a community of singaporeans


Introducing Farquhar

Treading gingerly in the footsteps of his illustrious brethren elsewhere in a certain British publication, a weekly commentator that will attempt to decipher the opaque affairs of Singapore makes his debut in TOC. We are naming this space after an oft-overlooked pioneer of the republic, its first British Resident and Commandant, a man whom one historian called the “unsung hero” of modern Singapore‘s early years.

William Farquhar was possessed of long experience in Malaya, having moved to the region in his early 20s and subsequently resided there for more than 30 years. An engineer by training with the East India Company, he fought in India and took part in the British capture of Malacca, after which he became localised to an unusual degree for a high-ranking colonial. He learnt Malay and eventually married a Malaccan wife.

Farquhar went on to have a successful stint as Resident of Malacca before moving to Singapore, where he was acknowledged as having been instrumental in guiding the colony in its nascent years. In both places his reign was distinguished by the esteem and respect felt by the inhabitants towards him.

Farquhar and Raffles

Despite these achievements, Farquhar seemed destined to be overshadowed in life and in legacy by his long-time colleague and superior, the considerably more- renowned Sir Stamford Raffles. Farquhar and Raffles had begun their longstanding collaboration in Malaya, where Farquhar enlisted Raffles’ aid in preserving historical parts of Malacca.

Farquhar soon became a trusted colleague, helping Raffles out in turn when the latter governed Java. So it was natural for Raffles to leave the newly- founded colony of Singapore under Farquhar’s charge when he had to depart shortly after its establishment in 1819.

But their relationship suffered an irretrievable falling-out several years after the colony’s inception. On a return visit in 1822, Raffles was appalled that his instructions for administering Singapore had not been followed.

Thereafter Farquhar’s stint in Singapore ended in acrimony; he was dismissed by Raffles in 1823 over their disagreements, refused to leave for several months and even sued Raffles for being high-handed.

Nearly two centuries later, there is a stark distinction between how they are remembered. The tiny island-nation of Singapore has become practically synonymous with Raffles: for starters, its elite schools, clubs as well as several roads are named after him.

Farquhar’s legacy is far less visible – the solitary street that bore his name disappeared over the course of the city’s development.

Farquhar’s approach towards administration

Yet the contrasting figures of Farquhar and Raffles provide a useful context for examining modern Singapore. Farquhar took a laissez-faire approach towards administration that eventually drew the ire of Raffles. This was arguably driven by the difficult circumstances he found himself in following Raffles’ departure. Poor communication lines with Raffles and his sporadic visits meant that Farquhar was mostly left on his own to shape the colony.

He had to combine the political, diplomatic and administrative roles of Resident with the military functions of Commandant—protecting the settlement against a possible Dutch retaliation—which did not leave much room for micromanagement.

The omnipresent Dutch threat also forced the need for a rapid consolidation of the colony. Farquhar adopted an open immigration policy which spurred a brisk influx of traders and workers. Hence, he had to move quickly to clear and allocate land to facilitate settlement as well as business activity and disregarded Raffles’ plans for zoning the colony. The net result was that Singapore thrived under Farquhar’s stewardship.


Raffles would adopt a different approach to administration after taking over from Farquhar. Surveying what might have appeared as a somewhat anarchic frontier town, Raffles was preoccupied with instituting order.

Throughout his career, Raffles had consistently embraced the idea of direct rule – running colonies on western principles of rule as opposed to conserving and adapting local customs and authority structures – that was first implemented in Asia by other liberal British colonials such as Warren Hastings and Lord Cornwallis. In the case of Singapore, Raffles tried experimenting with what he called “a system of purity and enterprise”.

Accordingly, Raffles drew up a ‘scientific’ plan for rezoning the colony which segregated the populace according to ethnicity and reserved the best land for the Europeans. To implement this, Raffles instituted heavy-handed policies such as a registration system for all land – regardless of ownership – and decreed that land would be repossessed by the administration if left unregistered. These measures greatly enhanced the power of the colonial government.

To provide a semblance of order in the nascent colony, Raffles established the security apparatus in the form of a police force and magistrate along British principles. He also took a puritanical approach towards local vices such as trading in opium and slaves.

Raffles’ rationalistic, strong-armed approach to governance would have been thoroughly understood by the cabal that runs independent Singapore. Yet it did leave behind some troublesome legacies.


One recurrent problem was the ethnic divisions inflicted by segregation as Singapore found itself repeatedly confronted by the spectre of communal conflict. Measures such as Raffles’ land policy also set the precedent for the state’s tight control over land; from a larger perspective, that model of highly centralised authority has remained to this day.

Yet arguably some of the issues faced by modern Singapore – a growing dissatisfaction with heavy-handed control, the elusive quest for a genuine sense of national identity and a lack of domestic entrepreneurship – could benefit from the more benevolent and hands-off attitude taken by Farquhar.

In another way, it is altogether fitting that our resident commentator is a former colonial: though long emancipated from British rule, independent Singapore‘s mentality remains a colonised one to some degree. It is undeniably to the credit of Singapore‘s leaders that this has largely been balanced by an open and pro-globalisation attitude, but there remains a lingering obsession with Western frames of reference.

The most obvious manifestation of this was Singapore‘s championing of “Asian values”, a reactive concept disputing what it perceived to be the West’s monopoly on ideas like liberty and individual rights.

Its leaders belaboured the notion that Asian values of order and communitarianism contrasted favourably with the West’s unpredictable democracy and rampant individualism, despite the irony that Singapore had once furiously embraced these Western ideals in the early years of the republic and subsequently retained (and benefited from) many aspects of Western systems and culture.

Perhaps Farquhar, who had an unadulterated affection and sympathy for the natives he lived amongst, would have understood better this somewhat paradoxical nature of the colony he once oversaw.


“Farquhar” will debut on Friday, March 21.

Pictures of colonial Singapore from The Literature, Culture and Society of Singapore website.

Read also: The “Founders” of Colonial Singapore.



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