Sunday, February 06, 2011

World City-Zen: Singapore


On this day in 1819 Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded an outpost on the island of Singapore with the permission of Hussein Shah of Johor; having read out the treaty they'd signed in the languages of all those present (and otherwise dispensed with the masterful pomp the British have always done so well) Raffles left Singapore the following day, leaving Major William Farquhar in charge.

Of course, this wasn't the first town to be established on the site; the first official one arose during the reign of Parameswara of the Srivijaya Empire, who also founded Melaka (and the Sultanate of Malacca) around 1402, having been deposed by the Majapahit Empire. There are Chinese records of the island as early as the 2nd Century CE, when the town there was called Temasek, and of a town called Singapura - which means 'Lion City' in Sanskrit, even though lions have never been native to the island - some nine centuries later, which was little more than a fishing village at the mouth of the Singapore River.

Endowed as it is with a natural deep water port, abundant fresh water, and (in those days) wood with which to repair the ships of the Royal Navy, the establishment of Singapore by the British East India Company meant that it would no longer merely be the fulcrum of trade between China and India but serve as a global trading post. To a certain extent it still fulfills that role to this day...

Raffles returned to Singapore with his wife, Sophia, and only surviving child* (a daughter named Ella) in 1822, during which time he clashed with and then replaced Farquhar with John Crawfurd over Raffles' Jackson Plan, an ingenious and scientific (if racist) bit of city planning which Raffles drew up with the recommendations of a committee and which he named after the colony's engineer, Phillip Jackson; from that plan arose a very mighty city indeed. During his eight months in Singapore Raffles also drew up the colony's first constitution. He returned to England in August 1824 and died in July 1826.

One of four true city-states in the world - the others being the Principality of Monaco, San Marino, and Vatican City - Singapore is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and joined the United Nations in September 1965. Its reputation globally over the past twenty years is principally derived from its tough law and order stance on nuisance crimes, the most notable example of which was the caning of Michael P. Fay in May 1994. Still, living as I do in a place where it seems like every third person pollutes by way of tagging, litter and/or spitting, I can sort of see their point.

The main reason to visit Singapore, at least for a lover of cities such as myself, is to view its acclaimed architecture, incorporating a bewildering array of Asian and Colonial European as well as modern styles of skyscraper, most of which have only risen since the 1970s. The place to stay while visiting Singapore is the ultra-luxurious Raffles Hotel, built in 1887 and named after the founder of the modern city.

*His sons Ludwig and Stamford Marsden and daughter Charlotte having died of dysentery at Bencoolen, where Raffles was Governor-General.

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