01 Nov 2012
Award winning biographer, Victoria Glendinning is Vice-President of English PEN, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of five biographies
In 1989 my husband took early retirement from his BT sales job and I stuck a pin in the TES foreign job sections. I hadn't travelled abroad much, having married young, had children and gone into teaching. Escorting students down the Rhine or round Pompeii plus camping in France when the children were small comprised my experience of 'abroad'.
The pin could hardly miss Singapore- it was a half-page ad. But surely the salary was a misprint? No, what I took as a too-lavish use of noughts turned out to be true. I passed the tests and interviews, was accepted; we spent three years on a tropical island with one of the word's highest living standards. My husband played bridge at the Raffles Club. The generous salary meant we were able to travel to exotic places like Bali and Thailand and Australia.
I was so impressed by the Chinese attitude to education that I've studied Mandarin ever since. No wonder I was keen to attend a talk at Asia House about the founder of Singapore. His statue graces a harbour setting, next to what seems to be a theatre, going by my photo. I remember it as an art gallery. Raffles Girls and Raffles Boys were the most prestigious secondary schools on the island; our visitors always enjoyed sitting in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel drinking Singapore slings. Quite a change from South London pubs.
Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore in 1819 was a controversial figure. A man whose father died in an almshouse, he was forced to take on the the support of his mother and four siblings. He was employed as a city copy-clerk for ten years until his restless nature made him sieze the chance of a posting to Java when it came up.
In 1819 he planted the Union Jack in the small island at the foot of the Malaysian Peninsula. It seems that a fantasy of an ancient archepelago ruled by the British never left him. Along with many travellers of the time he had a mania for collecting artefacts and shipped many back home.
He was a benign governor in Java and sought to improve the conditions for local workers, opposing slavery and promoting vaccination against small-pox. It conflicted with profit-making aims of the East India Comany who later repudiated him and failed to pay him a pension. They also claimed he owed them thousands of pounds.
His mischievous side was revealed in letters home, commenting on sensational topics such as cannibalism. Although a nominal Christian, he hated proselytisers. He lost his children to tropical illnesses and suffered an early death at 45 from a brain haemmorhage, aggravated by the stressed relationship with the East India Company. He founded the Raffles Educational Institute in 1842.
Raffles as a character remains an enigma, reflected in the questions at the end of the talk. One in particular caught my attention: 'Given that Raffles was not fired by religious ideals, where did his energy come from?'
'When it comes to energy,' stated Glendinning, author of several previous biographies, 'my impression is that either you have it or you haven't -it's a gift of nature. Hero or scoundrel, Raffles seems to have had plenty of what we'd call 'mojo'.