Great Scots in Singapore's history

Scotsman Graham Berry has just published a book on the Scots in early Singapore and how they contributed to its success over almost two centuries

Siglap resident Graham Berry used to wonder why the street signs in his neighbourhood had so many names of Scottish places, including Cheviot, Lothian and Wilton.

The 70-year-old Scotsman, whose wife Irene Ng is the former Member of Parliament of the Tampines Changkat ward, settled down here in 2007.

Then, around 2010, over lunch with Singapore's ambassador-at- large Tommy Koh, Mr Berry says Professor Koh "suggested straight out" that he write the history of the Scots in early Singapore, if not a biography of Scotsman William Farquhar, who was colonial Singapore's first Resident and also great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"I was flattered that Tommy thought I had the ability to do a good job of it although I was not known as a writer," says Mr Berry. "I had already started to think about who were behind these names, but I hadn't quite thought about writing a book about it. So his suggestion was just the spark to set it off."

The result is his second book, From Kilts To Sarongs, which he launched on Dec 5 at The Arts House.

He says he started on the book quite soon after his lunch with Prof Koh, listing out the Scottish names from the street signs, finding out who the people behind them were and making the connections among these folk, such as between early Singapore trader Alexander Johnston and John Fraser and David Chalmers Neave, who set up fizzy drinks maker F&N.

Mr Berry says: "They were all from south-west Scotland and chances are Johnston might have told them there were great opportunities in Singapore."

His book provides invaluable historical, cultural and social context to the Scots in Singapore, such as pointing out that most of the Scots in early Singapore were, like Farquhar, well-educated, highly skilled, in search of jobs and whom small, then-poor Scotland could not afford.

"The Scotsmen who joined the British Army were officers, running regiments and not just running around with rifles," he quips.

He worked on the book intermittently, taking about five years to complete it.

Doing so took him to a few far-flung places, including the Shetland Islands north-east of Scotland - and the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, which he says has an excellent and extensive library, especially on the history of the Dutch East Indies.

He was in Hawaii for three months in late 2013 with his wife, who was then a visiting senior fellow at the East-West Centre nearby.

His first book, Care, Diligence And Skill, decodes legal requirements for companies, charities and arts organisations.

The real challenge with his second one was "to see how I could create a single narrative" from disparate histories spanning centuries which "did not run from A to Z".

"In fact," he muses, "I'm not sure I've been able to do that."

What he did, then, was to thread themes through his chapters, the main ones being the ability of the Scots to adapt to wherever they were, as well as their willingness to understand and develop the societies around them, rather than "completely supplant" them.

He also focuses quite a bit on Farquhar, whom he calls "a gallant soldier and a very modest, multi- talented man of considerable integrity and means" who married a Malaccan woman with French- Malay blood nicknamed Nonio Clement or Clemaine and lived with her for 20 years.

In that time, Mr Berry says, Farquhar expertly governed Malacca and then Singapore as its Resident, gathered intelligence about the French in Java for the British and built defences here against the Dutch.

In 1823, Farquhar retired in Perth, Scotland, where on his tombstone he is, in fact, credited as having "founded" Singapore.

Mr Berry says: "Raffles was clearly talented, but his second wife Sophia wrote his biography promoting him to the exclusion of other people who deserved an equal mention."

In dedicating his book to "all Scots who left their country and never made it home again", he is also paying tribute to his late father, Alexander Berry, a captain in the 7th Seaforth Highlanders, a Scottish line infantry regiment. Capt Berry was 26 when he was killed in action during the Normandy invasion of 1944.

Mr Berry's late mother Emelie Graham was then pregnant with him and gave birth to him six months later in Edinburgh.

His mother, who never remarried, had to work after that, but fortunately, her parents and sister moved in with them, and he and his elder brother Alexander grew up in "a house full of song".

An avid reader and photographer, Mr Berry trained as a chartered accountant but soon combined that and his passion for the arts by becoming company secretary for the Scottish Film Council in Glasgow in 1972.

In 1986, he joined the University of Stirling as finance director till 1989.

He became deputy chief of the Scottish Arts Council till 2002, after which he was its chief executive till his retirement in 2007.

These days, the Singapore permanent resident, who is on the board of community hospital and eldercare centre St Luke's, is active in the Singapore Photographic Society and advises the Glasgow School of Arts campus here.

He says of his new book: "It's definitely written with Singaporeans in mind. I hope it will inform Singaporeans about why the Scots came here and did what they did."

•From Kilts To Sarongs: Scottish Pioneers Of Singapore by Graham Berry retails at $59.91 at Books Kinokuniya, Times Bookstores or Select Books via orders@selectbooks.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Great Scots in Singapore's history'. Print Edition | Subscribe