Consider Sir Stamford Raffles as an effete dandy, the kind of sweaty, pompous, entitled imperialist who struggles to blow his own nose.
He’s a bumbling Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral without the charm or funny swearing. He’s an imbecilic Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third, a ruddy-cheeked, waste of royal patronage.
He’s a gangly, dribbling idiot of a human being and I’m the ideal man to play him.
I know because I played Raffles in Talking Cock the Movie. As instructed, I incorporated all of the above character notes, heeding the advice of directors Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen.
For comedic purposes, they saw Raffles as a bit of a dickhead. For practical purposes, they saw me as Raffles as a bit of a dickhead.
I ignored my wounded pride and thought about the pay packet. I was paid in chicken rice. I still think I was overpaid.
And then YouTube came along to ensure my frilly, floppy Raffles would be shared forever, passed from one generation to another, a bit like haemorrhoids. Intriguingly, my 2001 portrayal of Singapore’s founder has enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, for a couple of reasons. First, as the social stratification debate continues, any clip that compares Raffles Institution to a mental institution is always good for a laugh.
And second, no one’s quite sure what to do with the old imperialist. We need to talk about Raffles, but we’re not sure how.
As 2019 approaches, the country is preparing for a year-long ‘celebration’ to mark the 200th anniversary of Raffles’ arrival, known as The Bicentennial, which sounds like an old wrestling match between The Rock and The Undertaker.
Event organisers are certainly caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to commemorating Raffles. In the above paragraph, those quote marks around ‘celebration’ were used ironically. We can’t call The Bicentennial a celebration, can we?
How can the subjugation of indigenous people, in any context, be called a celebration? How can the simplistic One Great Leader narrative be applied to such a complex history?
But then, if we can’t accept One Great Leader making one great country, how can we apply the same analysis to the other Singapore story… the one about 1965 and… what do you mean, ‘cannot’? Too soon? Shall I start packing?
It’s complicated. It’s confusing, particularly now, when everyone is ‘woke’.
Praising Raffles acknowledges a white man’s superiority over repressed colonial subjects; a thorny subject at a time when the traditional privileges of a straight, white male are less popular than a fart in a Trump Tower lift.
A year’s worth of 200th anniversary ‘celebrations’, a year’s worth of Raffles’ accomplishments, many of which are now questioned by revisionist historians, might be less palatable than the gruel offered to the Singapore military in the 1820s. (Raffles reportedly abolished the cookhouse and left the soldiers hungry.)
There are many holes in the great white knight’s armour. The most obvious being, he spent less time in Singapore than my mother-in-law.
Raffles might have championed a free port, but my mother-in-law knows where to find decent duck noodles in Sengkang, not an insignificant contribution to the Singapore economy.
Plus, Raffles had a disturbing obsession with his colleague William Farquhar, whom he left behind to do most of the hard graft, along with a number of overworked, forgotten locals. They put in the man hours. Raffles took the credit.
Back in 1819 this was known as British Imperialism. In 2019, it’ll be known as the Expat Package.
"In the early 19th century, a British outpost under Raffles’ watch effectively became a harem for rich, white men. Today, this is known as Orchard Towers."
And before Singapore came along, Raffles was of course the lieutenant-governor of Java, where one of his ‘accomplishments’ was satisfying the unstoppable sex drive of friend and Kurtz-like lunatic, Alexander Hare, the governor of Banjarmasin (Borneo). Not literally. He merely supplied Hare with women/slaves, a scandal known as the Banjarmasin Enormity (or Outrage).
In the early 19th century, a British outpost under Raffles’ watch effectively became a harem for rich, white men. Today, this is known as Orchard Towers.
Just imagine Singaporean families reading that fun fact at their local exhibition, the one about Raffles taking care of women for a wealthy white overlord. He wasn’t so much the lieutenant-governor as he was a Trump lawyer.
Revisionist history is tricky, particularly when it involves Singapore and the popular political narratives. The upcoming 200th anniversary and the SG50 celebrations of three years ago have overlapping storylines that potentially conflict with one another. At the peak of SG50 mania, it was sometimes hard not to conclude that Singapore before 1965 was a scene borrowed from The Jungle Book, where locals dressed like Mowgli and gathered outside mud huts to sing ‘Bare Necessities’ together.
In 2015, I published a book that celebrated a number of Singaporean cultural gems, many of which were deliberately chosen because they pre-dated 1965. Call it a literary rebellion. I call it dreadful marketing on my part.
As the book didn’t fit the SG50 narrative, it was politely ignored in the media. The message was clear. Don’t mention the world before 1965.
Well, we’re about to spend an entire year dissecting events, peoples and places that existed two centuries ago. Two great leaders are about to go head-to-head. Overplay Raffles’ influence in turning Singapore into a thriving entrepôt and there’s a risk of downplaying the economic transformation after 1965.
On the other hand, underplay the Raffles effect by amplifying the deeds of others and the One Great Leader interpretation will be weakened, which has consequences for Singapore’s post-1965 history, too.
As a nation, we might end up sounding like that confused, mixed race kid at a really awkward birthday party: Of course, I love all the presents that my white father left me. But I love my Chinese stepfather’s presents just as much. In fact, I wouldn’t have my stepfather’s presents if it wasn’t for my father’s presents. So, I’m grateful to both fathers, even the white one who spent less time at the party than my mother-in-law.
One of the excruciating highlights of the 200th anniversary will be watching politicians and commentators tie themselves in knots in a desperate bid to juggle different historical interpretations at the same time. Honestly, I can’t wait.
Thankfully, there is one definitive conclusion to draw about such a complex political and historical predicament.
Only one man has successfully portrayed Sir Stamford Raffles on screen.
And I am available for bookings.
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