Rethinking Raffles at Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum

The legacy of Sir Thomas Stamford Rafflesand the cultural richness of Maritime Southeast Asiacomes into focus at this one-off showcase.

The Johor-Riau-Lingga royal regalia (left); Bhairava (right). Photos: Asian Civilisations Museum

History buffs in Singapore have until April 28 to visit the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) for the special exhibition “Raffles in Southeast Asia: Revisiting the Scholar and Statesman.” Co-curated with the British Museum, and held as part of this year’s Singapore bicentennial, the showcase goes beyond the conventional view of Stamford Raffles as a “one-dimensional” founder figure, and re-examines his inquiries into natural history, art, and culture of the Malay Archipelago during the early 19th century.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles. Photo: National Museum of Singapore

Although Raffles is best known for establishing modern Singapore as a trading post in 1819, he actually spent very little time in the Lion City compared to other places around the region. His interest in Indonesian history and culture blossomed during his four-year tenure as lieutenant-general of the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) following the successful British invasion of Java in 1811.

In that time, Raffles amassed a personal collection largely made up of Javanese and Sumatran objects, ranging from traditional masks, theater puppets, and musical instruments to textiles, religious stone sculptures, and weapons. Many have since been donated to the British Museum, with various items brought to Singapore for the one-off ACM show. Curators have also sourced artifacts outside the Raffles collection to give visitors a fuller picture of the region’s history. In total, the showcase brings together 240 masterpieces from 14 partner institutions and private collectors in Europe and Asia. Many of these cultural objects and artworks are mentioned or depicted in Stamford Raffles’ book The History of Java.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are two significant Hindu-Buddhist sculptures carved in volcanic andesite taken from ancient religious monuments, known as candi, that still dot the Javanese countryside. Raffles collected a small, exquisite Mamaki—the female partner of one of the five Tantric Buddhas—from Candi Jago, whose ruins stand outside the Indonesian city of Malang.

Mamaki. Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum

On loan from the Netherlands’ Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen is an impressive Bhairava, a fierce manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva seated on a jackal. This was carted away from the 13th-century Candi Singasari, less than 20 kilometers away from Candi Jago and perhaps the most famous temple ruin in all of East Java.

The perception of Raffles as a benevolent founder figure of modern Singapore is cast into doubt with a closer reading of the artifacts on display. Raffles was deeply involved in the politics of Southeast Asia at the time, and as lieutenant-general of the occupied Dutch East Indies, Raffles mounted a military expedition against local Javanese princes to bring them firmly under British rule. He spearheaded the 1812 assault on Yogyakarta, whose kraton or royal palace was badly damaged and extensively looted by British troops.

Much of the contents of the court archive, including Babad Mataram (The Chronicles of Mataram), were seized by Raffles himself. On loan from the Royal Asiatic Society in London, the original 1799 manuscript is now on display at the ACM, along with the Babad Paku Alam (owned by Leiden University Library), one of the earliest documents produced by a princely court set up by Raffles in Yogyakarta.

The ruins of Candi Jago outside Malang, Indonesia. Photo: James Louie

Babad Mataram. Photo: The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

Another series of objects that speak to Raffles’ role as an imperialist is the Johor-Riau-Lingga royal regalia, which was fought over by the British and Dutch amid a succession dispute that began when Johor’s Sultan Mahmud Shah II died in 1812 without an heir apparent. Both countries vied to install a new sultan of their preference, and in the ensuing crisis, Raffles signed an agreement with Hussein Shah, Britain’s favored pick, to establish the new colony of Singapore.

Visitors to the special exhibition can also look forward to exclusive after-hours tours with one of the curators (March 20, April 17), as well as family-friendly events on the side, including a silent film accompanied by a gamelan orchestra at “Wanderland” next month (March 29–31).

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