How Singapore came to be.
I spoke recently at the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2016 at Dubai's Raffles World Academy. The Academy is an International Baccalaureate continuum school named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore.
Nearly 200 years ago, Raffles raised the British flag on a small swampy island called Singapore. Raffles helped create the foundations for modern Singapore, one of the world's unlikely success-stories as a city-state.
As Singapore's Ambassador to the UAE, and a past student of Singapore's very own Raffles Institution, I told the Class of 2016 the story of modern Singapore's founder. It is a story of grit over genius, which resonated with these young men and women of another remarkable city, Dubai.
In her best-selling book, Grit - The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the psychologist and educator Professor Amanda Duckworth explores how grit drives achievement. Do not be distracted by too much natural talent, she says. Instead, effort counts twice over both in developing skill and in achievement.
Raffles had grit. Thought to be less talented, less bright than his peers, Raffles was brushed off. But he persisted despite career highs and lows, including tragic family losses. And he saw Singapore's potential early on.
Raffles was born on a ship in the Caribbean Ocean. Far from the swampy, jungle island between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea known as Singapore, where he would later plant a flag to found a historic settlement. Raffles' father was a ship's captain, but heavily in debt. The family was far from wealthy. Whatever little money there was, his mother used for his schooling. At 14, Raffles left school to become a clerk in the East India Company. The Company was a big trading corporation at the time. It helped created large parts of the British Empire in Asia.
Young Raffles shared a dark, stuffy cubicle with six other clerks in the Company's London headquarters called India House. Hunched over their desks, the clerks perched on high, uncomfortable stools for hours of copying work. The room smelled of candle wax, stale sweat and ink. They spent day after day working as human word processors. Not a day off. Some had break-downs. Not Raffles. When he went home, he did not sleep. He burnt candles for self-study and earned a scolding from his cash-strapped mother.
Ten years a clerk. Raffles transcribed millions of words including notes, memos, narratives and letters. All sent by the governors and administrators of the East India Company's possessions. Thus, Raffles learnt all the tricks of a good administrator. After years of hunching, the 24 year old stooped like an old man. But his grit and tenacity were firm and upright. And early on, Raffles knew what he wanted, with three life-goals; fame, money and the desire to do good things.
Raffles' first post was in South-east Asia as a junior administrator on an island called Penang in the Malay Archipelago, just north of Singapore. It was not a big post for an ambitious young person. But Raffles made it interesting. The Malay Archipelago was then controlled by two big European rivals - Britain and the Netherlands. Rival officials from each side tried to influence the local rulers and to defeat the other side for power and wealth.
Raffles quickly learnt Malay, the language of the Archipelago. He was not naturally gifted in languages. What he lacked in natural talent, he made up for in effort and knowing how to pick the brains of others. Before long, Raffles was promoted. He had a bigger goal, to help the Company transfer more wealth from the East to Britain. To do so, his plan was for Britain to take the big Dutch-controlled island of Java.
Other Company officials opposed his plan. With his trademark grit, Raffles finally got his boss Lord Minto to agree. The invasion plan worked. Just a few years after toiling as a lowly clerk, Raffles was put in charge of Java, a country larger than England with about the same population. Raffles was barely 30, with his beautiful and intelligent wife Olivia by his side.
In Java, Raffles tried to do good by abolishing slavery, but success attracted problems. Nobody had ever ruled over Java completely. Soon the local rulers mounted a challenge. In the harsh tropical conditions, Raffles lost his beloved Olivia. And he fell ill himself. With little warning, Raffles was fired from his post. The Company wanted more money. Java wasn't returning a healthy profit. And then the Dutch reclaimed the huge island without a shot being fired. Was Raffles' dream over?
No. Gritty Raffles did not give up hope. He returned to England, fell in love, re-married and wrote a brilliant history of Java for which he received a knighthood. Sir Raffles returned to the East to become Governor of Bencoolen on Indonesia's Sumatra Island. It was a sleepy place opposite Java. However, from Sumatra, Raffles launched his new big idea. To create a settlement that could again challenge Dutch control of the area.
After scouting the region, Raffles found a little strategically placed speck of land at the foot of the Malay Peninsula. The jungle-covered island of Singapore was perched on important ship routes between the huge markets of China and India. In 1819, Raffles founded a settlement on the island. He developed a special recipe for Singapore; free trade, rule of law and property rights. Just a few simple rules and traders flocked to the island. It became a bustling hub growing from a population of 120 to 6,000 in just five years. And it helped the British gain control over the entire region. Raffles also explored other interests in science and zoology. It was a happy time, with his adoring second wife and five small children.
Sadly, tragedy struck once more. Not long after founding Singapore, four of Raffles' five children succumbed to the region's difficult tropical climate. Raffles and his surviving family packed their belongings, including all his papers and prized science collection. They prepared to board a ship called 'Fame' for Raffles' return to retirement. Before he could set sail, the ship caught fire in port. It sank along with all his precious scientific collections. When he finally arrived home, the Company gave him another rude surprise. No pension for him. Instead he was given a big fine for poor management. Company politics had brought him low.
Raffles was now poor and sick. But he did not give up. The grit from his youth remained. After founding Singapore he had one more mission. Out of sheer passion and perseverance, he founded the London Zoo and even considered running for parliament. But even if his grit remained, his luck and health ran out. He died finally of complications from a tropical disease, a day before his 45th birthday.
Raffles had a personal motto, 'Auspicium Melioris Aevi'. Translated from Latin, it means 'The Hope of a Better Age'. It is also the motto of my alma mater, Singapore's Raffles Institution. It expresses the belief of an optimist. If we have true grit, we always believe that things will get better. Even if our immediate goals are frustrated, we must keep striving for our bigger goals.
Grit expert Professor Duckworth believes we can apply the secret sauce of grit at any stage in our life. As Duckworth writes: "(G)rit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity."
If Raffles could see Singapore now, he would see a gritty nation where his motto has come true. Nearly 200 years after he founded a simple settlement there, the hope of a better age is there for all to see. The later great architect of independent Singapore's success, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, made it a point to retain the statue of Raffles in the heart of the city. For the late Lee, the aim was to remind Singaporeans of Raffles' vision in 1819 of "Singapore becoming, on the basis of free competition, the Emporium of the East, on the route between India and China". Lee was sending a counter-cyclical message at a time when most other post-colonial leaders rejected economic openness and colonialism wholesale. This open vision helped Singapore become a successful global city.
Today, not long after losing our founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporeans still remember the example of Raffles. Of how he spotted the little speck Singapore that is today more than a little spectacular. And of what grit can achieve, in a story that resonates deeply with another city of visionary leaders and gritty traders - Dubai.
Umej Bhatia is the Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore to the UAE.
- Doyle McManus - Tariq A. Al Maeena - Abdel Bari Atwan
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