born of free enterprise, and practiced it—with its concomitant, free trade—even before the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 established that system in Great Britain; and it continued to do so after free enterprise had ceased to be the economic policy of the protecting power.

The man who first foresaw the commercial advantage of this tiny island at the end of the Malay Peninsula, with its fine roadsteads for shipping, and established there a great free port, was Stamford Raffles. The son of a British sea captain, he joined the East India Company at the age of fourteen as an office boy at its Leadenhall ­street headquarters in London.

When twenty-four, he was sent out to the Company’s office at Penang. Here he studied the na­tive languages, and soon advanced himself in the esteem of his su­periors. In 1810, he visited Cal­cutta, where he won the confidence of the Governor-General, Lord Minto. In 1811, a British force set out from Malacca to capture the island of Java from the Dutch, who had been forced to ally themselves with Napoleon Bonaparte. Raffles was appointed Intelligence Officer to this expedition.

Six weeks later the expedition had accomplished its task, and Lord Minto, to the surprise of some of his more orthodox officials, appointed Stamford Raffles as Lieutenant-Governor of the newly-acquired territories. Certainly, this was a great advance in life for a young man of thirty, with only six years experience in the East, and before that an office boy in Leadenhall-street.

After Waterloo, Java was re­turned to the Dutch, and Raffles received a knighthood. But—owing, it is believed, to the jeal­ousy his rapid rise had aroused—the only position found for him was that of Resident for the East India Company at Bencoolan, an unimportant trading post in Su­matra. Here, however, he busied himself with the project of finding a suitable port for Great Britain’s growing traffic with the East.

In 1819, he entered into a con­tract with the Sultan of Johore for the sale of the island of Singa­pore to the East India Company for 60,000 Spanish dollars (£13,­500) and a life annuity of 24,000 dollars. (Incidentally, it is from this same Spanish dollar that the American currency is derived.)

Official Opposition

But this straightforward pur­chase of the island was nothing compared with Raffles’ difficulty in persuading the British govern­ment to recognize the transaction. As soon as Lord Hastings—the successor to Lord Minto—heard of the matter, he wrote to the Gov­ernor of Penang saying that, in face of the protests received from the Dutch, Raffles had no right to seek a trading post in such an area, and instructions were given that, “if the post has not yet been obtained, he is to desist from any further attempt to establish one.”

We are told that the British Cabinet was also “excessively angry,” and Raffles would almost certainly have been forced to abandon the port except for the influence of the commercial com­munity in The Straits which stood behind him solidly. Frank Swet­tenham, onetime Governor of the Straits Colony, in his book, British Malaya, tells us concerning the establishment of Singapore:

“In all this, no British party and no British government can claim to have taken part, except by grudgingly assenting to what had been done, almost without their knowledge, entirely against their wishes.”

Seven years after Raffles signed his first contract with the Sultan of Johore, which finally resulted in bringing Singapore into the British Empire, he died in Eng­land at the age of forty-five, and, as Swettenham tells us, “no one knows where to find his grave.”

Faith in Freedom

Such is a brief outline of the career of Stamford Raffles. What it does not mention is perhaps his greatest quality—his complete and reasoned faith in the system of free enterprise.

It was while he was Governor of Java that this first disclosed itself. The Dutch had always held the trade of that island as a fee of the Netherlands. Raffles always al­lowed complete freedom of trade. He also altered the conditions of land tenure, so that individual—as distinct from communal—holdings were encouraged. He also abol­ished slavery on the island. His five years of rule in Java were long remembered as a period of great prosperity and progress.

But it was at Singapore where he so impressed the people with his philosophy that free enterprise become the unquestioned form of the island’s economy almost until the present day.

His motive for purchasing the island was that it might be the center for complete freedom of trade, in contrast to the protected and controlled system which he had seen in the Dutch possessions, and which, with the return of Java to their rule, he feared would be more complete than ever.

We obtain some conception of the ideals which burned in the soul of Stamford Raffles from an inter­change of letters with merchants of the island when Raffles was leaving Singapore in 1823. The merchants had written: “To your unwearied zeal, your vigilance, and your comprehensive views, we owe at once the foundation and main­tenance of a Settlement unparal­leled for the liberality of the prin­ciples on which it has been established, principles the opera­tion of which has converted, in a period short beyond all example, a haunt of pirates into an abode of enterprise, security, and opu­lence.”

Perhaps these are formal senti­ments, suitable for the occasion. But here is a passage from Sir Stamford’s remarkable reply:

“It has happily been consistent with the policy of Great Britain, and accordant with the principles of the East India Company, that Singapore should be established as a free port; that no sinister, no sordid view, no considerations either of political importance or pecuniary advantage, should inter­fere with the broad and liberal principles on which the British in­terests have been established.

“Monopoly and exclusive privi­leges, against which public opinion has long raised its voice, are here unknown, and while the free port of Singapore is allowed to continue and prosper, as it hitherto has done, the policy and liberality of the East India Company, by which the Settlement was founded, and under which protection and control it is still administered, can never be disputed.

“That Singapore will long and always remain a free port, and that no taxes on trade or industry will be established to check its future rise and prosperity, I can have no doubt. I am justified in saying this much, on the authority of the Supreme Government of India, and on the authority of those who are most likely to have weight in the Councils of our na­tion at home.”

It must be remembered that, when this letter was written, the mercantilist system with its pro­tective customs barriers existed in every country of the world, includ­ing Great Britain. Adam Smith was not long dead, and the Repeal of the Corn Laws was still an event of the future. If Adam Smith was the first to advocate free enterprise, Stamford Raffles was the first administrator to put the system into practice.

Tribute in Four Tongues

But, fortunately, times were changing. Twenty-three years after that letter was written, Great Britain followed the example of Singapore in adopting, as her de­clared economic policy, the system of free trade and free enterprise. In 1850, Singapore came under the more direct control of the Gover­nor-General of India, who visited the island in person. This particu­lar proconsul happened, very for­tunately, to be a Scottish peer strongly imbued with the prin­ciples of his countryman, Adam Smith. He had once served on the Board of Trade under Gladstone and was one of those responsible for the Repeal of the Corn Laws.

As a memorial of his visit, an obelisk was erected in Empress Place, near the center of the city, which is remarkable for recording—in four languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil—the basic faith on which the city of Singapore was founded.

It commences with the Gover­nor-General’s distinctions—but no matter, we will give the inscription in full, for he deserves some of our thanks for the message it contains. Here it is:

by the European
Chinese and Native
Inhabitants of Singapore
to commemmorate the visit
in the month of
February, 1850
of the most noble
The Marquis of Dalhousie,
K.T., Governor General of
British India
on which occasion
he emphatically recognized
the wisdom of liberating
from all restraints
under which enlightened
the Settlement has
rapidly attained its present
among British possessions
and with which
its future prosperity
must ever be

“The wisdom of liberating com­merce from all restraints”! Never has the basic principle of free enterprise been expressed more clearly and briefly, and certainly never in stranger surroundings, than on that obelisk under the palm trees in one of the great cities of Asia.

And, for over a hundred years, that principle remained as the very guardian spirit of the city of Sing­apore, so that it flourished exceed­ingly. From the poverty-stricken haunt of pirates it grew, in a few years, into one of the world’s greatest ports, with a population of a million souls, enjoying a standard of living admittedly far higher than in any other part of Asia. In its busy streets, although Chinese predominate, are repre­sentatives of nearly all the races of the world, from the bearded Sikhs who direct the traffic, to Gurkhas from Nepal, and Maoris from faraway New Zealand, on leave from their stint in the jungle where they guard the island from communist bandits.

The Lesson Forgotten

When principles are forgotten, the practices to which they give rise cannot long survive. The end could have been foreseen when, a few years ago, the city held a great festival to celebrate the re­turn of British rule after the Japanese occupation. For the oc­casion it received a spring-clean­ing. All the public buildings were painted, and all its monuments were scrubbed. All save one: the obelisk on which, just one hundred years before, had been inscribed, in four languages, the faith that gave the city life!

This monument—which is prob­ably the most significant in the British Empire, for it explains much—was left untouched beneath the grey lichen it had accumulated over the years, forgotten by all but the trade winds. Today, in the whole of Asia, the principles it ac­claims survive only in the British city of Hong Kong.

Before ending, let us return to Stamford Raffles. We shall always honor him for his great libertarian views; but what kind of a man was he in his everyday life among his friends? Let the native his­torian of Malaya—Abdullah Ab­dulkadir—who knew him well and once served him as a scribe, speak for him. In his 400-page history, Abdullah tells us how, in 1823, he said farewell to Raffles on the ship which was to take him home to England to die:

“That day, to part with Sir Stamford Raffles was to me as the death of my parents. My regret was not because of the benefits I had received, or because of his greatness or attractions; but be­cause of his character and attain­ments, because every word he said was sincere and reliable, because he never exalted himself or depre­ciated others. All these things have remained in my heart till now, and though I have seen many distin­guished men, many who were clever, who were rich, who were handsome—for character, for the power of winning affection, and for talent and understanding, I have never seen the equal of Sir Stamford Raffles. Though I die and live again, I shall never see his peer.”



The Protectionist

“Mr. Elephant, won’t you please raise your foot? You are standing right on top of me,” pleaded a wee ant.

“What an ungrateful person you are,” rumbled the elephant. “Don’t you realize that none of your enemies can get at you, so long as you are under my foot?”

“Get off!” stormed the ant. “If standing on my neck is your idea of protection, I can get along without it.”

W. E. MACLAREN, Warren, Ohio