Hundreds of ships crossed the Malacca Straits from the 17th century to January 1819. So why did historians decide that when Sir Stamford Raffles did so on Jan 29, 1819, it was a historic event?
This date has passed us by again without much ado. Should we, as a nation, consider once more the role of Raffles in the founding of Singapore?
To answer this, consider historian Niall Ferguson's suggestion to imagine alternative outcomes, or counterfactual history, as a way of stressing the contingent aspects of history.
What would have happened if he had not landed in Singapore? Would other British ships or British East India Company clerks have "discovered" Singapore sooner or later?
What would have happened if he had landed in Singapore but was not interested in the local Malay history and the quarrel between the two brothers in the Johor sultanate?
What would have happened if the governor of Penang, John Alexander Bannerman, had not written to the Dutch to assure them that Raffles was out of order and thus stopped the Dutch from invading Singapore?
What would have happened if the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 was not signed and trade could not continue in Singapore?
When I consider these questions, I realise that Raffles' interest in the history of the Malay Archipelago was pivotal in the discovery of Singapore. Without it, Raffles would have been unsuccessful in establishing a trading post.
However, Singapore was still in danger of failing as a great trading post as he had envisioned. Even the creation of the Raffles Town Plan could not have ensured the growth of Singapore, as it could not continue to grow as a local trading hub.
So what would have happened if the "Highway to India", the Suez Canal, had not opened in 1869, thereby throwing a new lifeline to trade in Singapore?
Even so, what would have happened if botanist Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, the first director of Singapore's Botanic Gardens, had not promoted the growing of the rubber tree in Malaysia, thus creating the hinterland that ensured our continued growth?
These two counterfactual questions seem to indicate that Raffles was responsible for getting the ball rolling, but historical forces beyond his control must be taken into account for the development and growth of Singapore.
One final question: If Raffles had not established a trading post in 1819, sooner or later, would anyone else have, considering that the opening of the Suez Canal would demand a hub in the rich but long India-China trade route?
My conclusion is that Raffles had been there 50 years earlier, and it was lucky for Singapore that he had a deep interest in history.
A final word - speculation is free but history is expensive. Perhaps, this is why Singaporeans do not really care if Jan 29 has any significance in our collective memory.
Frances Ess-Ong Hock Lin | 30 Jan, 2012 2:12 PM