An Infestation of Rats and Centipedes

Do you see lots of rats in the scene of early Singapore on page 14? Why do you think the artist drew so many rats? There is good reason for that. Read on and find out.

Early Singapore was a colourful place, with merchants and pirates, coolies and colonials. But it was also full of animals. Sometimes there were so many of them, there would be a plague and the people had to deal with them as best as they could. Munshi Abdullah, the famous scribe and linguist of 19th century Singapore wrote about such an occasion.

Rat infestation by Pipi - Copy - Etched - Correct


In the 1820s while William Farquhar was still governing Singapore, there came a great infestation of rats. Do you see them picking at food and crumbs on Pg 14 of The Little Singapore Book? There were so many rats they overran warehouses and homes, chewed through the wood, stole food and ransacked the godowns. Even Munshi Abdullah’s pet cat was attacked by a pack of large rats one night. So big were they that their hefty weight could knock a person down if he wasn’t careful out walking at night.

They were a real nuisance and people began to complain.

But without rat catchers and pest busters then, what could Farquhar do? First, he asked everyone to try to catch the rats. But all they did was complain and hope their neighbours would do the deed.

Seeing that the rat problem was still there, Farquhar then offered to pay one ‘wang’, or coin, for every rat caught and killed. With this reward, everyone sprang into action and started catching rats with every ingenious idea they could think of. For about a week, thousands of dead rats were brought in every morning, and Farquhar was kept busy paying the people a wang for each dead rat.

But the numbers never fell. There were as many dead rats brought in every morning. Could people be bringing the same carcasses in day after day?

So Farquhar ordered a large trench to be dug and all the dead rats were buried. This seemed to do the trick. From that day, fewer and fewer rats were caught every day and soon, the plague of rats was over.

But it was peaceful for only a short while.

Soon after, people in Singapore became bothered by centipedes. Have you been bitten by one before? It can be very painful.

That’s what happened to lots of people when they were walking along Singapore River, or even when they were at home. The Munshi complained that all he had to do was sit at home for a while, and a few fat centipedes would drop from the ceiling onto his lap and promptly give him a few good bites.

When Farquhar heard about this problem, he again offered a reward of a ‘wang’ for every centipede caught. This plan worked again as people once again devised ways to catch the offending creatures and made every effort to hunt them down. Hundreds of centipedes would be brought in every morning. This time, they were promptly buried. After a few days, the numbers dwindled until finally, the Munshi wrote: “The lipan (centipede) war was also ended and people ceased to mourn from the pain of their stings.”

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!

Singapore’s Philanthropists: Hospitals for the Poor

Over a hundred years ago, many immigrants in Singapore had to work really hard. Some became rich and were very generous with their money. Instead of keeping it to themselves, they shared their success by building hospitals and schools so that others, especially the poor, could make use of them and make their lives better too. These generous people are called ‘philanthropists’. You see, unlike now, there were not many places you could go for help in old Singapore — especially if you were poor.

The six buildings you see on page 16 of The Little Singapore Book are just a few examples of the buildings and organisations built by these philanthropists. Two of them are hospitals for the poor, and they are still around today.

Thong Chye Watermarked JPG (2)

The Thong Chye Medical Institution was started as a free clinic almost 150 years by a group of Chinese immigrants. Traditional Chinese physicians or doctors there took care of the sick free of charge! Lots of rich merchants and businessmen donated money to help run this free hospital, and lots of poor people got the help they needed. One of the biggest donors was a man called Gan Eng Seng. (A school is named after him too.)

Even though it no longer runs out of the beautiful old building which it used to occupy along Eu Tong Sen Street, Thong Chai Medical Institution is still around today and continues to provide free medical care to the poor, thanks to the generous philanthropists from a long time ago!

Pauper's Hospital Watermark JPG

Another hospital that helped the poor was the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital. It is more than 170 years old, making it one of the oldest hospitals in Singapore. Most people know it today as Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It was first built at Pearl’s Hill, but had a move a few times over the years before it arrived at its current location. It is named after Tan Tock Seng, a rich Hokkien merchant who gave money and land to build this hospital in 1844. But many people may not know that other rich merchants also helped to build the hospital, like his own son Tan Kim Cheng, and Syed Sharif Omar al-Junied, a wealthy Arab spice trader, who also donated land for the hospital!

Did you know?
Hospitals in 19th century Singapore were very different from the hospitals now. Can you imagine that a very, very long time ago, many patients would run away from the hospital so that they could expose their sores and beg for money along the roads? To prevent them from doing that again, these misbehaving patients would be caned as punishment! That surely would not have helped the patients get well sooner! Aren’t you glad things are not like that anymore? We sure are!