William Farquhar — The Other Founder of Singapore

Everyone knows Stamford Raffles as the Founder of Singapore. But in all his life, he only spent 8 months at the longest stretch on our little island. Raffles may have had the grand plans, but it was William Farquhar who stayed on and ruled in Singapore. He worked with the people here and took Singapore from the sleepy fishing village it was to the commercial hub of his time, almost 200 years ago.

William Farquhar, The First Resident and Commandant of Singapore

Born in Scotland, he joined the East India Company as a young man, and spent many, many years in the East. He could speak fluent Malay, and knew the local customs well. He was friendly to everyone – the foreigners and locals alike, and was very well liked. Farquhar was married a lady called Antoinette Clement, the daughter of a French officer and Malay woman. Farquhar and Antoinette had six children together. He was known in his later years in Singapore to have worn a sarong at home instead of western clothes.

By the time he landed in Singapore with Raffles on 28 January 1819, Farquhar had already spent 15 years as the Resident and Commandant of Malacca and was, as you can guess, very familiar with people and culture here. It was he who who discussed the agreement in Malay with the rulers of Singapore to set up a trading post here. (You can see him signing the agreement on page 13 of The Little Singapore Book.) Soon after, Raffles left Singapore while Farquhar stayed on as the First British Resident and Commandant of Singapore. He had the tough job of building up and developing the little island.

It wasn’t easy.

Raffles had declared Singapore a free port, which meant Farquhar could not collect taxes from the merchant ships  which came to Singapore to buy and sell goods. Even though the great ships from all over the world sailed in to trade, all that business couldn’t provide Farquhar with money carry out Raffles’ grand plans to turn Singapore into a modern city with all the facilities needed like roads and buildings, drains and canals.

He asked the senior officers (ie. his bosses) in Calcutta, India, for help, but they didn’t want to send money for Singapore. It was so far away and as yet unimportant. Raffles himself was little help as he was in Bencoolen and the postal service was slow and unreliable.

What was Farquhar to do? He needed to get things done. He was given his orders, but he wasn’t given  any money or means to earn it, to carry get the job done. He had no choice but to dig into his own pockets to pay for some of the expenses in building up Singapore. In such a difficult situation, he allowed certain not-so-pleasant activities to take place in Singapore, so that he could raise money for the island. Even though Raffles had said from the start they were not to be allowed, Farquhar let people run gambling dens, cockfighting, sell opium, arrack and even slaves! He could tax all these which gave him the money to build the much-needed roads and public works for the island.

Under his rule, High Street, the first road in Singapore, was built. Thick jungles were transformed into profitable gambier, coconut, and nutmeg plantations. As more and more people arrived to live and work here, there soon emerged residential areas with timber houses and wide verandahs, godowns by the Singapore River and many thriving businesses.

By 1820, Singapore had become one the most important trading ports in Southeast Asia!

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