The critical spotlight on colonial-era statues, epitomised by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford, arrived in Singapore in January 2019, as the country prepared to celebrate the bicentenary of its colonisation in 1819. Following a lull, it revived in June 2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which, in part, took aim against colonial-era statues as objects that perpetuated continued racism in society. Drawing on the zeitgeist, journalist and columnist Jeevan Vasagar wrote in Nikkei Asian Review, “This year, Raffles should disappear for good… Colonial monuments stand for flattery of [the] West, instead of cultivating neighbours.” 
The anti-colonial statue movement was not limited to the monument of Raffles. In Penang, red paint was thrown over the statue of Francis Light. One activist tweeted “Francis Light looted our country” and “curi hasil bumi kita, gunakn tipu helah sampai Raja2 Melayu hilang kedaulatan dan kuasa” (stole our crops and used trickery to take sovereignty and power). There was also the call, “Gantikan Statue tu dgn Statue pejuang2 negara yg berjuang utk capai kemerdekaan” (Replace that Statue with the Statue of the fighters of the nations that fought for independence).
The relevance of these statues is open to question in the 21st century. Should these figures, who often enriched themselves through colonialism and slavery, have pride of place in contemporary civic space?
When dealing with colonial-era artefacts, people often invoke the word “history”. Labels such as “changing” history, “removing” history, “rewriting” history, “denying” history or “correcting” history are all used freely by various protagonists. The reformers or protesters have varying objectives, but all seek to remove a privileged interpretation of the past that is literally etched in stone or bronze, or in the written word. Others, wishing to maintain the status quo, argue that any attempt at change results in history being denied in some way.
The debate about Raffles’s statue is symptomatic of a broader problem in how we approach the history of colonialism in Southeast Asia. How do we remember and treat a past that does not easily fit the narrative we wish to tell today? How do we treat complex colonial figures that did both bad and good things to the people of Southeast Asia? And how do we interpret the objects and writings they left behind?
For historians, this moment should be seen as a methodological revolution in our understandings of the past. The group protests in North America and the United Kingdom against statues are nothing new. Monuments have often been destroyed by angry groups demanding political change. Many statues survive from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome only because they were preserved by having been thrown into the river or harbour. In the past, the voices of these groups have not been recorded, only the physical consequence of their actions – often a faceless or headless statue.
Social media has meant that the individuals of these groups now have voices. The debate can be conducted by anybody and occur anywhere. This offers a unique opportunity to directly understand, free of intermediaries, how people feel about the past, and how their narratives of the past are shaped by those feelings. This article explores the statue of Raffles as a memory of colonialism, as a lens through which we can understand how people remember and construct the past to themselves; to understand how citizens on social media, and the colonial and post-independence governments, remember and have constructed history.
History and memory
Statues and buildings are not history, but they are artefacts from the past that tell us about how people have chosen to remember the past. The past is history, which for many people is logically an unchanging story. For the trained historian, the past is never a settled narrative. It is always subject to reinterpretation and discovery of new materials. The past, however, is also a series of individual and collective memories, many contradictory, reflecting feelings that are handed down about the past. These memories reflect popular passions and dominate our collective historical understanding. How the people of the past have chosen to frame and remember their past then affects how we remember our own past — and often not in the way intended by our forebears.
History has happened. Yet historians regularly change our understanding of it. When people critically speak of “changing history” or “revisionist history”, they are on one level revealing a contradiction. It is impossible to change history or revise history. Colonial-era objects are not history, but artefacts from the past. They can be interpreted as sources for the writing of history or as objects in the construction of memory. Yet they are different and serve different purposes.
History is an academic concept which attempts to reconstruct a past society. Historians gather evidence, put forward an argument based on the available evidence, and accept that multiple interpretations of evidence are possible. Yet this academic discipline’s approach is relatively modern and was constructed during the European Enlightenment as part of the colonial project. Colonial figures like Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd argued with each other about what constituted history, and were part of inventing what we today call history. Colonial writers founded the canon of literature that is today Southeast Asian Studies.
The academic approach to history (like modern archaeology) looks to understand a past society in that past society’s own terms and explain it to a modern audience. Academic historians are critical of historical figures, but they should be fair to them too, meaning that critique should not be anachronistic, but based on a fair assessment of how people could have acted and thought at that time.
Memory is… the area of history where ‘truth’ and ‘perspective’ are not that important — memory concerns feelings about the past.
In comparison, memory is the oldest and deepest understanding of the past. Biologically built into humans, memory is about how the individuals and the collective conceive of the past. It is emotive and thus possesses a power to move and inspire in ways history cannot. It is in memory that pain and pride in the past reside. Colonial-era artefacts (statues, buildings and objects) can embody a memory of past pain for descendants of colonised peoples, particularly if aspects of the colonial past form ongoing disadvantage to current generations. It is also the area of history where ‘truth’ and ‘perspective’ are not that important — memory concerns feelings about the past. The feelings are real, and the disenchantment is real, but claims about the past are often narrow, retrospective and generally ahistorical, though based on real historical repression across time.
Raffles Must Fall
After the fall of statues in the United States and Britain, social media became the central medium of debate for the fate and relevance of the Raffles statue in Singapore. Vasagar’s article was retweeted many times. Posts and tweets such as the following reflected the view that the memory of colonialism was a problem in Southeast Asia as much as North America: “Now here’s another colonialist whose statue should be thrown into the sea. Behold, the ‘Founder’ of #Singapore, corrupt East India man, Stamford Raffles” and “why do we still have the stamford raffles statue up,, he didnt do sh*t but steal and talk c*ck”. Such comments reflect generic beliefs about colonialism: foreigners who take.
In the flurry of posts, conclusions are made that are historically wrong and conflate events across a long colonial history. Yet these factually incorrect statements draw on deeper truths. The memory people have is that Raffles was the coloniser, and as a consequence, Raffles becomes a symbolic figure for the memory of many different evils, often marginally associated with the historical figure of Raffles. For example, in reference to the museum exhibition of the Raffles Collection in 2019, one online comment maintained that Raffles enacted a genocide of Malays, writing “If this story were told by the Malay it would be one of genocide and the obliteration of cultures on the Malay peninsula and it’s archipelago”. The historical problem with that memory was that Raffles had very little involvement with peninsular Malaya, and British colonial incursions into the peninsula would not occur until the 1870s – half a century after Raffles died.
At the base of the statue there is a scroll, in reference to which one observer wrote “looool if u look at the statue he’s stepping on the agreement with tengku and if thats not odesity idk what is”. Another writer concluded, “It’s actually a map depicting the area around the Strait of Malacca to symbolise Raffles having set foot on British Malaya.” The scroll is a map, but according to the original sculptor (Thomas Woolner), it was meant to be a map that Raffles “dropped from his hands at the moment he recognised the importance of the position which might be occupied”. Both tweeters were historically wrong, yet they are correct in their deeper feelings. Raffles did not follow the spirit of the agreement with Sultan Hussein and the creation of Singapore eventually resulted in the colonisation of the Malay peninsula.
The majority of statements on social media were just demands to take the statue down, accompanied by a link to Vasagar’s article. One person wrote that “man Raffles dont even sound like a good guy anymore. Never rly took interest in him, but now i kinda dont like him. That bitch statue still up. Take it down.” In another online article, Ilyas Sholihyn also pointed to the morality and lack of civic character in Raffles: “A man widely thought to be the founder of modern Singapore, but in recent years has been accused of being a racist imperialist, who oversaw the kidnapping of hundreds of women for sexual servitude and claiming credit for the country’s success without actually doing the heavy lifting.”
In a Change.org petition to remove the statue (carrying 17 signatures as of writing), an anonymous instigator framed the removal of the statue as a question of what message Raffles’s character sent to Singaporeans, noting that “Raffles had done so many bad things and yet we praise him for all the good things he’s done”. The petitioner maintained,
“We should also teach our future generations on how bad of a person raffles was, so they won’t think that a colonizer and racist like him was good. From being pro-slavery to being heavily involved in the invasion of Java, Raffles really wasn’t a good person as we make him out to be. Yes, he did found Singapore and should be remembered as such but we should not support such a person and should just be reminded of him in history books without the need of his statues.”
In response to the demands to tear down the statue, another writer tweeted his disdain:
“I feel this qn is a waste of time Because honestly, 99% of Singaporeans think of Raffles as just a name and we dont celebrate him at all. This woke idea of tearing a statue thereby eliminating racism is an American idea that Singaporeans will just brush off as being contrived.”
The conclusion that “99% of Singaporeans think of Raffles as just a name and we dont celebrate him at all” reveals much about the disconnect many people in Singapore have from the colonial past. Probably for the majority of people, these colonial relics are quaint objects from an earlier time that has very little to do with modern Singapore. For them, Singapore was decolonised in the 1960s and the former colonial rulers have very little presence in the modern post-colonial state. Other voices in support of keeping the statue describe it as “part of our history, for good and bad, whether we like it or not”.
In a similar vein, another commentator pointed out that “There is a difference between preserving and celebrating history. Sure…preserve it and learn from it, never ignore it. But to celebrate with a monument and a statute, thats the difference and it sends the wrong message.”
Responding to the claim that the statue is “part of our history”, Faris Joraimi (who has previously written for New Naratif) asked readers to understand that commemoration of the past is never a neutral action. The erection and maintenance of statues does celebrate history, but in ways that have repercussions for other groups in society.
“…this is not an incitement towards smashing up the Raffles statues, but in light of what’s happening around the world, I’m actually really sick and tired of people saying we should preserve them in some shape of form because “they’re part of our history””. 
Faris’ comments point to the fact that the Raffles statue is part of an ongoing official narrative of memory of the past. Such official memories aim to unify, but often at the expense of other narratives of the past.
Official History and Continuing Colonialism
The debate about Raffles resulted in another Change.org petition, one to “save Raffles” and “make it a Singapore National Asset”. The petitioners even proposed trademarking the Raffles name as an official product of the Singapore Tourism Board, thereby “ensuring a respectable usage and saving Singaporean history & heritage”. In “projecting”, the petitioners want to make sure that the memory of Raffles is not tarnished and continues to be used as part of brand Singapore.
Such a move to “protect” the statue as a “National Asset” is entirely consistent with the history of the statue. From its inception, Raffles’ statue had very little to do with history and a lot to do with officially constructed memory. Raffles’s statue was not placed by Raffles, nor by any contemporaries of Raffles, but rather constructed in 1887 at the behest of the then-Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Frederick Weld, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee.
From the distance of 133 years later, it is not clear why it was decided to erect a statue of Raffles rather than of Queen Victoria, as a means of marking the Queen’s Jubilee. It appears to have been the choice of Governor Weld, who according to the Straits Times from 1887 “aptly associated the name of Sir Stamford Raffles” because Raffles was “a true and loyal subject of the Queen, who most happily for us, extended Her Majesty’s dominions in the Far East and founded Singapore”. The Governor was clearly not interested in history, for Raffles died 11 years before Queen Victoria took the throne.
Erected 61 years after Raffles’s death, the statue was a statement by the colonial authorities of their ideals for Singapore. Weld saw a statue of Raffles as a collective expression of Singapore’s identity, expressing commerce and benevolent dictatorship against democracy. The decision to erect it on the Jubilee was convenient, because Weld announced his decision for a statue three years earlier while giving a speech to the Colonial Institute in London. But herein lies the secret that resonates even today — the Raffles statue represented freedom of capital rather than democratic and popular participation in the governance of Singapore.
The political substance of Weld’s speech was to block any attempt to give representative democracy to the Straits Settlements. Although Weld had instigated representative self-government (voting) when he was governor of the West Australian colony in the 1860s, he believed democracy was only for Englishmen. Weld maintained that “a capacity for governing is a characteristic of our [British] race” while the Chinese were “created to get rich and enjoy the good things of the earth”.
From its inception, Raffles’ statue had very little to do with history and a lot to do with officially constructed memory…. Raffles fitted Weld’s view of a visionary governor-leader supporting commerce rather than democracy. Freedom was merely freedom of property and not participation in the body politic.
Raffles fitted Weld’s view of a visionary governor-leader supporting commerce rather than democracy. Freedom was merely freedom of property and not participation in the body politic. Weld maintained “the genius of Sir Stamford Raffles selected it [Singapore] as a British settlement, which he rightly judged would one day be … placed at the cross roads of the central highway of commerce.” Weld believed that Raffles had god-like status for the “natives”; he said “we propose to erect a statue to my great predecessor, one of the best and ablest men of those to whom England owes her Imperial position in the East, and whose memory the natives still revere.” It is pertinent that Weld did not chose to build a statue to John Crawfurd, who proposed and initiated early attempts to make Singapore a self-governing democratic colony in the 1820s.
Far from being “revered”, Raffles was largely forgotten in the 1880s. His memory was reinvigorated because of a campaign of history writing in The Straits Times in the 1880s and 1890s. Even the Raffles Hotel was named in December 1887, after the statue was erected. One respondent using the non de plume “Ad Referendum”, writing about the erection of the statue, admitted their knowledge emanated from the “Anecdotal History” column in The Straits Times. Most people wanted Raffles standing, and only one requested he be clothed as a civilian.
The choice of civilian clothes portrayed Raffles as a man of commerce and not military government – a decision that subtly changed history, as noted by one correspondent. “Delta” complained that the statue chosen was not historically correct, arguing that “The Westminster Abbey statue, cast in bronze, would be appropriate, and probably be a better representation of the original, than our representing him standing in a position, which he never assumed, clad in the unbecoming costume of his day.”
The original statue had no inscription to inform public memory, and resided in the Padang in the stadium complex. This location in a sporting ground meant its meaning developed over time to be associated with revelry with players aiming to hit the statue, and some cricketers painted the statue in “brilliant colours”. In 1918, one writer in the Malaya Tribune noted that the statue plaque should “tell it not in Gath”, a cryptic reference using the name of the Philistine city, suggesting that Raffles was not treated with any respect while at the sporting ground.
At the century celebrations of 1919, the Centenary Committee saw an opportunity to give meaning to the statue, but they did not want to inscribe it with national meaning. They concluded “it is to be a Raffles day celebration, not an Our Day advertisement”. The statue was moved from the Padang to outside the Victoria Theatre and given a new plaque following a similar wording to Weld’s original speech, placing emphasis on “genius” of location. “This tablet to the memory of Sir Stamford Raffles to whose foresight and genius Singapore owes its existence and prosperity.”
Yet the memory industry was not over. Post-independence, the Raffles statue received a makeover. Lee Kuan Yew’s account was that in 1961, Dutch economist Albert Winsemius gave Lee two bits of advice, “eliminate the communists” and “not to remove the statue of Stamford Raffles”. According to Winsemius, leaving the statue in place was a message to American and European investors of “public acceptance of the British heritage”, which meant there would be no nationalising of “European” assets as was occurring in President Sukarno’s anti-colonial Indonesia, just across the water.
Lee went further and made Raffles the official founder of Singapore. In 1972, a new “white” monument to Raffles was erected at the site where he was believed to have first landed. The new label chosen by the People’s Action Party government was, ironically for an ostensibly anti-colonial socialist government, much more colonial in its wording than the original. It not only proclaimed Raffles a genius, but the first genius who saw the potential of Singapore’s location – thereby whitewashing in polymarble Singapore’s indigenous history:
“On this historic site Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January 1819 and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.”
In his polymarble PAP rendering, Raffles became the symbol of a multicultural Singapore made up of migrants. Lee made the case in simple terms: “If Raffles had not come here in 1819 – my great grandfather could not have migrated to Singapore.”
Lee’s fellow PAP co-founder, Deputy Prime Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, gave more substance to the logic of making Raffles the founder of a settler country. Rajaratnam justified the continuing existence of the statue as preventing race war: “To push Singaporean’s historic awareness beyond 1819 would have been a misuse of history; to plunge Singapore into the kind of genocidal madness”. He asserted that “in nominating Raffles as the founder of modern Singapore we are accepting a fact of history”. This argument, made in the wake of separation from Malaysia, as the PAP struggled to articulate an independent identity for an island shorn from its Malayan past, was meant to serve a broader political agenda of redefining Singaporean nationhood. It culminated in the first Singapore national history textbook in 1984, depicting Raffles’s statue on the cover. Raffles was clearly foreign and therefore by making him the founder of a settlement in an empty island, all Singaporeans became migrants. In post-colonial, post-Malaysia Singapore, Raffles became a symbol of racial unity.
The problem is that many Malay people see this use of Raffles as a denial of their ancestral existence. For example, “pantat kau” (@ikanselarkuning) wrote:
“We raise this point because the celebration of Raffles as S’pore’s starting point erases indigenous histories. To claim Malays as immigrants, as present-day state propaganda does, would be a fundamental distortion of basic historical integrity & methodology.”
Raffles consequently becomes a continuation of aspects of colonialism for some parts of society. The memory of colonialism in this case is not merely a memory, but part of a continuing present. One writer made a different connection between Raffles statue and continuation of colonialism, seeing it as emblematic of controls of political expression that originated in the colonial era: “British Colonial era shadow draconian legislation still in force creating a toxic culture system. Singapore should tear down its statue of Raffles”.
Such commentary is politically sensitive. One Twitter user pointed out that any mob move on the statue would be punished: “take down the statue of sir stamford raffles or decapitate him or smth bc if the citizens do anything we’ll be punished”. Another wrote “let’s behead the stamford raffles statue” and then “polis if you see this i’m just kidding i’m just a kid”. However one activist was even questioned over her comments: “oh right how can I forget, people called the police on me for joking about pushing the raffles statue into the river”.
Raffles is an officially protected memory in Singapore, and such protection ties the colonial heritage to the post-colonial state. In attacking the official memory of Raffles, people are criticising the contemporary state, and by extension, the values which underpin its policies and its construction of historical memory.
The colonialism of the early 18th century was very different from the type of colonialism that would engulf the Malay peninsula in the 1870s. Raffles had largely been forgotten as a figure of any importance by then. Governor Frederick Weld was not interested in making Raffles a figure of history, but rather as a symbol of colonial success. In Weld’s vision, Raffles ceased to be a figure of reality and instead became a statement of geography and commerce.
The Raffles statue is memory, not history.
The Raffles statue is memory, not history. The original bronze statue has existed for over 130 years and been placed at various locations, and in doing so, it has gathered different popular meanings. The decision to keep the statue, however, linked the statue and the memory of the statue to the post-colonial society of Singapore.
The subsequent erection of a white polymarble statue presented a new official memory for Singapore. Raffles was now the first migrant in a country of migrants. This strong statement of civic unity, however, created a settler colonial narrative for Singapore, that awkwardly washes away the island’s pre-colonial indigenous history. Raffles’s statue becomes a continuing colonial memory, within post-colonial Singapore, that is divisive for some. There is very little of the statue that tells the true historical story of Raffles. As a symbol of memory, the statue can be decolonised. It can be relabelled, moved and reinterpreted, as was done during the bicentenary, when it was surrounded by other figures from Singapore’s past. As long as the statue supports a fictitious memory of the “genius and perception” of a great man who “changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis”, the statue will fester in the minds of the disenchanted in the 21st century, and will continue to divide, despite the hopes of post-independence Singapore’s first generation of leaders that Raffles could be used as a unifying narrative.
 Jeevan Vasagar, ‘Singapore should tear down its statue of Raffles’ Nikkei Asian Review https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/Singapore-should-tear-down-its-statue-of-Raffles
 Light’s statue was defaced on 1 July. It is with irony that his half Malay son, William Light had his statue defaced in Adelaide (Australia) a few days earlier with the words racist in red paint.
 apelles1 ‘comment’, https://hyperallergic.com/491725/how-not-to-decolonize-your-museum/
 Straits Times Weekly Issue, 29 July 1886, p. 3.
 A person living in the world, ‘politicians remove the statue of raffles’ Change.org, https://www.change.org/p/politicians-remove-the-statue-of-raffles
 Save Raffles, ‘Sir “Raffles” name belongs to Singapore history. STB please make it a National Asset!’ Change.org, https://www.change.org/p/singapore-tourism-board-sir-raffles-belong-to-singaporean-history-please-declare-his-name-as-a-national-asset?redirect=false
 ‘Victoria Queen and Empress’ Straits Times Weekly Issue, 29 June 1887, p.7.
 Frederick Weld, ‘Speech by Frederick Weld, The Straits Settlements and British Malaya’ Straits Times Weekly Issue, 16 July 1884, p. 9.
 The Straits Times ran a column called ‘An Anecdotal History of Singapore’ along with a few article in the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. Excluding Sophia Raffles biography of her husband, the first biography was not until 1897.
 Delta, ‘to the Editor’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 6 December 1884, p. 7.
 ‘Topics of the Week’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 7 December 1918, p. 1; ‘The Raffles Centenary’.
 Malaya Tribune 17 October 1918, p. 4.
 ‘The Raffles Centenary’ Malaya Tribune 17 October 1918, p. 4.
 Lee Kuan Yew, ‘From third world to first: Singapore and the Asian economic boom’ New York : Harper Business, 2011, p. 50.
 The 1972 label was a modernised version of an early statue of Raffles erected in 1919 outside the Victoria Theatre which stated ‘This tablet to the memory of Sir Stamford Raffles to whose foresight and genius Singapore owes its existence and prosperity was unveiled on February 6th 1919 the 100th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Settlement’.
 Lee Kuan Yew, ‘From third world to first’ p. 50.
 Chong Guan Kwa (ed), S Rajaratnam on Singapore: From Ideas to Reality, Hackensack, N.J. : World Scientific, 2006, p. 253-4.