Singapore Diary (II): Raffles, the Institution

The name “Raffles” is ubiquitous in Singapore. Tourists will tend to think of the Raffles Hotel, founded and named by some enterprising Armenians in the 1880’s and home to the “Singapore Sling” (for the curious, on our recent trip my contingent stayed in respectable but less-storied quarters on Orchard Rd, and no, I did not drink one!). Other “Raffles” manifestations include a shopping centre, a city square and a station on the underground railway (MRT).

Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was effectively the founder of modern Singapore – the city, that is, rather than the nation. Governor of the area for a couple of relatively brief periods , he established British interests securely in the Malay Peninsula and provided a relatively enlightened legal and social framework for what was fast to become an economic hub.

There are certainly places in Singapore where continuing use of the name “Raffles” indicates an older and more direct link to the name’s famous bearer than some of these can claim. Raffles’ coat of arms features in the central panel of the East window (behind the High Altar) of St Andrew’s Cathedral, where I attended a Sunday liturgy that combined elements of a very traditional Mattins with traces of revival-meeting evangelicalism. This artistic acknowledgement in stained glass reflects Raffles’ choice of the site of St Andrew’s, adjacent to what is now called the Padang, a kind of “common” reserved for public and civic use.

The same coat of arms is used by one of the leading schools of the nation and the region, the Raffles Institution. This – originally the Singapore Institution - was founded by Stamford Raffles himself in 1823 – almost fifty years before Trinity began. Its alumni include two Prime Ministers and three Presidents of Singapore (that’s half or more of the total of each so far). During our tour of Malaysia and Singapore in July, Director of Music Michael Leighton-Jones and the Choir of Trinity College were able to conduct a workshop there. Speaking to the audience to acknowledge their welcome, I had to acknowledge that it was fairly rare to find Trinity conceding seniority in age and tradition to another educational institution in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Trinity Choir and our hosts’ own Raffles Voices each performed for an audience of students (members of choirs from different local schools), and then sang two pieces together, finishing with the beautiful “Shaker Allegro” (“Tis the Gift to be Simple”). The Raffles students were impressive and enthusiastic in their own repertoire of western and local pieces.

Stamford Raffles’ legacy persists in various ways – and each of these reflects in some way the interesting and vigorously hybrid character of Singaporean society. As at Trinity, traditions of educational breadth and excellence are certainly important among them. So too the capacity of Anglicanism to take root and take shape in different settings is evident in Singapore.

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