John D. Greenwood: How the Scots founded Singapore

As any local or visitor to Singapore will tell you, you can’t miss the tributes to Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), the Englishman who was the “founder” of modern Singapore. There is the statue of Raffles at the 1819 landing point on the Singapore River, the Raffles Hotel, Raffles Square, Raffles City, the Raffles Institution, the Raffles Girl’s School, the Raffles Town Club and the Raffles Design Institute. But there is no statue or street name or institution linked to the name of Colonel William Farquhar (1774-1839), the Scotsman from Newhall, Kincardineshire, who was the first Resident and Commandant of Singapore and who did at least as much as Raffles to make the new settlement a commercial success.

As any local or visitor to Singapore will tell you, you can’t miss the tributes to Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), the Englishman who was the “founder” of modern Singapore. There is the statue of Raffles at the 1819 landing point on the Singapore River, the Raffles Hotel, Raffles Square, Raffles City, the Raffles Institution, the Raffles Girl’s School, the Raffles Town Club and the Raffles Design Institute. But there is no statue or street name or institution linked to the name of Colonel William Farquhar (1774-1839), the Scotsman from Newhall, Kincardineshire, who was the first Resident and Commandant of Singapore and who did at least as much as Raffles to make the new settlement a commercial success.

Indeed, Farquhar was not the only Scot who made a significant contribution to the early development of what was to become the ‘emporium of the Eastern seas’. Of the European merchants in the early days, the majority were Scots. My book Forbidden Hill, the first volume of the Singapore Saga (Monsoon Books, 2017), is a historical novel that celebrates and draws inspiration from the lives of these early Scottish pioneers (and the main fictional protagonist of the novel, the merchant adventurer Ronnie Simpson, hails from Ardersier).

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In February 1819, Raffles and Farquhar signed a treaty with the Temenggong of Singapore and the Sultan of Johore, which established the right of the East India Company to found a trading settlement on the island. Having appointed Farquhar Resident and Commandant, Raffles left Singapore the following day. He returned for a month in June with some ships and supplies, and after issuing instructions to Farquhar, he left for Bencoolen on 28 June, leaving the practical management of Singapore in the early years in Farquhar’s hands. He did not return for three years.

During his earlier service as Resident and Commandant in Malacca, Farquhar had earned a reputation for fair treatment and honesty, and was known affectionately as Rajah Farquhar. This is what enabled him to attract the long-established Peranakan merchants (Chinese that had married into the local Malay communities), who served as very successful mediators between the Chinese and European merchant communities, and to capture much of the local trade in the Eastern Archipelago.

Within three years, the population had swelled from a few hundred to 12,000, trade had expanded to £4.4 million, and 3,000 vessels has passed through the port. Farquhar continued to act like a local Rajah in Singapore, and was held in the same warm regard by the local population.

He was often to be seen walking his dogs through the town dressed in a loose shirt and native sarong (foregoing his military uniform in the tropical heat), whistling and waving to passers-by.

Raffles had left Farquhar strict instructions that the European merchants were to be located on the east beach and the Chinese on the west side of the Singapore river. The east side of the river was to be reserved exclusively for government buildings. However, this was completely impractical, since there was a sand-bar on the east beach that prevented transportation of goods, and the west bank of the river was mainly swamp that flooded at high tide. The merchants flatly refused to build on the east beach, and vowed they would leave if they could not locate on the east bank of the river. Ever the pragmatic Scot, Farquhar assigned them building lots on the east bank of the river. He also recognised the solution to the problem, which was to fill in the swamp so he could locate the merchants on the west bank, but since Raffles starved him of administrative funding, this was out of question.

When Raffles arrived back in Singapore three years later (on his return to England), he was impressed by the dramatic commercial success Farquhar had made of the settlement, but furious that his building instructions had not been followed. He was quickly persuaded by the merchants who managed to convince him of the impracticality of his original plan, and promptly drew on East India Company funds to pay for the reclamation of the land on the west side of the river, where the merchants were relocated (present day Boat Quay).

Raffles, however, was dissatisfied with Farquhar on other grounds, such as his lackadaisical attitude to vices such as gambling, and his native mode of dress. Raffles eventually dismissed Farquhar and took over the administration of the settlement for three months, issuing a slew of regulations including the banning gambling and cock fighting, the chief pleasure of the Chinese and Malays.

When Raffles finally left in June, 1823, John Crawfurd (1783-1868), another pragmatic Scot from the Isle of Islay, took over as Resident of Singapore from 1823-26. He promptly rescinded Raffles’ bans, and set the rapidly developing city-port on a firm pecuniary and social foundation.

Among the early Scottish merchants were Alexander Laurie Johnston (1780-1850), a native of Dumfriesshire, and Alexander Guthrie, (1796-1865), the son of a crofter from Brechin in Angus.

Johnstone came to Singapore in 1819. The following year he founded Johnston and Co, one of the earliest registered businesses in Singapore. When Raffles forced him to relocate his business, he secured a lot of land at the head of the western bank of the river, with a small jetty built out from the quay. This enabled him to be the first to welcome – or ‘capture’– captains of incoming vessels, and his jetty came to be known as Tanjong Tangkap (“tanjong” meaning “headland” and “tangkap” meaning “to catch” in Malay). Guthrie set up business in Singapore in 1821, establishing Guthrie and Co in 1833 (after going through various early partnerships), and handed over the reins of the company to his nephew, James Guthrie, in 1847. The company continued to prosper throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and remains the thriving multinational enterprise that is Guthrie and Co today. And there were many others, such as John Argyle Maxwell, John Morgan, John Purvis, Graham Mackenzie, Charles Scott, Christopher Rideout Read and Andrew Hay, to name but a few of the early Scottish pioneers.

One indication of the dominance of Scots in the early affairs of the settlement is that they contributed all 12 of the first magistrates that Raffles appointed to serve on the local courts.

Another is that the first European church, completed in 1836, was named St Andrew’s Church, because, although it was Anglican in denomination, most of the financial support came from the Scottish merchant community.

However, it was not all work and good citizenship for these early pioneers. The first St Andrew’s Society dinner in Singapore took place in the upper rooms of the Town Hall on Monday, 30 November, 1835 (with 70 subscribers), followed by a St Andrew’s Ball the following evening. The Singapore Chronicle reported that ‘the ladies wore tartan scarves, and several gentlemen appeared in the garb of old Gaul, and the party did not break up till daylight’. They knew how to enjoy themselves in those days, as they still do!