The Story of How Raffles Backstabbed Farquhar

While Raffles was a popular founder, Farquhar remained a man of mystery to many. Contrasted against the visionary, Farquhar was a grounded individual who did the actual day to day execution in leading Singapore. In Raffles’ absence, Farquhar ignored Raffles’ lofty instructions on how to lead Singapore with an impossible budget, and instead, adopted a more practical approach to catalysing Singapore’s progress as a trading hub. Angered, Raffles dismissed Farquhar immediately upon his return to Singapore. This is the story of how Farquhar, an unsung hero, developed Singapore in its critical formative years.

Alongside Raffles

Forced to leave Malacca, his home for 15 years, Farquhar was assigned to help Raffles build Singapore. Together, he sailed and set foot on the sunny island alongside Raffles. Guided by the need to extend British influences over Johor, Raffles wanted Singapore to become a port for the protection of the China trade and to command the Straits.

Negotiations with the Sultan and temenggong residing in Singapore at that time went smoothly. With strong team work, they managed to secure Singapore as a British trading port. An offer of an annual rent of 5,000 and 3,000 Spanish dollars (USD25,000 and USD15,000 today) to the sultan and temenggong respectively was agreed upon in 1819. Farquhar was glad that the deal went through. It took Singapore another five years before it was officially recognised as a British colony.

As Major-General William Farquhar

A portrait of William Farquhar (source)

A few months after the establishment of Singapore as a trading port, Raffles left. Farquhar was forced to be in charge as the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore. Little did he know that he would have to work alone for the bulk of the time given that Raffles was often away or uncontactable due to poor postal services. Over the course of five years, Raffles was only present in Singapore on three occasions, spending a total of less than 10 months in Singapore. For all the times in which Singapore did not have Raffles, Farquhar stood by.

While Raffles was away, Farquhar was left understaffed, underfunded and understocked. On top of that, he had to cope with impractical orders that Raffles gave prior to his departure. For instance, due to Raffles’ dislike towards the governor who was staying closer to Singapore, he instructed Farquhar to obtain supplies from Raffles’ command post that was a six week journey away, instead of from another british port only eight days away.

Despite the illogical instructions, Farquhar persevered on. Thankfully, he was able to build Singapore in its nascent years due to his strong experience and influence as the Resident of Malacca in his previous appointment. Affectionately regarded as the ‘Rajah of Malacca’ by merchants, Farquhar was highly regarded by the European traders and community as well as the regional and Chinese traders. As such, the news of Farquhar taking over Raffles alone resulted in many European traders and others following him to Singapore. An exodus of over 5, 000 merchants from Malacca settled in Singapore and helped catapult Singapore’s ascend into a centre of trade around the region.

Money problems

With an aim to attract Chinese merchants who had to pay high taxes in Dutch-controlled ports, Raffles exempted all traders from all taxes in Singapore. While effective on paper, execution was difficult as this translated to a complete lack of tax revenue for Singapore. This left Farquhar with a promising and young trading hub void of any funds to work with. 

On top of that, Raffles also wanted to solve Singapore’s problems with slavery, piracy, and frictions among immigrant groups. As such, Raffles ordered Farquhar to implement urban planning, promote education, as well as enforce law and order. While valid, these demanding orders were given under a very tight budget, making it difficult to implement.

Bearing the brunt of Raffles’ decisions, Farquhar reached out to senior officers in Calcutta for funds but was rejected as they did not want to invest in public works. It did not help that Raffles was unable to tend to urgent matters given the poor postal services then. Desperate, Farquhar had to pay for some expenses out of his own pocket. 

With little revenue channels left to leverage on, Farquhar was forced to auction monopoly rights from the state for the operation of gambling dens and the sale of arrack (a type of alcoholic drink) and opium. This was not aligned with Raffles’ instructions to re-auction the opium licenses every three months, where Raffles would brazenly keep five percent commission on each opium license for himself.

Cockfighting, gambling and even slave trade all became licensed activities under Farquhar to generate much needed cash flow for the nation. Farquhar did all these explicitly against Raffles’ orders before he left, knowing fully well that Raffles was against such vices.

Due to his quick response to the situation, the rural Malay settlement transformed into a busy cosmopolitan town within four months. He opened up trade with Brunei and was even far-sighted enough to aim for trade extensions to Siam and as far as Japan. The population grew and the port conducted 8 million Spanish dollars of trade under Farquhar’s watch. 

Rats, drugs, and other problems

Timber houses in Singapore. (source)

To ensure sustainable economic progress, Farquhar had to think holistically- he needed to manage social issues faced by the young trading port as well.

When Singapore had a rat problem, Farquhar stepped in. Then, huge and ferocious rats were rampant. The situation was so bad that the rats even attacked cats which were meant to exterminate them. To cope with this, Farquhar offered commoners a shilling ($8 USD today) for every rat caught. Within a fortnight, a cholera epidemic was prevented.

Beyond that, Farquhar also had a well thought out plan on urbanising Singapore, starting from its transportation. Over 15 miles of roads were laid, with existing roads being widened to lessen traffic jams. Land allotments were also numbered, registered and marked on a map.

To accommodate the fast expanding population, Farquhar built timber houses with traditional Malay attap roods and open verandas, and founded the first police force to address security concerns.

All these were possible due to Farquhar’s strong knowledge of the Malay culture and politics. A fluent malay speaker, he made sure to cooperate closely and communicate with the Singapore population. True to his forefathers’ name, Farquhar, meaning ‘beloved man’ in Gaelic, indeed lived up to his name.

By the end of 1820, Farquhar had outdone himself. Singapore’s trade had exceeded that of Malacca during its most prosperous period.

Raffles told the Duchess of Somerset that he attributed Singapore’s prosperity to a “simple, but almost magic result’ of the freedom of trade, completely disregarding Farquhar’s instrumental role.

Death threats

View from Government Hill. (source)

Despite Raffles’ periodic interest in Singapore, Farquhar managed to lead Singapore so successfully that the Dutch felt intimidated by the strength of the British. The Dutch Governor of Malacca, Thyssen, even threatened to sail to Singapore and bring Farquhar back in chains.

In response to that, Farquhar used his experience as a soldier to build a fort behind the Malay village and strategically positioned it right by a freshwater creek. Despite having only 340 men and 12 guns, he was determined to deter foes.

Just when Farquhar thought that he could catch a break, Raffles came back to Singapore.

A fight with Raffles

Given that Farquhar has been disobeying Raffles’ instructions, it came as no surprise that Raffles was shocked and angered at the state of affairs upon his return to Singapore. 

Raffles saw that Farquhar allowed people to build houses and godowns on the north bank of the Singapore River which Raffles had ordered to be reserved for governmental use.

Farquhar explained that Beach Road, which was assigned to merchants, received many complaints of it being too low, swampy and subject to continual surf that made the ground unsuitable for erecting buildings or landing goods from ships. Raffles was agitated with Farquhar’s priority on the development of a commercial district over a government house.

Shophouses, godowns, and twakow lighter vessels along the banks of the Singapore River. (source)

The last straw for Raffles was when he found out about Farquhar’s decision to allow gambling dens and slavery. Furious, Raffles dismissed him on 1 May 1823.

Feeling unjustified, Farquhar sued Raffles to obtain the title of ‘the founder of Singapore’. Unfortunately, Farquhar’s efforts were in vain and the case was quickly dismissed. Raffles commented in a letter to his sister: “It was my wish poor man (Farquhar) should be let off as easily as possible, but he seems to have failed in all he attempted, and if he has not been so severely handled as he might have been he has me to thank for it — for certainly he stands on no better footing than he did before he made his appeal.”

This failure didn’t change Farquhar’s deeply ingrained convictions about the founding of Singapore. Even in his gravestone, it says: 

Sacred to the Memory of Major General William Farquhar of the H.E.I.C.Service and Madras Engineer Corps who served in the East Indies upwards of 33 years. During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Malacca and afterwards at Singapore which later settlement he founded. In all the stations which he filled he acquired honour to himself and rendered service to his country. He departed this life at Early Bank, Perth, on the 11th of May 1839, highly respected and deeply regretted by all who had the happiness of his acquaintance.

It is not too far fetched to say that Raffles was not the best boss to work for. With impossible demands and no guidance, Raffles proved to be a difficult superior for Farquhar. His inefficacy was upsetting for Farquhar given that Farquhar had to be supervised by a younger junior official who was always absent to begin with.

Farquhar’s decisions were not the best, but was perhaps necessary to meet the urgent needs of building a new city. Some even say that Singapore would not have survived without Farquhar. 

A farewell

Farquhar left Singapore at the end of 1823 after an outpouring of tributes from the locals. Following a farewell salute and Siamese vessels firing their guns in his honour, Farquhar sailed away on his ship.

“… Nothing has been wanting on my part to advance the prosperity of this Settlement by every means in my power… as well as every other suitable and available means within my reach… The establishment generally during the period I have had the honour to direct its affairs, has attained to a height in population, wealth, and general prosperity I may venture to say quite unrivalled.” Farquhar said.


Vanessa Ng


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