First British Resident of Singapore William Farquhar
Much has been attributed to Stamford Raffles with regards to the founding of Modern Singapore. From school history text to institutions, landmarks and streets named after him, Raffles is a name synonymous to the establishment of Modern Singapore. Little is known of another figurehead from the East India Company (EIC) who was integral to Singapore’s early success as a British trading post. William Farquhar was installed as the first British Resident and Commandant from 1819 to 1823 and administered matters in the absence of Raffles. Even a little street named after him in the Beach Road area was expunged in 1994.
Farquhar was central to the negotiation that led to the signing of the Singapore Treaty. A provisional agreement was reached with the local chieftain, Temenggong Abdul Rahman of Johore on 30 January 1819 and the official Singapore Treaty was signed with Tengku Hussein on 6 February 1819. With his fluency in the Malay language and valuable knowledge of the peninsula as the previous Resident and Commandant of Malacca, Farquhar was appointed the first Resident of Singapore on 6 February 1819.
Raffles left Singapore under the care of Farquhar with specific instructions. The latter was to encourage trade in Singapore and transform the island into the port of choice for traders by imposing zero tariffs. He was to build up the town area according to a town plan that demarcated zones to ethnic lines. Raffles also wanted defence fortifications to be set up. Lastly, and most challenging of all, Farquhar was to keep expenses low.
Farquhar sought measures to raise revenues. He introduced a tax-farming system that allowed businessmen to buy monopoly rights to sell opium and operate gambling dens. He also allowed merchants to build their godowns and warehouses along the Singapore River, as it was more suitable for cargo transport and unloading. Raffles had intended the area for exclusive government use.
Farquhar’s pragmatism allowed the administration to maintain its free port status. This led to the spectacular growth and development of the settlement in terms of size and trade. Traders worldwide were drawn to Singapore for its free trade status and optimal location.
While Raffles was pleased with Singapore’s progress during his return in October 1822, he was unhappy with the disobedience of his town plan and what he had perceived as the promotion of social ills like gambling and opium smoking. Raffles’ brother-in-law William Flint also had an apparent feud with Farquhar. Raffles then arranged for Flint to replace Farquhar’s son-in-law Francis James Bernard as the Master Attendant.
Raffles removed Farquhar as Resident of Singapore in April 1823 and replaced him with John Crawfurd in June that year. Farquhar was given a grand send-off in December 1823 where most European inhabitants and Asians of every class bid him farewell. Many brought him presents – a sign of his popularity with the island’s residents and locals.
Farquhar’s contributions were not limited to the port city’s administration. During his four years in Singapore, he commissioned Chinese artists to illustrate the local flora and fauna. This project resulted in 477 vivid watercolours of animals, insects and plants found in Malacca and Singapore and would become one of the earliest records of flora and fauna in the peninsula.
Farquhar donated this collection of drawings to the Royal Asiatic Society in London in 1827. In 1993, stockbroker Goh Geok Kim bought over the collection. He generously donated the collection to the National Museum of Singapore in 1995. A selection of this collection has been displayed on rotation in the Goh Seng Choo Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore since 2011.
Farquhar Street, the only road named after Farquhar in Singapore, was expunged in 1994 alongside Bernard Street (named after his son-in-law) because of street alignment and site development work.
Farquhar’s name is not entirely forgotten today. Justin Trudeau, the newly appointed 23rd Prime Minister of Canada, is the maternal great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Farquhar. Farquhar had married Antoinette Clement, the daughter of a French officer and Malaysian woman. The eldest of their six children, Esther, married British officer Francis James Bernard. Esther Bernard is Trudeau’s great-great-great-great-grandmother.
Farquhar died in his country of birth Scotland in 1839 and his tomb is engraved with the following: “During 20 years of his valuable life he was appointed to offices of high responsibility under the civil government of India having in addition to his military duties served as Resident in Malacca and afterwards at Singapore which later settlement he founded.”