The Government's decision to observe the bicentennial of Stamford Raffles' arrival in Singapore in 1819 will no doubt occasion historical soul-searcing among Singaporeans. This is as it should be. If history is to be the present's engagement with the past, today's citizens must ask whether and how far the British adventurer should be linked to the happy existence of Singapore today. What should help to place the bicentennial in perspective is that the Age of Raffles was neither the beginning of Singapore, nor did its passing presage the end of the eponymous story. The advent of colonialism was an episode that marked Singapore's unfolding history since 1299, when Sang Nila Utama's arrival on these shores blended mythology and fact into the provenance of an identifiable piece of territory called Singapura. The Rafflesian Age ended with the Japanese conquest of Singapore in 1942. Yet, Raffles' arrival represented a decisive point of inflexion in Singapore's history.
That is because Raffles incorporated Singapore into emerging patterns of economic globalisation that help to define its destiny even today. While Singapura had been a part of Asian networks of trade long before Raffles had been born, he inserted it firmly into a global geography of trade and power that would transform the island into a world city. Colonial Singapore's complicity in the opium trade between India and China is a fact, but it is a fact of cruel and wayward times in which powers great and small were implicated. Within Singapore, the Age of Raffles was characterised by economic and social divides between the British ruling class and its local acolytes, and the teeming masses of "natives". Yet, even in that environment, Singapore was good enough to attract the unwanted of elsewhere: They would not have come otherwise. A multiracial society was born out of those exigencies. Raffles' colonialism was decidedly benign by the standards of murder and plunder practised in the United States or Australia or the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, the Belgian Congo and apartheid South Africa. He left behind, not a history of physical extermination and territorial dispossession, but an entrepot that seized economic opportunities abroad while governed by the rule of law and constitutional gradualism at home.
Any angst over the bicentennial should be tempered by the fact that the 150th anniversary of Raffles' arrival was observed in 1969, just four years after Singapore had become independent. The decades since then have seen this country being transformed beyond his wildest imagination. Today, Singaporeans would be more self-confident than they were then in marking the historical appearance on their land of a man who had come as a coloniser but had left behind a people who would become a nation with a state of their own.