The Big Read

Was Raffles a psycho boss? Melbourne writer Nadia Wright asks in new book

Melbourne-based author Nadia Wright thinks so and shows why in her new book, William Farquhar And Singapore

Singapore's founder Stamford Raffles was on author Nadia Wright's (above) mind because his mistreatment of his subordinate William Farquhar, who shaped Singapore as a trading post, was the subject of her doctoral thesis.
Singapore's founder Stamford Raffles was on author Nadia Wright's (above) mind because his mistreatment of his subordinate William Farquhar, who shaped Singapore as a trading post, was the subject of her doctoral thesis.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM


By Nadia H. Wright

Entrepot Publishing/paperback/ 258 pages/$27.82 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or Times bookstores or on loan from the National

Library Board under the call number English 959.5703 WRI

Some seven years ago, Melbournebased author Nadia Wright came across an article on bad bosses in Australia's The Age newspaper.

The 69-year-old recalls: "The article said, 'Is your boss a psycho?' and I ticked, ticked and ticked for Raffles. Question 1: Does your boss take credit for everything you do? Yes. Oh, Raffles ticked all the boxes."

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1

    What was it like to develop Singapore from scratch?

    2 How and to what extent did Stamford Raffles shape early Singapore?

    3 How did the British colonisers play politics among themselves?

    4 How well did these colonisers get on with those who settled in Singapore?

    5 To what extent was Singapore valuable as a port and trading post in the early 1800s?

By Raffles, she means Singapore's founder, Stamford Raffles of the British multinational East India Company (EIC). He was on her mind because his mistreatment of his subordinate William Farquhar, who shaped Singapore as a trading post between 1819 and 1823, was the subject of her doctoral thesis.

The retired teacher expanded that thesis into this book, which is not, however, a biography because she has not gone into either man's personal life for lack of material.

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She spoke to The Straits Times in May, a day after she launched the book at the National Library. Among her guests was Farquhar's descendant Heather Lumsden.

Farquhar's other descendant, through his half-French, halfMalaccan common-law wife Nonio Clement, is Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is the greatgreat-great-great-grandson of Farquhar's daughter, Esther Bernard.

While Wright does not deny Raffles' contributions to Singapore, she takes issue with what she considers his giant smear campaign of Farquhar, his No. 2, whom he left to shape and run the settlement of Singapore.

Among other things, he labelled Farquhar (pronounced Far-ker) lazy and obstructionist and accused him of encouraging slavery, cockfighting and gambling here.

Wright says: "Raffles was duplicitous, deceitful, hypocritical. His dispatches about Farquhar were full of innuendo which he couldn't back up. But if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick."

In her pithy, well-researched and absorbing book, she sketches Farquhar as being of the "do first, talk later" school, which rubbed Raffles the wrong way.

"He claimed that Farquhar opposed him the whole time, but Farquhar said, 'If you are unhappy, why didn't you tell me? I would have corrected things.'

"And when Raffles started selling off land in Singapore, Farquhar was so upset. He said, 'You cannot do this, this land is not yours to sell, we are leasing it from the Temenggong and the Sultan (of Johor).' And Raffles said, 'Hah. More of your opposition.'"

Her yen for restoring honour to Farquhar's memory resonated with Singapore's ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, who wrote the book's foreword.

In his foreword, he was careful to preface his view of Farquhar thus: "I do not wish to be a revisionist and criticise Raffles or take him down from his pedestal. After all, every country needs national heroes and myths."

He then wrote: "It was Farquhar who did all the heavy lifting in Singapore. If Raffles was the visionary, Farquhar was the pragmatist and man of action."

Those who credited Raffles for Farquhar's achievements include Raffles' second wife Sophia, who left out any chunks from letters that were unflattering of her late husband and British author Demetrius Boulger. But historians such as John Bastin tried to set the picture right.

Wright says she is puzzled as to why, with hindsight, Raffles continues to dominate most narratives of early Singapore. This Thursday, for example, is Raffles Day here, as it was his date of birth, although few people today know that.

Wright, a mother of two, was born in Oamaru, New Zealand. Her father Jack Meikel was a Scotsman and her mother Vera Varsnik Deukmedjian was an Armenian born in Egypt. Her mother inspired her to write Respected Citizens, an illuminating history on Armenians in Asia.

She and her journalist husband Peter Wright, who helped set up the Victoria Tourism Board here in the mid-1980s, lived in Singapore for 31/2 years. In that time, she taught engineering students of the then Nanyang Technological Institute how to speak English well.

In the end, she notes, deeds mattered more than words to Singapore's early settlers. When Raffles' smear campaign resulted in his superiors recalling Farquhar back to Britain in 1823, Singapore's many communities gave him effusive send-offs, presenting him with, among other things, specially crafted silver that then cost 3,000 Spanish dollars.

In contrast, she adds, there was "no fond farewell" for Raffles when he left in 1824, heavily in debt.

Worse, the EIC refused him a pension, which she says is significant because the EIC was famous for pensioning off its staff generously, in some cases with a total of £600 for life.

She added: "Lady Sophia felt her husband had been very hard done by because the EIC denied him a pension in the end… Raffles really thought he would get a good pension because, as far as he was concerned, he had worked hard for the company, trying to extend its territories, although it did not want them extended."

In a nutshell


New Zealand-born author Nadia Wright mounts her defence of Scotsman William Farquhar, Singapore's first Resident and Commandant, in clear, sharp and pacey prose. That is no mean feat as, for the most part, she has the driest of official documents and letters to go on. She has grasped the significance of the material so well that she is able to give readers a crackling, blow-by-blow account of the challenges of governance, mistakes, backstabbing and outright fraud that Singapore's founder Stamford Raffles and his men faced in shaping it as a trading post. Wright is particularly adept at putting everything in context for a post-modern audience, resulting in a book that is a model of how to write histories which resonate with present generations.


Her focus on Farquhar's many years in Malacca at the beginning of this book is meant to show readers how fair, tolerant and agile an administrator he was. Alas, as some quarters still think Farquhar destroyed many Malaccan landmarks at the end of his time there, his record of achievements in Malacca is mixed at best. This calls into question her wisdom in structuring the book thus. Its succeeding chapters, which are squarely on the dynamics of Farquhar's fraught relationship with Raffles, have much better momentum. So the risk is that cursory readers may be thrown off by her opening chapters and not continue reading the book.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline 'Was Raffles a psycho boss?'. Subscribe