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Thomas Stamford Raffles' Founding Of Singapore Created A Gateway To Asia And China

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Raffles started his career as an East India Co. clerk in London, landed in Malaysia in 1805 and a decade later spotted the right trading place:.. View Enlarged Image

In the buzz over today's Asian economic miracle, many forget that Singapore, with its vibrant tech firms, banks and stock exchange, was the brainchild of a visionary Englishman named Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles.

This statesman-soldier was the architect two centuries ago of a tolerant, enlightened and multiracial approach to trade and business.

His strategy tapped the money-making energies of thousands of Malays, Chinese and Indians to create a rich, dynamic city.

At a time when other Europeans exploited Asia, Raffles opposed the opium and slave trades, and introduced partial self-government to the outposts under his control.

The huge amounts of business capital and know-how that the bustling city-state has amassed since are in part due to his vision.

His life offers valuable lessons for those seeking to engage with China and the rest of Asia today.

"You could say that without Raffles there probably wouldn't have been a modern Singapore certainly not in the way we now know it," Mark R. Frost, author of the award-winning book "Singapore: A Biography," told IBD. "This is still a place keenly aware of its role as an exemplar to the rest of Asia, a place where you can do business, work hard and profit from it."

Born on a sailing ship off the coast of Jamaica to a Yorkshire sea captain and his wife, Raffles (1781-1826) learned from an early age to scramble his way up England's class ladder.

His debt-ridden father never squeezed much from the West Indian trade, but spent what money he had in giving Raffles a boarding school education.

Looking Eastward

Raffles at 14 began his career as a clerk in the London office of British East India Co., the monopoly that oversaw trade in Britain's Asian colonies.

An intelligent, fair-minded man with a flair for languages, Raffles rose quickly. He had a youthful belief in working for the greater good and emerged as a focused man of remarkable willpower.

In 1805 he was sent to Penang, an island trading post on the Strait of Malacca in what's now Malaysia.

Soon he mastered the Malay language, a rare feat for an Englishman. His natural administrative verve, as well as his wit and charm, drew the notice of Lord Minto, the governor-general of India.

Minto, overseeing Britain's Asian possessions from its stronghold in Calcutta, came to rely on Raffles' knowledge of Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars pitting Britain against France, raged in Europe. By 1811, France had annexed Holland and seized its colonies in Java in what's now Indonesia. Raffles used the conflict and his knowledge of Java to make a bold bid. He convinced Minto to grab the Dutch possession from the French.

The British assembled 100 ships and 12,000 men and invaded Java. Raffles, sword in hand and in the thick of the fighting, was tapped as Java's lieutenant governor after the Dutch, who were French subjects at the time, surrendered.

As Raffles took charge, Minto urged him: "While we are in Java, let us do all the good we can."

The Englishman took the advice to heart. He abolished slavery and got rid of commercial monopolies imposed by native rulers.

Now came a system of land tenure for local farmers. A key provision entailed taking land from local despots and leasing it to farmers at moderate rentals. Only two-fifths of the resulting crops were assessed for taxes; the rest were exempt from taxes and gave the islanders their first taste of a free-trade system.

Raffles tried to block the import of Indian opium into Java, though this enraged British officials and traders in Calcutta who were making a killing off the trade.

He also became an avid zoologist. He cataloged birds and animals and led expeditions into Java's wild interior to study and restore ancient monuments. "One thing that particularly distinguishes Raffles ... was his clear commitment to Southeast Asia," Frost said. "He seems to have loved its cultures, its peoples and its history."

Raffles' fortune dived in 1814.

His wife, Olivia, died of tropical fever. The colony was racked by money woes. And his dream of making Java part of a new trading empire fizzled when England returned Java to Holland under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty.

Raffles was recalled to England in 1816 amid criticism that he had failed to make Java financially viable. This, despite the fact that the Dutch kept many of his reforms after regaining the colony.

Such woes might have wrecked a lesser man. Not Raffles. He used his power of social maneuver to make a fresh start.

He mesmerized folks in England with his tales of exotic locales. He wrote "History of Java," an 1817 book that detailed the origins of the island and the customs of its people. He was knighted by England's Prince Regent. He married his second wife, Sophia.

Spot On

Also in 1817, Raffles returned to Asia, this time as governor-general of Bencoolen, a fortress town in southern Sumatra near Malaya.

He used his base at Bencoolen to scout for a strategic site along the Strait of Malacca. His goal was finding a trade hub to bolster British interests throughout the region.

He soon landed the perfect spot the island town Singapura.

Singapura, meaning Lion City, stood at the Malay Peninsula's tip.

It faced the entrance to the strait, controlling a key trade route between Asia and Europe. It had been a thriving port centuries before, but sat dormant because of war and shifting trade routes.

He conferred on the town the more English-sounding name of Singapore, and it soon became a thriving fusion of East and West. Locals learned that anyone of talent and regardless of race was welcome to help build his new city.

He set the tone for his new settlement on the first day, Feb. 6, 1819. The proclamation for Singapore's founding was read not just in English, but also in Malay and Chinese, an act unthinkable in other colonies that regarded European tongues and cultures as supreme.

By June 1819, an influx of Chinese traders, Malays and others had swelled the population to 5,000. A year later, it had doubled to 10,000. Singapore harbor was crowded with Chinese junks and European merchant ships.

Old World Order

Eager to bring order to his new domain, Raffles drafted a land registry to legalize ownership and decreed that trade in Singapore "would be open to ships and vessels of every nation free of duty, equally and alike to all."

He also outlawed slavery and suppressed gambling. "Raffles' success lay in his ability to channel the racial diversity of Southeast Asia in a favorable environment that embraced rule of law and a dedication to trade and commerce," said Keith Rabin, an Asia-focused business consultant who heads New York-based KWR International.

Raffles also founded a college in Singapore whose purpose was to teach Chinese, Thai and Malay alongside Western subjects.

"Raffles wanted Singapore to be a place where the best of East and West mixed where local students would study their own languages and histories alongside Isaac Newton," Frost said.

Raffles, suffering from a brain tumor that would kill him, left Singapore for good in August 1823. His personal sacrifices to finance the city which would separate from Malaysia and become a city-state on Aug. 9, 1965 had left him in debt, and four of his five children had died of tropical disease.

He died in London a day before his 45th birthday.

His distaste for slavery resulted in a final irony.

He was refused burial in his local parish church by a vicar whose family had been active in the West India slave trade.