Singapore Bicentennial 2019 – The Arrivals and Their Contributions

Singapore celebrates its bicentennial year, the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival, in 2019. One of the commemorative events is the setting up of four statues beside the existing Raffles statue along the Singapore River. Although the bicentennial is a significant milestone, Singapore’s history did not begin in 1819, but all the way back to 1299.

Hence, one of the displaying statues belongs to Sang Nila Utama, who stands beside the other three – Munshi Abdullah, Naraina Pillai and Tan Tock Seng – each representing the early pioneers and their significant contributions to the major communities in Singapore in the early 19th century.

Sang Nila Utama (undetermined)

A Srivijayan prince from Palembang, the mythical Sang Nila Utama was said to have arrived and founded Singapura in 1299. The name of the city derived from his most famous story, in which he, after a sighting of a lion on the island, renamed it from Temasek to Singapura (City of the Sea Lion in Sanskrit).

As the ruler of Singapura, Sang Nila Utama assumed the Sri Tri Buana title, which means “Lord of Three Worlds” in Sanskrit. His descendants succeeded his dynasty, ruling Singapura until the fifth king Iskandar Shah was driven out by the Majapahit (Javanese) troops. Iskandar Shah later founded the Malacca kingdom in the 15th century.

In Singapore, the former Sang Nila Utama Secondary School (1961-1988), the country’s first Malay-medium secondary school, was named after him.

Munshi Abdullah (1797-1854)

Known as the father of modern Malay literature, Munshi Abdullah was a man of many talents. A teacher, author and interpreter, Munshi Abdullah was able to speak many languages including Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and English. Through years of studies and hard work, he became an expert in his own mother tongue Malay. He became known as munshi (or munsyi, refers to teacher in Malay) even though his real name was Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir.

The Malacca-born Munshi Abdullah worked for Stamford Raffles as a copyist in 1810. In 1819, when Raffles arrived at Singapore, he hired Munshi Abdullah again, this time as a secretary and interpreter. While working for him, Munshi Abdullah would teach Raffles, and other foreign arrivals, the Malay language.

In his later years, Munshi Abdullah published Hikayat Abdullah, becoming the first local Malay to have his works published. Although there were some inaccuracies in the book, Hikayat Abdullah – Munshi Abdullah’s autobiography that was completed in 1843 – was nevertheless considered an important source of information regarding the social history of Singapore in the 19th century.

Munshi Abdullah Avenue at Teacher’s Estate, Ang Mo Kio, was named after him.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)

Credited with the founding of modern Singapore, Stamford Raffles arrived in the late 1810s from Calcutta in search of a new British settlement. Malacca had come under the Dutch’s control (it was later ceded to the British in 1824), and the British was eager to find another strategic trading post along the Strait of Malacca.

On 6 February 1819, Stamford Raffles signed an official treaty with Johor’s Sultan Hussien and Temenggong Abdul Rahman in the establishment of a British trading post in Singapore. Under Raffles’ administration, a town plan was drawn, areas in the city were segregated for different ethnic groups and government buildings, roads, bridges and other amenities were constructed. A free port was declared, and a judicial system was also put in place to ensure law and order in the new colony.

Numerous landmarks were named after Stamford Raffles, including Singapore’s commercial centre (Raffles Place), road (Stamford Road), school (Raffles Institution), hotel (Raffles Hotel) and public library (Raffles Library and Museum).

Naraina Pillai (undetermined)

Naraina Pillai was one of the first Tamils to set foot on Singapore, when he left Penang to come to Singapore with Stamford Raffles in 1819. Initially he worked for Raffles as the colonial treasury’s chief clerk, but left soon after a new replacement was hired from Malacca.

Naraina Pillai then established a brick company, becoming Singapore’s first Indian building contractor, to supply to the growing housing demands in the new colony. His business soon expanded to textile and cotton goods, but was hit by a fire disaster that burnt down his bazaar and landed him in debts. Naraina Pillai sought help from Raffles, who assigned a parcel of land for him at the Commercial Square (present-day Raffles Place). With new warehouses constructed, Naraina Pillai was soon able to build his business again.

With aspirations to serve the local Indian community, Naraina Pillai put in much efforts for the construction of a Hindu temple. His dreams finally came true in 1827, when the Sri Mariamman Temple was completed at South Bridge Road. Naraina Pillai also harboured hopes for a new Indian educational institute, but, unfortunately, this plan of his did not materialise. Nevertheless, his contributions earned the respect from his fellow Tamils, and Naraina Pillai was eventually appointed as the chief of Indians from Cholamandalaman.

Pillai Road, off Paya Lebar Road, was named in honour of him in 1957.

Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850)

An entrepreneur, philanthropist and community leader, Tan Tock Seng, born in Malacca in 1798, arrived at Singapore in 1819 at an age of 21. Started humbly as a small merchant, Tan Tock Seng, after years of hard work, grew to become a successful businessman and landlord, owning many properties in shophouses and plantations.

In the 1840s, Tan Tock Seng generously donated 7,000 Spanish dollars to the construction fund of the Chinese Pauper Hospital at Pearl’s Hill (the hospital was later relocated a couple of times and renamed after him). Beside the hospital, he also made other charitable contributions, took care of the funeral and burial expenses of poor Chinese immigrants and co-founded Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple.

Tan Tock Seng became the first Asian to be appointed as the Justice of Peace by the British colonial government. He became popularly known as “Kapitan China” (Captain of the Chinese), who had the authoritative powers to settle feuds and disputes among the early Chinese immigrants within the community.

The Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Jalan Tan Tock Seng were named after him.

The statues will be on display along the Singapore River until the end of 2019.

Published: 17 March 2019

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