Why removing the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles is a bad idea
Singaporeans are thinking of tearing down the statue of Stamford Raffles. This is a bad idea.
In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of American police, street protests have broken out in multiple countries, calling attention to deeper issues of systemic racism. While this is a praiseworthy development, vandalism of public property has occurred, with protestors defacing, destroying and knocking down statues of historical figures who are deemed to be racist in some manner.
It is within this larger backdrop that some local netizens have even suggested the removal of the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore under the British in 1819. One prominent individual who made such a suggestion was Dhevarajan Devadas, who is a Public Policy Researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. This had even attracted the attention of former NMP Calvin Cheng, who criticised Devadas’ statement on social media.
Removing the status of Stamford Raffles, whether through violent or non-violent means, would be a terrible idea, and would set a dangerous precedent for the erasure of controversial historical figures. This also comes at the expense of free and critical inquiry, a key ingredient of social progress. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone is really serious about removing the status of Raffles, but it is nonetheless necessary to know the case against doing so in case its ever debated.
Significantly, Sir Stamford Raffles was a moral reformer. When he was in Java, he deliberately sought to reverse Dutch mercantilism, which hurt the livelihoods of local subjects and who were forced to labor on public works by oppressive officials. His reformist legacy was acknowledged by native residents when he departed Java. The local Susuhunan (Javanese leader), had himself addressed Raffles as “his grandfather” and declared that he would never forget the good he did for his people.
Raffles was undeniably an imperialist, yet he had much respect for local customs. He was a keen student of the Malay language, the lingua franca of the region. The best testament to this comes from his personal friend and colleague Munshi Abdullah, a Malay scholar, who had written that “he (Raffles) was most courteous in his intercourse with all men. He had a sweet expression on his face, was extremely affable and liberal, and listened with attention when people spoke to him”. According to Raffles’ biographer Maurice Collis, this greatly pleased the local Malays, who were impressed by his grasp of Malay history, botany, zoology and culture.
This does not sound like someone whose statue should be removed.
While Raffles was in no way morally blameless, his humanitarian persona often shone through. All throughout his life, Raffles was also a staunch abolitionist who opposed slavery. He was even a close friend, neighbor, and collaborator with William Wilberforce. Raffles was widely respected by the local merchants wherever he went, and rightly so, having defended free trade. Yet, the indigenous community’s adulation of Raffles whenever he left most reveals his humanity. According to Abdullah, Raffles did not only mixed with the upper class, but even “the poorest could speak to him”. In Abdullah’s Hikayat, he had commented on Raffles’ modesty and respect for fellow man: “there are many great men besides him, clever, rich and handsome, but in good disposition, amiability and gracefulness, Mr Raffles had not his equal, and were I to die and live again such a man I could never meet again, my love of him is so great”.
The humanitarian instincts of Stamford Raffles was not merely a quirk of personality, but stemmed from his deeper allegiance to the values of classical liberalism, which was popular in his lifetime. This was recognized by prominent Singapore historian Constance Mary Turnbull, who wrote that Stamford Raffles “…reflected the most advanced radical, intellectual, and humanitarian thinking of his day. The type of society he aspired to establish in Singapore was in many ways ahead of contemporary England or India… he established in Singapore a free port following the principles of Adam Smith and laissez-faire at a time when Britain was still a protectionist country.”
The classical liberal principles that Raffles adhered to, which he imported into Singapore, has long been a socially progressive paradigm. This tradition features Adam Smith, who was opposed to slavery in his time. Further down in history, this included Fredric Bastiat, Frederick Douglass, and even contemporary economists like James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. To understand Sir Stamford Raffles, one must understand this larger tradition that he was a part of, which is one that emphasised how individuals had natural rights which were not to be infringed.
One might give the counter-argument: surely we would not tolerate statues of Adolf Hitler around? That is sensible. A case could be made for removing such statues, but it is important for such actions to not be conducted by an unruly mob, but in a democratic manner after public deliberation. What we have witnessed in the streets of UK and USA are nothing of the sort.
I also am not claiming that we should ignore the sins of Western colonialism, or justify imperialism, or treat Raffles as a perfect individual. We should always reflect on our past and see how we can do better. This is done best through education and critical reflection. Oxford University Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson, in response to pressure to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, rightly pointed out that “hiding our history is not the route to enlightenment”.
The removal of statues we see in the West today is symptomatic of something more distressing, which is the gradual erosion of ideological diversity and free inquiry in society and particularly in universities. Public figures, both present and history, as well as difficult topics, are often censored on the grounds of being offensive. This is largely driven by the fact that higher education is dominated by a set of left-wing, progressive values, which has often pushed their rhetoric of feminism, intersectionality, environmentalism, decolonisation and anti-capitalism to extremes. Much research has shown that most university academics, as well as college goers more generally, dominate the political left.
This has come at the exclusion of conservative and classical liberal values, both of which continue to speak to our current condition today. As imperfect as it is, there is much in Western civilization to like, not everything is about imperialism, slavery and colonialism. Ideas of parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, market capitalism are all Western cultural exports. Stamford Raffles himself was a product of that environment. Let us not forget them.
I sincerely hope that Singapore does not go down this path that we have witnessed in the West.