February 14, 2019


This year does not just represent Britain’s exit from the European Union, it also marks the 200th anniversary of one of Britain’s most successful former colonies: the Republic of Singapore. One cannot help but notice the stark difference in national mood between the divisive nature of Brexit in Britain and the jubilant mood of celebration in Singapore. Indeed, the Singapore government has planned a series of celebrations commemorating this Bicentennial, a far cry from the mute response of government and media to Britain’s planned departure date.

If the dream of rebooting Britain is to be realised, perhaps a dose of historical recollection may be healthy. Modern Singapore is not only an economic success story - which many Brexiteers point to as a possible model to follow - the story of its founding is also a story of the exceptional nature of British values, and the audacious British heroes that Victorian England produced.

Today, Singapore ranks as one of the freest economies in the world, according to the Index of Economic Freedom and Economic Freedom of the World Reports. A consistent achievement, its government is also fond of utilising, neoliberal, market-based policies in various areas. For instance, it’s healthcare system is based on the principle of self-responsibility, and government subsidies must be matched with out-of-pocket spending. What’s remarkable is that state spending on healthcare as a proportion of GDP is way below Western standards, with health outcomes among the best. Its traffic management, notably, pioneered the world’s first road pricing scheme. On social policy, the state provides not welfare in the traditional sense, but “workfare”, with social assistance conditional upon an individual finding employment. Its trade-based growth strategies have seen it pursued unilateral free trade agreements consistently, with tariffs exceptionally low.

These policies have presided over a growing population that today enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes worldwide, with non-material living standards also faring well.

Stamford Raffles

To understand Singapore’s success, we need to remember the legacy of her founding fathers. No, not just Lee Kuan Yew, but the rather wondrously named Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles. While his name lives on in the famous Raffles Hotel, he is a largely forgotten figure in his British homeland. But in Southeast Asia, his exploits and endeavours are well known. He was not only the Lieutenant Governor of Java and Bencoolen, but he is also most recognised as the founder of Singapore following his arrival on what was a largely empty island in 1819.

What was so striking about his role was that he was, and is considered, a towering figure in the founding of Singapore despite the fact that he spent no more than 8 months on the island. This is because he exceeded official British instructions and, on a unilateral basis, set up a government of his own design in Singapore. In the 5 years following his arrival, in the face of apprehension among officials in London over potential Dutch retaliation, it was the political diplomacy of Raffles that led to the eventual acceptance of Singapore as a Crown Colony.

Political machinations aside, Raffles was an embodiment of 19th century classical liberalism. He had written in a letter in 1819 that “our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require,” and that his aim was to develop “the utmost possible freedom of trade and equal rights to all, with protection of property and person”.


Words are cheap, but the alignment of Raffles within the classical liberal tradition is further evidenced by the specific constitutional constructions in Singapore and his wider legacy in Southeast Asia. In Singapore, he set up a minimalist constitutional framework with only six principles, which collectively established the principle of property rights in land exchange, the administration of justice based on English law and the prohibition of the slave trade.

Raffles’ classical liberalism is recognised prominent Singapore historian Constance Mary Turnbull. Turnbull wrote that Stamford Raffles “...reflected the most advanced radical, intellectual, and humanitarian thinking of his day. The type of society he aspired to establish in Singapore was in many ways ahead of contemporary England or India… he established in Singapore a free port following the principles of Adam Smith and laissez-faire at a time when Britain was still a protectionist country.”

Raffles’ belief in liberal principles were not only justified on utilitarian grounds. He was driven by the  moral humanitarian implications of liberalism. During his time in Java, he set out to reverse the previous policy of Dutch mercantilism, which had forced colonial subjects to grow fixed amounts of crops and disallowed them from selling to anyone outside of the Dutch company. Additionally, Raffles was distressed by how these people were compelled to labour on public works under the capricious rule of the Dutch regents. Though his time in Java was short, the new system he implemented stood in sharp contrast to the Dutch variant.

Just before he left Java, Raffles was subject to celebrations thrown by both the European and native residents who regretted of his impending departure. The local Susuhunan (Javanese leader), had himself addressed Raffles as “his grandfather” and declared that he would never forget the good he did for his people.

Raffles was undeniably an imperialist, yet he had much respect for local customs. He  was a keen student of the Malay language, the lingua franca of the region. The best testament to this comes from his personal friend and colleague Munshi Abdullah, a Malay scholar, who had written that “he (Raffles) was most courteous in his intercourse with all men. He had a sweet expression on his face, was extremely affable and liberal, and listened with attention when people spoke to him”. According to Raffles’ biographer Maurice Collis, this greatly pleased the local Malays, who were impressed by his grasp of Malay history, botany, zoology and culture.

A humanitarian does not just mix with social elites, but has a heart for the disadvantaged. All throughout his life, Raffles was also a staunch abolitionist. He was even a close friend, neighbour, and collaborator with William Wilberforce. Raffles was widely respected by the local merchants wherever he went, and rightly so, having defended free trade. Yet, the local community’s adulation of Raffles whenever he left most reveals his humanity. According to Abdullah, Raffles did not only mixed with the upper class, but even “the poorest could speak to him”. In Abdullah’s Hikayat, he had commented on Raffles’ modesty and respect for fellow man: “there are many great men besides him, clever, rich and handsome, but in good disposition, amiability and gracefulness, Mr Raffles had not his equal, and were I to die and live again such a man I could never meet again, my love of him is so great”.

Raffles was of course not a perfect person. He is known to have at times, have a foul temper, and also gossiped against his colleagues and rivals. Yet, character flaws aside, there was always a resilience that emanated from his share of personal tragedies. He had lost all his children through sickness, was subject to repeated political attacks by rivals, and on multiple occasions, lost his meticulously-compiled research on natural botany to freak accidents. His frail health could not keep up with his personal ambitions and reformist energy—he died at the early age of just 44.

Raffles’ famed career with the East India Company had modest origins. Born off the coast of Jamaica in an overcrowded trade vessel Ann, Raffles’ family was originally from Yorkshire. His father being too poor to afford his education, 14 year old Thomas was “forced by circumstances” to enlist with the Company. While un-educated, he always had a hunger for knowledge. It was his personal industry that got him noticed, and which pushed him onward and upward throughout his life.

Today his monument stands proudly in the city center of Singapore, with multiple institutions, roads and organisations named after him. What a twist of fate, that an unschooled clerk would grow up to found Raffles Institution (Singapore’s premier pre-university institution), that someone who could only “prosecute enquiries into some of the branches of literature & science” in “stolen moments” and leisure hours, would become the first President of the Zoological Society of London.

As short as it was, the life of Raffles isn’t just one of British classical liberalism, but resilience and unceasing self-improvement. The belief that with hard work (and maybe a bit of luck) anything is possible. This is a story that the British public today would find no harm hearing more.

Where next for Britain?

The Singapore model is a unique one, and which mixes a high level of economic freedom, even as its political system remains underdeveloped judged against Western democratic standards. Despite this, the story of Stamford Raffles and Singapore’s development nonetheless offers useful and inspiring lessons for policymakers to draw from.

Indeed, no matter what ends up happening in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, and as it strives for a global future, there is much for Britain to relearn from its own global past.

Bryan Cheang is a graduate student at the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. His current research is on a comparative analysis of Singapore and Hong Kong’s development policies. He is also the recipient of the John Blundell scholarship by the Adam Smith Institute.