Seeds for multiculturalism planted long before Raffles arrived in Singapore

Mr Osman Sidek raised a significant point about the root of multiculturalism in Singapore (Acknowledging colonial legacy and celebrating it are two different things; June 1).

He doubts if multiculturalism began in the colonial era. He is right.

I believe it started to take root in the 14th century, when Singapore began life as a Malay trading port. Merchants from many Asian countries, such as India and China, came here to do business.

They were our earliest immigrants. Some of them probably married local women and settled down.

Also, being a trading port means that Singapore was more than a sleepy fishing village when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819.

Further evidence that Singapore was more than a fishing village is that after his arrival, Raffles carved out enclaves for the various ethnic groups, such as Europeans, Chinese and Malays. He also set up schools and churches in local languages.

Clearly, what Raffles did was build upon what was already here, such as establishing it as a free port.

Admittedly, this attracted more entrepreneurs not only from Asia but also from other countries, including Britain.

But beyond that, Raffles did not do much for Singapore and left after only nine months here.

Was he a visionary? In the book, Raffles And The British Invasion Of Java, he is described as a man "who was, at times, completely out of his depth", as well as "a man a very long way from the pedestal that was later constructed for him".

Colonisation has its place in our history, but we fought tooth and nail in the turbulent 1950s to expunge it from our shores.

Must we now do a volte-face and commemorate the arrival two centuries ago of the man who came to colonise us?

Anthony Oei

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'Seeds for multiculturalism planted long before Raffles arrived in Singapore'. Subscribe